I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of defence in the world.
I am delighted to open this afternoon's debate on defence in the world. Today more than 17,000 of our armed forces personnel are deployed around the globe, protecting our national interests and working with our international partners in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, the south Atlantic, Gibraltar, Nepal, Canada, Belize, Kenya and Cyprus. I know that all Members of the House will wish to join me once again in paying tribute to the contribution that each and every member of our armed forces makes to build a safer world on our behalf, and in acknowledging the sacrifices that they all make in doing so. They are truly outstanding individuals, and the whole country can be rightly proud of their professionalism and dedication to duty.
It is right that, sadly, I should begin by offering my deepest condolences to the family and friends of Cyrus Thatcher, of 2nd Battalion the Rifles, who was killed on active service in Afghanistan this week. We mourn his loss and extend our deepest sympathy to his family.
In April, I had the honour of attending the ceremony to mark the successful completion of British combat missions in Basra. It was, for me and many others, a deeply moving occasion. Our armed forces have achieved a huge amount in the past six years, including a transformed security situation in Basra and an increasingly capable Iraqi police force and army. Furthermore, they have helped to create a secure environment in which Iraq's new democracy can grow. After years of oppression by Saddam Hussein, southern Iraq now has the opportunity to fulfil its very considerable economic potential.
The task was not achieved without sacrifice. The House will, I know, also join me today in paying tribute to the 179 British armed forces personnel who lost their lives in Iraq. We and the Iraqi people owe them a debt that we can never repay, and that is why we must honour their memory and care for their families. I am in no doubt at all that we have left Iraq a better place, and that we have made a real difference to the lives of its citizens. According to General Odierno, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, what the British armed forces have achieved in Basra and elsewhere in Iraq is "nothing short of brilliant".
Operation Telic was not the beginning of our involvement in Iraq; this week, the Royal Air Force concluded almost 19 years of operations in the skies above the country. Whether it was strike missions during the wars in 1991 and 2003 and the protection of the Shi'a of the south and the Kurds of the north from the malevolence and violence of Saddam's regime, or the provision of support to ground forces and the playing of a vital logistics role over the past six years, the Royal Air Force has a proud record, in the finest traditions of that service.
The combat mission in Basra was not the beginning of the UK's role in Iraq, and nor does its conclusion mark its end. As part of a broadly based relationship between the UK and Iraq, we are now making the transition to a different, but close, bilateral defence relationship. As the Prime Minister told the House in December, our future military role will focus on continuing protection of Iraq's oil platforms in the northern Gulf, together with training of the Iraqi navy and marines, and officers of the Iraqi armed forces more broadly. We are preparing to lead an officer training initiative as part of the NATO training mission in Iraq, but that, of course, will be subject to NATO reaching its own agreement with the Government of Iraq.
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As our relationship with Iraq enters a new phase, the main focus of operations will naturally shift to Afghanistan. As the Prime Minister has said, Afghanistan and Pakistan are of critical strategic importance to the United Kingdom and the international community as a whole. In December 2007, we set out a comprehensive approach to tackling the insurgency in Afghanistan. Building on that, in April this year the Government published our approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The 9/11 attacks demonstrated overwhelmingly the international terrorist threat posed from Afghanistan. We must never forget that that country was allowed to become a base for al-Qaeda to plan terrorist operations across the world.
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Does my right hon. Friend accept that the country of India, perhaps more than any other, has experienced exactly those kinds of terrorist attacks from that base in Afghanistan and, indeed, in parts of Pakistan? Does he welcome the fact that a new and very stable Indian Government have just been elected, and will he tell us of any prospective talks with his counterpart in the Indian Government to ensure that the bulwark of stability in the region that is democratic India can continue to help in what is going on, which is causing so many problems across the world?
I certainly do talk to the Indian Defence Minister, and I was able to do so particularly in the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist atrocity. India is the most remarkable and vibrant democracy in the world. In my view, democracy is the best defence against extremism. However, as we know—our own history tells us this—democracies need to be defended. The atrocities against the Indian people—the Indian democracy—require a robust response from the Pakistan authorities, because there is no doubt whatsoever that those terrorist missions were launched with support and logistics from Pakistan. That has to be addressed. There can be no hiding place for those terrorists in Pakistan. We therefore welcome the steps that the Pakistani Government have taken to bring them to justice, but more has to be done for that crime to be addressed. Until that action is taken, tensions will remain unnecessarily high in the region. There is no doubt at all, in any part of the House, about our respect for the Indian democracy and our best wishes for the newly elected Indian Government.
We have certainly learned our lesson from the failure in allowing Afghanistan to fall into the clutches of the violent extremists and ideological terrorists. We remain in Afghanistan to prevent it from again becoming an ungoverned space from which terrorism can be launched against ourselves or our allies. So our mission in Afghanistan is designed first and foremost to protect our own national security.
The United Kingdom has contributed military forces in Afghanistan since 2001, and since 2006 we have played a key role in the south of the country, in the Taliban heartland. In Helmand, our forces perform extraordinary acts of bravery and courage every day as they confront the terrorists and help to protect the local population from the fear and reality of violence. They are training the army and the police to ensure that the Afghans themselves can develop a position of strength to withstand and ultimately overcome the terrorists who threaten their country from within, and to create a stable security environment in which the Afghan Government can build institutions and enable development to take place. Across Helmand province, town by town, we have seen that happen. District centres have been taken from the insurgents and are now thriving, with markets bustling and schools and clinics opening.
Crucial to this success has been the development of the Afghan national army. The international community must help Afghanistan to build a capable and competent force that can take the lead on security operations. The long-term future of Afghanistan depends on its ability to manage its own affairs. In the three years that the UK has been mentoring the Afghan national army in Helmand, it has developed into one of the most battle-hardened and competent brigades in Afghanistan, with three of the four infantry kandaks and the brigade headquarters now capable of conducting operations with minimal support from the international security assistance force—ISAF.
These achievements are producing tangible results. Only last December, Afghan security forces, supported by British, Danish and Estonian troops, successfully cleared insurgents from the town of Nad-e Ali. Since that operation, the provincial governor, Governor Mangal, who is doing an excellent job, has held the first shura there for five years; voter registration has successfully taken place; and bazaars in urban areas are open for business again, and thriving. But the most important thing is that since the initial operation, security in Nad-e Ali has been maintained by the Afghans themselves. Our military successes in Helmand have allowed the UK, working with the Afghans through our civil military mission in Helmand, to deliver support to the provincial government and help it to deliver basic services and be more accountable to the people.
Rightly and properly, the Afghan people want and deserve the right to decide the future of their own country. We are committed to helping them to hold credible elections that represent the will of the people and demonstrate that the Afghan Government have the authority to rule. Security over the election period will be critical. That is why last month my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced an increase in troops from 8,300 to 9,000 until the autumn. However, the Afghan national security forces will lead on securing the elections; our role is to provide effective support to them. We are working closely with the Afghan national security forces, the Afghan independent electoral commission, ISAF and others to prepare for these elections. Voter registration, which started in October last year, has now been completed across the whole country. More than 4 million new names have been added to the existing voter registry. The fact that the insurgents have failed to disrupt the process so far is a credit to all involved, particularly the Afghan national security forces.
In the emphasis that the British and the Americans are placing on persuading the Afghan people to accept the Afghan constitution, are we not still in danger of imposing too much of a western style of government on to a country to which that is completely alien? Should we not be doing more to work for reconciliation towards more traditional forms of Afghan government in order that we alienate less the tribal institutional structures, particularly in the provinces?
The constitution of Afghanistan is a matter for the Afghan people. The current constitution has been supported in a number of important elections since it was adopted. There is no conflict between supporting the Afghan constitution and supporting the reconciliation process. I think that we are all in favour of seeing greater reconciliation, and there are different avenues and paths through which that can be conducted. Essentially, my view is pragmatic, not ideological. It cannot be said of the Afghan constitution—the Afghan system of government—that it is a thing of perfect democratic beauty; it would be naive and probably premature to imagine that it ever could be. However, the fundamentals of the constitution are decent and enduring. The right of free people to decide their own Government and to choose the people who govern over them is the fundamental characteristic of the Afghan constitution, and that is worth defending.
The problem is that the Bonn constitution was constructed perhaps rather artificially at a time when a large part of the Taliban community of Afghanistan was not involved. The whole Karzai Administration have little support among the Pashtun majority, who were excluded from that constitutional settlement. Do not we need to allow the Afghan people more collectively to reframe a constitution that is more in line with their own history and tradition?
The Afghan people have those freedoms. Ultimately, as I said to my hon. Friend Barry Gardiner as regards India, those freedoms are the best defence against the extremism of the violent insurgents who seek to replace the democracy of Afghanistan—imperfect though it might be, as I would concede—with an altogether different regime with no respect for human rights, freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and I would join forces in ensuring that that did not come about. These are ultimately matters for the Afghan people, who are now, fortunately, free to address those concerns themselves.
The instability of Pakistan is also of increasing concern—it is very real and obvious. The threat to Pakistan posed by militancy and terrorism is very severe. Last year alone, internal violence killed 2,000 people in Pakistan. We strongly welcome the current action being taken by the Pakistani Government to address the terrorist problem within their borders, where most violent extremist organisations in Pakistan, including al-Qaeda, operate. Effective security co-operation on both sides of the Durand line is therefore essential for success. UK and ISAF forces would benefit directly from improved border controls that constrained the flow of insurgents in and out of Afghanistan.
However, we must remember that Pakistan is rightly a proud and sovereign nation. It is Pakistan's responsibility to act against the threat of extremism and when it does, we will continue to offer our assistance.
I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend about that, and I am happy to brief the hon. Gentleman about our current thinking. There are opportunities for tensions to be eased, but the essential condition for that will be action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba militants in Pakistan who have still not been brought to justice. I am afraid to say that at the moment, there is little evidence that they will be any time soon. That would be a significant step for Pakistan to take, and we would strongly support and encourage it to do so.
We should maintain our constructive dialogue with Pakistan's military and help them to combat the insurgency more effectively. We are also supporting financially the efforts of the Pakistan Government to improve the education of its population in the federally administered tribal areas, which is fundamental to removing the insurgents' ability to exploit local people for unbelievably horrific ends such as suicide bombings.
I am very pleased to hear what the Secretary of State is saying about helping education in Pakistan. One thing that I have bemoaned in this country is that we spend only something like 2 per cent. of our gross domestic product on defence, but in Pakistan they spend only 2 per cent. of theirs on education. The Pakistanis need to consider that carefully, because it is extremely important.
I strongly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is ultimately for the Pakistan Government to address their internal priorities and how they wish to spend their resources, but there is undoubtedly a strong view that education needs to be addressed now. If it is not addressed in a co-ordinated and serious way, that will simply allow extremist organisations to take over responsibility for educating young Pakistani boys and girls. I am afraid that that will lead to only one consequence.
My right hon. Friend is being most indulgent in giving way to Members of all parties. Has he had any discussions with the Pakistani Government about the release of Hafiz Sayeed, who was the chief accused of the Mumbai bombings and was in captivity in Pakistan? Does that not betoken a reluctance on the part of the Pakistan Government to pursue these measures with the vigour that we all wish to see?
I have not had any discussion with my opposite number in Pakistan about that, because those are primarily matters for my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to pursue through the normal diplomatic channels. I am sure that if there were a representative of the Pakistan Government here today, he or she would say that the release was a decision of an independent judicial authority, and that it was the actions of the Pakistan Government that led to that individual's initial detention because of the allegations that he was associated with the crimes committed in Mumbai. Whatever the legal or constitutional position, there is no doubt that a very serious crime took place. Nor is there any doubt in our mind that Lashkar-e-Taiba, acting in Pakistan, was directly responsible for that crime, and action must be taken.
Although current operations inevitably shape our defence posture today, I wish to concentrate my remaining remarks on how we can prepare ourselves for the future. We all agree that the world is changing rapidly around us and that we must be both well prepared for changes and willing and able to adapt to them. The UK has an active international role and presence, and we must take into account the global trends that will shape our future. Two trends stand out to me.
First, ours is now clearly a more connected world. Increased globalisation means increased interdependency, and we must be open to that. Our linkages to the world are essential to the UK's prosperity and success, and this is no time for protectionism. But global freedoms and connections clearly create vulnerabilities—take, for example, the global economic crisis, the shared problems of insurgency, terrorism, violent extremism and the drug trade in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the emerging threats of piracy and cyber attack.
Secondly, it is pretty clear now that we are seeing a shift in the balance of power globally. More states have a voice, through greater economic power or strategic importance. Decision making in the world will therefore be more complex and we will need more innovative approaches if we are to achieve peace and prosperity. We talk more today of the G20 than we do of the G7 or G8. China, Brazil and India all have increasing global influence to match their rapidly expanding economies.
So what are the new security challenges that we face in this age of risk and uncertainty? We certainly face a new form of terrorist threat that is transnational and employs extreme and indiscriminate violence. Terrorists who claim to act in the name of Islam seek to pose an enduring threat to our national security interests. Tackling terrorist and other non-state threats is set to be the most likely use of our armed forces for the foreseeable future. That requires not simply a counter-insurgency response but a multi-faceted and multi-agency approach, with new capabilities that can help us in the work not just of security but of reconstruction and good governance.
North Korea's recent nuclear test is another reminder that proliferation has major security impacts. Belligerence coupled with weapons of mass destruction capabilities has regional and global significance. In addition to states, the continuing risk that terrorists, criminals, or other non-state actors will get WMD technology is incredibly serious when we live in an era of mass casualty attacks and suicide bombing.
The risks of weak or failing states are also clear. Economic and political weaknesses exacerbate factionalism and often provoke conflict. Supporting sound leadership in vulnerable countries and international approaches to reversing downward spirals of decay will be crucial. As the UK is an internationally engaged power, its domestic security interests depend on effective and efficient international organisations. If organisations such as the United Nations, the international financial institutions and the World Trade Organisation are to remain effective, they must respond rapidly to global changes. The same goes for the organisations that protect and serve the people of Europe—NATO and the European Union. They must all adapt the way in which they work and the speed of their responses. Because legitimacy is crucial to effectiveness, they must also change to give the rising powers a proper voice and influence.
Given those enduring and emerging security challenges, it is right that there should be debate now on the changing characteristics of conflict and how our forces should evolve. Of one thing we can be certain: predicting future conflict remains notoriously difficult. Our experiences defy a single pattern. Yes, there may be a broad consensus that the threat of direct state-led military attacks against Britain is extremely low and will remain low for the foreseeable future, and we all celebrate and welcome that fact. However, states still pose threats to wider security in some cases, for example by acting through non-state proxies. Miscalculations by states in dispute with each other could also lead to conflict, and we could find that we are drawn in if our vital national interests are at stake. We ignore those risks at our peril.
There is broad agreement on some issues. First, it is agreed that for the immediate future terrorists will pose the most frequent and direct threat to the UK and our interests, and that they will do so in ways that will continue to plumb the depths of depravity, using women and children as suicide bombers. Secondly, it is agreed that there will be a continuing demand for our forces to counter terrorism directly, and we must look beyond Afghanistan and apply the lessons that we learn from operations there.
Thirdly, it is agreed that there will be a continuing demand for peace support operations from peace enforcement to low-level stabilisation, either following state collapse or to freeze or end inter-state conflicts. Some of those missions could involve the use of coercive force. Fourthly, it is agreed that increasing complexity is likely to be a feature of the future use of our armed forces. They are likely to find themselves operating together with a range of other agencies, building on today's concept of a comprehensive approach. Finally, it is agreed that there should be an increasing premium on preventive activities across Government, working with allies, partners and non-governmental organisations. The work that we are already doing with the African Union is a prime example, and we should remain leaders in that field.
In all that, we should be mindful that the character of conflict evolves incrementally. Emerging nations will have more of an impact on what we try to do and "host nations" will be crucial, not only for the legitimacy of many operations but in playing a practical role in their planning and conduct.
As an example of both taking preventive action and working with host nations, the Ministry of Defence has a programme of capacity building that extends to 14 states, including Pakistan. The security forces we train are successful in disrupting terrorist plots, so the benefits can be immediate as well as an investment in longer-term security and international relationships.
An important trend, which complicates conflict, is that non-state adversaries using irregular tactics will be increasingly important in international conflicts—not just terrorists but insurgents, criminals, pirates and even disgruntled individuals conducting cyber attacks from their laptops. One practical example of how we are agile enough to counter those threats is the UK's leading role in EU anti-piracy operations in the Indian ocean. Hon. Members will have seen the evidence in today's newspapers of successful Royal Navy action against suspected pirates. The protection of the world's shipping lines is vital for the economy of the world as a whole—and to us, as an island nation, more than many. We will continue to play our part in securing the smooth passage of global trade—something that the Royal Navy has always done marvellously.
Non-state actors often share motivations and aspirations and co-operate and combine to pose new threats. They are likely to change form to defy our efforts to tackle them. The role of intelligence will therefore remain crucial to identifying those variations.
Yesterday, a Ministry of Defence spokesman confirmed that a British frigate had intervened on pirates off the gulf of Aden who had rocket-propelled grenades in their boats and clearly intended to commit crimes on the high seas, but said that because they were not caught in the act, although the Royal Navy could destroy the weaponry, it had to let them go. Clearly, there is a deficiency in international law or its interpretation, or there is something wrong with our rules of engagement. It cannot be right that pirates, who were caught virtually red-handed, are let go.
I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point. However, I do not believe that there is any deficiency in the rules of engagement—we are able to defend not only ourselves but the ships that we are there to protect, and if necessary, to use lethal force to do that. The decision was rightly made by the commander on the ground, operating within the rules that he had been set. We have an agreement with the Kenyan Government for transferring pirates whom we detain on the high seas to the criminal authorities in Kenya. That agreement works well and several pirates have been moved into the Kenyan criminal system, but we continue to consider ways to improve— [Interruption.] As I said, the decision was made by the commander on the ground, operating within the rules as he saw them. I am here to support him—I am not trying to do anything other than that. However, I am trying to explain that we reached an international agreement with Kenya, which applies to the EU piracy mission. I do not have the precise figures, but I will give them to the hon. Gentleman, perhaps later in the debate. Many pirates have been detained in those operations and transferred to the Kenyan criminal authorities.
I do not think that the Secretary of State is addressing the point. Why in that particular case did the rules of engagement require pirates to be released, not taken to Kenya, according to the agreement? What is the legal situation that prevents the captain of a British warship from detaining those people and handing them over to the Kenyan Government?
The hon. Gentleman suggests that the rules of engagement are the problem. It is nothing to do with them. The commander of the frigate made the decision about whether the evidence would support detention and therefore transfer of the detainees to Kenya. His judgment was that the evidence was not sufficient to bring the case within the framework of the agreement. I am not in a position to second-guess the commander—that is not my job, and I will not be an armchair general, thank you very much. I am here to support the commander's decision, which is perfectly reasonable within the rules in which he was operating. However, if there are ways in which we can improve such operations, we will try to do that.
To what extent does the Secretary of State believe that commanders on the ground or at sea are constrained by their realisation that the piracy problem off the coast of Somalia is more of a land than a maritime problem? Until we address the causes of piracy in Somalia and the economic collapse of that country, we cannot deal with the symptoms in the seas off its coast.
Again, I have a lot of sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman. The piracy mission is clearly dealing with—in his analysis—the symptoms of the problem. We have to protect the shipping lanes around that important artery, so have no choice but to engage the pirates directly. Obviously, it would be better if solutions could be found to Somalia's internal problems. Some work on that is under way, although it needs to gather momentum. The position in Somalia is fiendishly complicated, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, but my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, other EU countries, the United Nations, the United States and others are trying to find ways of addressing the root cause of the problem, which is a classic illustration of what happens in the case of a failed state. There is risk of terrorist activity in the south of Somalia and piracy across the country. There are pockets of good governance, which give us a glimmer of hope, but a hell of a lot of work still needs to be done to try to get Somalia into a better position.
If I am right in my general observations, the question for all of us is how we can best respond to the challenges. Clearly, we must first deal with the threats that we currently face; that is why Afghanistan is the priority for us and, I suspect, will be for some years ahead. The importance that we already attach to its many and interconnected security challenges shows that it is possible to achieve success.
Adaptability and flexibility will be key attributes of force planning. We need to balance our investment in people, equipment and technology to ensure that we have forces that are agile and adaptable to the realities of modern conflict, provide battle-winning capabilities and support our units on the front line. I discussed that and other similar challenges with US Defence Secretary Gates in March when I was in Washington, and I look forward later this year to sharing our analysis of the lessons learned from recent conflicts, including Afghanistan, and what they tell us about the characteristics of future conflict, as well as what they mean for our bilateral defence co-operation in the years ahead.
In response to the new threats, I believe that there are five obvious and immediate priorities for us. The nature of many new threats is such that our response to them will rarely—even primarily—be military. However, when force is required, NATO will remain the cornerstone of our security architecture and we must and will ensure that we can operate with our major allies and partners.
Secondly, we must operate across a spectrum from major combat operations through counter-insurgency and deal with complex challenges. In our 2008 defence strategic guidance, we created a new military task, called military assistance to stabilisation and development—MASD—to ensure that we develop the capability to counter irregular activity and support stabilisation and reconstruction efforts. It is important for the House to note that the new task now formally recognises that UK armed forces should plan and conduct operations to help stabilise and reconstruct in those locations where the security situation is too difficult to allow civilian agencies to work alone.
In practice, that means that we are and will continue to be involved in a variety of activities, including protecting civilian staff, training local security forces or working on engineering projects. It means that UK forces must have the capability to carry out limited reconstruction of, for example, local infrastructure. However, perhaps more often, their main military role will be to build a secure environment in which NGOs and others can operate effectively. Our work in Afghanistan to date demonstrates that that approach can be effective.
Thirdly, we clearly have to prioritise within the resources available. That means managing risk—tackling immediate priorities and most likely future threats—and doing so using structures that are agile and capabilities that are flexible to allow our forces to be able to "stretch, surge and recover".
In my view, our fourth and fifth priorities are international institutional reform and future capability. International institutions have a vital role to play in defence and security as in all other aspects of international policy. The essentials are sound, but we need the right military capabilities to meet the military threats that we face, whether they are from fundamentalist terrorists in Afghanistan or at the periphery of NATO's homeland area.
When I met my ministerial colleagues in Krakow earlier this year, I therefore suggested that NATO needed a rapidly deployable force that could signal our commitment to the defence of alliance territory—we called it the alliance solidarity force—because no potential aggressor must ever be allowed to think that he has a window of opportunity before NATO can effectively respond. I am glad to say that that has stimulated thinking in NATO, and I look forward to receiving a report back at our ministerial meeting in Brussels next week.
The Secretary of State is moving on from the issue of resources, but I should like briefly to bring him back to it. He has talked about the need to train local military forces to enable NGOs to operate in a much more benign environment when stabilising countries. However, does he think that the application of British resources between the Department for International Development, the Foreign Office and his Department is correctly structured to enable us to achieve the overall outcome that we want across the whole of Government? With so many resources now in DFID and with the problems that it has in applying them to military training, my observation would be that there is now an issue that we need to address. Does the Secretary of State share that conclusion?
I share some thinking in common with the hon. Gentleman. The conflict prevention pool is a useful innovation, and it is proving to be a useful source of resources, helping us to do some of the work in Afghanistan, for example. Have we got every nook and cranny of the policy right? Probably not. There is also the question of how much we are prepared to invest in such initiatives, which is a wider matter on which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor expresses his views from time to time. However, I think that we have the beginnings of a much better approach. It needs to develop and—let us be honest—it could probably do with more resources as well. However, there will be an opportunity to look at such issues in future spending rounds, and I very much hope that it is taken. By the way, I should also inform the hon. Gentleman that I have not finished talking about resources—I am coming back to that subject.
We will always, rightly, look to NATO for collective defence, but I believe strongly that the European Union can play its part too, using armed forces alongside its civilian capabilities. That is not about duplicating what NATO can do. Indeed, the real problem is that European countries have too few defence capabilities, not too many. I want to see Europeans developing more capability that they can put at the service of NATO or the European Union. I want to see Europeans taking more responsibility for solving the world's problems, whether through NATO or the European Union. I also want the European Union to show what it can do when it focuses on outcomes rather than institutions, as it has done in countering piracy in the gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia, for example.
In sum, we need organisations that can respond, recognise the nature of a risk when it appears, think rapidly and imaginatively across boundaries, flex resources to where they are needed and work in partnership to implement solutions. I hope that we can leave behind the old yah-boo anti-Europeanism that has bedevilled debates on the subject in the past, because it does not advance our national security interests. Instead, it hinders them.
As for our capability, I would mention just two emerging priorities. We will need to build and maintain an advantage over our adversaries in information and decision making. Advanced forms of collection, including through unmanned aerial vehicles, should be integrated in our forces and not just seen as an additional luxury. We will also need to develop capabilities that protect our information networks from increasingly sophisticated attacks. Such non-kinetic attacks on our vital infrastructure from cyberspace are clearly attractive to our adversaries, and we have got to counter them. How we decide on the appropriate capabilities and how we acquire them on time and on budget will be vital to the success of our armed forces in defeating the threats that we now face and might face in future.
Today we do not just have to plan for contingent threats against a sophisticated state adversary, where the practical implications of our planning assumptions are tested in large part by their deterrence effect. As the past decade has instead proved, today our armed forces are engaged in less conventional, counter-insurgency and peace enforcement operations in defence of our national security, so now our planning assumptions are tested in the heat of battle, with no room for delay or failure. Every one of our servicemen and women has the right to know that we are doing everything possible to ensure that every pound of investment in our equipment programme goes towards the front line and is not wasted in inefficient or weak processes of acquisition.
That is why I asked Bernard Gray in December last year to conduct a detailed examination of progress in implementing the MOD's acquisition change programme, as I hope right hon. and hon. Members will recall. I have to be satisfied that the current programme of change is sufficient to meet the challenges of the new combat environment that we now face. To date, I am not. I expect to receive the report shortly. Bernard Gray has conducted a thorough and wide-ranging analysis. I am confident that when his report is published, it will be both honest about the scale of the task that confronts us and clear in describing a detailed and radical blueprint to reform the process of acquisition in the MOD from top to bottom. That is something that we must get right. There can be no room for complacency, and given the current tempo of operations, we have no choice but to act with urgency. I will publish Bernard Gray's report before the summer recess, and I will come to the House again to outline the Government's response to it.
Given the size of the challenge that we face, I am in no doubt whatever that change must happen and that it must be radical. There must be changes to the system and structure of acquisition process, changes to the incentives that drive and determine behaviours—behaviours that have often led to waste, delay and efficiency, bedevilling the efforts of both Labour and Conservative Governments over a long period—and changes to the skills sets of those involved in acquisition. I am committed to doing everything that I can to make it possible for our armed forces to be better served, and I will make future announcements in due course.
Most members of today's armed forces joined after 9/11, in the new security environment that it created. That is the context in which they have always experienced operations. Their language is that of counter-insurgency and their primary enemy is the terrorist in civilian clothing, indistinguishable from the civilians he mingles with—the terrorist who threatens not just our people, but our friends and allies across the world. Our edge in defeating that threat is acquired in the training that our people receive and the equipment that they use, which is second to none, backed up by satellite bandwidth or a UAV controlled from thousands of miles away. We must ensure that our policies, systems and capabilities reflect today's realities, so that those who serve today are given the best support possible. However, we will fail those who will serve us in years to come if we fail to plan now for tomorrow's emerging threats. I will not allow that to happen.
May I add my tribute on behalf of all my Conservative colleagues to the military personnel and civilians from this country who have been killed or injured, including Cyrus Thatcher? They have sacrificed themselves for our safety. There is not a man, woman or child in this country who does not owe them a huge debt of gratitude. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of all those who have made that sacrifice on our behalf.
No, I will not.
It says everything about the priorities of the current Government and their business managers that the annual debate on defence in the world is squeezed by a topical debate, on a day when they knew that most MPs would be away from the House. I can just hear the Government business managers asking, "What subject is so unimportant that we can stick it in the Commons on polling day for the European and local elections?" and the answer coming back, "Why not defence in the world? It's only about Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest—nothing terribly important." It leaves most of us on the Conservative Benches virtually speechless that a debate of such importance to our national interest, the well-being of our armed forces and the morale of their families should have its annual slot reduced to less than four hours.
In the year since we last held this debate the world has become a more, not less, dangerous place. Nine thousand British troops in Afghanistan are engaged in some of the heaviest fighting since the Korean war. As our ground troops come home from Iraq, the mission of the Royal Navy is now in question because the Government have failed to secure a legal mandate with Baghdad. Russia is rearming, and still occupying Abkhazia and South Ossetia—with illegitimate elections recently having been held in the latter—and it has threatened to militarise the Arctic region, to the great concern of our close allies in NATO, especially Norway and Canada.
Piracy is running rife, not only off the horn of Africa but in less mentioned places such as the gulf of Guinea and the strait of Molucca. NATO is struggling to find its way in the 21st century, and the EU is aiming to increase its defence integration. Iran, in an unprecedented move, recently deployed six warships to the gulf of Aden, is on the verge of acquiring a nuclear weapon, and in eight days' time will hold presidential elections that will have a huge impact on future policy.
The Taliban were recently operating within 60 miles of Islamabad, and as I speak, Pakistani security forces are heavily engaged in offensive operations across the north west frontier and the federally administered tribal areas. North Korea has tested its second nuclear bomb, is preparing another long-range missile test, and has torn up the armistice that brought an end to the 1950-1953 Korean war.
The British armed forces are participating in about 15 NATO, EU, United Nations and OSCE operations around the globe, and we have a military presence in the form of 41,000 British troops in 32 countries and overseas territories. It is against that backdrop that the Government have decided to hold a debate on this subject today, meaning that, for obvious reasons, it will be poorly attended in the House and go largely unreported in the press. The real tragedy is that we need more, not less, understanding among the British public of the threats to our wider national security.
When we think about Operation Telic and the presence of British forces in Iraq, we mainly think about the contribution of our ground forces—and let us make no mistake: the men and women serving in our Army and the Royal Air Force have contributed bravely and professionally to make Iraq a better place. I associate myself with all the Secretary of State's comments about the huge and historic role that they have played in contributing to the future well-being of that country.
Recently, however, the focus has been placed increasingly on the Royal Navy and the outstanding work that it has been doing in training the Iraqi navy and protecting Iraqi oil platforms. I say "has been doing" because, as has been reported this week and confirmed by the Government, the British and Iraqi Governments have failed to finalise a deal to enable the remaining British forces in Iraq to continue to train their Iraqi counterparts after last Sunday. Consequently, there are about 700 UK soldiers and sailors without a legal mandate in Iraq who are unable to carry out their training mission with the Iraqi navy.
Furthermore, it is rumoured—I would welcome Government confirmation of this—that at least two British warships have been removed from the combined taskforce 158, which provides security for Iraqi oil platforms and ports in the northern Persian gulf, the economic lifeblood of Iraq that they have been asked to protect. This has forced an additional and unexpected burden on to our allies in the region, who are having to fill the gap. This applies most notably to the Americans, who claim not to have the resources available to meet this requirement. Our Navy has an extremely important role in the Gulf, and it is extremely well respected in the region by our allies. I would say to all those who talk about a lack of respect in the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom that they ought to go and talk to those serving in the American fifth fleet. They would find out just how highly those people regard the Royal Navy and how important its contribution is in that part of the world.
It is unacceptable to have up to 700 British service personnel without a legal mandate in Iraq, especially when that has a negative impact on our relationship with the US. The Government should have sorted this issue out during President Maliki's recent visit to London in April. At that time, they were upbeat about what might happen, and the Secretary of State has been relatively upbeat today, but we should not really have reached this point, should we?
No, we should not have reached this point. Unfortunately we have, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that that is not for the want of trying by Her Majesty's Government. I want to make it quite clear, however, that the position that he described with regard to the lack of a legal mandate is not accurate. The legal mandate for the UK forces' presence in Iraq expires on
I am grateful for that clarification—although I am sure that the Secretary of State meant to say "Iraq", not "Afghanistan". That is reassuring, but it does not get away from the fact that we have failed to reach agreement on a matter that is of great importance not only to our armed forces but to our allies.
What about the so-called British legacy in Iraq that we have heard so much about? The last time we heard about this matter from the Government in the House, we were told that there were only four locally hired contractors representing British trade interests in Iraq, all of whom were apparently based in Baghdad, leaving Iraq's second city, Basra, and the northern city of Irbil completely neglected. As I have said in the House before, and as echoed by many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, our lack of trade presence means that we may have shed blood for Iraq, but stand little chance as a country of benefiting from the contracts flowing from Iraq's fiscal surplus. There is a lot of potential for Iraq to become a regional financial and trading hub, and we must do all we can to ensure that that becomes a reality. A stable and prosperous Iraq, as the Secretary of State says, is in all our interests, but a strong UK role in supporting this is also in both our interests.
I now turn to Afghanistan. As we head into the summer months, and leading up to the presidential election, our forces are confronting a resurgent Taliban across most of the country. Compared with this time last year, there has been a 55 per cent. increase in coalition deaths. IED—improvised explosive device—events are up by 80 per cent. and there has been a 90 per cent. increase in attacks on the Afghan Government. Since January there have been more than twice the number of insurgent-initiated attacks in Helmand than in Kandahar, the province with the next highest number attacks.
It has been said by many that the No. 1 objective of any counter-insurgency campaign is to protect the local population. This was accomplished against all the odds in Iraq, thanks to the clear views of General Petraeus, and one aspect of the Iraq surge can be, and needs to be, replicated in Afghanistan. I understand, of course, that there are no direct parallels, but there are undoubtedly lessons to learn from the other experience.
One lesson that needs to come across to the British public is that 80 per cent. of the civilian deaths in Afghanistan are caused by the Taliban, not by coalition forces. While that does not excuse civilian deaths, and demonstrates that we are still unable to protect the local population in the way that we would like, there is a story here that needs to be told. There is a misrepresentation in some foreign media that our forces are systematically targeting and killing Afghan civilians, which could not be further from the truth. Unlike the Taliban, our troops do everything possible to minimise the threats to civilians. It is a point that our own media should focus on a lot more, because in this political environment we must not allow negative stereotypes to be created by default, which is a risk we are running. As the incoming American commander, Lieutenant-General McChrystal, said during his Senate confirmation hearing this week,
"The measure of effectiveness will not be enemy killed, it will be the number of Afghans shielded from violence."
That is the difference between us in this conflict.
On my last trip to Helmand in March, I was pleased to find a renewed shift of emphasis from the central Government in Kabul to more focus on provincial and district governments across all of Afghanistan. The problem of governance in the country, including widespread corruption, must be tackled because it is undermining our efforts to achieve stability. Focus needs to be placed on empowering local and district governments. Local solutions for local problems has been the only way in most of Afghanistan for thousands of years, as my hon. Friend Mr. Jenkin said in an earlier intervention. To believe that we can have working democratic central Government without first having working local government is naïve, especially when in many cases we are dealing with tribal codes that pre-date even Islam.
I think most would agree with the Government that everything must be done to build the capability of Afghan security forces. The Afghan national army has come a very long way and is probably the most respected governmental institution in the country, although it still has some way to go. The Afghan national police, on the other hand, are viewed by the majority of Afghan citizens as incompetent and corrupt, and will continue to present the biggest challenge to the west, particularly in terms of capacity building, for some time to come.
While we are on the subject of Afghan security forces, will the Secretary of State take today's opportunity to expand on the comments of his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who said on
"as the US moves in, we will over time shift the balance of our operations away from front-line combat and towards an enhanced contribution to training both the army in Afghanistan and its police."—[ Hansard, 29 April 2009; Vol. 491, c. 870.]?
Will the Government provide us today with some idea of a timeline? Will the number of British troops stay the same as this shift of operations occurs? I am sure that the whole House would be interested to know what mission UK forces in Helmand province will have after the 10,000 US marines are deployed there. How will we avoid ending up with what ultimately might be called "Charge of the Knights syndrome", with a small force, dwarfed by the Americans territorially and numerically, that is less and less in control of events?
The problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan are increasingly recognised as being inseparable. We cannot achieve stability and security in Afghanistan until we disrupt the Taliban/al-Qaeda network attacking from Pakistan. Just across the border from our forces, Pakistan faces an existential threat from Islamist extremism. Unfortunately for Pakistan and the west, it is a threat that Pakistan is ill-equipped to fight. The Pakistani armed forces are trained, resourced and manned for state-on-state warfare against a perceived threat from India. I welcome the Secretary of State's comments on that subject.
About 65 per cent. of the Pakistani military is Punjabi, yet the area along the border where the military is operating is predominantly Pashtun. To all intents and purposes, members of the Pakistani military are regarded as foreigners in the federally administered tribal areas and their presence can at times exacerbate the situation. Although we must train and equip the Pakistani military for counter-insurgency operations, we must do all we can to build Pakistani capability in the round, especially in policing and the Frontier Corps in FATA.
Lastly, will the Secretary of State update the House on how many of the 5,000 NATO troops promised at Strasbourg have arrived in Afghanistan? They were promised ahead of the presidential elections in August, which are only a couple of months away. There has been little mention of the status of those troops, or of how many of those promised have arrived on the ground.
Failure in Afghanistan cannot be an option, for two reasons. First, it could mean the effective end of the NATO alliance. What would happen to our credibility and to the cohesion of NATO if we were seen to have failed our first major test since the end of the cold war? Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, a defeat of western forces in Afghanistan would act as a shot in the arm for all Islamic fundamentalists worldwide. To every jihadist, it would be a sign of weakness in our resolve. Neither outcome can be acceptable to us.
At the weekend I visited Hong Kong and Singapore, where one very different security topic dominated the media. North Korea's detonation on
Last week at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-La Asian security conference, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said:
"North Korea's nuclear programme and actions constitute a threat to regional peace and security."
All in the House could endorse that statement. The transfer of nuclear weapons or material to other nations or non-state actors should be viewed as a threat to the security of this country, our allies and our wider global interests. North Korea is notoriously unpredictable, and at the moment its motives and the likely next steps are extremely unclear. The North Korean regime has sold missile technology to Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria. Consequently, it is not irrational to believe that future sales by North Korea might include nuclear technology and know-how.
That nuclear threat is being mirrored in the middle east by Iran, in another clear breach of international law. I have heard voices on both sides of the House say that we should learn to accommodate Iran as a nuclear weapons state. I believe that there are three reasons why we must not. The first is the nature of the regime itself, and the second the willingness of Iran to destabilise its neighbours via Hezbollah and Hamas. We have seen their involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Do we want fissile material added to that mix?
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are all likely to want to follow suit. Our failure to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions will inevitably lead to the potential for a nuclear arms race, with all the costs, dangers and futility that that would bring. Surely we want to leave something better to the next generation than a nuclear arms race in the world's most unstable region.
I first raised the issue of Arctic security in last year's debate on defence in the world, and I remember hearing laughter from Labour Members, including some who now speak on defence matters from the Front Bench. Since then the topic of Arctic security has become well reported in the press and has been the subject of countless articles in military journals. Two of our close NATO allies have explicitly said that the Arctic region remains their greatest security challenge. According to the Canadians, Arctic security is listed as No. 1 of Canada's six core military missions. The security of what the Norwegians call their high north is the top policy concern for our allies in Norway, too.
We will all face many challenges in the Arctic as the ice melts and the scramble for resources heats up. With ice melting there, and increased piracy in shipping lanes in warmer climates, the shorter shipping routes in the high north will become more appealing. Already more than 11 million tonnes of oil per year pass through the Barents sea alone. As a leader in NATO, and because 95 per cent. of British international trade in goods travels by sea, we are forced to take an active interest in Arctic security matters.
Many agree that NATO, as Europe's No. 1 guarantor of security, has an important role in the Arctic, and of course we must agree, as four of the five Arctic powers are members of NATO. Another reason why NATO must take the Arctic seriously is that Russia takes it seriously. It is a not very widely commented on fact that back in March this year Moscow released a strategy paper outlining Russia's plans to create a new military force to protect its interests in the disputed Arctic. The paper said that the Arctic must become Russia's "top strategic resource base" by 2020.
Russian military involvement in the Arctic, including ground, air and maritime capabilities, is already quite prevalent. It has been reported that Russia has two fully equipped brigades, considered by some to be the best equipped brigades in the Russian army, stationed along the 120-mile border with Norway. Russian air patrols have increased in recent years and are now at peak cold war levels. When Russian bombers fly down the Norwegian coast and reach the city of Bodø, where Norwegian F-16s are based for NATO air patrols, they can be tracked practising bombing runs out at sea before continuing with their patrols.
Russia's northern fleet is considered the largest and most powerful of Russia's four naval fleets. About two thirds of all the Russian navy's nuclear force is based within the northern fleet. It also has Russia's only operating aircraft carrier. To add to the capabilities of the northern fleet, there are plans to increase the number of nuclear-powered ice breakers, including the world's largest, at a time when our only ice breaker, HMS Endurance, is being towed back to the United Kingdom with an uncertain future.
To put matters in perspective, although a direct military confrontation between western forces and Russia in the Arctic is highly unlikely, there is certainly scope for misunderstanding, which could escalate tensions, and that is what we must try to avoid. We need to find ways of minimising friction and improving dialogue. Perhaps NATO could be used as a way to increase awareness and co-operation with Russia in the Arctic region—especially in areas of mutual concern such as search and rescue. Unlike in the rest of Russia, in the Barents region of Russia the view of NATO is very positive, with up to 70 per cent. of those polled supporting NATO having a role in the Arctic. The outlook is not entirely bleak, but both sides will have to show a willingness to co-operate.
Since our last debate, one of the trends has been the growing awareness of maritime threats. Somali pirates are currently causing chaos off the coast of Africa in the gulf of Aden—one of the world's busiest shipping routes. We need to realise that the long-term problems associated with piracy need to be dealt with on land and not at sea, as my right hon. Friend Mr. Arbuthnot has said. The present conditions in Somalia promote piracy, lawlessness, instability, unchecked crime and poverty. The international community needs to do a better job of co-ordinating the military response to piracy in the gulf of Aden. Rules of engagement and better command and control need to be established as well as the operational situation will allow.
Currently off the horn of Africa are two combined maritime forces headquartered in Bahrain, CTF 150 and CTF 151, the European-led Operation Atalanta, assets from the standing NATO maritime group 1, and individual ships from India, Russia, Malaysia, China and Iran. All are conducting anti-piracy operations, security escorts and counter-terrorism operations in the region, and each operates under a different set of rules of engagement. To make matters more complicated, there are no formal command relationship agreements to co-ordinate their missions.
Having multiple maritime security operations all aiming to accomplish the same missions and all operating in the same area without formal co-operation is duplicative and dangerous, and could lead to failure. Also, attention to counter-terrorism operations in the region cannot be jeopardised by the current concern about piracy. Bad as the situation seems to us now, it could easily become much worse. Most piracy off the horn of Africa is criminally motivated: it is a quick way to make money. However, there is the larger threat of an organised global terrorist network, such as al-Qaeda, becoming directly involved with the piracy. As things stand, most piracy is driven by criminal factions that benefit from the lawless nature of a failed state. Just imagine what the outcome would be of a piracy campaign sponsored, planned, and executed by al-Qaeda.
Piracy is just one piece of a very complicated maritime security jigsaw, which includes counter-terrorism, keeping shipping lanes and oil platforms secured in the Gulf, and deterring the Iranian navy. Piracy will never be completely eradicated from the seas, as history tends to suggest, but we must do all we can to minimise the threat.
Other, newer threats to our security are emerging, in cyberspace and space in particular. The recent speech by Secretary Gates was particularly interesting in its reorientation of American policy on those threats. We need to debate these issues in the House in detail, and I hope that a specific time will be found for us to do so, but today the list that I have given—mirroring what was said by the Secretary of State—will suffice. International terrorism, fundamentalist extremism, rogue states, piracy and nuclear proliferation are enough for us to be getting on with.
We must constantly pay tribute to the bravery of our armed forces and their families, our intelligence services, and the numerous civilian organisations that support them and us with the security that we too often take for granted. Let me issue a plea to the Government: perhaps next time our debate on their contribution will not be timetabled for the parliamentary relegation zone, but will be given the time appropriate to their importance and their sacrifice.
I listened with great interest to the speech of Dr. Fox, but I cannot agree with his statement about the inappropriateness of today for the debate. I think it highly appropriate that we are here in the House on the day of the European elections, discussing defence in the world, because it is thanks to the European Union—its emphasis on consensus, co-operation, discussion, debate and working together while simultaneously cherishing the unique and independent nature of member states—that we, citizens of Europe, have experienced the longest period of peace in our history.
I do apologise; I am a product of a comprehensive education.
It is said that freedom is never free, but that it comes at a price—a price exemplified by what we are willing to pay to defend our freedom. Why am I here today, rather than knocking on doors and getting out the vote? I am here because I recognise that a debate on defence in the world is one of the most critical debates that we as a country must engage in. Defence is where we stand tall and are clear about our priorities, our values, and those things that we will defend to the last—those things that we will ask our young to fight to defend.
On Saturday, I will be in Porthcawl to commemorate D-day—a day when so many died, and whose sacrifice we continue to remember and honour. In Porthcawl, a sleepy seaside town in Wales, D-day affected every family; throughout the town, people knew members of the armed forces who were stationed there practising both landings on to our beaches and getting from them into our sand dunes. Families also remembered going down to the railway station a few years earlier to collect sick, wounded and exhausted soldiers returning from Dunkirk and taking them home to feed and care for. In the years since D-day, much has changed in terms of defence, but much has remained the same, too. However, such immediate and direct connection between us as citizens and our armed forces and our personal understanding of the need for security and defence have, I fear, been weakened. A deepening disengagement has arisen between the public and our armed forces, but I know that, as Members, we take seriously the responsibility to help re-establish that engagement.
Nowadays, the enemy we need to defend ourselves against is less clear. The nation-to-nation battlefront has been replaced by the insidious fear of an enemy that is unpredictable, unseen and global. We face pandemics such as swine fever and bird flu, which is carried by fellow citizens who are free to travel the world, but also, potentially, carried deliberately by terrorists. We have tsunamis, heat waves and hurricanes as our climate change brings with it threats of food, water and energy shortages. Pirate DVDs are sold, sometimes to law-abiding citizens, and people traffickers and drug dealers sell their goods, all of which can fund terrorism and crime. New technology brings new threats—cyber attacks, asymmetrical warfare—and the internet has grown into a powerful voice, where small mistakes can have huge consequences.
Our defence against those threats is a broad security toolkit, which includes not only our armed forces, but our politicians, diplomats and security services, and our law enforcement, ambulance and coastguard agencies and other emergency services, as well as our economists, non-governmental organisations and citizens. Together, they exemplify the fact that security is the prime function of the state, for without the state there is no rule of law, no peace, no stability and no security.
Defence is no longer the remit only of the Ministry of Defence; every Department of State has a defence role to play. That includes supporting education around the world, establishing individual freedoms, protecting human rights wherever they are attacked, creating fair-trade agreements to allow countries to develop, and the promotion of democracy and the rule of law both nationally and internationally.
Defence in a global world requires working with regional partners in institutions such as the European Union and NATO, and with countries with whom we have memorandums of understanding, treaties, defence obligations and where agreements have been signed, and also with global bodies such as the G20, the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund, to build consensus and co-operation.
I fail to see what the hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve by that question. [ Interruption. ] May I complete the point? Obviously we have an individual responsibility to our constituents and our nation state has a responsibility to its citizens, but as I said at the beginning, it is thanks to our European consensus and our European involvement that we have maintained peace across Europe for longer than at any time in our history.
I apologise if the hon. Gentleman thinks I am talking rubbish—I obviously spoke the same rubbish when I taught history.
The United Nations agreed the universal declaration of human rights as far back as 1948, and many individuals from across the political spectrum have argued that we have a moral duty to ensure that human rights are protected no matter where the abuses occur. Anyone who watched Kate Adie's programme on Tiananmen Square last night and saw the ongoing effect of those events on those who were present will understand how far we still have to travel for all members of the Security Council to understand the central tenet of human rights. A discussion on the future role of the United Nations is long overdue. Should the Security Council be expanded to give wider credibility to its voice and decisions? Would the inclusion of India and Brazil, as emerging economically powerful nations, widen the legitimacy of UN decisions and heighten the interdependency of our world?
Despite this criticism, it was only the UN, in 2000, that could unanimously pass resolution 1325, which addressed the impact of war on women and called for their involvement in peace and resolution discussions and at all levels of decision making in conflict-resolution talks. Why women? The answer is that the most vulnerable person in the front line of any conflict is not in the military—it is the female civilian. It remains the men with the guns who get to the peace table; women are for the non-governmental organisations and the male leaders to sort out. I earnestly believe that resolution 1325 must become a central tenet of our capacity building, if for no other reason than that we know that the wider engagement of women in their communities and in their countries through education and employment can increase a country's gross domestic product by 3 per cent.
I am a new member of the Select Committee on Defence. Unlike its other members, I have no background in defence, although my father served in the Merchant Navy and for many years was active in the Sea Cadet Corps. As a child of the '60s, I marched against war and joined CND. Before I entered the House, my background was in health and social care, child and adult protection, women's rights and the environment, so what am I doing on the Defence Committee and, indeed, in this debate? [ Laughter. ] There is laughter from the gentlemen on the Conservative Benches, who clearly do not feel that women have a right to a voice in defence matters, and that perhaps shows the problem that women face in entering the world of defence; it remains the macho world of the virile male who has failed to protect women for generations.
As someone who has been interested in defence for some time and has built up a slight expertise in one particular area, may I say that my male colleagues have been very helpful and supportive? It is a very good thing that the hon. Lady is on the Defence Committee and I hope that she enjoys her work. She will learn a lot about the defence world and will be able to contribute greatly.
I can confirm that the right hon. Gentleman, the Chairman of the Defence Committee, has been one of the most courteous.
I am a member of the Committee because I recognise that defending our way of life, with all its failings and faults, is imperative. The people who died on D-day and in the days before and after that enabled us to enjoy the freedoms that we sadly take for granted—to have the quality of life and to have the expansion of health, education and opportunities across the sexes and classes that we enjoy in Britain today. As citizens of this country we have a balance of rights, interests and responsibilities. So too, as a citizen of the world, our nation has rights to defend and responsibilities to discharge. Sometimes, as in the past, the maintenance of those rights and the discharge of those responsibilities in the wider world require the applications of force.
At present, we are actively involved in conflict in Afghanistan, in a crucial battle against the Taliban that must be won in order to ensure any modicum of security in an unsettled region and across the world. It is in our national interest to be in Afghanistan. We do not want that country once again to be a base for international terrorism that threatens us all.
Since joining the Defence Committee, I have also joined the armed forces parliamentary scheme so that I can flesh out my hinterland of understanding of the recruitment, selection, training, skills, equipment and pressures on our military. I am spending a year with the RAF and have been deeply impressed by the dedication, focus and skills of everyone I have met.
An increasing number of young ladies are now playing roles in the armed forces. What is the hon. Lady's view of females being put in the front line of infantry regiments, in the killing field?
We have women in the front line in all sorts of roles, and women have shown their capacity to meet the requirements of the front line in those roles. I see no problem in women undertaking front-line roles.
Later this year, as part of the scheme, I will visit Afghanistan and I look forward to seeing not only the security activities of our forces, but the work they are undertaking in capacity building, protecting civilians, stabilisation and reconstruction, the use of aid, training and political engagement. That is work our forces have undertaken over the years across the globe, and of which we can be rightly proud.
If we are to be successful in the region, we must also undertake those responsibilities in Pakistan. We know that Pakistan, as a nuclear state, faces instability. We know that the Taliban have secured bases in Pakistan. The risk to the world of an unstable Pakistan or a Pakistan where the Taliban have access to nuclear weapons is too frightening to contemplate.
Our armed forces have played a crucial role in keeping peace in the Balkans. Across Africa, we are looking at protecting civilians and at stabilisation and reconstruction. In the Falklands, we still maintain a critical military presence, providing security to the people who live on those islands.
It is inevitable that as some of the old threats to our national security begin to fade others will replace them, but our common values of democracy, individual liberty, the rule of law and the peaceful resolution of disputes require us to be vigilant and prepared. Sometimes our armed forces will have to be deployed to defend those values. When those occasions arise, we must ensure that we are fully prepared, that our armed forces are resourced and that they are fully supported both before and after deployment. They rightly deserve quality housing for their families and quality training and equipment. As we increasingly understand the effects of trauma from the tasks that our forces are asked to carry out, the experiences that they encounter and the grief that they face, we must also provide quality psychological support both before and after deployment.
I understand that in this complex world, the MOD has two key tasks: defending the United Kingdom and its interests while strengthening international peace and stability. As we approach the anniversary of D-day, it would perhaps be appropriate to remind ourselves of a quote from Winston Churchill:
"We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm."
I always welcome the opportunity to debate defence in the world, but I echo the observations of Dr. Fox. There is one date in the annual parliamentary calendar that is the most notorious graveyard slot, and that is usually the first Thursday in May, when we have a round of local elections. This year, it happens to be in June and is even more of a graveyard slot, because the local elections coincide with the European elections. I was absolutely astonished to see this piece of timetabling when the agenda came out for this week. Nevertheless, we plough on and this is a welcome opportunity to discuss these matters.
Like others, I start by paying tribute to those who have lost their lives in the service of our country. On this occasion, as we are having this debate at a time when operations in Iraq are largely concluded and withdrawal is about to commence, I particularly want to say that although my colleagues and I did not agree with the decision to invade Iraq, we very much pay tribute to the courage, professionalism and dedication of all those who have served throughout the engagement in Iraq, including those who have given their lives and those who have come back from those operations wounded in body and in mind. They have done what the nation called on them to do and we should pay tribute to the service that they have given.
I want to refer to the hon. Gentleman's earlier point about the timing of the debate. My hon. Friend Dr. Fox suggested that the debate was taking place now because the Government regard it as unimportant. Perhaps it is because they regard this debate as so important and yet embarrassing, because of the failures of Government policy, that they have decided to put it on this day.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I suspect we will never know quite why it was, but the discussion that the hon. Member for Woodspring imagined taking place in the Leader of the House's office sounded altogether authentic to my way of thinking.
Although the debate does, in a sense, mark the end of most of our activity in Iraq, I am sure, and hope very much, that we will regularly debate not only the state of security in that country and the wider region but the progress of economic development—a subject that has been mentioned—so that we can judge over the longer term what the overall impact of the west's involvement there has been. However, our attention now rightly focuses largely on Afghanistan, where our troops are working tirelessly, but where it is widely recognised that we have a long, hard job still to do. There is no prospect, in any way, of a quick fix. The death toll has risen quickly in recent weeks, and the insurgents are constantly employing new and ever more deadly methods, to which we have to find new ways of responding.
The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Mr. Davies, who speaks in the House on defence procurement matters, said in response to a question on Monday in this Chamber that more and more equipment was being delivered to the front line, and we have to hope that that is right. In some cases, he did not give many indications of numbers and quantities; I suppose that he might reasonably say that he would not want to broadcast some of that information. However, we still have serious ongoing concerns, both about the provision of armoured vehicles—I readily acknowledge the significant progress that has been made on that—and about helicopter lift capacity, which will become a real problem the longer the engagement goes on in Afghanistan.
I think that it was Mr. Jenkin who tabled a question some months ago about the likely availability of helicopters in years to come, as existing helicopters go out of commission. Making even the most optimistic assumptions about the in-service date for new helicopters that will follow, one can see that there are serious problems coming up in the next few years. I still do not feel that we have heard any adequate response from the Government on how we will get our helicopter lift capacity up to that which the troops need in Afghanistan. I welcome initiatives such as the one that the Government undertook with the French Government to try to boost the availability of helicopters at a European level, but thus far, I do not think that it has yielded much. I hope that they will stick at it, though, and I hope that more NATO countries will provide helicopters for the operation. However, the last time I saw an answer on the subject, only three had been committed; they were from the Czech Republic.
The lack of helicopter capacity is becoming a big issue. People have been going on about it for a long time, but I just do not feel that a response commensurate to the challenge has been forthcoming. I know that we await decisions on some routine procurements, whether they be from AgustaWestland or whoever, but I wonder whether the sheer scale of the problem will require interim solutions to be found, even if ultimately longer-term solutions will point in a different direction. There is an availability of helicopters, although they are possibly not of the sort of capability that we would ideally want in the helicopters that we will build and develop in the long term. However, there are short-term solutions, if the Government are willing to consider them.
It has already been said in this debate that any consideration of Afghanistan increasingly needs to take into account the situation in Pakistan. Obviously, the Americans have done that by appointing a single envoy to deal with both problems. There are very worrying developments that should cause us all concern. The unstable state of Pakistan is greatly worrying. Although its Government's forces have hit back seemingly quite effectively recently, the underlying problems are there for all to see. Also, increasingly reports are coming through of Taliban elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan coming together—up to now they have had certain tensions, and there have been difficulties between them—because they recognise that they have a new challenge to face, particularly as America is committing more troops to Afghanistan. It is hard to predict or sense exactly how that will play out on the ground, but it raises the point that, as far as quite authoritative reports would have us believe, the Pakistan intelligence agency had, for good or ill, been providing resources to the Afghanistan elements of the Taliban in anticipation of having to deal with them at some point after the west had completed its operations in Afghanistan. Those elements are now cosying up to the Pakistan Taliban, so we end up with the possibility—by no means unprecedented—that the Pakistani military will find itself confronting an enemy to whom it has contributed arms and equipment. That, I hope, will at the very least give it pause for thought in terms of the future, because there is a self-perpetuating cycle in the region, whereby funds that are given for one purpose end up having a completely different and unanticipated impact.
The spill-over between the two countries is potentially difficult, because to date NATO's Afghanistan operation has relied very much on safe and easy routes through Pakistan and on the resolute support of Pakistan. The question of whether in the future we will be able to count on that to anything like the same degree worries me considerably.
I, like the official Opposition's Front-Bench team, have said in previous defence debates that there is a long overdue need for a strategic defence review. It remains a mystery to me why the Government, uniquely, do not seem to think it necessary. We know that the Ministry of Defence is under intense budgetary pressure: there is, by anyone's reckoning, a black hole in its budget; we regularly discuss in the House the impact of overstretch and ongoing operations; and we know that the difficulties, needs and demands on the defence budget will increase inexorably year on year. However, we know also that, in the wake of the economic crisis, the next Government will have a major task on their hands to try to control public expenditure in such a fashion that restores some equilibrium to the nation's finances. They will have to take some immensely difficult decisions, balancing the different demands on the public purse which will come from the different Departments. In that context, in particular, a strategic defence review is absolutely fundamental and necessary.
We have to ask the basic question, what does the nation expect its armed forces to do in the years to come and how can we achieve that? The question has also to be asked, are we all still of the view, as I am, that we should continue the task set out in the previous strategic defence review of acting as a force for good throughout the world? Some have called it liberal interventionism, and if the answer is yes, that we are, what are its implications for manpower, equipment and expenditure? If those of us who believe that we should remain willing to play such a part want to take the public with us and convince them that, in the climate that I have described, painful and difficult choices have to be made between competing demands on the public purse, the only way in which we can hope to do so is by having a major national debate about the armed forces' role and the resources that should be made available to them. The only sensible way to go about that is through a Government-conducted defence review, and I very much hope that, whatever Government are in power after the election, which cannot be far away, they will see that, if we want to continue to play such a part, we need to take the public with us.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is also a need for better predictability and empiricism in the process? Does he agree also that we need to begin a defence review by asking what Britain's national interests are; what the predictable threat environment is; what capabilities we require to protect those interests in that environment; what equipment programmes we require; and, then, to assess our budgetary capabilities? We need to bring logic and empiricism to what is currently a chaotic process.
I entirely agree with all that. If at the end of the process, which we should approach in exactly that way, we still find a gap between what we sincerely want to do and what we believe we are capable of amassing the resources to do, we will have to consider how we can best co-operate with our allies, particularly in NATO, to ensure that the resources that we can make available dovetail as effectively as possible. In that way, even if we are not capable of doing on the very widest front all the things that we want to do alone, we will at least be capable of ensuring that they can be done in co-operation with our allies. Better collective planning with our allies would enable that, but an absolute prerequisite is a systematic, evidence-based and empirical approach to a review, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
I cannot understand why the Government continue to resist. This side of an election, I would have thought that at the very least there would be some benefit in both sides of the House agreeing the sort of questions that need to be asked and the sort of approach that might be taken, even if in reality the work of the review would not begin in earnest until the other side of the election.
Huge procurement projects are sitting—notionally, at least—on the Government's books. We are waiting for answers, but the Government cannot make decisions about the projects because of the economic circumstances. It is not always possible to identify precisely what the dilemmas are, for reasons to which the hon. Gentleman has alluded in the House before. I am thinking of this country's deficit in terms of the transparency of our procurement processes compared with those in many other western democracies, where national legislatures can scrutinise in far more detail the procurement decisions and dilemmas faced by the Governments in question. We do ourselves no good service in this country through the opaque way in which we go about many of these things.
I have repeatedly urged that we need a new approach to procurement, because, more than anything else in the defence field, it has not been a success in recent decades. One can point to the egregious examples of procurement mishaps, but our procurement processes are not adequate right across the piece. We have to start them again from scratch. In respect of procurement and of maintaining strategic defence industries, we need to look more effectively at how we co-operate best with our natural allies.
There have been some terrible co-operative procurements, but that does not mean that we should be put off the idea altogether. I abhor the approach that has looked at European defence procurements and then got into the realms of pork barrel politics by divvying up the work through the absurd notion of juste retour. The defence industries are well ahead of the political community in having already organised themselves along international lines; very few of the companies are national—they are all transnational, multinational and international. National Governments have some way to go in catching up with and taking advantage of that.
The hon. Gentleman rightly alluded to the renewed threats presented by the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran. If either country goes ahead with its nuclear programmes, in the wake of international condemnation and in breach of the existing treaties, that will inevitably trigger proliferation among their neighbouring states. I welcome the efforts by French President Sarkozy to try to re-engage Iran in a new dialogue about its nuclear ambitions. I regret that the progress that seemed to be being made with North Korea appears to have gone into reverse gear. Next year, we have the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference. I hope that the new dialogue that appears to exist between President Obama and Russia is capable of giving some renewed impetus to the course of nuclear disarmament. However, the good news that one might detect in their rapprochement has to be balanced against the more worrying news in North Korea and Iran.
Some very tough decisions need to be taken in the defence arena, and I do not believe there is any realistic chance of that happening this side of an election. Those decisions should not be kept waiting for too much longer. For that reason, I share the wish of others to see an election as soon as possible so that a new Government have the authority to take some of these difficult decisions because, whatever the final conclusions, they will have an opportunity cost. I hope that the dedication of our armed forces, who are fighting in many different parts of the world on our behalf, will be matched by a determination in the Ministry of Defence to resolve some of the issues that have been awaiting decisions for far too long.
We are very well served by our armed forces personnel, and there is some way to go yet before we really do justice to the work that they are putting in on our behalf around the world by ensuring that we sort out our priorities and equip them with everything that they need to guarantee their safety and the success of the operations in which they are engaged.
I want to begin, if I may, by saying that this debate is an absolute disgrace. It is quite wrong that an issue of such crucial importance is always debated before an empty House. We have to find a way of bringing out the debate in such a way as to capture the imagination of the people of this country and, frankly, of this Parliament. At the moment, we are talking to an empty Public Gallery, an empty Press Gallery and an empty Chamber. None of the important things that we will say about this vital subject, which is central to the survival of this country, to our values, and to democracies across the world will be listened to at all. We might as well not be here.
Having said that, I still have one or two things that I might as well say. When we had a similar debate this time last year, we would have been reminding ourselves that Basra had been completely transformed as a result of the "Charge of the Knights". We would have looked at Iraq and thought, much to our surprise in many ways, that things had gone much better than we might have expected. We should all share in the tribute paid to our armed forces for the immense things that they achieved in Iraq and for the massive sacrifices that they made. We express our thanks to them for that.
I was always more optimistic about what we could achieve in Iraq than about what we could achieve in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, we have had the benefit of operating in a larger coalition. Coalitions bring strength, but they also bring weaknesses and difficulties. The weakness is a lack of coherence and a risk of international suspicions and resentments. There is a real risk that some of the problems of Afghanistan will always be thought to be somebody else's problem. We are operating in a coalition there, and we cannot achieve everything that we want to because we do not have the final say. Partly because of that, we are failing as an international coalition to recognise the enormous size of the task that we are facing.
In the Balkans, we put 20 times as many troops and 50 times as much resource into a problem that was rather easier to solve. In Afghanistan, the key task that we face is bringing governance to a country that, frankly, has not had it in the past. We have as our secondary task the destruction of the crop that is the main livelihood of much of the country, which is a rather challenging task in itself. The tools that we have to achieve those two tasks are the Afghans themselves, who are wonderful people but do not really like being told what to do by foreigners.
The Select Committee on Defence is about to begin an inquiry into the comprehensive approach. It is a great honour to chair that Committee, and I pay tribute to Mrs. Moon for her contribution, recent as it has been. I can assure her that is hugely valued. We are lucky to have a dedicated group of members and a wonderful support staff who ensure that our inquiries are as productive as they can be.
The questions about the comprehensive approach are difficult to answer. Are we tying the development of new livelihoods in with the security that our forces bring? For example, will the road network be kept secure from improvised explosive devices so that people can get their produce to market? Will it be kept secure from roadblocks, sometimes police roadblocks, where protection money is demanded despite a tiny margin of profit? That is the sort of thing that local people in Afghanistan worry about. All those issues have to be dealt with in a country that has little education, mountainous terrain, no secure infrastructure, no policeable borders and no natural resources. It is awash with weapons, most of them provided by us. The task is a large one to face.
I hope that one of the most important issues that the Defence Committee will examine is Britain's ability to carry out construction in a conflict environment. It seems to me that until we are able to develop that capability, there will be a major gap in our ability to deal with conflicts such as Afghanistan should they arise in any other part of the world.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who has put his finger on a most important point. That is one of the matters on which we will concentrate heavily in our inquiry into the comprehensive approach, and I am grateful to him for making that point. I believe that it was my hon. Friend who said that local government in Helmand is making good progress under Governor Mangal, who I agree is an extremely effective governor, but it is good progress from an extremely low base.
Obviously we cannot talk about Afghanistan without considering Pakistan, just next door. Pakistan, of course, is a nuclear power and has already contributed dramatically to the proliferation of nuclear power through the operations of A. Q. Khan. The dangers of some of its nuclear weapons falling into the hands of the Taliban or al-Qaeda are huge. The close links and instant communication between this country and Pakistan mean that threats there are immediately threats here.
Pakistan's economy is in trouble in the global recession, so it is unlikely to be able to contain the insurgency there without our help. Yet there is no prospect of foreign troops being allowed into Pakistan to help it do so. As I said in an intervention on the Secretary of State, all that is not made easier by the fact that Pakistan spends only 2 per cent. of its gross domestic product on education, which leaves such a huge void for the madrassahs to fill and provides an opportunity for people to be influenced by insurgents and radicals from an early age.
The instability in the region means that it has taken over from Israel as the most insecure area of the world. It must therefore be the first priority of not only this country but of our allies. We must begin the huge task of explaining the importance of all that to our allies, because we are not strong enough to cope with helping Pakistan alone. Even with the help of the United States, we are not strong enough. We need the support of our European allies above all, so we must do a lot of diplomatic work.
Next door is Iran. When the President of Iran talked about wiping Israel off the face of the map, he was not joking; he firmly believes it. The support for terrorism in Palestine, Israel, Lebanon and elsewhere has become a hallmark of Iran's foreign policy. Iran is a threat to all its neighbours, which they recognise perhaps better than many European countries, which have provided such divided and weak responses to Iran's nuclear ambitions.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the importance of engaging with not only our American but our European allies on Pakistan, and the difficulties that we all face because of attitudes emanating from Iran. Does he agree that, in using our diplomacy, it is crucial to talk to other Muslim leaders so that what is right for Pakistan does not become a western Christian view but a world view of the changes that are needed?
I entirely agree. I pay tribute to President Obama for his speech today in Egypt, in which he said—very effectively—that America is not at war with Islam and never will be. Islam is not the problem; it is a great religion, which we all respect enormously.
Next door to Iran is Russia—a wonderful country which is led by a small Government of little democratic validity. It is capable of putting a stranglehold on energy for the rest of the world, and it appears to be establishing mechanisms to achieve that. It is willing to bully its former Soviet neighbours with lethal and disproportionate force, and its motivation appears to be gaining self-respect. That is not the best way to go about achieving that. If Russia could bring itself firmly within the community of nations, and work for the good of the world—as Nick Harvey said that we as a country should do—its self-respect would return in much shorter order.
My right hon. Friend is a respected and long-serving Member, who has also served in government. From his experience, why does he think that western Governments are making so little comment about the continuing Russian presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Are we simply afraid of upsetting Russia, or is the subject of little importance or interest to western nations?
I think that there are a lot of reasons for that. I suspect that one of the reasons is that western Governments are not spending enough on defence, so they do not know what else they could do. They do not know whether they could back up any words about Russia with actions. That is a serious worry about our western allies as a whole, but it is also a serious worry about this country, although I will come to that in just a moment.
Next door to Russia is China, which has its pressures of population and an urban-rural divide. Incidentally, if we are looking ahead to problems of defence in the world, a real cause of instability in the future may be the vast empty lands of eastern Russia right next door to the heavily over-populated areas of China, particularly given that those areas of eastern Russia have such huge natural resources. I suspect that Russia is looking ahead with apprehension to what might happen there. We should begin to form a view on what effect that sort of issue might have on the western world.
China is growing strongly. It owns a huge amount of United States debt. The Chinese are investing in education in a way that will be very effective for their country. They take a long-term view—perhaps a longer-term view than the western world takes—and we cannot ignore their phenomenal rise, because it will have defence implications. All those things are things that we can look at in deciding what we ought to be thinking about in respect of defence in the world.
I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman a second time, but he is talking about an area that is of interest to me, particularly in respect of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation and its implications for the northern border to which he has referred, and China's attitude towards the other powers in the region. China's stance under the terms of the agreement, which is about non-interference, is that neither it nor any other member of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation—Russia is a signatory, while Pakistan and India have observer status—will try to impose values on other states, which is something that they see the west as doing. However, those states will agree to combine to protect each other's independence and integrity. Is that new force not something that we should be aware of, and is it not a risk to our ways of working?
That is the current Chinese attitude. I suspect that as China's requirements for more and more resources grow, in order to satisfy a growing middle class in China, the Chinese will begin to need to make more inroads into other countries, not just in that region, but in places such as Africa. The issue that the hon. Lady raises is certainly something of which we need to be strongly aware. I know that she has expressed an interest in it on the Defence Committee, and I hope that she will continue to do so, because it is a matter of great importance.
So far I have been talking about things that we are able to see already. Ten years ago we would not have been able to foresee any of them—except, perhaps, those to do with China. What will be happening in 10 years' time that we cannot now foresee? Are we prepared now to have a defence budget and a defence stance that will be completely unable to cope with the unforeseen in 10 years' time?
I believe that defence is at a watershed. There are fundamental structural flaws in the Ministry of Defence, at a time when the Army is down to fewer than 100,000 and people are no longer sure what equipment can be bought. There are huge internal battles for survival, for supremacy and for equipment between the different services, and with the civil service. There appears to be no cohesive view to show to the world, or even internally, within the Ministry of Defence. There is a budget that has been weakened over decades by war and by underfunding.
At the end of the cold war, we saw two changes. First, nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction stopped being as effective as they had previously been, so we should then have spent more, not less, on conventional arms. Secondly, the world became less stable, rather than more stable. Again, we should therefore have spent more, rather than less. [ Interruption. ] I will give way to the Minister if he wants to intervene. No, he does not. So, we took the peace dividend, and that was a serious mistake. If the Minister is hinting, by his gestures from a sedentary position, that it was the Conservatives who took that peace dividend, I can assure him that we were whipped on by the Labour party every step of the way. Everybody in the western world was saying, "Thank heavens, we can spend less on equipment," and it was the Labour party that went into the 1997 election promising to reduce spending on defence to the European average.
It was a dreadful mistake to take the peace dividend. The result is that there is now a black hole in the defence budget. Things have been made worse recently by the knowledge that there is to be no bad news coming out of defence, and no new money going into defence. A lot of the defence decisions that should have been taken last year or the year before have therefore been postponed until just after the general election. When the pigeons come home to roost, they will discover that there is no roost to come home to.
There is a strategy in the Ministry of Defence that relies very heavily on the power of new equipment but ignores the quality that comes from quantity. The manpower of the armed forces has therefore been reduced to a level that is close to unsustainable. The hon. Member for North Devon talked about helicopters. The helicopters are going to become much more powerful, but there will be so few of them that they will not be able to be anywhere.
The right hon. Gentleman said that the size of the Army was about 100,000. Is it his understanding that approximately 10 per cent. are from overseas? Does he agree that there is a need to recruit more from the United Kingdom if we are not to become increasingly dependent on overseas members of the Army?
I think that the figure is 9 per cent., but, yes, I believe that it is necessary to have larger armed forces. I am just about to talk about money, but where is the money to come from for that? This is a serious issue that the country—not just the Government, the Opposition and politicians—has to face.
We are relying heavily on more and more powerful equipment, but we are still losing the capacity to act alongside our closest ally, the United States. We have dwindling armed forces and a tiny reserve, and all of this means that there is less and less connection with the people whom the armed forces are protecting, because they do not meet them on a regular basis. I am afraid that the review of the reserve forces appears to be managing the decline of the armed forces rather than inspiring their rebirth. We have a public who do not understand the armed forces or what they are doing, and who therefore do not support defence spending. As a result, there is no money to spend on defence. We have spent the money, for decades ahead, on the banks.
My right hon. Friend suggests that the public may not be as supportive of the armed forces as they once were, but I would like him to reflect further on that. The common wisdom has been that the public will not support increased expenditure because they do not understand the armed forces, but I put it to my right hon. Friend that we have seen a quite astonishing wave of outpourings from people recently—and not just in Wootton Bassett, where the reception of our fallen heroes was particularly dignified, but right across the land. Perhaps we politicians—and, indeed, military commanders—are in danger of misunderstanding the public mood.
I desperately hope that my hon. Friend is right. I feel that if the public are asked whether they think the armed forces are being treated unfairly, they will reply with a resounding yes, but if they are asked whether they want funding for the new ward in their local hospital to be cut in order to provide more for the armed forces, I suspect that they will be much less certain in their answer. I believe that we have to take the argument over this question out to the public, because they need to understand the issues the country is facing.
When it comes to the current team of Defence Ministers—it is an excellent team, incidentally—I have a suspicion, although none of them have told me so, that they are desperately hoping that they lose the next election because some of the decisions that they would otherwise have to take would, largely because of the lack of money, be so awful. They know that we are in deep trouble.
Staying with the theme of the public's attitude towards defence spending, we in the House of Commons should have learned in recent weeks how neglecting an issue can engulf us in public rage. Neglect of this particular issue may be fine in peacetime and when we are deploying our troops in faraway and little-understood battles, but if we require our armed forces to do something at short notice that they are not capable of doing and it results in disaster, we need to be aware that the wrath of the British people over our neglect will be unimaginable—and we will deserve it.
My hon. Friend is quite right, which is why conducting this debate on this particular day is such a disgrace. It is excellent when Defence Ministers regularly go out to places such as Afghanistan and know what they are talking about—but I cannot remember the last time a Treasury Minister went out to Afghanistan. Perhaps the Minister could enlighten me about that, but I suspect that he probably will not.
The right hon. Gentleman makes some important points, which we should all be prepared to address. Let me first reassure him, however, that no matter what the difficulties in future, I would far rather take the decisions myself than have him or his colleagues taking them; he should be under no illusions whatever about that. What he appears to be saying—I think with a degree of honesty—is that despite the fact that he deprecates the situation we are in, his own party, too, would have to cut defence capability. [Interruption.] That is effectively what he said. If he is not saying that, will he tell us, in the honest and open way in which he speaks in these debates, what he believes will be in all the parties' manifestos at the coming general election—no matter how near or far away it is—and, in particular, whether his party is likely to pledge to improve defence spending over and above what the Government have pledged?
I did not say that my party would cut defence. Frankly, however, I very much doubt that there will be much difference between the defence spending plans in the Labour manifesto and those in the Conservative manifesto. What I have always tried to do as Chairman of the Defence Select Committee is to tell the people of this country that they need to realise how important defence spending is, and that they should put pressure on both the Chancellor and shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, and on all of us, to change our approach to defence spending, because the whole country needs it.
It is essential that we change, because our defence spending is down to about 2 per cent. of GDP—the lowest since the 1930s. That is leading to disrespect. The people of this country have not discussed that or considered the problem that is about to hit them, which will hit them whoever wins the next election. The issue is not whether we remain a first-order power, but whether we become a second-order or a third-order power. In other words, will we be able to operate alongside France, or will we be limited to operating alongside Belgium and Italy?
The public, I hope, will have a view on that, but only if they are asked. For that reason, I strongly believe that we need a strategic defence review. One thing that we need to consider is research and technology. I shall quote a paragraph:
"A recent MOD sponsored study analysing 11 major defence capable nations has uncovered a highly significant correlation between equipment capability and R&T investment in the last 5-30 years... It shows that there is a simple 'you get what you pay for' relationship between R&T spend and equipment quality, with a sharp law of diminishing returns, and that R&T investment buys a time advantage over open market equipment."
That paragraph was written by the Government in the defence industrial strategy, so what is the Ministry of Defence doing about this? Astonishingly, it is cutting its research and technology budget by 7 per cent. this year, and it looks as though that is to continue over the next few years.
The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Mr. Davies, who has responsibility for defence equipment and support, tells us that that is a simple matter of priorities. He is right; it is—and he has the wrong priorities. Our ability to respond quickly and effectively to emerging threats is built on the knowledge base, which is itself built on sustained investment in research and development since the 1980s. He might say that he wants industry to do more of the research. It is doing that. In 2006-07, according to the Society of British Aerospace Companies, the defence sector invested £3.34 billion in research and development, which was about 40 per cent. of the EU's and 15 per cent. of the UK's research and development spend. However, this country's defence industry needs some customers, which means the Ministry of Defence.
After that catalogue of despair there is some hope, which comes from two sources. The first source of that hope is the men and women of our armed forces. Long, long ago as a Defence Minister, I was awed by the strength of purpose of our armed forces—their determination, honesty, courage, humility and intellectual ability, which I was not necessarily expecting when I went into the Ministry, but it was certainly there. They were wonderful men and women, and so were the civil servants who supported them. As Chairman of the Defence Committee, I have had that confirmed every time I have met them. We have some outstanding people; I just do not think that we are making the best use of them.
The second source of hope is the resilience and determination of the people of this country. When they are given the right information and things are properly explained, they make the right choices.
I shall end on the point that we need a strategic defence review in the full public gaze. We are getting a non-strategic defence review in the secrecy of the Ministry of Defence. That will not do the trick. First, as my hon. Friend Dr. Fox so rightly said, we need to work out what defence is for. What do we need to defend? Secondly, we need to reform the Ministry of Defence so that it becomes coherent, cohesive, functional, straightforward and directed.
My hon. Friend correctly said that we need to reform the defence acquisition process, and I was delighted with the Secretary of State's comments about Bernard Gray's inquiry, about which I have heard good things. We need to put into the job of defence acquisition people who are intrinsically good at it, rather than those who do it because a gap has opened up for the next two years. We need to ensure that those who are best at the job carry on doing it rather than getting moved on quickly. We need a defence acquisition process led by capability rather than by programmes. We need to force the armed forces to make choices between what they want to be able to do, instead of piling up ever more unrealistic shopping lists, egged on by the defence industry, and unrestrained by any functioning process in the Ministry of Defence.
Finally, we need to tell the people about the importance of what the Ministry of Defence does. We need to tie it in with our national interests and explain why it is important to the people. This is a defence-oriented nation. If there is a war, we are more than likely to be involved in it. This country does not want to be an also-ran nation. We have interests all round the world, which we want to protect, and citizens at home and abroad whom we must defend. That, after all, is what Government is for.
On the day when this debate was announced, I asked the Leader of the House at business questions whether, in a week when four young soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan, it was a good idea to hold such a debate on the day of local and European elections. She said that the reason for it being held on that day was that there would be no vote. There are no votes on most Thursdays because of the ridiculous modernisation programme the House has undertaken in recent years, and I suggest that it is an insult to our armed services that the debate is being held today.
Notwithstanding that, the debate has been excellent, and I am sure that, after my contribution, it will continue to be so. Before I move on to the main part of my speech, I want to pick up one or two issues. Mrs. Moon, who, sadly, has just left the Chamber, said that as a history teacher she taught that since the second world war the peace had been kept by the European Union. That is absolute stuff and nonsense. The peace has been kept by NATO, and we should remember that.
I also want to cross swords with the hon. Lady, and the Secretary of State, on co-operation and further integration in defence policy and acquisition through the European Union. I remind the House that one of the reasons why we have a shortage of airlift capacity is that the A400M aircraft was commissioned, if that is the right word, in the days of the Government led by John Major. It was due to be delivered in 2007, in the light of which the order for Hercules J aircraft was diminished. Therefore, our lack of airlift capacity is because of the European Union's incompetence in co-operating to fulfil its obligations. The Minister for the Armed Forces is shaking his head—
Well, both are equally bad; I would much prefer that he was cheerful. [Interruption.] He is smiling now, and that is good.
I listened to the Secretary of State with a great deal of interest. He made some interesting points, other than that which I just referred to, which chime in many ways with other things happening in defence. The recent Whit recess gave me a welcome opportunity to read the speech made at Chatham House on
Let me quote a paragraph of General Dannatt's speech. He said:
"The first point of consensus, as the National Security Strategy sets out, is that, 'for the foreseeable future, no state or alliance will have both the intent and the capability to threaten the United Kingdom militarily, either with nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction, or with conventional forces'. Self-evidently this statement has profound implications for Armed Forces that are still largely equipped, trained and structured for a particular view of conventional state on state warfighting—and particularly so, when the threat spectrum is both more complex and demanding. It is difficult not to conclude that our focus on preparing and equipping for a particular type of conventional state threat has left us unbalanced. Our enemies have adapted. So must we."
The question that I pose to the House this afternoon is "Have we, and will we?"
The House will have to forgive me if I stick to my last, but before I do so, let me observe that what General Sir Richard Dannatt was saying was more or less what the Secretary of State was saying. The campaigns in which we are currently having to be involved are connected with what I call "next-war-itis". They are predominantly concerned with counter-insurgency and reconstruction. Perhaps the changes that may be coming will feed through to quicker, smoother and more effective procurement which will support the needs of troops on the ground.
We began badly in Iraq with the Warrior, which had no air conditioning and was hardly ideal for conditions of heat and humidity. Then the Snatch Land Rover was to be replaced by 166 disastrous Vector Pinzgauers. The Vectors were initially highly praised in many quarters, but I believe that those who have been injured or have died in them have been failed by the media, the parliamentary scrutiny system and indeed the Army itself. It is no good the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Mr. Davies, saying, as he did during defence questions on Monday,
"Its problem has been its 'operationability'".—[ Hansard, 1 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 10.]
I assume that he meant that it did not live up to expectations, but—with due deference to the Minister—we knew that before the Vector was deployed, and in my view it should never have been deployed at all.
I suggest to my right hon. Friend Mr. Arbuthnot, the Chairman of the Defence Committee, that he and the members of his Committee should consider an inquiry into the issue. I think that what has happened is a national disgrace—not just the cost, but the loss of life in particular.
As my hon. Friend knows, I saw the Vector before it was unveiled. I happened to be driving the ordinary Pinzgauer. One of the questions that I asked at the time was whether the new armour being added to the vehicle required a strengthening of the suspension. I was told that that was not necessary.
My hon. Friend has done a tremendous job in fighting battles on behalf of our soldiers who have not been provided with adequate equipment. May I ask her a question that I asked the Minister on Monday, when he failed to answer it? What sort of evaluation process does the Ministry of Defence have, given that the Vector was passed by a technical evaluation? We are not technical people in the House, and we must rely on technical people in the Ministry of Defence, but it appears that that is where the failure occurred. Has my hon. Friend a view on that?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I was once given a briefing at the MOD when I argued with a young gentleman about the Vector Pinzgauers. I said to him that bearing in mind both that the driver was right over the wheel and also the plain, ordinary physics of how bombs explode and where deflections go, it would be a death-trap, and it has proved to be so. I have stated the following many times in this House, and I will state it again on later occasions, because in politics we sometimes have to keep on repeating and repeating before finally, it is to be hoped, someone takes up the point being made: the design of vehicles is vital to saving the lives of the people in them. Unless that point is grasped within the MOD, we are whistling in the wind.
The Snatch Land Rover has now been upgraded to the Vixen and more than 200 Huskys have been procured at a cost of just under £600,000 each. They will prove to be another failure, replacing an earlier failure. The Americans rejected this vehicle as it sustained a hull breach on the mine resistant ambush protected—MRAP—level 1 standard test.
The 401 Panther command and liaison vehicles, which cost a cool £413,000 each, have taken longer than the duration of world war two to bring into service, with constant upgrades. They are in every way an expensive and inferior vehicle and were originally capable of NATO standard mine protection STANAG 4569 level 2a, which roughly translated means that they have protection against 6 kg of explosive, but they will be put into operation where 7.5 kg Russian mines are prevalent. Will the Minister please confirm in his winding-up speech whether the latest £20 million upgrade has taken protection up to level 3a and 3b, and if he cannot do that today, will he please drop me a note?
When the procurement of the Jackal—or M-WMIK, as it was initially known—was announced, it was agreed that it would be good for special forces. Too much emphasis, however, was placed on the David Stirling, world war two concept when equipment acted as the predator, whereas the Jackal, by being used for general duties, has now become the prey. I remember a discussion on Radio 1 in which a young Territorial Army private infantry soldier who had just returned from Iraq took on a sergeant who was extolling the Jackal's brilliance by explaining the faults with the vehicle. What listeners were not aware of was that the TA private soldier was in civilian life an engineer working in force deflection, and in the TA he was a "pioneer" dealing with explosives. The 200 Jackals in service, and a further 110 Jackal 2s, have again highlighted the failed concept of bolting on armour, as proved by the American Humvee vehicle. Can the Minister confirm how many Jackals have been lost, because some reports suggest the number is as high as 20 per cent. of those deployed in Afghanistan?
The whole protected vehicle fleet is, in General Dannatt's word, unbalanced, because if we add to the vehicles that I have previously listed the Coyote, Viking, Tellar and Warthog, then compared with the 306 Mastiffs, 157 Ridgebacks, 90 Wolfhounds and 24 Bushmasters, blast-absorption vehicles with added armour vastly outnumber blast-deflection vehicles which have their defence built into the original design of the distinctive V-shaped hull.
I know that the hon. Lady studies this issue and always tries to bring some thought to it, but she must accept that we cannot put all our people into the same kind of vehicles. We have to give them a range of different vehicles of different sizes. We have to try to mitigate the effect of using a smaller vehicle, and that can be done only to a degree. The main protection of the Jackal is its massive manoeuvrability; it does not have to go down the well-trodden path. If the hon. Lady goes to theatre, she will know that it is a very well thought of vehicle among all ranks.
The hon. Lady is suggesting that there is some easy alternative that would give our people the capability that they need to do the job and yet remove if not the entire risk, a lot of the risk associated with the Jackal. I do not believe that she is correct.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman does not think I was born yesterday. War is bloody and people get killed in it, but what is desperate is the fact that this country has not supported its soldiers in conflict with the right kind of vehicles, which can be obtained, and has instead made major mistakes in procurement. He and I are not going to agree on this subject, so I should move on because I have made my point and we have had our disagreement.
Blast absorption vehicles are not cheaper, and when they encounter an explosion not only are the occupants killed or maimed, but the vehicle is a write-off. Compare that with the record of the Mastiff: only one early version was lost due to a fire, and although there have been injuries sustained in explosions, nobody has yet been killed. [Interruption.] I shall come to something else in a minute—I am making a point now. The Oxford Mail reported last Tuesday that four local soldiers—I believe that they are from Bicester—escaped injury when their Mastiff hit a mine. One of them, Captain Fletcher, was quoted as saying that the Mastiff afforded great mobility across the desert terrain of Afghanistan and, despite its weight and size, afforded unrivalled protection. The vehicle was able to drive away after the explosion under its own power—compare that with the fate of the two soldiers killed recently in a Jackal in the very same area.
May I continue? Again on Monday, the Minister with responsibility for defence equipment and support, who has returned to his place, praised the Coyote and the Husky, which is likely to be another useless and death-threatening procurement. However, he was right about the Wolfhound, which should prove to be good news. I find it so distressing to hear lavish praise being heaped upon the procurement of vehicles that are potential death-traps and to listen later to expressions of condolence to the families of those who have perished in them.
Just as the Buffalo was originally condemned by the MOD but is now being purchased, I hope that the Department will look again at the new version of the Cheetah, which has been developed by Force Protection and was recently shown to members of Congress on Capitol Hill. I fully support the efforts of South Carolina Congressman Henry E. Brown to promote this MRAP vehicle to ensure that both British and American soldiers are properly protected. I am also convinced—Ministers might be interested in this—that Force Protection vehicles could be turned into successful half-tracks if greater manoeuvrability was required.
The Secretary of State is quoted in this month's Soldier magazine as praising the new American military direction, which includes the cancellation of their equivalent of the future rapid effect system—FRES—project and suggests that we need a similar readjustment in the UK. Perhaps the UK has accepted that concept in principle, but it certainly has not yet done so in practice.
I will end by quoting again from General Dannatt's speech at Chatham House. He said:
"We must ensure we do enough to succeed and simply not enough to fail".
Although I am delighted that General Dannatt has changed his views since he took office, the danger is still that we are not changing fast enough—not just in terms of vehicle procurement, but in many other areas. When we talk about the budget today and future budgets, I would remind the House of the amount of money that has been wasted on equipment and vehicles that have not been fit for purpose. If those disastrous decisions had not been made, more resources would be available to spend on what the soldiers fighting in Afghanistan need now.
I concur with the remarks that have been made so far on the timing of today's debate on the day of the European and local elections. I am sure that the Ministers would agree, if they were allowed to say so. There is nothing to add to the chorus of condemnation of that choice.
However, it is two days until the anniversary of the 65th anniversary of D-day and that is another reason why I have chosen to speak in this debate. I am proud that my uncle, Major-General Tony Richardson, is president of the Normandy Veterans Association. I am delighted that the Prince of Wales will attend the celebrations. The issue was sadly mishandled and the Ministry of Defence failed to appreciate the importance of the 65th anniversary. Given the presence of President Obama, it would have been better if Her Majesty the Queen were to attend, but at least the Prince of Wales is going.
I am also delighted that my uncle had the opportunity to take his grandson, Captain Max Ferguson of the US army, to visit the beaches a week or so ago. Mrs. Moon, who is no longer in her place, and my hon. Friend Michael Fabricant attended a presentation by Captain Ferguson, my cousin and godson on his 15 months in Iraq as an infantry platoon commander, commanding a troop of Stryker vehicles and some 40 soldiers—
Indeed, and I listened with interest to my hon. Friend's remarks about military vehicles. I commend her campaign and the attention she has given to the issue. It is right that Ministers should be put on the spot for the decisions that they have to make, although I acknowledge the difficulty of those decisions and the trade-offs that have to be made. It is important that we have hon. Members willing to dig down into the detail and track procurement decisions. My hon. Friend has done a signal service in holding Ministers to account on the issue, and that is how Parliament should work.
My cousin, Captain Ferguson, was ambushed when riding in a Stryker vehicle. It is well regarded by the US army, but that did not stop him being nearly killed when it was hit in Baghdad. One of the soldiers in the vehicle was killed and the young soldier sitting next to him was badly wounded. My cousin was lucky enough to survive and the vehicle was able to drive away from the ambush.
My cousin's presentation was a remarkable story of 15 months in Iraq, in 2007-08, from a platoon commander in the US army. It was particularly instructive to hear how much of the US concept of operations in Iraq had become more like the British one—in terms of hearts and minds, and living alongside the community in which they were operating in order to draw intelligence from it and take the fight to the terrorists. One can only reflect on that change and what happened to the British forces in Basra—there was almost an inversion of roles over the last six years.
Rather more sombrely, and again involving what I would regard as my family—my former regimental family—on Saturday, Lance Corporal Nigel Moffett became the first fatality of the Light Dragoons in operations in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The regimental family of a regiment the size of the Light Dragoons is quite small. There are only about 400 or so serving in the regiment at any one time, and that fatality brings home the pain and pride in the sacrifice made by Lance Corporal Nigel Moffett.
I did not know Lance Corporal Nigel Moffett. I left the regiment a rather long time ago now and he joined it in 2003. In reading the tributes paid to him by his commanders, his contemporaries and his father, one is struck by and able to visualise the sort of character that this young man was. I want to take this opportunity to draw on those tributes and to try to give the House the sense of the sort of young men and women who are serving our country on operations today. His squadron sergeant-major, of C Squadron, the Light Dragoons, Sergeant-Major David Rae, said in tribute:
"My first memory of Moff was of a young lad about to learn his trade in Bovington. Even at an early age he was not convinced his aspirations would be met in the regiment he was allocated; instead he wanted to serve as a reconnaissance soldier.
I would see him daily with a 50lb...pack on running the training areas to become fitter and stronger than those around him. I enquired as to why he was training so hard whilst others were enjoying the freedom gained from leaving Basic Training, his answer was simple, 'I want to be a 'recce' soldier and I need to convince them I am going to be one'. These words and his dedication had me wishing if only every young man had this zest for soldiering and this commitment to their chosen career. He was granted his wish and joined The Light Dragoons.
Again we crossed paths when I assumed my position as Squadron Sergeant Major. Moff was more experienced having been on tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and unbelievably, fitter and stronger than when we first met. He was the Squadron Physical Training Instructor, and to a man, we all paraded under him for PT with more than a little apprehension of how we would fair under his 'training'.
Moff took no prisoners and never eased off, regardless of how hard people were blowing and regardless of what rank they were. The Legion"— that was the nickname of C Squadron the 13th/18th Royal Hussars when I was in it, and is now the nickname of C Squadron, the Light Dragoons—
"expected nothing less than a professional approach from him and we all benefited hugely from his expertise."
His commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Gus Fair, who has a special forces background, said:
"He relished his role as a Physical Training Instructor and was always the first to volunteer for a course or adventurous training. His dedication, fitness and sheer enjoyment of his work marked him out as a star of the future and a role model to the junior soldiers.
He died at the top of his game and showed all the potential of realising his ambition of serving as a badged member of UK Special Forces."
However, it is his father's tribute that is the most moving:
"Nigel felt he was prepared for operations in that he was well trained and had the right tools for the job. Both he and his family understood that ultimately he could die although we didn't want this to happen. Ultimately, Nigel was a soldier."
This week, we have had almost a fatality a day. The fact that Lance Corporal Nigel Moffett has as part of his regimental family someone who has ended up in the House of Commons is purely a coincidence, but the tributes paid apply to all the soldiers who have died over the past week and the perhaps more than 300 soldiers—I do not know the numbers—who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan serving our country since 2003. We should also not forget that for every fatality that we mark at Prime Minister's questions by naming these soldiers—now, seemingly, every Wednesday—rather more seriously wounded soldiers are coming back from theatre whose lives will be completely dominated by the experience that they have suffered serving our country.
Of course, in addition to that, we are seeing just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the psychological consequences for soldiers who are taking part in operations of an intensity perhaps unseen in large parts of the second world war, despite their coming from a country that is effectively at peace. We, as a country, obviously have to pay our debt and make sure that soldiers who have been wounded seriously, physically and psychologically, are supported properly.
We also owe the soldiers who are serving us something else. I shall now make, as gently as I can, a rather serious political point. The Americans are seriously reconsidering their strategy in Afghanistan. That has important implications for how we conduct our operations in Helmand province. Our forces in Helmand province are being joined by a large number of US forces as we speak. Sadly, whatever the merits and capabilities of Defence Ministers, we have a Government and a Parliament that have lost their authority, and there is now a serious requirement. If we are to discharge our debt to soldiers who are fighting and dying for our country, we must regain the authority of the Government and the Parliament that those soldiers serve. In the circumstances, that can be done only by the people giving a new mandate to a new Parliament and Government. I hope that Ministers and people more widely will reflect on the fact that right now, we in Government and Parliament are not giving the quality of leadership that we should give to those men and women serving on our behalf.
The speech made by the shadow Defence Secretary, my hon. Friend Dr. Fox, and the speech with which the Secretary of State opened the debate contained important reflections on the conduct of our operations in Afghanistan. Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot be taken separately. At the strategic level, they must be dealt with together. There are obviously particular problems about our ability and capacity to give direct help in Pakistan, as my right hon. Friend Mr. Arbuthnot, the Chairman of the Defence Committee, made clear. However, in a sense, and in strategic terms, Pakistan is a much more important entity than Afghanistan. The threat from Pakistan's weapons of mass destruction, the size of its population, and the size of the British Pakistani population—given that I am shadow Minister with responsibility for counter-terrorism, I am only too aware of the domestic issues in that regard—mean that Pakistan is much more important than Afghanistan, but they are very much linked.
On Afghanistan, I want to reinforce what my hon. Friend said about localism; he referred to the provincialisation of policy there. That is extremely important. Due to issues of geography and ethnicity in Afghanistan, a central authority has always struggled to exercise authority in a comprehensive way over the whole country, and if that is the model that we are trying to follow, we simply will not succeed. It would appear that we are learning, albeit all too slowly, about the methods that will achieve our objectives. Last year I was lucky enough to see the young officer cadets of the Afghan national army being trained by British forces in Kabul. As has been said in this debate, the training and mentoring—effectively the creation—of that army is gradually emerging as an important success.
Of course, that sits alongside the catastrophic failure of the training and development of the Afghan national police. It is the Afghan national police with whom the average Afghan is in contact daily. Certainly when I was in Afghanistan a year ago, their corruption, criminality, ineffectiveness, inefficiency and the rest appeared to be making a more negative than positive contribution to our potential success in the conflict. I was struck by the parallel that my hon. Friend drew with the Charge of the Knights operation, and there does appear to be a parallel, given the Americans' entry into the southern part of Helmand province and the Prime Minister's indication, which my hon. Friend quoted, of a change in the nature of the British role in Afghanistan. We should be involved in an informed way in those negotiations, so that we can see what they mean in terms of the number of troops who are committed, and for our future commitment to, and concept of, British operations in Afghanistan. It is difficult to be a part of those negotiations, however, when the country is in political limbo and the future of the Government is uncertain.
The Secretary of State's speech also contained some important reflections. He answered my intervention—up to a point—about the balance of resources between the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence in contributing to reconstruction, to reconciliation and to rebuilding failed states. However, he did not quite get around to saying this: conflict is probably the most important driver of poverty, and, if we cannot address conflict, we cannot address poverty.
We will have to look seriously at the balance of resources and compare the money that DFID appears to have with that which the Foreign Office and the MOD have to devote effectively to defence, diplomacy, infrastructure building, state building and everything else. There is a complete imbalance between the interests of the people whom we are trying to serve, not least in their simple relief from poverty, and the very much wider set of British national interests that must be secured in the states that we seek to help.
The Secretary of State introduced an interesting discussion about cyber-security. From the words that he used, he appeared to talk about the MOD's responsibility to secure its own information technology, but, given the capacity for a cyber attack, from a state-sponsored hit all the way down to terrorists trying to attack the information technology that controls key parts of our infrastructure and, even, to the lone hacker, we must have a better discussion of cyber-security.
Particular thought must be given to, and an examination made of, the MOD's role and responsibility for securing civil national infrastructure, because, if information technology systems were attacked from outside by whatever source, there would be crippling consequences for the United Kingdom, as, indeed, there would be for any country. We, as a nation, must decide who will take responsibility for that. Currently, the lead appears to be sitting inside GCHQ, but that comes with a whole variety of compromises in respect of how public it will be in providing that defence. On that issue, there is an important debate to be had.
I listened with wry amusement to the remarks about Bernard Gray's expected report on reorganising procurement. I could not help but have a sense of déjà vu about the issue, because the idea that we must be able to do procurement a great deal better appears to have been a constant over decades. From my examination of the issue during my 15-year association with it in one way or another, however, I have been struck by the fact that the United Kingdom appears to do defence procurement rather better than many—indeed, the majority of—other nations. I do not know whether we are still in such a position in the global league table, but I am slightly suspicious of a proposal to rip up all our defence procurement arrangements and of the idea that, if we replant them slightly differently, we will achieve the golden objective of producing the most efficient set of such arrangements in the world and save ourselves a vast amount of money. Systems can always be improved, but I wonder whether a revolution in the defence procurement process is necessary. I hope that when Mr. Gray produces his report, it will be looked at carefully—and sceptically, because there have been many efforts in the field, and not all have improved matters significantly.
I began my remarks with a personal reflection about my family and my wider regimental family, and I want to finish by saying that we must not forget the enormous contribution made by our servicemen and women. That is why I am horrified at the circumstances and timing of this debate. It is about a very important subject; our fellow citizens who are serving their country are fighting and dying for us. I do not think that Parliament has distinguished itself with the choice of timing for a debate on the contribution that those people are making.
I echo my hon. Friend Mr. Blunt and join the chorus of disapproval for the lamentable state of this debate and its timing.
I invite the House to reflect on what we face at this moment in the Afghan conflict. I have in front of me the Op Herrick casualty and fatality tables, issued by DASA—Defence Analytical Services and Advice—up to halfway through May. I shall not dwell morbidly on the numbers, but this year is likely to be worse than last year. The rate of casualties this year so far is higher than at the same point last year; on the current trend, we will have more casualties this year than in any year since the conflict began. The fact that there is only a handful of colleagues from both sides of the House in this debate sends a lamentable message about how much the House cares about the issue. That is not a criticism of right hon. and hon. Members; as we know, a very great many, if not all, care deeply about the matter. However, given that the Chamber is so empty this afternoon, there is something wrong with the mechanism used to discuss these things.
I have listened to the stream of criticism from Members about the timing of the debate, and I understand people's anger. However, let us reflect on our own responsibilities for the situation. There are lots of Members from both sides who spit before someone gets the word "modernisation" out of their mouth. We have a system in which we have five defence debates per year on the Adjournment and nobody from the various parties is prepared to get together, make suggestions and talk constructively about a better way. It is a disgrace—but it reflects on us, and we ought not to throw the blame elsewhere.
I was not throwing blame; in fact, I was trying to avoid that.
We must change the current system, and I have some suggestions to make. We have not had a debate on a motion on Afghanistan since Op Herrick began. If there were a debate on a Government or Opposition motion as to whether we support the current policy in Afghanistan, I am sure that a great many colleagues would attend and take part.
I have a suggestion for my right hon. Friend Mr. Arbuthnot, the Chairman of the Defence Committee. It is our job as a Select Committee to sit down and discuss how defence issues are debated and scrutinised in the House as a whole, and we could make recommendations about whether there should be some changes. For example, should the five debates be on debatable motions tabled by the Government in order to find out whether the House had confidence in the aspect of policy under discussion, thereby allowing the Opposition parties to table amendments and divide the House on them?
There is another disadvantage to these very broad debates. When we come into the Chamber, we think that we are going to discuss defence in the world, and then hear announcements about equipment, points raised about spending on research and development, and tributes paid to individual servicemen. It is too broad and unfocused, and a debatable motion might improve the focus.
I am afraid that I am going to ignore Iran and North Korea, Russia and Georgia, Somalia and piracy, and all the other issues challenging global security. Having long called for a debate on Afghanistan alone, I shall concentrate on what is going on in Helmand and what flows from it. The question that must preoccupy us is whether more foreign troops in Helmand would break the deadlock. I would hazard three reasons why that might not be the case. I somehow doubt that more kinetic effort, more bombs and bullets, more helicopters, more knocking on doors in the middle of the night to try to find the terrorists, more civilian casualties, and more alienation would not lead to more insurgency.
It is tempting to believe that the strategy pursued in Anbar by General Petraeus, which empowered the Anbar tribes to take charge of their own security, in co-operation with the American military forces and the emerging Iraqi forces, might be replicated in some way in Helmand. However, that is to misunderstand the very different nature of tribal society in Helmand compared with that in Anbar. Anbar was firmly anchored in an established nation state with a strong sense of national identity—Iraq. That national identity exists to some degree in Afghanistan, but the tribal loyalties are far stronger, and, in the case of the Pashtun tribe, span its borders, as they reach into the ungoverned tribal areas of Pakistan. Pashtunistan is a country that exists in the minds of everybody who lives there—it is just not drawn on the maps that were left by the British empire. The Pashtuns have very strong tribal traditions. Pashtunwali is the honour code that requires someone to avenge the death of one of their kinsmen, which means that the effect of civilian casualties is perhaps 10 times more corrosive than in Anbar. The conduct of counter-insurgency operations therefore has to be 10 times more careful to avoid civilian casualties than in Anbar.
There is cause for optimism, because I believe American policy is shifting and developing. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State quoted General McChrystal, who has been nominated the American commander in Afghanistan and who has said:
"If defeating an insurgent formation produces popular resentment, the victory is hollow and unsustainable".
He went on to say:
"This is a critical point. It may be the critical point. This is a struggle for the support of the Afghan people. Our willingness to operate in ways that minimise casualties or damage—even when doing so makes our task more difficult—is essential to our credibility."
I put it to my hon. Friend Mr. Blunt, who served with the Light Dragoons, that that sentiment would be familiar to any soldier who served in Northern Ireland. Counter-insurgency is about tying one arm behind one's back to observe legality, proportionality and rigid discipline to a strategy. It is about ensuring that the tiniest things do not get blown up into huge strategic problems. That is extremely difficult, and I believe that the American army has learned counter-insurgency far faster than we ever imagined it would. We have to stop pretending that we in the British Army do it much better than everyone else, because the Americans have caught us up and may even be overtaking us in their capability to deliver it.
There is hope, but I remain sceptical about whether large formations of foreign military forces will work in a country where the foreigner is regarded with great suspicion, especially if he arrives carrying powerful weaponry and destructive power. I am sceptical about whether the big American surge will solve the problem. There are two more reasons for that, one of which is stated in the Government's own paper on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Page 9 of that paper, in section 3, "Afghanistan—the current situation", states: "The solution remains political". Although there are other factors, the problem has been the political failure in Afghanistan, to which I tried to draw the Secretary of State's attention—the failure in Kabul, the failure of the Karzai Government, the Bonn constitution and the western-imposed Afghan national consensus, and the corruption of that Government.
The Government's paper continues:
"Governance is beset by corruption and lack of capacity, which is compounded by the lack of security. The combination of insecurity, poverty, lack of good governance and social and economic development, and perception of widespread corruption"— that word again—
"deepens the challenge of persuading the people to back their government over the Taleban...the insurgency has not been delivered a decisive blow".
Clearly the surge in operations in Afghanistan is an attempt to deliver that decisive blow, but it seems to me unlikely that it can be delivered by military means. It must be delivered by other means—by binding in the tribal structures that exist in that strong society in Afghanistan and recognising that the authority of the Kabul Government simply does not, and never will, extend into the outreaches of that extraordinarily disparate country. Governance has to arise from the strength of the local communities and cannot be premised on some abstract constitution that was written at a conference in Bonn with a substantial part of the Pashtun tribe simply not represented.
My other reason for scepticism is that the pivotal, decisive strategic engagement has shifted out of Afghanistan and is taking place in the Swat valley. That seems to be where the weight of Taliban power is concentrated. It is where they are based and from where they launch their operations. The war in the Swat valley may be the conflict that turns the war in the whole region, in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
My hon. Friend is correct. However, until military operations are properly co-ordinated across the international border, the effect could be that the Taliban who do not wish to stand and fight against the Pakistan regular army are pushed out of the Swat valley, go to southern Afghanistan and head off to engage with our forces in Helmand and other coalition forces in Kandahar. Proper strategic co-operation is needed, so that if the Pakistani army conducts such an operation, it at least beats the Taliban over the international border into, for example, the prepared ambush positions of Afghan or coalition forces, as appropriate.
I agree with my hon. Friend to some extent, but even he is dealing at a sub-strategic level. That leads me to my next point about the importance of Pakistan.
I commend the Government for including Afghanistan and Pakistan in the same document, although we were slightly playing catch-up with the Americans, who were already on that track. However, Pakistan is crucial. There are 800,000 citizens of our country who have Pakistani origin. [Interruption.] The Minister says that there are probably more. However, thousands and thousands of untraceable exchanges and movements between Pakistan and our country are a direct security threat to our streets, towns and cities.
The part of the document that assesses the current situation in Pakistan refers to the "severe challenges" facing the Pakistan Government, the sharply deteriorating economic situation and the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks. It states:
"This shocking event reflected the wider problems Pakistan faces with violent extremism and terrorism. Al Qaida continues to operate in the FATA... Afghan groups also train and plan attacks on international and Afghan targets in Afghanistan from the FATA."
The document goes on to refer to the
"separatist insurgency continuing in the province of Baluchistan" and makes the crucial claim:
"So far, however, there are no signs that terrorism or violent extremism in Pakistan are decreasing."
Until we address that problem, how will we tackle others?
I have mentioned in the House previously my concern about the disproportionality of our effort. We are putting so much effort into Afghanistan, yet so little into Pakistan. I am encouraged by the Americans' determination. The section of their paper entitled, "Assisting Pakistan's capability to fight extremists" states:
"It is vital to strengthen our efforts to both develop and operationally enable Pakistani security forces so they are capable of succeeding in sustained counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. In part this will include increased U.S. military assistance for helicopters to provide air mobility, night vision equipment, and training and equipment specifically for Pakistani Special Operation Forces and their Frontier Corps."
Bravo to the Americans! They are providing the capability that will give the Pakistani military the confidence and the capability to tackle the modern threats instead of preoccupying themselves vainly with the non-threat of India.
How does that compare with what we offer? On page 13, the Government's document, under the heading "The UK's strategic objectives", states that we will help Pakistan
"achieve its vision of becoming a stable, economically and socially developed democracy and meet its poverty reduction targets" and encourage
"constructive Pakistani engagement on nuclear security and non-proliferation."
Those are laudable aims, but to what do they add up when dealing with the crunch problem? The document states:
"In December... we announced our largest bilateral programme of counter-terrorism support and capacity-building, worth"— wait for it—"£10m."
Ten million pounds is not a great deal of money, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As a country that has an extraordinarily close relationship with Pakistan, we could leverage the American effectiveness hugely, if only we devoted more resources and people to what the Americans are trying to achieve, but we are simply not doing it. I do not know what special forces may or may not be doing in Pakistan, and that is not something that I intend to ask the Minister about. However, what we are providing, in terms of our official armed forces personnel in Pakistan, our diplomatic mission and our overseas aid effort, and in our military-to-military relationship, is pitifully small. Pakistan is a friendly country, but what is coming out of Pakistan is the main threat to our country today, and we are spending a pitifully small amount on confronting that threat.
Finally, the third grand strategic point for the United Kingdom in considering the topic of defence in the world is this. If we are to be a country that contributes something substantial to our security, and if more troops are needed in Afghanistan and the Americans are sending more, what will be the consequence of our being unable to do so or simply refusing to do so? What will be the consequence of our simply not providing the resources that our security requires in the region?
We also have the Basra parallel in Helmand—a point that I was going to raise in my speech, but which several of my right hon. and hon. Friends have already raised—whereby we have failed to deliver what our closest ally felt entitled to expect at the outset, namely a relative proportion of the effort, willpower and sustainment to deliver that sense of solidarity. For everything that our brilliant armed forces achieved in Basra, we left behind a feeling that we had not pulled our weight. For all the sacrifices that our armed forces made, what a terrible tragedy that that should be the feeling in much of Washington and much of the American military establishment, and the same looks to be happening in Helmand. With 17,000 US troops coming into Helmand, against our 8,300 to 8,500—I acknowledge that we are putting in the extra 700 for a temporary period—how will we be entitled to our share of command? How will we be entitled to take credit for whatever is achieved?
I know that those are political points, but we are underselling our influence with our most important ally. So much of what we do in defence and security policy is about maintaining influence over the one country that guarantees our defence and security. If we lose that influence, we will lose the leverage that this country, uniquely in the world, has an opportunity to use, and not just to the benefit of this country, but to the benefit of Europe and the whole world. I am talking about the ability to broaden the American perspective and encourage the Americans to bring more people with them, rather than finding themselves fighting on their own. We must address that, but to do so we need to address our entire defence and security policy, as my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Defence Committee said. We need to ask ourselves what sort of country we really want to be.
Whichever Government are in power, we will fight our way through this period of stringent financial controls as a result of the recession and getting our debt back under control. We will get through that, one way or another. We need to nurse our defence forces through what will be a difficult period, but what will we be aiming for at the other end? Will we be aiming to be the power that can project military force throughout the world, fight alongside the United States and maintain its influence in the forums of the world because we will maintain our nuclear deterrent and have aircraft carriers, strike aircraft and the breadth of technological capability that means that we can interact and fight on a global basis? Or are we going to become just another passenger on the American aircraft carrier, with little say and little influence over an increasingly unstable world that threatens the safety and prosperity of our citizens and the people we represent?
We have been feeling pretty sorry for ourselves throughout the expenses crisis in the past few weeks, but I invite right hon. and hon. Members to reflect on the fact that there are people who are facing far greater challenges and dangers and far more pain than we are. In the end, we are letting those people down by asking them to take on global challenges without having a policy to match those tasks with the necessary money and political will to ensure that they succeed.
The international community is preparing to commemorate the 65th anniversary of D-day, but in Colchester, a much fresher and more raw anniversary will be marked next week. It will be the first anniversary of the deaths of the soldiers of the 2nd battalion, the Parachute Regiment in Afghanistan. I want primarily to talk about Afghanistan this afternoon. I see no change from a year ago in the support that we are getting from our European allies. On this European election day, perhaps I can be a bit Eurosceptic for once. A year ago, 16 Air Assault Brigade, which is based in Colchester, was in Helmand province. Ten soldiers from 2 Para lost their lives, and the brigade lost more than 30 in total.
Last autumn, at Prime Minister's questions, I challenged the Prime Minister about the need for more of our European allies to deploy ground troops in southern Afghanistan. The Ministers on the Front Bench today will know that I have raised this issue on other occasions as well, including as recently as this Monday at Defence questions, when I asked the Secretary of State:
"Will the Secretary of State list the countries in the European Union that have deployed ground forces to southern Afghanistan?"
"Yes, I will: Romania, the Netherlands, Denmark, Estonia and Belgium".—[ Hansard, 1 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 13.]
He went on to say that France was flying fast jets in the south of Afghanistan, but my question was about ground forces.
Let us pay tribute to Romania, the Netherlands, Denmark, Estonia and Belgium for deploying ground troops. However, that answer highlights the failure of the other European nations in NATO that talk the talk, but do not walk the walk when it comes to southern Afghanistan. What are France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Poland doing? They are big countries, but they have not deployed ground forces to southern Afghanistan. If there are constraints on those countries—constitutional reasons, perhaps—that prevent them from deploying troops, they can still assist in other ways. They could assist with security measures, medical support, logistics and a whole range of other things. They could provide helicopters, for example. However, I do not see much of that happening.
I hope that, in highlighting this issue in my brief contribution to the debate, I can persuade the British Government to bring pressure to bear, through their contacts, on the other European countries in NATO to deploy ground troops. We cannot expect only the United States, the United Kingdom and some of the smaller countries of Europe to do so.
It is easy to criticise our European partners in this matter, but we should remember that the authors of this strategy were the British Government. When John Reid was Defence Secretary, he thought it appropriate to deploy NATO in this fashion—as it is deployed in Afghanistan—and he drove that policy very hard. I do not think that our European powers were wildly enthusiastic about it, which has now partly been reflected in the quality of their contribution. We did not get the strategy sorted out at the beginning, so Bob Russell is effectively reflecting on one of the consequences of that failure.
This is a NATO exercise as far as I am concerned, and the consequences of whatever goes wrong in Afghanistan are exported to mainland Europe as well as to the United Kingdom. Whatever the background as to why we are where we are, I want to make my point as strongly as I can.
I have already mentioned that it is European election day today. Every Army married quarters in my constituency is located within the Maypole Division, and there are military families living in St. Michael's, Montgomery and Drury Meadows estates. I want to put on record the fact that within the last 24 hours, leaflets have been distributed there saying that Liberal Democrat policies include
"Establishing a Single European Army".
That is simply not true. I do not blame Conservative Members who are here, as they did not put the literature out, but it did go out in the name of their party. When we are talking to military families, I believe that we must be 100 per cent. factual: it is wrong to deceive, mislead or whatever. Those families have enough issues on their plate without being told untruths of that sort. I do not support a European army. It is quite clear from what I have said that we want European collaboration and support, which is a world of difference away from having a European army.
I believe that all of us are united when we participate in defence debates in the House. Through my involvement with the armed forces parliamentary scheme on two occasions and my membership of the Committee considering the Armed Forces Bill, I have sensed that there are far more areas of common agreement than disagreement. Of course there are some disagreements, but everyone here today is, I believe, broadly of the same mind and united in our support of Her Majesty's armed forces. I pay tribute to them, and to the increasing role played by females. As Members may have gathered from the question that I put to Mrs. Moon, I draw the line at females being in the front line of the infantry. That is not to say that they should not be in the front line in many other respects, but I am sure that my point is well understood.
As I indicated by my question to Mr. Arbuthnot, the Chairman of the Defence Committee, I also pay tribute to the role played by soldiers—some airmen and sailors, but predominantly soldiers—from the Commonwealth, and I would like to conclude by drawing the House's attention to early-day motion 1516. It pays tribute to Lance-Corporal Johnson Beharry, VC, who Members may recall was subjected to a vicious verbal attack by the British National party, which questioned his heroism. The early-day motion rebuts those wicked words of attack on him. It says:
"That this House...is proud that HM Armed Forces comprises men and women from all ethnic backgrounds, from the UK and the Commonwealth, plus Gurkhas from Nepal; notes as an historic fact that people of all racial groups served, and lost their lives, fighting fascism in the Second World War and thus helped to preserve this country's freedoms against such evils; deplores the use in BNP election literature of a false photograph of a British soldier, with false quote, claiming support for the BNP; and urges the Government to ensure that the British people are made fully aware that the BNP represents the views which Britain went to war to defeat."
It is appropriate to quote that early-day motion on the day of the European elections, and when the House is discussing defence in the world.
I begin by congratulating Bob Russell on what he has just said. I was proud to sign his early-day motion and I would like to reassure him about one thing. I do not know what the parliamentary term for "scum" is, but when people such as those in the British National party behave in the way he described, we can be all the more reassured about how right we are to condemn, oppose and disrespect them and all their works. I only hope that, despite all the provocations from Westminster to our constituents, they nevertheless have the maturity and good sense to do the same to the BNP in the elections today.
However, in the spirit of partisanship, which I cannot entirely resist, I say to the hon. Gentleman that if it were not for the Liberal Democrats' policy of proportional representation, the prospects of the BNP leader entering the European Parliament would be much smaller.
In March 2008 I had the privilege of giving a joint presentation—I must stress that I was very much the junior partner—to a group called First Defence, of which I was the parliamentary chairman. The presentation was entitled "Counter-Insurgency in Principle and Practice". I was talking about some of the principles of counter-insurgency, but the person everyone came to listen to was Dr. David Kilcullen, who was talking about his experiences in practice in Iraq.
One of the most important points about people such as Dr. Kilcullen—who was, among other things, a special adviser to General Petraeus and subsequently to Condoleezza Rice—is that the architects of what we hope will be the ultimately successful strategy in Iraq are also some of the people who are least dogmatic about the methods that one can adopt to deal with terrorists and insurgents.
In his book "The Accidental Guerrilla", which has just been published, Dr. Kilcullen says that in many cases the people against whom we find ourselves fighting would not have taken up arms against us had we not gone into their countries in the first place. That is a message that one gets from all parts of the House, although it is at the same time acknowledged that sometimes, even though such fighting is a consequence of our having had to go into those countries, we had little alternative. However, as Dr. Kilcullen stresses, we should do so only as a last resort.
I have pointed out previously that there are some similarities between orthodox political campaigning and the methods used by terrorist groups, albeit not in the moral dimension. There are at least five principles that terrorist groups adopt. I shall quickly list them. The first is:
"always fight on ground where you are strongest and your opponent weakest".
The next two are:
"always seek maximum impact for minimum effort" and
"try to manoeuvre your opponent into a situation where he is damned if he does, but damned if he doesn't".
That is precisely what I described in relation to the reaction, in the case of Afghanistan, when an attack was mounted against the American homeland from a country in which it would be difficult and bloody to intervene. The last two principles are:
"use your opponent's own weight to drag him down ('military jiu-jitsu')" and
"apply these methods simultaneously and repeatedly".
To a large extent, the methods adopted by the Americans and the British have been to try to use conventional military power against such unconventional enemies. We need to try to avoid being bled dry, however, in a form of warfare that involves fighting on the enemy's strongest ground, not ours. Of the many wise words in Dr. Kilcullen's latest book, which I commend to Members in all parts of the House, he says:
"In military terms, for AQ— al-Qaeda—
"the 'main effort' is information; for us, information is a 'supporting effort'...Thus, to combat"— al-Qaeda—
"propaganda, we need a capacity for strategic information warfare—an integrating function that draws together all components of what we say, and what we do, to send strategic messages that support our overall policy."
I am glad my hon. Friend says so. Dr. Kilcullen continues:
"Building such a capability is perhaps the most important of our many capability challenges in this new era of hybrid warfare."
It has been difficult for colleagues to get to grips with a subject as broadly defined as defence in the world. I entirely agree with the suggestion by my hon. Friend Mr. Jenkin that such debates are too broad in nature. My view is that the older concept of the single-service debate concentrated the minds of hon. Members, and concentrated the subject matter in the context of the various campaigns in which we were involved or likely to become involved.
I accept that point, but even in the context of debating a war, it would be better not only to have specific debates on the specific combat parameters but specific debates on the individual services. Otherwise, we will see reflected in the debate the internecine conflict going on between those at the most senior levels of the armed forces. My hon. Friend Ann Winterton—who has carried out a very focused campaign about armoured vehicles and their inadequacies—has touched on that issue, too. She referred to the change in the nature of warfare, and to a particular speech that, she said, meant that we must move away from preparation for conventional state-on-state warfare towards configuring the main effort of our armed forces for the type of wars in which we are engaged today.
I have raised that subject previously at the Dispatch Box, and in my opinion people from particular armed services who take that point of view are going up a blind alley, and a dangerous one at that. Although it is terribly important to be able to configure our forces to fight counter-insurgency campaigns, and absolutely vital to ensure that we give our forces the resources to fight them effectively, we must never lose sight of the fact that the primary role of our armed forces must be to insure against the possibility that in 10, 20, 30 or 40 years we might face an existential threat to the peace and freedom of our homeland. I for one do not subscribe to the view that we must dismantle our ability to deter, and if necessary combat, another state armed with modern weapons systems that could threaten us in the future, just because for the foreseeable future we do not think that threat will arise. The lesson of the past, whether the late 19th century, the first half of the 20th century or even the post-war conflicts of the second half of the 20th century, is that when such threats materialise, the vast majority have not been anticipated.
I am afraid not, because I have three minutes left. Please forgive me.
I was impressed by what Mrs. Moon said about the past role of Porthcawl and the massing there for the D-day invasion. I have heard similar stories about my home town, Swansea. Swansea bay was the home of the second wave of the invasion armada. No part of the water could be seen, so packed was it with the vessels that were about to sail across the channel.
I was somewhat less impressed by what the hon. Lady said about the European Union keeping the peace. I must point out to her that the European Community, in the form of the European Coal and Steel Community, did not come into existence until 1953, and the common market itself did not come into existence until 1957. I do not think that there was any appreciable diminution in the threat of western Europeans fighting each other after 1953, or even 1957, than there had been between 1945 and 1953 and 1957. What really matters is whether the individual countries of Europe have democratic political systems. If they do, they will not fight each other, and if they have NATO, it is to be hoped that they will not have to fight anyone outside their boundaries either.
My right hon. Friend Mr. Arbuthnot, the Chairman of the Select Committee, drew attention to the horrific prospect of a black hole in the defence budget. I have pointed out before, and I will point out again this evening, that we are in a strange situation. The defence budget as a proportion of GDP has remained constant both before and after the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which can only mean that we were fighting two counter-insurgency campaigns at one stage, and are fighting one counter-insurgency campaign now, on what is effectively a peacetime defence budget. That really cannot go on.
Let me say this in the last moments allocated to me. It is normally quite difficult to sum up a debate because there have been so many contributions. By the end of this debate we shall have heard six speeches from the Conservatives, including the two from the Front Bench. That is more than we shall have heard from the other two parties put together. There will have been three speeches from Labour Members, and two from Liberal Democrats. That is not the way in which we should be debating the most important defence matters of the year.
As no one is listening, let me conclude by sharing a confidence with the House. I actually rather like and admire the Defence Ministers who have been appointed by the Government, and I know that they probably did not want the debate to be held on this day any more than anyone else did. The question is: who did want that, and why? To hold a debate of this sort on a day when everyone is voting in elections suggests either a calculated insult or a complete disregard for—or misunderstanding of—the importance of the subject matter. I know that the Ministers will have done their best, but who was responsible? Was it the Chief Whip? Was it the Prime Minister? I think we should be told.
Despite the lack of density on the Benches, we have had our usual wide-ranging, thoughtful and informed debate. The Secretary of State opened it with a review of current operations, and a more detailed account of the evolving threats that we face and his response to them. I shall make a few comments on those issues, and then try to respond to all the points that Members have made.
We cannot afford to ignore the lessons of current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. We must capture and institutionalise them. The integrated military and civilian structures that we now have on the ground in Helmand have developed the hard way. We need to use them as a blueprint for how we do things in the future, not in theatre but in Whitehall and in the international context. That is why we in the MOD, together with our colleagues in the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, lend our full support to the Defence Committee's inquiry into the comprehensive approach. I believe that the Committee, chaired by Mr. Arbuthnot, can make a valuable contribution, and may be able to help us all to drive the policy a little further.
Looking ahead, we also need to ensure that, despite the economic challenges, we get the balance of decisions right so that, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, we can "stretch, surge and recover". There are two elements to that. First, we must understand the capability mix that we need in order to fight both present conflicts and those we may face in the future. We must not be starry-eyed about the options open to us. We do not have the scope that the Americans have to flex budgets from hybrid warfare to conventional warfare. We have to get more out of our equipment and we must have flexibility from our people—we have that—and we must use it to the full. We must also think across the full range of our responsibilities. Secondly, we must ensure that our own financial controls and acquisition structures help rather than hinder our efforts to drive down costs and deliver timely capability. I think that Bernard Gray's report will be a very good starting point for the work that we need to do on that.
Finally, we need to make our international institutions as effective as possible. We need to make them relevant to the public they are supposed to serve. The UK must work with our partners to drive forward reform in the international sphere: in the United Nations; through a new strategic concept in NATO, the cornerstone of our defence; and by strengthening the European Union's ability to play the role that it undoubtedly can.
I understand why many Members throw their hands up in frustration—or in downright antagonism—whenever Europe is mentioned, as it can be frustrating, but we cannot hope to counter the threats of today on our own. We must persevere in building flexible solutions rather than fuelling bureaucracy. I believe we have managed this well in the anti-piracy operation off the horn of Africa, where we have provided command and effective co-ordination not only for our European partners, but for many other nations as well.
Mr. Jenkin discussed the rules of engagement for piracy and why pirates were released recently by the Royal Navy. That was not down to a lack in the rules of engagement; we have flexed the rules of engagement to make absolutely sure that our people are able to counter the threat of piracy, but we also have to respect the fact that we are getting a lot of assistance from Kenya. It is happy to take people to where we have the evidence to prosecute them, but we should not—we must not—abuse the hospitality, as it were, given by the Kenyan nation. Therefore, where evidence does not exist, we need to be sensible and disarm and destroy inappropriate equipment and be prepared to set people free. The kinetic element is only part of the structure being put in place to counter piracy, and of course I accept that it cannot be dealt with purely within the maritime environment. The Royal Navy is holding the ring for us and is providing some mitigation, but the problems of Somalia are the cornerstone of the issue.
I just wish to make it clear that I am sure that the rules of engagement reflect the legal advice that has been given, and that I make absolutely no criticism of the commanding officer of the ship involved, but will the Minister explain what is wrong in law with detaining someone who clearly has all the paraphernalia of piracy and is, circumstantially at least, exhibiting a threat? This seems inexplicable. The law must be deficient in this regard, and it must be changed even if we need a UN resolution in order to be able to do so.
Yes, but whose law needs to be changed? We have to take these steps while accepting what the Kenyans are prepared to do for us and being enormously grateful to them for their efforts. Let me say, as I said at Question Time, that I have no intention of allowing the Royal Navy to be used as a taxi service for asylum seekers—that will not happen while I am Minister for the Armed Forces and if that means that we have to set people free off the coast of Somalia, we will do so. We will do what we can in the circumstances.
The hon. Member for North Essex said that he thought our attitude to the American capability on counter-insurgency was arrogant. I do not see that arrogance in our military and I do not believe it exists in the body politic in this country either; there is great respect for the work that was done first by General Petraeus in Iraq and which is now preached by General McChrystal in Afghanistan. Huge leaps have been made in capability and doctrine by the American military. We must recognise that, and we buy into it totally—we need to work alongside them.
The hon. Gentleman and the Chair of the Defence Committee talked ably about the complexities involved in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and said that much more needed to be done. I do not detract from that at all, but we need to understand that Pakistan is a sovereign nation, it has its own priorities and red lines and it is a very important player in this circumstance. We have to work with the Pakistani Government and not attempt to impose something unacceptable on them.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Moon is a new member of the Defence Committee, and I thank her very much for her effort and the work that she is putting in on that Committee. She lamented the lack of recognition that there is for our armed forces. I genuinely believe that there has been a phenomenal improvement in that regard over the past couple of years, which is much welcome. It is deeply welcomed by the people at the hard end—those who do the fighting and the dangerous work on our behalf. Sadly, as many in this House recognise, she is right to say that a recognition of their amazing capability and the amazing people that they are does not transfer to the level of understanding that we need among our population about the issues with which our forces deal. We all have a duty and a responsibility to try to work on that and improve that understanding.
My hon. Friend responded to a question from Bob Russell, who later raised the issue again, on women in close combat. We are reviewing the issue and we will do so without prejudice or precondition. The situation is not simple because there is no simple front line. We have women who are involved in logistical operations—supply lines and so on—in Afghanistan and they have effectively involved themselves in close combat, because they are obliged to do so. As we review this, we must take into account the complexities of the warfare that we are fighting and the fact that female members of our armed forces are, from time to time, in the thick of it, alongside their male counterparts. I do not think that we can have a politically correct situation on the one hand, or have prejudice on the other. We have to be objective as we undertake the review.
The hon. Member for Colchester also raised the issue of the despicable literature—there is cross-party consensus in the House on its nature—from the British National party about Johnson Beharry, and I am glad that he did so. I am not free to sign his early-day motion, but if I was, I would rush to the Table Office to do so.
I have agreed to finish my speech shortly, and I am aware that I have not managed to reply on all the issues. Nick Harvey recognised the huge improvements to vehicles that have been made, but he was very concerned about helicopters. We will soon have a Merlin free to go to Afghanistan, and before the end of the year we will have eight Chinook too. There has been a massive increase in the number of hours of helicopter availability, but we can never have enough helicopter lift and I accept that we need to do all that we can to provide it.
The Opposition have claimed that no one was listening to this debate. I can advise my hon. Friend that I have already received an e-mail from a gentleman who does not live in my constituency, a veteran from Penzance called Mr. Brian Jenkins—not the Member with the same name. He served in the armed forces between 1969 and 1971 and he has been following the debate today. I am sure that many others also have.
I thank my hon. Friend for that information, but in response to the many hon. Members who have complained about the timing of the debate, I must point out that we all share a responsibility for failing to work together. If people are unhappy that we have five defence debates on motions for the Adjournment, they should stop spitting every time the word "modernisation" is mentioned and be prepared to work with others to put the defence debates on a better footing. If there were a genuine cross-party attempt to do that, it would be successful.
It is clear to anyone who has followed the debate that the complaint has not been about the number of debates, but that the Government business managers purposely put this debate on today, polling day, when a minimum number of Members would be present to take part. It was also squeezed by a topical debate, so that one of our full defence debates—on some of the most important issues, including Afghanistan—was allowed four hours in the parliamentary year. That is a disgrace.
The hon. Gentleman is being disingenuous. He and his party pushed for the topical debates. If we are to be genuine about this, we need to accept that if we want five debates on defence on the Adjournment, there will be consequences. If we wanted to change that, we could—
No, I am about to conclude. I will respond in writing to Members whose points I have not managed to address. I know that the hon. Lady has asked me to do that on one particular issue.
While we plan for the future, our focus must always and rightly remain on current operations in Afghanistan. Our people are fighting and, sadly, sometimes dying to bring stability to that benighted country. They are entitled to expect 100 per cent. support from everyone in defence, Government and industry. That is the very least that they deserve.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of defence in the world.