The Army

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:42 pm on 4th May 1994.

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Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King , Bridgwater 5:42 pm, 4th May 1994

The hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) has addressed the House for one hour and eight minutes. I have heard him make shorter speeches; I have to tell him that I do not think that they suffered from being shorter.

I appreciated the anecdote that the hon. Gentleman told about one of my predecessors in office—Lord Healey. It confirmed a lot for many of us when he told the story about the way in which Lord Healey made up the figures when he was asked to count the numbers getting off trains at Swindon station. The story showed the sublime indifference to the facts that marked some of his later utterances in the House, including those made during the period when he was on the Back Benches. The feature that many of us appreciated about Lord Healey was the way in which he boldly faced out any suggestion that there was any tiny weakness in Labour defence policy at any time. Referring to the Labour party conference at which motions that he did not like were passed, he spoke of party members being out of their tiny Chinese minds.

The hon. Member for Motherwell, North was speaking in the fine tradition of Lord Healey when he described Labour defence policy as though the decisions taken by overwhelming majorities at Labour party conference were of no interest to the Labour party and the House, and of no consequence to the shadow Cabinet, whose members had blithely dismissed those decisions. Labour defence policy is as hollow and empty as the Benches behind the hon. Gentleman today. I am sure that he is more than relieved that this debate is taking place on a day when most of his hon. Friends—or all his hon. Friends—who profoundly disagree with him about defence policy can be absent from this place. It is symbolic that the Conservative Benches are packed with hon. Members who take a close interest in the defence of this country and that the Opposition Benches are virtually vacant. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday in the House, the issue of a strong defence for our country is one on which Conservative Members are wholly united.

I pay the warmest possible tribute—hon. Members will understand that, coming from me, that is no platitude—to the men and women of our armed forces. As today's debate is on the Army, I pay the warmest possible tribute to the Army. This is a difficult time for the Army's leaders and commanders, it is a difficult time for morale and it is a time of change which poses particular challenges. I have the greatest respect for the professional way in which the Army has addressed the challenges that it faces. I also pick up the tribute paid by my hon. Friend the Minister to the way in which General Sir Michael Rose is carrying out his duties in the eye of the storm and under the eye of world public opinion. He is doing no harm to the profession of arms as it is recognised in this country. I had the privilege of having him as a brigadier with me in Northern Ireland when I first went there, so I know something of the great quality and calibre that he brings to his task.

I apologise to the House for the fact that I am about to quote some words that I wrote on 23 July 1991 in the foreword to the White Paper, "Britain's Army for the 90s": Our commitment remains clear; an Army for the 90s and beyond, smaller but better-equipped and supported, fully manned and well able to meet its commitments at home and abroad, and to provide for our security in the future as it has done so well in the past. The assessment on which that foreword drew was the recognition that we had changed from the previous structure of our forces, which was designed primarily to cope with the threat of a massive surprise attack in Europe.

I wrote of our forces: Now they need to be designed to respond to a wider spread of risks, normally acting in concert with our NATO or Western European Union allies in a coalition of the kind assembled to deal with Iraqi aggression, or in other ways in support of the United Nations. Our forces can be smaller than now, but they must be flexible and mobile, and well-equipped to deal with a range of military capabilities, including the most sophisticated, both inside and outside Europe. I wrote that, in doing the reshaping, we had taken account of our Gulf experience which clearly demonstrated the greater value of all-professional forces and the flexibility they offer … The Gulf also demonstrated the vital roles of the supporting Arms and Services, and the need to maintain a proper balance between them and front line armoured and infantry units. I resile from not a word of those statements in the White Paper.

I draw attention in particular to the importance of fully manned and properly equipped units. It was not always like that. The hon. Member for Motherwell, North referred to the fact that at the time of the Gulf crisis the units that we had were not fully manned. When the reduction in the number of battalions was announced and the suggestion was that we went from 55 to 38, and then to 36, we had the man-strength only for 51 battalions. We were pretending to have a larger front-line force and a larger traditional line of regiment than we were maintaining. The story of the Challenger tanks and the problems that we had in operating at that time were well known. There were also problems of stretch in finance which led to problems on the training side.

The options programme had two factors that helped its reception among our armed forces. First—this was not always the case—once the changes were made, the new structure was fully funded. I attached great importance to that full funding at that time because I had made an announcement of changes, which, over the four-year period under the options programme, were intended to reduce our defence expenditure by 6 per cent. in real terms. Over the previous five years, our expenditure had been reduced by 11.5 per cent. in real terms, not on the basis of making any changes in structure but by significantly reducing the funds available. That is called salami slicing. I sought to stop that and—I say in all seriousness to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench who are facing very difficult challenges—we must ensure that that problem does not reappear. We may change commitments, we may alter structures and we must define where those economies will fall and how they will fall, but we owe it to our smaller armed forces to ensure that they have the proper level of equipment, the proper level of training and the proper level of resource needed in support of their activities.

We kept our promise on the full funding of the programme. I believe that we kept the promise—it is now in the good hands of my hon. Friend the Minister and I look to him to maintain that promise—of properly equipped forces. We have opportunities today because of the Challenger programme, with the Warrior, with the AS90, with the Starstreak, with important logistic support such as DROPS—the demountable rack offloading and pickup system—which proved itself so significantly in the Gulf, with the new communications system, with the light attack helicopters and with heavier lift capability. Those resources, with their new capabilities and with the new quality of equipment, can make our Army of the 1990s the best equipped that it has ever been. That is an undertaking and a pledge that I know my hon. Friends support and which the Government—I am pleased to see—have continued to maintain.

May I also draw attention to the implication that flows from "Front Line First"? The supporting arms are vital. In opening the debate, my hon. Friend the Minister referred to the quality of the logistic troops in Split and said that they were vital to our operation in Bosnia.

Let us consider the capabilities shown in the Gulf. Of course media attention focuses on the teeth arms, but the teeth arms know that back-up support is absolutely vital, whether in the signals, the ordnance or in the catering corps —the latter, incidentally, was vastly superior to anything that our allies had, with the possible exception of the French, who were too far away for accurate comparison, and certainly enormously superior to anything that the United States could offer. That combination of proper support facilities comprises both those in uniform and those in civilian clothing. I know that the hon. Member for Motherwell, North studies these matters, but I do not think that he was as familiar as he should have been with the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton).

One particular point about the Gulf conflict concerns the amount of good technicians and capable civilian support out there, whether they worked for Rolls-Royce, British Aerospace, Vickers, GEC Marconi or Racal. I told the various companies before the conflict started, when we first saw the possibility of being involved in deploying substantial resources in the Gulf, that there was no point in spending a lot of money on expensive shows, stands and demonstrations and on entertaining those responsible for procurement decisions—or in whatever ways they spent their money on sales promotion after it was all over. I told them that the biggest show of military equipment was about to be launched, that the Gulf conflict was the biggest practical exhibition and that it was vastly in their interests, in the national interest and in the interest of our international responsibilities to ensure that their equipment served our forces as it was expected to do.

That message clearly got home. I said that to the chairmen of all the major companies and they responded magnificently. The people working with them gave outstanding support. That was not a one-off; I judge that it will be a continuing feature. With the increasing sophistication of military equipment, there will undoubtedly be a call for additional support for our forces from the civilian side.

When we consider the structure of our armed forces, it is, I suppose, not very difficult now to be persuaded of the case for flexibility. There is a continual tension over planning in the Ministry of Defence—a tension between the need to plan for high-intensity operations and the constant pull of the more frequent, low-intensity operations. There is the pull of Northern Ireland, which continually draws us into low-intensity operations. We do not deploy artillery in Northern Ireland; we do not deploy tanks there. It is not that sort of operation.

Of course, Bosnia and peacekeeping in its various forms are taking us in that same direction. In that sense, and only in that sense, I thank God for the Gulf war, which reminded us or warned us that suddenly one may find the need for high-intensity conflict and the ability to organise and combine all the arms, which are needed for such a sophisticated military operation. On the day on which the European fighter aircraft is taking its first official flight in Britain and when people may be inclined to challenge the need for more sophisticated equipment, it is worth noting that the Gulf war also taught us and warned us that we may not be fighting or facing the full might of the Soviet Union, with all its sophisticated arms programmes, but that those arms and others like it are sold to many other countries with which we may find ourselves in conflict and which we may need to face.

I listened to the comments that the hon. Member for Motherwell, North unwisely launched into at the end of his speech about the Scott inquiry and I recalled that, at the start of the Gulf war, the French Mirage jets were not able to fly in the opening aerial exchanges because the French had already sold Mirage jets to the Iraqis. The hon. Gentleman referred to the arms that we sold to Iraq. We do not sell a single weapon to Iraq and he knows that. Yet other countries did. It is no secret about the Mirage jets. I have a photograph of myself standing on the dock in Al Jubail next to a large load of missiles marked with the label Aerospatiale and stamped with the date February 1990 and the code number AM38. Any Conservative Member who is familiar with the military will know that they are Exocet missiles which had been recovered from the Iraqis.

That warns us that sophisticated weapons can fall into other hands and is why we must always ensure—it is a heavy responsibility for my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench—that our service men are not at a disadvantage if we ask them to stand up for international peace and justice. We must ensure that they have the equipment to give them the protection which they need and which is able to compete against anything that they may meet.