International Peacekeeping

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:41 pm on 23rd February 1993.

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Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers , Wallsend 7:41 pm, 23rd February 1993

I am pleased to take part in this important debate, which is occurring at such an opportune time. What has been interesting is the disappointment shared by many hon. Members that the end of the cold war and the development of the new world order have not brought the peace and security we all desire. Instead, they have led to a period of instability and insecurity. The debate on international peacekeeping needs to be seen against that backdrop.

Most of my comments will be directed at the Ministry of Defence and will concern our defence capability. The Ministry of Defence needs to review its activities and operations in that context. Recent reports in the press have referred to the fact that the central financial planning and management group in the Ministry of Defence has been considering its future procurement programme. I hope that the debate will give hon. Members an opportunity to express their views, and to inform and assist Ministers in their decisions about the future shape of our armed forces.

As many hon. Members have said, if we are concerned about and committed to international peacekeeping, there will be a direct and real impact on the size and shape of our armed forces. There can be no doubt that now that we no longer have an empire, and now that we have lost much of our former economic strength, we need to decide what proper role there should be for our armed services.

It is clear that we cannot reduce defence expenditure and yet continue to expand our military commitments. We must therefore, as a matter of urgency, identify our priorities. We must then ensure that our military capability reflects those priorities. There is no doubt that that consideration will involve many difficult and painful decisions. We must ensure that the decisions are not led by the Treasury, but are taken in the interests of the defence of this country. The dead hand of the Treasury must not be allowed to dictate totally the shape of our armed forces for the foreseeable future.

There is no doubt that, in deciding our priorities, as we must, the security of our country must always come first. A second priority will be the role of international peacekeeping. There is no doubt that that would command the support of members of the public. However, I urge some caution. We must ensure that priorities in international peacekeeping are not determined by news editors on the "Six O'Clock News". All too often, public support and sympathy follow appearances, often with graphic and disturbing shots, on the news. Many other conflicts throughout the world are not as accessible to the news media, so members of the public do not see them. However, a peacekeeping role may be appropriate.

Such a role will not be carried out in isolation. It will involve close consultation with other nations within the United Nations. Within the context of a multinational approach, what should be the role of the United Kingdom? I believe that we should play to our strengths, and, as an island nation, our seaborne forces are a particular strength. We need to ensure that we have an amphibious capability and that we make proper and effective use of the Royal Marines. They are in an excellent position to assist in an international peacekeeping role. That approach was confirmed in "Options for Change", which recognised the need for flexible and mobile forces.

The Falkland crisis was a stark illustration of the need for an amphibious capability. In Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, the United States made great use of its amphibious capabilities. Present-day events in the former Yugoslavia reinforce the need for an amphibious capability.

As Member of Parliament representing a Tyneside constituency, it gave me great pride to see the Ark Royal set sail for the Adriatic. The Ark Royal was built and designed eight years ago in my constituency, and it is a great tribute to the workmanship and excellence of Swan Hunter shipbuilders in Wallsend. We must acknowledge that the Ark Royal and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Argus are not the best vessels for the delicate job that now needs to be undertaken by the task force.

As many hon. Members will know, the Ark Royal and the Argus are not the ships to carry out the role that is now expected of them. Between them, they lack the proper facilities for the accommodation of support helicopters, of artillery and of combat troops. It must be a matter of concern to all hon. Members that men who may be deployed are sleeping tonight on the hangar deck of the Ark Royal.

We need to upgrade and enhance our amphibious capability. It is vital to international peacekeeping, and it has political value. It is flexible and versatile. It can be maintained in a state of readiness, and it has considerable deterrent value. It can go covertly or in a blaze of publicity. It can be stationed either close to or at some distance from a potential area of conflict.

Amphibious capability has a strategic significance. As Sir Basil Liddell Hart said: A self-contained and sea-based force is the best kind of fire extinguisher because of its flexibility, reliability, logistic simplicity and relative economy. The case for an amphibious capability, especially in the international peacekeeping context, is overwhelming. However, we must recognise that it will have consequences for our defence procurement programme.

It will mean that the order for the landing platform helicopter vessel must be proceeded with. It will mean that Intrepid and Fearless, which are now both more than 25 years old, will have to be replaced by a new generation of assault ships. We need to be clear that, if those developments do not happen, real doubt will be cast on the future of the Royal Marines, because there will be no suitable capability and no suitable vessels to deliver the Royal Marines to potential areas of conflict.