Defence in the UK

Part of Point of Order – in the House of Commons at 3:39 pm on 26th April 2007.

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Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex 3:39 pm, 26th April 2007

I agree with a great deal of what Mr. Jones has said, particularly about the way in which the media report military matters. They pretend to be the great friends of servicemen and women. When anything goes wrong—and when things go wrong, it can be very bad—it is deeply shocking because it is truly unusual, and I commend him for making that point.

I wish to pay my tribute to servicemen and women, including members of our reserves and the Territorial Army, and their long-suffering wives and often much put-upon families. I also pay tribute to the civilian staff across the whole defence establishment. My right hon. Friend Mr. Arbuthnot referred to our magnificent defence industry, which is an important sector of British industry and makes a tremendous contribution to this country. I, too, for my own small part, offer my profound respects and thoughts to the families of the fallen, and I wish a speedy and full recovery and return to duty where possible to those who have been wounded in the service of their country.

Thinking about what I was going to say today, I realised that in about two weeks' time it will be 25 years since the Royal Navy at dawn on Friday 21 May, under the very eyes of the enemy's guns, missiles and aircraft, on the hostile shores of a coastline 8,000 miles from home, put ashore on San Carlos bay a combined taskforce of all arms which, in under 16 days—16 hard days—recaptured the Falkland Islands. It was one of the greatest feats, if the not the greatest feat, of combined operations since D-day, and was accomplished by boldness of conception, superb planning and determination, and formidable skill at arms. We should remember with pride and gratitude the achievements of the Falklands taskforce.

The strategic defence review that followed the 1997 general election was by and large supported by everyone. It was, in many respects, a remarkable piece of work and, in my view, it should have been undertaken by a Conservative Government. It had a great deal to recommend it, and its conclusions were, in my judgment, entirely correct, but the support of the service chiefs and of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition was conditional on funding being made available to make its conclusions a reality. That funding was not forthcoming, and as Mr. Hoon, the then Labour Secretary of State for Defence, said in 2003:

"Since the strategic defence review our Armed Forces have conducted operations that have been more complex and greater in number than we had envisaged. We have effectively been conducting continual concurrent operations, deploying further afield, to more places, more frequently and with a greater variety of missions than set out in the SDR planning assumptions."

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth for drawing that remark to my attention.

It is therefore important to say two very important things. First, the services are now seriously underfunded for the task in hand and, secondly, a coach and horses has been driven through defence planning assumptions, which must be revised as a matter of urgency. It is interesting to look at the military establishment, as Defence Equipment and Support puts into practice a proposal made by my party at the last election to merge the Defence Logistics Organisation and the Defence Procurement Agency. Defence Equipment and Support does everything that it possibly can on a very urgent basis to make sure that our people have the right kit and equipment in the field, and it takes considerable risks and cuts every possible corner to do so. Compare that with the top—the Ministry of Defence, the defence establishment and the whole machinery of government, which are still firmly mired in a peacetime process, without any visible sense of urgency. The malign influence of the Treasury is ever present, sitting on their shoulders.

Defence planning is notoriously difficult, but the lessons of history teach us, without exception, that every major emergency involving the British services in the past 25 years was almost completely unforeseen. I include the Falklands campaign in 1982, the Gulf in 1991, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Macedonia, Iraq and now Afghanistan, to say nothing of the emergencies at home, including the fuel crisis, the foot and mouth emergency, firefighting and the terrorist attacks of July 2005. The ill intention towards us can wreak havoc in a way that would have been unimaginable a short time ago.

The question that needs to be asked is whether, in light of events, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence believe that the world is becoming a safer place. None of us knows any serious commentator or observer who thinks so. There is every likelihood that our services will be required to do more, rather than less, over the next decade and for the foreseeable future. I see no likelihood of the tempo of operations diminishing or the requirements for combat, peace enforcement, peace support and humanitarian relief growing any less, and I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm that when he winds up.

In the longer term the growing threat from climate change and sudden catastrophic environmental disaster must be considered, as well as the stability of Governments and states in parts of the world where we have considerable interests, and the activities of non-state actors such as major terrorist groups and international cross-border crime syndicates. We live in a globalised world. What happens in Pakistan, the middle east or the horn of Africa affects us. It is not possible to say that we will avoid involvement. We do not and will not always have the luxury of choice in that regard. It would be irresponsibly risky and dangerous to predicate our future policy and budget purely on avoiding trouble.

As I say, events have breached the defence planning assumptions asunder. The services are seriously underfunded and operating at the very margins of what is sustainable, particularly the Army. It is necessary for the present Government or whoever will follow them to make crucial judgments on investments to create balanced forces that can adapt quickly to the demands of new crises. I have no high hopes, for, as our armed forces are engaged in a full-on high intensity war fighting operation, the machinery of government is mired in a peacetime mentality.

As Lord Guthrie, a distinguished former Chief of the Defence Staff, has wisely said, operations are being conducted successfully today, but they cannot be maintained at their present tempo on current human and equipment resources and funding for much longer, without inviting a dramatic deterioration in capability and performance in the not too distant future and risking operational failure. It is a long time since any former Chief of the Defence Staff has made that so plain.

I want Ministers to understand that there is no need for us to have a political argument about this. I agree with the hon. Member for North Durham. When he meets troops in Afghanistan who are really doing the business, of course their morale is high. They are well trained and they are some of the most remarkable troops in the world. Generally speaking, however, our armed forces feel taken for granted and undervalued. That must be fixed. At the minimum, there needs to be an uplift of the defence budget to produce balanced forces more appropriate for the times we live in and the tasks they are being asked to undertake. The Army, in particular, is in grave need of extra money if it is to continue to conduct operations at the current rate.

Many others more experienced and cleverer than I believe that when it comes to policy making and strategy, the military chiefs are shut out of the major decisions and Ministers being told the truth about life and death in the real world. I think that I am not alone in finding it extraordinary that when the Prime Minister travels to the United States—for example, to deliberate with the President on really important matters of life and death to this country involving the deployment and use of British armed forces—that he is not accompanied by at least the Chief of the Defence Staff and other senior officers. Had more of their views on the post-conflict problems of Iraq been listened to, many of those problems would have been diminished.

The next Conservative Government will need to ensure that senior commanders have a far greater input into policy at the very highest level. The Conservative Government will wish, I hope, to return to the chiefs of staff the public authority that they once exercised and to make clear, for example, that far greater account is taken of their views in some of those major decisions.

I want to finish reasonably soon, but I must bang on about something that I have spoken about in every speech in a defence debate that I have made in the House for about the past 10 years. Very little attention has been paid to what I have said, so I will have one more go about an issue that is absolutely fundamental to our armed forces. I do not want to sound like Colonel Blimp, but this issue matters very much. I want to say a few words about training and discipline.

It is not an idle boast, and it is true to say, that the British Army and the British armed forces are man for man the best fighting force in the world. In the Falklands, in the Gulf, in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and, most recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan, both their enemies and their allies have been truly amazed at their fitness, determination, courage, professionalism and, of course, their humanity. That is why what happened to the Royal Navy the other day is so truly shocking. I was in Washington last week and was touched by the solicitude of our American friends at what had happened to the Royal Navy in this particular case.

The answer is simple and I suspect not well understood much outside the armed forces. In no other army in the world, can a soldier depend on the men around him in the way that they can and do in the British Army, and they are doing every day of the week in Helmand and Basra, as the hon. Member for North Durham and the Select Committee will have seen. From Waterloo to Alamein, from Goose Green to the Euphrates and from Bosnia to Basra and Helmand, the British soldiers, commandos and all those others fighting on the ground have proved time and again that they can face the most tremendous odds and triumph. If one asks a soldier what the key to that confidence is, they will immediately say that it is discipline, training and trust in the chain of command. It is therefore a matter of the first importance that the system that produces young men and women of this calibre must not be altered in such a way that it will produce only pale imitations of what is required.

So far the Army has just about held the line, but it is a constant battle for all three services to fight off politically correct notions that are profoundly dangerous when it comes to operations and training and absolute anathema to the ethos of the armed forces.