rose to call attention to the level of operational commitments on the Armed Forces and the issues of recruitment, retention and funding, including the procurement programme; and to move for Papers.
My Lords, I asked to initiate this debate because Britain's Armed Forces have to face not only, in Iraq and Afghanistan, probably the most demanding, dangerous and complex operational challenges that they have faced for many years, but major funding problems and concerns about the shortcomings of equipment currently in service on operations and, in particular, the vulnerability of the old Northern Ireland Snatch Land Rovers, which was starkly illustrated in last week's Sunday Times. This is not a new problem which has suddenly arisen.
In addition, the future equipment programme is in a muddle and is significantly under-funded. I know that at least one noble Lord will address that very important issue in some detail. The Defence Logistics Organisation, set up under the Strategic Defence Review, needs sorting out to make it, to use modern jargon, fit for purpose. I am told that in the Financial Times today there is a suggestion to combine the Defence Procurement Agency and the Defence Logistics Organisation into one large organisation. I hope that Ministers will think very carefully before they move along that path.
These major structural problems are taking place when the Armed Forces are heavily committed on operations. At the same time, it would be a mistake to underestimate the negative impact of high profile courts martial, such as those of Trooper Williams and others. Frankly, there are parts of the Army that feel battered by the lawyers. All of this is happening at a time when our troops are heavily engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Army is already breaking the operational guidelines about the gaps in operational tours, which were announced with a flourish at the unveiling of the Strategic Defence Review. The earliest that these guidelines could be met would be late 2007.
All this has led to a slowly growing demand for a federation or a union. What I hope for from this debate is that it will at least make some people more aware of the huge demands on our fantastic Armed Forces and why they need greater support. I shall focus mainly on the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, procurement, and why there appears to be a growing demand for a military federation or union. Before I talk about Iraq, it is important to remember the other operational deployments in places like Bosnia, where we have been for some 16 years, and Kosovo. Currently, they are not such demanding operations as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, although Kosovo may well become increasingly difficult.
Noble Lords will realise that the political and security situation in Iraq has become increasingly challenging and dangerous. Our Armed Forces, both Regular and Reservist, are doing a magnificent job and I pay a warm tribute to the Reserve Forces and what their contribution has been. Something like 14,500 Reservists have served in Iraq. While I am certainly not suggesting that we should pack our bags and come home with our tail between our legs, it does not help that the war has become increasingly unpopular and no longer commands the support which it did. I am sure I do not need to remind the Minister how important support is for the Regular and Reserve service men and women fighting in Iraq and how vital it is also for their families. In all I say, we should never forget the pressure on our service families and what they have to cope with. I would add that getting the Army's message across has been impacted, I believe, by the decision to cut the three single service directors of public relations. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, will say something more about that because he has firsthand knowledge.
As a start, it would be helpful if the Government as a whole—I stress, as a whole—put their full support behind the war. I personally am not clear what the coalition's strategic security objectives are in Iraq or how it plans to achieve them. I realise that you cannot look at security in isolation and have to consider the political and economic objectives as well. I also recognise that it is not an easy question to answer in the time available and that the Minister may prefer to give a more detailed written reply. But it would be a great help if he were to outline at least the key political and economic objectives of our strategy, and I say that because I have a real sense of drift and confusion about where we are going in Iraq.
I am not sure that commentators and policymakers really understand what General Sir Rupert Smith was talking about when he described the difficulties of fighting a war among the people, and how difficult it is to conduct complex military operations in a nation you are trying to help when at one minute our soldiers are acting as peacekeepers, but then suddenly and very dramatically the situation changes and they are fully engaged in a major fire fight with an enemy dressed the same as many of the innocent bystanders—and they have an enemy trying to kill them in the most bloody way possible. At the same time, soldiers sometimes have to try to make arrests in vehicles that they know do not provide adequate protection.
I shall move on to Afghanistan, a country which exports a very high proportion of the heroin on the streets of this country, and I accept that it is a noble objective to want to greatly reduce the Afghan heroin crop. But I wonder if we have thought through the implications of our policy. I believe that it is a huge long-term challenge and I have very serious reservations about the size and fighting capability of our deployment, and about our operational objectives in Afghanistan. I am not arguing that we should not be there; we are where we are, but we need to recognise that the situation on the ground could well deteriorate seriously and quickly. We therefore need to consider the implications of this on the need for increased force levels and additional equipment; and more widely, the implications for NATO, Pakistan, and the allies serving with us in Afghanistan—who incidentally are already on very different and much more restrictive rules of engagement. One has only to take a brief look at the history of Afghanistan to put this deployment into perspective. Here I am not just thinking about our own nation's previous disasters there. More recently, there has been the defeat of the Red Army, albeit with significant CIA and other support, but that strategic failure in Afghanistan played a significant part in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
I happen to believe it is na-ve to think that the destruction and removal of the poppy crop can be achieved without a major fight. I hope I am wrong but, like most soldiers, I have been educated to plan on the worst case. I would like a clearer understanding of the Government's plan for the removal of the poppy crop and what the replacement economy will be. I would also like a clearer understanding about the role of other government departments and other nations, and what part they will play in the nation-building of Afghanistan. I would particularly like to know about Pakistan, which clearly has a major role to play.
If I am right in thinking that things will get worse before they get better, from a military perspective we need to recognise that even from a cursory glance at our force levels in Helmand province, we do not have an adequate reserve in theatre ready and available. Helmand province, as has been said in many newspapers, is a very dangerous area, and very exposed. In addition, it is exposed to the turbulent tribal areas of Pakistan and to infiltrators from Iran. It does not make military sense, to me, for a reserve to be in the United Kingdom or, say, Cyprus. It needs to be readily available, in theatre, acclimatised and aware of local conditions, and not some hundreds of miles away.
Even more worrying is the fact that there is no adequate reserve at the theatre level available for General Richards, who commands the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, and for whom I have great respect. We are breaking the basic rules of military tactical and operational level planning. The coalition failed to think through the possible consequences of the war in Iraq, and I have a nasty feeling we may be doing the same in Afghanistan.
The Minister should be quite clear: I will of course support our and NATO's forces in Afghanistan, but I want the Government to recognise the challenges which our Armed Forces are facing and that significant reinforcements of people and equipment may be necessary. In addition, it will be critical for other government ministries to play a major role and to work closely with the Ministry of Defence and with the forces on the ground in what is likely to be a dangerous environment.
In thinking about Iraq and Afghanistan, I wonder where the political and military schwerpunkt is. I have to use that word, because it is a wonderful, Clausewitzian word. It means: where is the point of main effort? Is it Iraq or is it Afghanistan? I put this thought on the table because I sense there is a lack of European political will and European military capability to support both theatres of operation adequately. This was a strategic dilemma, on a much greater scale, which faced Churchill and Alanbrooke during the Second World War. I hope we are not making the mistake of trying to be strong everywhere and ending up being strong nowhere.
Before I leave operational issues, I should like to add that I recognise why it is necessary to break the operational guidelines on the gap between operational tours for our very small Army. But like many other planning assumptions made by the previous and present Governments, they have been shown to be very optimistic. Indeed, some of the Armed Forces' problems today are a hangover from the previous Government and when I was on my watch as Chief of the Defence Staff. But there has been the time, even if there has not been the money, to rectify some of those mistakes. Frankly, I get a real sense that the Army, in particular, is too small. Given the current pressure and intensity of operational service which is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, I wonder whether the tour intervals planned between operational tours, not only for the teeth arms, but for the signals and the logistical and medical services, are realistic and whether they need to be longer. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, will say more about that.
When the planning guidelines were issued, I do not believe that the planners really contemplated this intensity and this tempo of operational service. As I have said, I believe that the fundamental problem is that the Army is too small for the many tasks being laid upon it. I urge the Minister to consider this point very carefully. I have no doubt that any such study would cause all sorts of problems in the Budget, and certainly with the Treasury, but it needs to be properly addressed and thought through.
As I have confessed, some of the problems go back to my time as Chief of the General Staff and Chief of the Defence Staff when the operational guidelines given for such studies as Front Line First and the defence cost studies led to hasty decisions which had significant consequences on the effectiveness of our Armed Forces. The cuts were made before the assumptions could be properly tested.
I now turn to procurement and the forward equipment programme which is, of course, of the greatest importance to the fighting effectiveness of our Armed Forces. I know that at least one noble Lord will discuss that in some detail. I would also like to thank the Minister for what I know he is doing to grip the procurement programme. It is a hugely complex issue and I wish him well. Certainly, it is under-funded and in a muddle. I have a few random points or questions. I hope that the Minister will tell us today what is being done about improving as a matter of the utmost urgency the replacements for some of the vulnerable vehicles that our soldiers have to use in Iraq. In addition, what steps are being taken to improve the security of our helicopters and the air transport fleet?
Moving on from urgent operational requirements, will the Minister give us a progress report on the future rapid effect system vehicle, which was given a very high profile as a vehicle, was critically important to the re-organised, more mobile Army, and was a key element of the Strategic Defence Review in 1998? I could be wrong, but I understand that no prototype has been designed, yet this vehicle is due in service in five years' time—in 2012. In the same year, the Lynx and Puma helicopters are due to come out of service. Both are critical for the Army's and the Royal Air Force's operational effectiveness. What progress is being made on the selection of their replacements?
In addition, what are the Minister's views on the Defence Procurement Agency? Is it on top of its job? Is it properly structured? Is there a strong and powerful enough single service voice, really able to influence the programme at key stages in the design and procurement process? Surely, there can be no doubt in anyone's mind that, given the operational pressure on our Armed Forces, they need a future equipment programme that is effective, credible and delivered on time. That would send an important signal that the Government understand the operational pressure on our Armed Forces and why they need to be given the best possible equipment available. I should make it clear, as I have said before, that some of the problems started before the present Government took over. Again, I thank the Minister for what I know he is doing to grip this huge, complex and difficult area.
My final point concerns the mood and morale of our Armed Forces. They are a very special group of people, for whom I have a great affection. I am beginning to see for different reasons early signs of the sort of mood of unhappiness that developed in the Armed Forces in the late 1970s when, due to a number of reasons but mainly because of very poor pay and what became known as the "Irishman's pay rise", morale was very low. That was when Northern Ireland was going through a particularly difficult stage. I was responsible for running a course which all the captains in the Army attended. There was very serious talk about federations and unions. We are beginning to hear similar talk now.
Before people say that it is a good idea to have a federation or union, we need to analyse why they are saying that. My view is that if you produce a federation or union you will undermine the ethos of our Armed Forces and the chain of command and, very importantly, you will totally distort the relationship that should exist throughout that chain of command. That chain of command includes not just the military but Ministers and civil servants. The latter have a very real duty not only to serve Ministers, but to make sure that they are looking after the interests of our servicemen and servicewomen, Regular and Reservist, and their families. Before any hasty decisions are made, we really need to think through why there is a growing demand for some form of federation or union. I say, solve the problem and the need disappears, as it did in 1980.
In conclusion, I hope that the Minister will understand that I am not trying to score cheap political points. The issues that I am trying to articulate are ones that give me great cause for concern because I believe that our Armed Forces are not being given the assets or budget that they need. I am convinced that the Army is too small and that the Armed Forces overall are significantly under-funded. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest as an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies. I congratulate the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, on initiating this debate and on his wide-ranging and erudite contribution. Of course, as a former CDS he has enormous experience in this field and is greatly respected in your Lordships' House.
Her Majesty's Armed Forces are facing great challenges across the world with immense professionalism, courage and dedication and deserve your Lordships' utmost support. In defending the United Kingdom and its interests and strengthening international peace and stability, the Armed Forces are truly a force for good in the world. I would argue that that is undoubtedly the case in the Balkans, Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan, where we have been engaged in rebuilding democratic states from the ashes if not of totalitarianism then at least of extremely repressive regimes. To cut and run in Iraq and Afghanistan would be a betrayal not only of the peoples concerned, millions of whom have taken part in democratic elections at great risk to themselves, but also of our Armed Forces, who have already sacrificed so much.
I shall focus attention on developments in procurement policy. Our Armed Forces have undoubtedly undergone a significant transformation since the 1998 Strategic Defence Review and subsequent White Papers. A key factor has been a substantial equipment programme to reconfigure our forces underpinned by real and sustained increases in the defence budget from each spending review since 1997. Like the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, in this regard, I congratulate my noble friend on the publication last year of the Defence Industrial Strategy, which he expertly crafted and which has been warmly welcomed by the defence industry.
The DIS recognises the important role in the defence industry in delivering capability but also recognises that the industry must change to meet the evolving demands of our Armed Forces. The DIS outlined several important themes: the complex, technical, challenging high-value systems currently being planned will last for many years, sometimes decades. Industry must therefore change its focus from the design and build of new platforms and systems to the upgrade and support of existing and future equipment. Specifically, the DIS identifies the need to maintain onshore capability in key areas of production, security of supply and support services.
The DIS has been so warmly welcomed in industry circles especially because it outlined the defence capabilities that we need to retain in the UK and how these capabilities must be sustained. It was acknowledged that the MoD and the Government needed to ensure that the UK had the ability to continue to operate our equipment in a way that maintained our technological sovereignty and to protect our national security. In that regard, I also commend my noble friend on how he has insisted that the purchase of the JSF aircraft from the United States must be accompanied by the necessary transfer of technology.
As the DIS has committed the Government to greater transparency over their future indicative spending plans, industry will be able to make important investment and restructuring decisions with greater confidence. Like the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, I note the report in the Financial Times today on a possible merger between the DPA and the DLO, which in my view may herald improved co-operation and coherence in the procurement field. But obviously we shall have to wait for the announcement.
Particularly important is the end to the old boom-and-bust industrial cycle and a recognition that through-life capability will depend on long-term partnering and alliances based on value-for-money solutions for the Armed Forces. Her Majesty's Government have moved away from the predominant view of the 1980s and early 1990s that the UK's manufacturing base did not matter and was somehow inferior to the City and the service sector. I look forward to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Levene of Portsoken, on that issue, given his great experience in this field.
Unbridled competition as an end in itself, with no thought for the need to maintain a strategic defence industrial base, is, mercifully, consigned to history. There need be no conflict between achieving value for money and preserving the technological skills that are vital for this country's national security. I also welcome the Government's recognition that, when it comes to procurement, all sides need to effectively quantify risk and reduce it by placing it where it can be managed most effectively, something not always achieved in the past. The balance of risk between supplier and customer will, it appears, be more evenly spread in the future, even if it means stopping a project before Main Gate.
There has been much discussion in the press of defence procurement cost overruns, but the National Audit Office has shown, with its report on 19 major procurement programmes, that the UK has a relatively good record in what remains a challenging area. The main cause of cost overruns is the complexity of new weapons systems. An advanced fighter such as the US's FA-22, for example, must be manufactured to exact tolerances to preserve its stealth capabilities and run by software that has millions of lines of code.
Britain has done well out of defence research. A recent expert study by Andrew Middleton and Steven Bowns showed that of 10 leading nations, the UK is second only to the US on the military equipment quality curve. The UK's defence equipment is nearly 80 per cent as good as that of the United States, which spends 10 times as much as this country does. The study also showed that if we let up and spent less on defence research, we would rapidly slip down the ranks of defence nations. The Minister has indicated that the MoD's policy on research and technology has yet to be finessed. I hope he continues to give R&T the priority it deserves, and that he will come back to that issue when he winds up this debate.
I further welcome the relaunch of the masters degree in defence administration, the MBA (Defence), to be taught jointly by the Royal Military College of Science and Cranfield University School of Management. It will help to ensure that when MoD staff engage in discussion with defence equipment suppliers, those who have gone on the course will have a better understanding of the financial, economic, marketing and operation management issues that affect the defence sector. It will also enable the MoD to achieve the best value for money for the taxpayer. At the end of the day it will be the task of the MoD and HMG to ensure that our Armed Forces have the kit they need to do the job, on time and at reasonable cost, while at the same time preserving our technological sovereignty and a viable defence manufacturing base, including a thriving aerospace and shipbuilding sector. It is a huge challenge, but one that this Government must meet head on.
My Lords, like every noble Lord I must begin my remarks by thanking the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, for introducing this debate. I declare a modest interest as an adviser to one of the smaller defence manufacturing companies not particularly involved in the matters we are discussing today.
Many years ago I spent some time as a junior Minister at the Ministry of Defence, sitting mostly at the feet of the noble Lord, Lord Levene, as the Minister for Defence Procurement that I then was. I also learnt a great deal from the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Craig and Lord Inge, the latter of whom at the time, as I recall, was a lowly Major-General commanding the No. 2 Infantry Division in York. During the course of his remarks, the noble and gallant Lord referred to the importance of the reserves and the Territorial Army. Indeed, the Royal Auxiliary Air Force had a role in the division he commanded, whose principal role was deploying to Germany in times of war. I remember being briefed in detail on that role by the noble and gallant Lord, and I am grateful to him for that.
I want to confine my brief remarks to some philosophical questions, rather than the detailed procurement matters to which the noble and gallant Lord referred, and to which I dare say the noble Lord, Lord Levene, will refer in a moment.
It has been the policy of successive Governments for as far back as most of us can remember that our defence posture should be one of deterrence. I very much support that philosophy. In the very early days of our deterrent posture immediately after the Second World War, when nuclear weapons were in their infancy, I am told that we had a tripwire policy. Potential aggressors had only to put their foot across the line and we would perhaps deploy nuclear weapons in response.
More recently a much more sophisticated approach of flexible response has been adopted, which I support very strongly. In that context we now have to consider whether we are to continue our deterrent policy, whether we are to continue our independent deterrent policy and whether we are to continue our independent nuclear deterrent policy. I believe that the answer is very strongly yes to all those propositions. That, indeed, is, I believe, the policy of Her Majesty's present Government, which, again, I strongly support; that is, the policy, not the Government.
We are now faced with the prospect of the Trident system coming towards the end of its life. In the offices which I once held I was responsible for at least considering the detail of bringing the Trident system into service. It has served us well and will, indeed, serve us well for a few more years yet. But given the time it takes to devise and procure a replacement, we need to start thinking about that now.
There are at least three alternatives to be considered. The first is an air-launched replacement. I do not believe that any serious commentator now believes that that would be the right solution. It was, indeed, the first of our nuclear deterrents. I understand that long before my time the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, played a very distinguished part in deploying the air-launched nuclear deterrent of those years. Aircraft would be gravely vulnerable in the modern circumstance, even deploying—as I presume they would—some stand-off weapon, and so would their bases. I suggest that it is widely believed that an air launch solution should not be further considered in any detail.
What about a land-based solution? For many years at least part of the United States' deterrent comprised a land-based system, deployed from deep silos in various parts of the United States. It has the advantage that very large missiles can easily be operated from deep land-based silos, but they, too, can be vulnerable in times of tension and in other circumstances. I do not think that anybody now seriously proposes an intercontinental land-based solution. However, land-based solutions are not necessarily confined to intercontinental missiles. Much more recently—indeed, during my time at the Ministry of Defence—the United States deployed land-based cruise missiles in the United Kingdom in response to the new SS20 threat which emerged at about that time. Your Lordships will recall, as I do only too well, the difficulty that surrounded Greenham Common and Molesworth in the deployment of that land-based cruise missile system.
I submit that the final option is the submarine-based system, which we have deployed with such success for 30 years or more now—first, the Polaris system and more recently the Trident system. Both have served us well. There could, indeed, be variations on a submarine-based system. The intercontinental missile system—Trident and Polaris were such systems—could be supplemented, or may even be replaced, by a cruise missile system launched from submarine torpedo tubes. That has some attraction still, but I believe that an intercontinental missile system is what we shall need.
The reason for that is that, with present technology at least, a cruise missile system would need to be effected to be able to deploy not only in the deep waters of the great oceans but much closer to the land masses, and therein lies a risk. The risk is that in all the years that we have been deploying a submarine-based, intercontinental system, we have been able to say—and I hope we can still say—that the system has never been detected or compromised while on patrol. That is a crucially important consideration, and I hope the noble Lord when he replies can confirm that that continues to be the position. It is crucially important that the missile-carrying submarines operate secretly and covertly and are not subject to any risk of detection. If one is considering the possibility of a cruise missile system launched from submarine torpedo tubes, there is a risk that the submarines would have to deploy too close to the continental masses for comfort.
That, I suppose, underlines the regret that I have expressed to your Lordships before that we decided a few years ago to abandon the conventional submarines that we then possessed, the Type 2400. We had just four of those, but they have recently been disposed of to, I understand, another country. It is a pity that we no longer have conventional submarines for operating in comparatively shallow waters. That means that the nuclear submarines presumably have to operate in areas such as the Gulf, and that needs special care.
I summarise by saying that I hope and believe that we will continue to maintain our deterrent posture. I hope and believe that we will continue to maintain our independent nuclear deterrent posture and that it will be a submarine-based, intercontinental missile-based system.
My Lords, inevitably the subject matter today has a difficult, very complex, sombre and serious side. I deliberately use the word "pleasure" in following comprehensively able speeches so far—much more expert than mine—and I express my nervousness at following three distinguished military experts who know a lot about these subjects. I well remember that my very brief brush with the Ministry of Defence was becoming a humble PPS in the Ministry of Defence several weeks after Parliament started after the June 1970 election. Following the correct exhortation of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, that military people should keep politicians at bay, I was briefly given a basement office in the MoD without any windows to underline the humble role of politicians in comparison with the military experts and officials.
I thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, wholeheartedly for his choice of debate and the very dignified way in which he enunciated some of the enormous anxieties about the present situation. There are so many urgent and worrying questions to be dealt with in virtually all aspects of prevailing UK defence policy. It seems ironical after the 1998 review that we have to say that, but because the world has changed so much in such a short time it remains the daunting reality that we now face. I will concentrate briefly on a number of special areas where there are inevitably, in this context, more questions than answers. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, for his comments, which I entirely agree with, on the procurement problems and on the nuclear question, which I will also refer to in the time available. I wholeheartedly support what the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, said—I am sure that it will arise again and again in this debate—about the inadequacy of some of our procurements and the inadequacy and age of some of the equipment that our Armed Forces have to use to deal with their current responsibilities.
I am advised that relations between the European Union and the United States are now much better than they were three years ago. This, too, has an impact on the policy formulation and the defence postures of this country by at least indirect implication, and possibly more than that. However, relations between senior officials and military people in the various European Union defence secretariats and agencies and NATO in Brussels need far more effort before the mutual tensions subside. On the creation of both detailed sub-aspects of policy formation and the grand strategy, we can perhaps agree that UK defence policy is unavoidably and starkly affected by this illegal invasion of Iraq by Britain and America—made legal subsequently, but illegal at the time and with many illegal implications even now. Afghanistan is an ominous and separate problem arising and is causing more and more anxiety.
We now see a total picture where our Armed Forces are sorely stretched beyond all reasonable demands by the foolish geopolitical errors of inexperienced members of the Government, from the Prime Minister downwards. It was bad enough to have to endure the United States, with perhaps one of the most disappointing American Administrations since before the Second World War and the depression, rampaging into Iraq without proper long-term planning and preparation and no sense of intelligent statecraft, let alone the United Kingdom Government doing the same thing for reasons that have still not been properly justified or explained and which look all too much like self-induced delusionism about the defence capabilities of Britain, which we all accept is a very small country and economic base for all such tasks.
Nothing makes our impressive soldiers, sailors and air staff more cynical than when politicians pay them endless fulsome tribute—they do so even when they are tragically killed in a dubious cause—but insist that they still fulfil their tasks with woefully inadequate equipment. I am sad that I have to say that repeatedly. Britain is a small country on its own. It surely behoves us, therefore, to cut our cloth accordingly and not to posture about here, there and everywhere in some quasi-imperialist adventurism for apparent reasons of doubtful prestige.
Not only is the situation in Iraq dire in all aspects, but Afghanistan looks more and more ominous. The so-called war on terror needs to be fought with high technology, intelligence and infiltration, and subversion by using sincere local people, not by the obsession of the United States with bombing from a high altitude and killing mostly civilians in the process, and by hapless US and UK deployment of troops in uniform, who will increasingly be sitting ducks unless they stay in green zone-type fastnesses and never go out into the countryside.
We handled Northern Ireland with much more intelligent solutions. Yes, it was closer to home and thus easier in one sense but, equally, it was much more difficult than the far-flung problems that we now face. Why have we in this country lost the capacity for geo-strategic common sense? We had a great reputation in the past; we need to rebuild it to restore the morale of our Armed Forces. Far from reducing the excessive tasks for those fighting forces and the back-up personnel in all sections, we are adding to them. Morale is seriously affected by that depressing outlook.
The sharp fall in TAVR renewals is an ominous sign, as is the stress counselling for more and more Regulars and the decisions of soldiers and others to leave the forces earlier than expected. We also have the extra European tasks that were featured on page 41 of the Government's January 2006 White Paper. Although those tasks are still in the early planning stages, and therefore at the disposal of officials at a high level and of senior military personnel, gradually greater numbers of military personnel on the ground will be drawn in by them. The whole burden will increase at a time when the pressures are already becoming literally unbearable. Morale and self-confidence in the Armed Forces is at its lowest ebb in the whole post-war period, with the exception of the Suez adventure, which was finally dealt with by what in those days were sensible objections by the United States.
Other noble Lords will cite examples of poor equipment, some of which have been mentioned, and complex mistakes in specifications affecting many units' kit. Our men and women in the forces feel overstretched and overexploited by an irrationally aggressive Government. The Cold War ended, but the Government perhaps decided that there should be new enemies on the horizon. Obviously al-Qaeda is an enemy in the new, modern, difficult-to-grasp sense, as is the Taliban, but where is the serious military threat to us from anywhere in the world in the conventional sense—or the nuclear sense, as events now stand? There may be one in the future, but, right now, where is the threat to the existence of the United Kingdom? The answer is that there is not one.
I hope that we are not now starting to call the Palestinians our enemies due to deplorable and tragic individual terrorist incidents there, which can be used as excuses for further procrastination as regards giving them their own sovereign state. Of course, as we constantly say, Hamas needs to recognise Israel and its security and safety, but Israel too needs to obey international law in all the ways that the UN has repeatedly called for.
Increasingly, surely our role has to be limited to the natural defence of the people here at home—the homeland—in case of future threats, as well as being involved in the international forces of peacekeeping and help to indigenous populations, if they genuinely seek our help. This should be decided more and more in the future, as it already is, through our membership of the various collective treaty agencies. That is the modern trend. We cannot any longer be on our own.
Although it sounds hyperbolic, the European-wide polls held last week and the week before among the public in European Union countries, which suggested genuine anxieties about US actions as a threat to peace, need to be heeded by the British Government, even though they appear to be an unfair attack on the Americans. The USA has not really succeeded in winning over the ordinary citizens of Iraq, Afghanistan and the various countries in Arabia, and the worries about this failure to appeal to those people spill over to us here.
I turn finally to the vexed question looming up at the other end of the scale—the grand strategy; the massive equipment—which is of our nuclear deterrent and the future procurement problems involved in renewing our nuclear arsenal. We start off with the extraordinary news that the by now almost self-appointed next leader of the Labour Party and Government is pledging to find the replacement for Trident, to be commissioned in a few years' time and completed by 2024. Was this a combination of warding off his own sceptical Back-Bench colleagues in another place and anticipating the report of the Defence Committee on this theme? I do not think that it is right for any Government just to make this decision before Parliament and the nation have had a full and lengthy opportunity to consider all the options.
The conclusion, after all, may indeed be that we should maintain our existing capacity or upgrade to the modernised replacement, to which the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, referred in detail. However, the end of the Cold War, if coupled with a successful modernised and renewed non-proliferation treaty, could offer alternative prospects without in any way undermining this nation's safety and future welfare. Would it be a submarine system, as now, or air-launched missiles? The debate is just starting, and much more detailed thought needs to be given to those matters.
However, most worrying of all is the notion that we could still rely totally on the United States for the new system. Although the warhead could be British-made, the so-called independent deterrent would still be something of a continuing myth, except ironically for the French—President Chirac was making strange bellicose noises at the west coast navy base in France six weeks ago.
Are we not, after all, both legally and for practical reasons obliged to honour our commitments to the NPT, both in its present form and perhaps in a new form if that should be necessary? It is astonishing how we fail to perceive the accusation of hypocrisy from such quarters as the non-nuclear powers, who are watching what we and other nuclear countries are up to very carefully, when we have plainly not met all our duties under the treaty but continue to exhort other countries such as Iran, North Korea, India and Pakistan to do the necessary under it.
In fact, the non-proliferation side of the equation has been more successful than what has been achieved by the old nuclear club although, to be fair, the United Kingdom has made some important reductions in its arsenal. But the club members are legally committed under the NPT to move to the elimination of their nuclear arsenals. Russia has some 5,000 warheads, some of which are possibly in a questionable maintenance state; America has more or less the same; and France and the UK together have some 5 per cent of those unnecessarily massive arsenals. The START II and START III negotiations and agreements faltered badly and have not achieved their objectives at all.
In the debate introduced here on
My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble and gallant friend Lord Inge for initiating this debate. I declare an interest as chairman of General Dynamics UK and president—very much an honorary title—of the Defence Manufacturers Association, although it is certainly not my intention to speak on their behalf today. Perhaps a more pertinent interest is a past one: that of Chief of Defence Procurement in the Ministry of Defence for six years from 1985 to 1991.
My noble and gallant friend Lord Inge has spoken most eloquently and with the greatest authority on operational issues. I would like to concentrate on that part of the debate referring to procurement. I do not propose today to indulge in large doses of reminiscences or nostalgia, but I believe that a certain amount of scene setting is necessary.
When I took on the procurement function in the Ministry of Defence in 1985, the Cold War was still at its height, new technology was badly needed and we were passing through a period of badly flawed projects: the Nimrod AEW aircraft, the Spearfish torpedo, the Foxhunter radar—affectionately known as the Blue Circle radar because its non-availability necessitated its replacement in the nose of the Tornado aircraft by a lump of cement—to name but three. These projects were overrunning not only in time, with no end in sight, but also in cost.
Noble Lords may well ask why there was a huge cost overrun when equipment was not being delivered. The answer is both simple and surprising. Under the infamous cost-plus contractual arrangements then in place, there was, astonishingly, no requirement to deliver in order to be paid. In fact, the absurdity of the arrangement was that the greater the cost incurred, the more the contractor would be paid. His costs were met plus a profit on those costs—hence the terminology.
My terms of reference from the then Prime Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, and the then Defence Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, were clear and concise: "Your job is to procure the best possible equipment for the UK Armed Forces on the best possible terms. If you can buy it in the UK, that's fine; if you can't, so be it". That is a very clear instruction, as noble Lords might agree.
The cost-plus system had evolved from the preferred-supplier route. Clearly, it did not work; it had become too preferred and too cosy. Drastic surgery followed—painful but necessary. Over a short period, cost-plus contracts were virtually eliminated, unsuccessful projects were scrapped, large amounts of money on sunk costs were written off, and new contracts were awarded—yes, sometimes in the United States, which at least refrained from commenting, "I told you so".
At the end of my six years, the National Audit Office reported that of a total of 37 projects started in the last five years, each valued in excess of £100 million, the cost to date was just under 1 per cent less than the department had estimated when the orders had first been placed; 28 of the 37 projects were expected to be completed on time; one was ahead of schedule; and, of the rest, only three had delays that were expected to exceed one year and none of those delays would result in additional costs falling on the department.
So then what happened? I drafted what I intended to say today just a few days ago, sitting in the garden of the British ambassador's residence in Budapest. During my term of office, no senior MoD official would even have been allowed to travel to that country, but today Hungary, like so many other of the nations of eastern Europe, is not only a member, with us, of the European Union, but also a member of NATO. After just 15 years, we regard that as the norm, but 15 years ago it would have been considered a fantasy.
There was immediate talk of the peace dividend. Defence budgets were cut, requirements slashed and new projects severely reduced. The result was a shrinking defence industry in Europe, less work to go round, contractors merging or going out of business, and a reduction in competition. That is the first time today that I have mentioned the word "competition"—a word that my critics have used to categorise the essence of my term in office, and which they have often linked with the word "confrontation". I shy away from neither. The only way to break out of the cosy relationship was with the harsh wind of competition; if, at times, that resulted in confrontation, that was inevitable. There are many such issues that are not really party political but present the same problems with the same limited solutions to a Government of any complexion. I mean by that a shrinking market and industry, an increased likelihood of needing to look outside our domestic base and an inherent threat to domestic job prospects and technology.
At this point, I must link back to the real concerns so eloquently expressed by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, and others, many of whom I had the privilege of working with at that time. We must not forget the mission statement that I was given: to equip the Armed Forces with the best possible equipment on the best possible terms. This is the rub that confronts every Administration, whether they wish to state it publicly or not. Most do not. Is the prime purpose of the £10 billion defence procurement budget to equip the Armed Forces or to maintain the domestic industry and its capability?
Well, what is the answer? Maybe it is, "It depends whom you're talking to". That may sound cynical, but I am not sure that it is all that inaccurate. Of course the budget is to be used to equip the Armed Forces but, at the same time, every Government wish to maintain jobs and technology at home, as they should. Is there an answer that meets both requirements to perfection? No, but then there never was. The emphasis that swings backwards and forwards over the years between competition to achieve value for money on the one hand, via "smart procurement"—whatever that meant—and "partnering based on trust", which I think is what we used to call "the preferred-supplier route", on the other, illustrates the dilemma perfectly. But I say in all humility that if you look at the last few NAO reports on the MoD major projects statement, you will see a less satisfactory outturn, year after year, than that which I mentioned earlier. The question that I just posed therefore appears in sharp relief.
The Minister has looked at this through a fresh pair of eyes as a successful industrialist untainted by many years in the defence industry. His approach bears similarities to that of the late Lord Rayner, who was the very first Chief of Defence Procurement and came from the quintessential commercial-cum-partnering stable of Marks & Spencer. The Minister unveiled his defence industrial strategy to us last year. It has a great deal to commend it, but depends in part on the extent to which the industry is willing to be a totally open partner, placing its cards face up on the table.
I have spent many years in this industry, first on one side of the table and then on the other. The industry's leaders are there to deliver successful performance to their shareholders and, of course, good products to their customers. But they are, first and foremost, commercial, entrepreneurial animals, and I say this having been one myself. It would be naive in the extreme to believe that their first thought on waking every day is, "Am I being a true, even-handed and fair partner to my customer?" rather than, "Are the analysts, my shareholders and my board going to be satisfied with this quarter's results?". We must always remember that the purpose of being in business is to run a profitable enterprise. As long as we all recognise that and do not persuade ourselves otherwise, then we stand a chance of a reasonable result. But that means tough bargaining, tough decisions, weighing the options and the judicious use of—if I dare use the word—competition.
Perhaps, though, our best hope today lies in a dramatic change, both in the way in which industry operates and the way in which the Armed Forces work—I know that the Minister is well inclined towards that change. It means the end of the user buying the equipment up front and then using it, maintaining it, fuelling it, loading it and replacing it. It means, as has been mentioned, the blurring, if not perhaps merging, of the procurement with the through-life maintenance, and even some of the non-combat operating functions. That solution was mooted, I remember, in 1984, but was immediately turned down as being out of the question. It is the equivalent of airlines wet-leasing their assets and relying on trusted suppliers to keep them fully operational, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Of course, it can be made to work commercially, and it does so—with the airlines, often with the same suppliers as the Ministry of Defence already uses.
There is one crucial difference, however. Today, most airlines are no longer state-owned and they contract with one or other of the two major world suppliers, conveniently located on either side of the Atlantic, which—so the theory runs—keep each other honest. Maybe if Governments were permitted to act as impartially as this, we, too, could achieve the perfect solution. But until we can get rid of those awful words "juste retour", we will remain adrift from such a solution.
There is no perfect solution to the dilemma that I have outlined. We must ensure that we are constantly alert to steering away those charged with the responsibility of procurement from the Scylla of feather-bedding and overfeeding our industry and the Charybdis of driving them out of business.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, on securing this debate. I shall focus on an area that can have a significant impact on recruitment and retention: Army housing.
In every family, there is often a power behind the throne. If the family is unhappy, the solider will be unhappy and obviously concerned for their welfare. An individual with worries often becomes distracted, and this might affect his operational efficiency on active service in Iraq or Afghanistan.
At the recent conference of the Army Families Federation, which I attended with some 200 wives of soldiers, one of the speakers from the federation highlighted the growing problem regarding Army accommodation:
"Most families feel passionately about their homes, Army families perhaps more than most, since they can sometimes be the only stable thing in their lives. Their husbands or partners might be on operations abroad but their home is their base, the one concrete thing in an otherwise turbulent existence".
Yet, throughout the world, British Army families are still faced with housing problems and increasing pressures. I am informed that Army family housing in Cyprus has lacked proper capital investment for a modernisation programme since 1955. However, I understand that new quarters are now proposed for the spring of next year. Can the Minister confirm that they will be built then?
In the United Kingdom, a shortage of funding has meant that the 10-year upgrade programme promised post-Annington, in 1996, is looking less and less likely to be delivered. Meanwhile, last winter was one of the worst on record for Army housing repairs. There were six-month delays, or often a simple failure to address the problem. While I understand that the management restructuring of the Defence Estates Housing Directorate is ongoing, those trying to access the directorate report nothing but confusion, frustration and a sense of helplessness. That is not how we should treat the families of those who may be called on to make the ultimate sacrifice in the service of the nation.
I am sure that I do not need to look far in this House to come across families who have had problems in the past with Army housing. Members of the AFF can provide personal anecdotes of moving into quarters with no heating, water or even cookers, or into some quarters that had not even been thoroughly cleaned. Repair appointments have not been met and there seems to be a chronic underestimate of the number of houses in poor condition. This can have only a negative impact on morale. Will the Minister undertake to improve the provision of professional advice on housing in information centres?
It is not all doom and gloom on this issue, but there are significant concerns, which are clearly already starting to have an impact on our current retention, let alone new recruitment. The overall plea from the AFF at the conference was to ask the Government to take this opportunity to stop what it sees as an inexorable slide of the provision and maintenance of housing to becoming third or fourth rate.
Members of the AFF are not asking for exceptional treatment; they are asking only that their unique circumstances be taken into consideration. They need a standard of housing that caters for the needs of the modern Army family and provides the cornerstone of their lives. As I have indicated, the conference thoroughly highlighted the great concern and, indeed, anger among many Army families. It was a pity that the Minister, having made his speech, dashed out without hearing any of the conference. I hope that the Minister in this House will take some time in his reply to inform the House what assessment his department has made of the standard of current housing for service families, what the estimated costs are to address the problems and whether Her Majesty's Government have any plans to do just that.
In the current climate and circumstances, one cannot expect young Army families to be able to afford to buy their own home, even though they can expect to be less constantly moving than in the past. We should surely expect the Armed Forces to be able to provide decent housing, if only as an investment in their most important asset—the service men and women and their families.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, and congratulate him on opening this debate so well. I shall concentrate on a major topical procurement issue, following the interesting contributions of the noble Lords, Lord Trefgarne and Lord Dykes. Last week, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer commented about the future of the nuclear deterrent. During Prime Minister's Questions, the Prime Minister said,
"the decision will have to be taken in this Parliament".—[Hansard, Commons, 21/6/06; col. 1315.]
So both of them have reaffirmed their support for continuing our nuclear capability.
Inevitably, our present system will, with the passage of time, reach a stage when its reliability can no longer be guaranteed. Although that is by no means imminent, long lead times mean that some decisions must be made quite soon if there is to be no break in capability. There are many aspects to consider before reaching such decisions. I can touch on only some of them.
The first—it is obviously the key issue—is whether this country needs such a capability in future. Looking 30, 40 or more years ahead, it is impossible to forecast any set of circumstances in which the Government of the day would find such a potent capability vital. Trident was adopted in the early 1980s when our defence policy was concentrated on NATO and Europe. We did not foresee the end of the Cold War less than a decade away or our subsequent involvement in large-scale expeditionary warfare thousands of miles from these shores. The deterrent posture of the Cold War has little relevance today because changes in deployment and operation have been necessary. I cannot contemplate using nuclear weapons against a terrorist or largely asymmetric threat. If they could not be used, their deterrent effect is non-existent. Their use, or threat of use, must be for situations where national security is mortally threatened.
I recall discussions from as long ago as 1989 with my then opposite number in the United States, Admiral Crowe, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in which his firmly stated position was that any decision to use US nuclear weapons would be confined to dealing with a major threat to the security of the United States itself. Whatever the NATO rubric of an attack on one being deemed an attack on all, that would not, he said, guarantee the US using nuclear weapons on behalf of others in NATO, even the UK. Only if the threat was to the United States itself would their use be contemplated.
Post Cold War, it is highly unlikely that the Crowe position on the use of US nuclear weapons will have changed. To rely on another nuclear-capable country, no matter how friendly, to come to our rescue by threatening, let alone using, nuclear force on our behalf is not realistic. If the threat we faced were seen as mortal to our security and way of life, only a national deterrent capability would be credible, and then only if underwritten by a realistic determination to be prepared to use it. It would also lack credibility to rely solely on a nuclear capability not backed by other military resources. Conventional military strength is an important part of a deterrent or counterforce posture, as are other non-military threats or actions in achieving a desired outcome. Conventional forces must therefore be maintained and, indeed, strengthened from today's levels that have been cut too far. Our conventional strength is now tied to a defence planning assumption that we would not become involved in major confrontation or conflict without strong allies. This dichotomy between major action only with allies and unilateral nuclear action if we face mortal danger nationally needs some explanation or elaboration that I hope Her Majesty's Government will provide.
Another consideration about retaining a national nuclear capability is the degree to which it is seen and recognised to be independent. At the use, or threat-of-use, end, given the right security of communication, capability and national control is there. Reliance on others and their facilities beyond our shores for supply, maintenance, modification or repair has been cited as reasons for denying that Her Majesty's Government have true independence. But it is not credible to argue that no operational capability will be available, even when relying on offshore support, if Her Majesty's Government were ever to have to consider its use. The present combination of nationally provided warheads on US missiles does not deny Her Majesty's Government the possibility of independent use.
Nevertheless, we must revisit the arguments that led to the adoption of the current procurement and support arrangements for Trident. Will the United States' view about this country retaining a nuclear capability with major assistance from it mesh with its revised global stance and ambitions? I believe that it will, although our recent experience over access to technology in the joint strike fighter that we are building with the Americans has not been a happy one.
A further consideration is the invulnerability of the nuclear capability to pre-emptive attack and destruction. Until there is a breakthrough in underwater detection, the submarine and missile combination provides a high degree of protection and a high assurance that the capability would be available for use if necessary even if a surprise attack on it were ever attempted or contemplated.
Less well protected would be land-based weapons or weapons relying on launch from aircraft platforms. There is potential scope for trading security from sabotage or attack with the relative lower cost of less invulnerable systems. This too must be examined. While a nuclear weapon has an awesome capability, it is in truth even more a political rather than a military weapon. So the politics of possession must also be weighed in the balance.
The position of the United Kingdom in the United Nations and on the Security Council may in future depend on this country remaining in the nuclear nations' club. I leave it to others to weigh this argument, but it should not be overlooked in the process of the decision taking. No Act of Parliament is required for the Government to proceed to a replacement system. But, as Mr Straw said last Thursday in another place:
"Decisions on Trident's replacement have yet to be taken. When they have been taken, they will be put to Parliament in a White Paper. I cannot anticipate at this stage the most appropriate form of debate, but it will be in a form that shows proper respect for the House".—[Hansard, Commons, 22/6/06; col. 1468.]
I am certain that your Lordships would also insist on a debate in this House.
I believe that the Government are right in principle to maintain an independent nuclear capability as insurance for the unforeseens and for the leverage it can provide. But it should be backed by a better level of conventional capability than we can deploy today. What form our nuclear capability should take needs much further knowledge-based discussion than has so far been possible in public.
Noble Lords will have noted from Mr Straw's statement that the Government intend to reach decisions first, ahead of informed debate; that is to announce and defend, in the classic way adopted by all past governments on this issue. Perhaps the Minister would like to confirm this for the House.
My Lords, I have a remarkably insecure feeling being sandwiched between two noble and gallant Lords. I was told that when you feel insecure you should ask questions; do not say anything, just ask yourself questions and see if you can get the answers. I begin with the classic questions "How?", "What?", "Who?", "When?" and "Where?". I am trying to apply them to the debate today.
When did we move from the Ministry of War to the Ministry of Defence? Do you ever go to war these days? If so, are you going to defend interests, and, if so, whose interests? You ask yourself, "Who and what are we seeking to defend from who and what?". If you add in "Where?" life becomes much easier because of course we are going to be worldwide. The English language is the most important language. Three billion speak it as their first, second or third language or are learning it. We still have the Commonwealth, which occupies about 20 to 25 per cent of the surface of the Earth, and Her Majesty the Queen is often head of state. I was told that the Navy has the capability to fight a war further afield than anyone else—maybe 8,000 miles away from our shores.
In preparing for this debate, I tried to think of what we are seeking to defend. Historically, we seek to defend our trade and free passage on the high seas or wherever in the world. Now I wonder when we went into Kosovo what we were seeking to defend. When we went to war with Iraq—we did go to war; and I will always defend the right of a Prime Minister of a country such as ours to go to war—what were we seeking to defend? When we go into Afghanistan, or wherever else in the world, what are we seeking to defend? Then, how long are we going to stay there?
If I ask where the Calcutta Cup came from, your Lordships will automatically assume that it came from Calcutta. It did; it came from Calcutta when the British Army used to play rugby at the Ballygunge Cricket Club against the Scots. When the Scots were not enough, the Army played against the Irish and the Welsh as well. That meant that in order to develop a cricket and rugby team you had to have an Army force there for a long period of time. About the same time the Army moved to play rugby in Afghanistan, which meant the troops were there for a long time. Your Lordships will remember too that the Kandahar club, which moved to Wengen when they first started downhill racing, came from when the British Army skied in Kandahar.
It was said that we have been in Kosovo for 17 years. I worry that we might well find that we are in Afghanistan for 17 years. I know that country quite well from my days when I chaired the Government's Middle East trade committee. I know Iraq for the same reason. I also know that these countries to some extent would like us to stay. For the Afghanis, it is a wonderful situation. The warlords used to fight each other and burn each other's crops. That was the punishment and the competition. Now their crops are defended by other armies and the drug pattern begins and grows on.
For part of my life I had to deal with alternative crops for what we would call "the weed of wisdom", or ganga. That was extraordinarily difficult to advance. With greenhouses you might possibly be able to get flowers, fruit or vegetables, but this pattern of trade still followed. On flowers—I must not mention the countries—we found a major market for carnations which went into Miami extraordinarily cheaply. The whole crop was bought. They found a new way to preserve these flowers with a white substance which would absorb the moisture so that they could be distributed throughout the United States, and the white substance was cocaine. So if the Armed Forces are trying to defend drug production that is the wrong thing to do. It is another matter if they are there to keep peace, but it requires a considerable effort.
In order to have the best Armed Forces in the world, which I believe we have, they must have the best equipment in the world. Of that there is no doubt. I had a word with some of my friends in the Health and Safety Executive. I asked what they would do if asked to write a report on the health and safety of the Armed Forces in the countries of the world. It is pretty frightening because you are not safe unless you have good equipment, and if the equipment does not match up to the quality of your people then something must be done about it. The relative cost is not that high. To me that should be a great priority. The facilities should be available to our Armed Forces.
On capital equipment, it seems to me that at the moment the more expensive a bit of kit is, the more vulnerable it is to terrorist activity. Even an aircraft carrier now has to be defended by a vast fleet of ships if it is to go about its business. I recall during the Trafalgar Day celebrations it was once suggested that maybe an American carrier would come to the Solent. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, will remember this. I was told that, no, they had to have a very large cordon sanitaire around them, so they could not be in English waters because they would not necessarily be safe. As regards what might be able to bring down an Apache helicopter, I have even seen proposals and suggestions that a gaucho in America could bring one down with a bolero. So we have to say that our kit, unless it is expensive and part of a large team, is not safe.
On fighting in the hills of Afghanistan or wherever, it is as well possibly to think of the First World War and how many people survived bombardments by being underground. I think that it is an extraordinarily difficult job.
As regards the technologies and things that we can now find to determine where the enemy is, I turn to a small role I have as secretary of the Parliamentary Space Committee. I was not looking forward to spending three full days in the Senate in Brussels listening to people presenting the latest space technology, but I found that the development projections for satellites were extraordinarily interesting. They are the future for determining where an enemy is. The surveillance that comes from some of the newer kit is quite outstanding. So I asked: "How many satellites are there in space at the moment?". No one could tell me. They could tell me that there were 92,000 bits of metal floating around that might cause danger to someone at some time in the future. So I said that I had heard the pretty reasonable proposal that there were 573 and everyone said, "Yes, that is probably about right". I had actually made up that proposal myself. Then I wanted to know how many military satellites there were, what were their purpose and how long they would be up there for. They said that they could do almost anything in the world, but then I realised that it was not so long ago that two bright entrepreneurs decided that they would try to find the source of the Nile. Unfortunately, there was a death due to tribalism in Uganda, but none of the satellites could find the source of the Nile.
Having spent some time considering developments, I realised that we should probably be spending more on satellite communication. Just out of interest, because, as your Lordships may know, we have Skynet 5 and Paradigm, which enable the Armed Forces to communicate with their families, I spoke to them yesterday. I said, "Can I say something about this?". They said, "We must check with the MoD first, because it is our client and might be upset". So perhaps the Minister might say something about Skynet 5 and our forces' ability to communicate. As that communication improves—it will be only a few years before, with a hand-held piece of metal with a screen on it, we will be able to communicate worldwide without wires—we should devote a little more attention to space.
Our space budget is half that of Italy, which is half that of Germany, which is half that of France. I do not know as much as I would like about this, but I asked: "Is it possible to disable a satellite?" They said, "Probably; what would you suggest?". I said, "We used to have anti-radar stuff during the war. We dropped silver paper out of aeroplanes to destroy signals. Would it be possible to drop silver paper or metallic sand around satellites?". The answer was yes. Have we given some thought to what happens if satellites are disabled and what is their role in future?
I am not sure where we go from here. We have 20,000 troops in Germany, 8,000 in Iraq and 1,500 in Afghanistan. If we need to be able to deploy more, we know that we have that capability. We know that we will have new aircraft carriers but, to me, above all else, we must equip our forces here and abroad to the highest standards—at least as high as their capabilities.
My Lords, I, too, welcome this debate and the opportunity to raise further the profile of our Armed Forces. I recognise that such an opportunity occurred last week in the Second Reading of the Armed Forces Bill, but it is good to be able to reflect more specifically on the operational tempo that our sailors, soldiers and airmen are being asked to sustain, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Attention on our Armed Forces today tends, not unreasonably, to be focused on the high-profile land operations in those two theatres, but myriad other defence tasks are being done, not least by maritime and air units in support of the Middle East operations. I mention for example the regeneration of the Iraqi Navy by the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines in Umm Qasr, which receives little if any publicity but is a real success story.
Wherever one looks, our servicemen and servicewomen are unquestionably busy. In particular, their task in the difficult Middle East environment in which they are operating—both in terms of weather and the nature of opposition forces—is undoubtedly made tougher by the fact that they find themselves on the one hand pitted against hostile elements who have no concept of playing by any sort of rules and, on the other, by a sometimes hostile British media if our people are not perceived to be obeying every letter of the law and beyond. All that in a campaign that does not enjoy popular support.
What sustains our service people? It is undoubtedly their training, their professionalism and their esprit de corps and, in theory, the knowledge that their well-being and their interests are being properly safeguarded back home.
I say "in theory" because practice does not always bear that out, which brings me on to resources. On that point that you will see a weariness and scepticism in the eyes of those on the front line because they know that the front line today is underfunded and no amount of calming "lines to take" given to Ministers cuts any ice with those in operational units who look at their broken kit and know that it will not be repaired because the supply line is bankrupt.
The fact is that, in the round, our Armed Forces are operating well above the level expected and resourced for under defence planning assumptions. Lack of adequate funding is hurting. The Minister will no doubt claim how well the Armed Forces are doing under this Government, but we all know that defence spending has fallen from 2.6 per cent to 2.2 per cent of GDP in the last few years—no doubt, to an extent, a victim of the Ministry of Defence's own success at delivering at the front end, being a department delivering substantial efficiencies and providing best practice across government—unlike some other government departments, where failure is rewarded with more money.
On a strategic level, it is that lack of money for running and operational costs, primarily in the support area, that no doubt lay behind the ill-advised decision to slash the destroyer/frigate force by 20 per cent a couple of years ago. It is ill-advised because the destroyer/frigate is the workhorse of the fleet and its deployability, reach and endurance provides a keystone to our defence policy and its expeditionary and global aspirations. Or it should do, but our force is spread too thinly—thinner still if we consider those who are not at the defence planning assumption required states of readiness. I shall say more about that in a minute. How can one ship sensibly manage to patrol the Caribbean, the west coast of Africa and the south Atlantic?
On the subject of the destroyer/frigate force, and looking to the future procurement programme, what can the Minister tell us about the total number of Type 45 destroyers that we are to have and when? Also, can he say whether there is sufficient provision in the programme for an orderly replacement of the Type 23 frigates, whose end-of-life dates are now well inside the planning horizon? I really hope that it is understood that we are standing into danger if we continue to fail to provide a capable escort force commensurate with our foreign and defence policy aims.
The Minister may want to reflect on how the dwindling naval force levels of this nation, with its great maritime reputation, will be perceived on the world stage, where there is now a serious debate about the need for a multinational, multidisciplinary, civil/military 1,000-ship navy to deal with the global problems of maritime security and to provide the geographical spread of effort that the problem demands.
I return to underfunding, an effect of which is especially noticeable in the shortage of cash to support the front line on a day-to-day basis. If the Minister does not accept this, perhaps he can explain why, for example, the Royal Navy has now undergone two years of reduced support. By the way, that is a policy under which, if you are broken you don't get fixed unless you are designated to be at the very highest level of readiness. There have been two years of reduced support period in an attempt to bring down the cost of front-line support. Recovery from that institutionalised unreadiness and regeneration from it will be a long-term process, the full implications of which are not yet fully understood.
Meanwhile, the shortage of money to support the fleet means that a significant number of ships are not at their required defence planning assumption states of readinesss. That is bad for fighting effectiveness because ships' companies are not properly trained because their equipment is either not there or not working for them to train on. It is also bad for morale because our professional sailors take no joy from knowing that they are under-trained—which, incidentally, can hold up their promotion—and because it is demotivating to be in a unit that cannot do what it is designed to do. It is further demotivating for technicians when they see their working kit being stripped out to service a higher priority unit—appropriately known as "store robbing". I should stress that there are parallel examples in the Army and Air Force.
Resourcing of the future procurement programme is equally shaky—and that is before the outcome of spending round 2007 starts to fall round our ears. The Minister will no doubt not wish to comment on last week's Evening Standard article claiming that the Treasury is warning that the defence budget will have to be cut to the tune of £1 billion. It would be very nice to hear him say that it is not true.
On the other hand, it was certainly most encouraging to hear the Chancellor of the Exchequer extolling the virtues of defence in promoting stability in his speech at the Mansion House last week as being,
"strong in defence and fighting terrorism, upholding NATO, supporting our Armed Forces at home and abroad, and retaining our independent nuclear deterrent".
What a pity such stirring words are not carried over to resourcing properly our Armed Forces, which provide such a major contribution to the global stability that he so rightly craves. Perhaps the Minister will say how the Chancellor of the Exchequer's sentiments square with the statements purported to have come from the Treasury, which I have just mentioned.
En passant, can the Minister reassure the House that the money for our independent deterrent, which the Chancellor has implied will be replaced, will not be taken from the already underfunded future equipment programme? Were that to happen, another major programme would have to be cancelled to compensate. That in turn would seriously compromise, if not derail, the viability of our defence policy.
Given the high level of commitments that we are experiencing, it is important more than ever to give attention to sustaining morale—something to which my noble and gallant friend has already alluded. I shall cover just one aspect of that. Morale is fed as much by external as by internal publicity, and the external publicity—public relations at the Ministry of Defence—is bad. Why? I believe it is to no small extent due to the decision taken by the Secretary of State for Defence two years ago to disband the posts of the directors of public relations—or corporate communications, to use the then vernacular. Will the Minister say whether these posts are to be reinstated so that we can regain the confidence of our service people that their spokesman, who manages the defence and media interface, knows what he is talking about? Incidentally, the move would also be thoroughly welcomed by responsible journalists, who would not have as interlocutor a civil servant whose aim is to protect the interests of Ministers and not those of our servicemen, even if such an interlocutor knew what he was talking about.
The servicemen and servicewomen are doing their best for their country. You cannot do better than put yourself in harm's way, as our soldiers, sailors and airmen are regularly required to do. I am afraid that neither they nor I can detect that the Government are matching their commitment to the budget given to defence.
My Lords, we have now heard three former Chiefs of the Defence Staff give very sombre warnings, not only about future procurement but, in a particularly interesting speech on Afghanistan given by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, about the strategic evaluation of the situation in that particularly vexed and difficult country. I greatly regret that we are not having before the Summer Recess a full debate on the strategic implications on Iraq and Afghanistan. The Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Garden, was awaited avidly by many of us on these Benches who wanted to contribute, but I gather that we can go wider in this debate. I certainly intend to do so.
As we have heard from those three former Chiefs of the Defence Staff, using words which they weighed carefully, we face considerable—I would say unprecedented—levels of anxiety in the Navy, the Army and the Air Force. More or less every month, detailed reports in books—the most recent one was Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq—and many different analyses emerge about the extraordinary incompetence that has been demonstrated in the operation in Iraq. You have to go back to Gallipoli and the Dardanelles to find incompetence perceived as such a major factor in military operations.
I do not think we can continue under the present situation. We have a new Leader of the Opposition, who is not committed, as in the past, and who can look afresh at these issues, and we have a new leader of the Liberal Democrats, who can look at these questions. There is now an overriding case to establish an inquiry that is very similar to the Dardanelles Commission. Noble Lords will remember that that commission was established in 1915 in wartime. It met in private for reasons of national security, but also because it wanted to talk to serving officers. It had on it two Members of the House of Lords, four Members of the House of Commons, an admiral and a general. It was in fact chaired by an admiral, although that would not be appropriate in the present circumstances. It would be better if it were chaired by a politician—one from the governing party.
We have a very well equipped person—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg—who would make an excellent chairman. He is well known to the Prime Minister and the likely future Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and is a man of robust independence and intelligence with a legal framework. That commission should be charged with looking into the machinery of government in the conduct of the operations in Afghanistan and in Iraq from 2001 to the time when it may make its reports. I would expect it to sit predominantly, perhaps wholly, in private. As with the Dardanelles Commission, we are in many senses in a time of war, and it is not easy for serving officers to give evidence. Indeed, I think it is undesirable to give evidence in public in such circumstances. It is not easy even for people who have recently retired to speak out publicly while they know that what they say could be used against forces operating in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. They wish to say nothing to damage morale or to call into question the sacrifices already made by brave personnel who have either lost their lives or who have been very seriously injured.
I speak as someone who believed, and still believes, that it was right to put forces into Afghanistan. I believed that it was right to invade Iraq, and I still believe that it is right to keep our forces in Iraq. I am very against some artificial exit strategy being devised. There will come a time when the Iraqi Government will ask us to leave Iraq, I hope because of success, or we may conclude that our presence is no longer making a better contribution and that we are doing more harm than good. I hope we do not reach that stage.
In Afghanistan, we face horrendous problems. In practically no other country in the world is it harder to conduct a military operation successfully. History has shown us that painfully. It is where the British Empire arguably met its match many years ago, and where the Russian empire folded and collapsed in living memory. In those operations, which I believe, as I have said, should be conducted, it must be said, with some reluctance, that there is a massive loss of confidence in our capacity to handle these operations among many of the people who supported them in the first place and continue to support them. We need to be satisfied that the machinery of government that operates is the very best. If, in the First World War, it was possible for the first report of the Dardanelles Commission to focus on the Committee of Imperial Defence, the War Council and the very sensitive issue of what advice should come from senior admirals and generals—and now, of course, from Air Force officers—to the war Cabinet, why would such a thing not be possible now? Indeed, the question now is: why was a war Cabinet not established? It is also a time when we need to question very seriously the new machinery of government. In 2001, after the flush of electoral victory, with absolutely no independent objective study whatever, the Prime Minister introduced two Cabinet secretariats—one dealing with the European Union and the other dealing with the military and security question—inside No. 10, no longer serving the entire Cabinet, and breaking up the traditional structure of the Cabinet secretariat serving the Cabinet as a whole.
It appears that there has been not the slightest change in the Prime Minister's commitment to continuing with this machinery, despite the extraordinary record of incompetence. Just take one issue; namely, the Security Council debate on the second resolution. It is no good blaming President Bush or Secretary of State Colin Powell for that decision. They did not want a second resolution. At one stage, the French Government did not want a second resolution and were prepared to compromise. It was the British that went through to that and made the greatest miscalculation of the weighing of votes and opinions in the Security Council since the Suez crisis.
We need to have more confidence in the machinery—the independent evaluation of the UN department in the Foreign Office—about what is happening in the Security Council, not just from New York, but from capitals, coming through the Foreign Secretary to the Cabinet to tell them how British interests can best be defended. This is not a judgment that can be taken solely in No. 10 with these secretariats, however well manned, without the full backing of the department of state of the Foreign Office. We need to know a lot more about how the Ministry of Defence also contributes to this debate.
The resources question is vital. It cannot be ignored, but how is this independent advice brought and to whom does it go? I can think of no other occasion—certainly since the First World War—where the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Deputy Prime Minister, to say but two, have not been members of a war Cabinet which would have the independent advice of the chiefs in the Ministry of Defence; the full flow of information coming back from the field from commanders; the full flow of information from a Foreign Secretary who was reporting not just to the Prime Minister but to the Cabinet and the war Cabinet. The issues should be evaluated and the decisions taken in a properly balanced way with documents and minutes, and reported back from the war Cabinet to the full Cabinet.
The absence of those things is no longer a minor issue. It is a deeply serious question. We have lost the lives of many servicemen during these operations already. Sadly, we will lose more. We in Parliament in this House of Lords and in the House of Commons have a responsibility. It is about time that we exercised it. I am extremely concerned about the Government's response to the Public Administration Select Committee's report, Government By Inquiry. Paragraph 215, recommends that,
"in future inquiries into the conduct and actions of government should exercise their authority through the legitimacy of Parliament in the form of a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry composed of parliamentarians and others, rather than by the exercise of the prerogative power of the Executive".
Not perhaps surprisingly, the Government disagree with the committee's view that it is constitutionally less satisfactory for the Prime Minister to establish a committee of Privy Counsellors to address particular situations that may arise. It is time that majority, which exists in this House and in the House of Commons, called the Government to account, not in a spirit of vindictiveness or wanting to provide day-by-day headlines in public inquiries, but in a spirit of trying to find the best machinery for operating, particularly outside NATO. When we operate within NATO we know the machinery of government. We know the structures. We have worked with them for many decades. When we work in multilateral organisations, or bilaterally with the United States, different considerations apply. We need an independent look at that machinery of government for handling those difficult operations.
I have spoken long enough. I say only this: I believe that there is no more important issue now for restoring morale in the services than for the Parliament of this country to assert its rights over the Executive and establish that inquiry, even though it is likely to be fought tooth and nail by the Prime Minister.
My Lords, our indebtedness to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, is shown by the length of the list of speakers today. If noble Lords were to place me on the political spectrum, I imagine that many would classify me as green and dripping—in other words, as a weedy wet. But in at least one respect, noble Lords would be wrong. In matters to do with the Armed Forces, I find myself in an entirely different area of the political spectrum. I suspect that that is to do with my generation and my age. I grew up during the war, when my elders all went off to fight. I watched the Battle of Britain and lived within sight of London burning. I am deeply concerned that we should have effective Armed Forces and that we should look after them properly. In my volume of Other Men's Flowers, no poem resonates more than Dorothy L Sayer's poem, published in the Times in 1940, "Thank God now for an English war".
It is because I feel deeply that I am very worried, as many of your Lordships undoubtedly are, about the present situation. Our Armed Forces are seriously under strength, recruiting figures are low, and there appears to be a malaise felt or at least recognised by all who care for these matters. There are no doubt all sorts of minor points which can be put right, but it seems that the root of the matter is very basic. The population of this country is very dubious about the ends to which these forces are being deployed.
In 1939, we knew that a tyrant was taking over Europe and that our liberties were in danger. The doubts of Munich disappeared when we heard the broadcast which told us that we were at war. I heard that broadcast within a mile of the house in Bletchley where as much as anywhere the war was won. Our men and women willingly went out to fight, secure in the knowledge that their country was wholeheartedly behind them.
Since 1945, we have on the whole been able to feel that in military matters we have been doing our duty. In Malaysia, we were protecting a population for which we were to a large extent responsible. In the Falklands, that was also the immediate task, although some of us felt that we should never have been landed in such a situation in the first place.
However, two international situations in which our forces have been deployed in my lifetime seem to have a bearing on our situation today. Korea was a very nasty war—not that any wars are nice—where our forces fought with great courage, secure in the knowledge that their efforts were legitimate. We believed that we had moved on from the world in which we went to war because we thought that it was right to fight, to a world where we had shared responsibility with an international body—the United Nations Organisation. We fought the Korean War under that banner.
The other situation, which has been mentioned once or twice in this debate, was that of Suez, where we appeared to have reverted to the moral quagmire of the Boer War and were able only slightly to salve our consciences by the belief that our Prime Minister had been off his chump when we did it.
If those are two serious types of national behaviour, as I believe that they are, there can be little doubt about which of them we find ourselves closest to today. We have appointed ourselves the world's policeman or, if the USA is the world's policeman, we have appointed ourselves as one of the new kind of peace aides you see about. But we have neglected to ask the world whether it wants us in that role. Many of our fellow citizens, among which I number the whole of my party, believe that the Iraq war is illegal and much more akin to Suez than to Korea. After all, the UN has not sanctioned it, nor has our national Parliament. If that is so, it is little wonder that recruitment is not high, that various forms of behaviour in the theatre of war are beginning to seem morally and even legally dubious, and that morale—not of the men in the line, but of the whole network of support echelons reaching back to ourselves in this building—is low.
The defence forces of this country are one of our most precious heritages. There is no doubt whatever that we in this Parliament value them intensely. That being so, we should not allow them to be deployed in dubious causes, no matter how speciously those causes are argued. This is not an English war, it is an American imperial adventure; and we should not be lending—or giving, since some of them will not come back—our men and women to it, no matter how readily and valiantly they go.
My Lords, I thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, most warmly for the opportunity to participate in this much-needed debate. I sympathise with the Minister, who until a few moments ago found himself the sole representative of his party on its Benches in this Chamber today. I hope that that does not reflect its interest in the subject matter. I declare an interest as a recent commanding officer of a Territorial regiment, and again I thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, for his kind comments about the Reserves, which I echo. After the interventions of several noble and gallant Lords who have dealt so wisely with these issues, along with the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Owen, who considered these matters at the diplomatic and strategic levels—and to whom we all listened with great interest—it is for me to take things back to a more mundane level; that of a commanding officer who is operating at what might be called the coalface of the military.
Let me start with manpower. This is an area where commitments are particularly tight in what are called the "operational pinch points"; these are specialists such as those who are medically qualified, engineers and certain logistic trades. The infantry is also feeling the pinch. The 1st Battalion the Staffordshire Regiment is in the course of a break of only 12 months between tours in Iraq, of which two months are being spent in Canada, training hard. The 1st Battalion the Light Infantry is currently on its third tour in Iraq in three years. These are merely examples. It is well known that the Army is being forced to exceed the level of commitment in the defence planning assumptions, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, mentioned, and it will continue to exceed those assumptions until at least the end of 2007.
Now we are galloping off to Afghanistan. Whether or not one agrees with what ISAF has been tasked to do there, which is a matter for another debate, it must be observed that we are sending a relatively small number of troops to do a massive job. Comparing the number of troops involved to those deployed in similar scale operations in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles or in Kosovo does not make pretty reading. Afghanistan is at least as dangerous as either of those and our area of responsibility is large, with very porous borders. The Government bear a heavy responsibility.
Turning to recruitment and retention, I would make the observation that to retain a trained soldier in whom the Army has invested both training and experience must be more efficient, all other things being equal, than recruiting a new one. I understand we are paying a bounty to soldiers to recruit their friends, yet inexplicably we pay no danger money to our troops deployed on dangerous missions in inhospitable places. It is not that Iraq is a UN deployment, of course, but as an example, other countries pass on to their soldiers the payment their country receives from the UN for UN deployments, yet our soldiers do not receive the equivalent payment, which is pocketed by the Treasury. It is hardly surprising that so many of them leave, as indeed have several from my former regiment, who are now working for private security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan for up to five times their Army pay.
All Army officers are taught that you deploy your Reserve only when you can do it decisively to turn the battle in your favour, or if it will enable you to save your force from what would otherwise be certain defeat. You never do it as a matter of routine. But we now expect routinely to deploy our Reserves. Noble Lords will be aware of how many TA soldiers are currently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and indeed that number, although significant, is well down on the peak figure reached when the Government ordered the compulsory deployment of TA soldiers; people who have real jobs supporting the economy here and who were put at risk by adventuring in the Middle East because of inadequate funding of Regular Forces.
While there are many areas where equipment is below an adequate level, let me focus on just a couple of them. The size of the current fleet of battlefield helicopters was predicated on the defence planning assumptions, which did not envisage two concurrent operations at medium scale; but that is where we now find ourselves, being in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The fleet is therefore split between the two theatres, leading to resultant shortages and thus putting soldiers' lives at considerably greater risk than they would have been had the Government rationed themselves, as they said they intended, to one war at a time.
As regards mine-protected vehicles, in the House earlier this month the Minister said, among other things, that:
"The Snatch Land Rover provides us with the mobility and level of protection that we need.
We had 14 RG-31s in Bosnia, which we took out of service some time ago due to difficulties with maintenance. We have looked at the RG-31 alongside a number of alternatives for our current fleet and concluded that the size and profile did not meet our needs".—[Hansard, 12/6/06; col. 2.]
Perhaps the Minister could comment on the suggestion made in the press recently that we actually used Mambas in Bosnia, a much earlier and more primitive version. While I accept that the RG-31 is not perfect, being more difficult to dismount from, especially for the commander, wider than the Land Rover and designed primarily to withstand buried mines rather than mines fired from the side, nevertheless in the 21st century almost anything would be better than the Land Rover. The Americans are said to be using RG-31s to considerable effect in their area of responsibility. As a matter of interest, they are also built by a British-owned firm. Even if the Snatch Land Rover did do an adequate job, which unfortunately it cannot against mines, with the operational requirement for deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, there are only about two dozen remaining in the UK for reserve and training for future battle groups to prepare for a deployment.
The issue of married quarters was the focus for discussion at the Army Families Federation conference on Thursday last week, which I believe the Minister attended. The quality of married quarters has deteriorated dramatically through lack of funding over the past few years. For the peace of mind of the servicemen deployed on operations, support for the family must be effective. In terms of housing, sadly it is widely recognised not to be so.
What a depressing tale this all is, yet the Government seem either unaware or not prepared to do anything about it. At the root of all these problems is funding. The Armed Forces are simply not being funded to a sufficient level to implement the Government's aspirations to stride the world stage. The result is that the Government find it easiest to realise savings in the frontline, both in manning and equipment, thus having a direct and adverse impact on the safety, capability and morale of our fighting soldiers. By way of conclusion, I would say that all of this is compounded by further unnecessary attacks on morale such as the several recent and ongoing legal cases and now the undermining of the position of the commanding officer and, through him, of the regimental system, and therefore directly the confidence of our soldiers, to which several noble Lords and I referred in the recent Second Reading of the Armed Forces Bill.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble and gallant friend Lord Inge for initiating this debate. I feel rather nervous because I am taking quite a narrow view of a particular subject; the Minister will be aware of this because I wrote to him earlier about it. I should declare my interests. I am, first, a member of the National Employers Advisory Board for the Reserves of the Armed Forces. Secondly, I am honorary colonel of a TA battalion.
While in Basra recently, I was struck by the similarity of certain operations to those that we carried out in Northern Ireland. But what really made an impression was the obviously low numbers of helicopters—less than half the maximum of 72 that we had in Northern Ireland. I have been involved in anti-terrorist operations in Northern Ireland for the past 30 years or so, and I saw some interesting parallels.
In Basra, in the multinational force area, insurgents are not normally suicidal. However, they have taken IRA technology—which is what it was—directly off the shelf. Suffice it to say, it is a device that noble Lords may have seen in the newspapers last week. It is called a PIR RC IED—a passive infrared radio-controlled improvised explosive device. It is almost certainly manufactured in Iran. It is not improvised—the device has been made by machines in a factory. The system of initiation enables extreme accuracy. That is why soldiers are being killed in Snatch vehicles. It is also capable of disabling tracked vehicles.
I am aware that we are developing counter measures. However, like Northern Ireland terrorists, the insurgents are most certainly developing the next generation of weapons to get round our counter measures. By the nature of things, we will always be slightly behind, so the problem cannot just be shuffled away, with the hope that there is a counter measure.
We were told by the Minister in May in answer to a Written Question that our service helicopter fleet was only 59 per cent operational. That is seriously bad news; it is a disgrace within a modern Army. We were also told that there were 28 helicopters in Iraq, of which an average of 22 per cent were not serviceable. Therefore, there are, on average, 20 serviceable aircraft in Iraq. This does not differentiate between the various capabilities. We were told that we had two Chinooks, eight Sea Kings, seven Merlins, five Pumas and six Lynx. I read a report about more Sea Kings going to Iraq, but I am not sure whether they are the right aircraft and whether we are not plugging a hole with the wrong nail.
If these helicopters are defined, rather vaguely, into "support/heavier lift" and "tactical/patrol deployment" categories, that would result in the Chinooks, Sea Kings and Merlins being in the support and heavy lift category, the Pumas being dual purpose and the six Lynx being the patrolling aircraft. This does not take into account the fact that seven may be unserviceable, spread over all types, or in extremes, all from one category. That is a possibility, but we hope it does not occur.
My observations are as follows. The 17 aircraft in the larger category and the Pumas in the second category are almost entirely used moving personnel and equipment between bases in the multinational force area in southern Iraq. That also includes providing aircraft to go to Baghdad occasionally. These tasks include administrative resupply, changeover of units, servicemen travelling to and from R&R and hospital visits. These tasks are important—in fact, they are essential. They have become a vital priority in maintaining our deployment, so they are not for giving up, day by day, in preference to something else.
That leaves the Lynx and sometimes some of the Pumas for all the other tasks, including operational patrolling, surveillance and general taxi work. Surveillance is important because our modern surveillance system—the successor to P3—fills up the back of a Puma. You cannot land it on the ground and pick up eight soldiers. That helicopter is operational for surveillance only.
At the very best, it would be difficult to ring-fence the use of more than eight choppers for eagle patrolling and tactical operations by troops on the ground throughout the whole of our area. Where the use of single aircraft is at high risk, it will have to be done in pairs, thereby reducing separate operations that may be supported by choppers at any one time.
In practical terms, regardless of the theory, if anyone suffers a reduction in heli hours due to serviceability, it is the soldiers deploying on routine operations—they may be routine, but they are highly dangerous in Iraq—and not the vital admin resupply and support. It is therefore true that an overall increase in helis, and therefore heli hours, by, for example, 25 per cent, would be seven aircraft. That could result in a 100 per cent increase in availability of choppers for supporting patrolling on the ground. That is not great and I do not understand why we are not doing it.
We have lost personnel increasingly while on mobile patrol. We had a very similar problem in Northern Ireland, and we had to put large areas completely out of bounds to mobile patrols. Where I live, across the main road, it did not matter what happened—you were not allowed to take a mobile patrol. We used covert patrol vehicles, but I accept that that is not an option for Iraq. We also used helis, but we had 72 before taking serviceability into account. They often had to operate in pairs. We must ask ourselves questions about the patrols, especially mobile patrols. Is a given patrol really necessary? What is the threat and why is the IED beside the road? Could the patrol be done on foot? If we have the heli hours, could we use helis to patrol at virtually no risk? Are the helis at risk?
There was a range of conclusions, which included the following. Obviously many mobile patrols are vital to achieve the mission, but occasionally, if you ask the questions carefully, it is found that the answer is that they are "not really vital". So why are we doing it? If the threat to a mobile patrol is an IED, then why did the opposition set it up? To protect something, or purely because the patrol would pass it? If the latter is correct, then there is no need to be there, and that is why the IED is there. That is a very simple but important argument.
If the patrol is on foot, it is easier, through tactics developed in Northern Ireland and now in Iraq, to protect themselves and control the environment around them. I shall not go into detail, but that is what occurs. If there are heli hours, eagle patrolling reduces the risk immediately. If helis are at risk, the use of helis in pairs enhances safety yet again. One helicopter operates while the other one watches. Two helis in the air can virtually freeze terrorist movement in a 2 kilometre-square area. The second one can react to any unusual activity. There are more ARFs—air reaction forces—in the air, day by day, which can react to other things occurring in the area.
In Northern Ireland, the threat to helis virtually disappeared when there was more than one of them in the air. There were occasions in County Fermanagh, where I live, when a patrol or OP was hit and there was not vital necessity for it to be there. There would have been no attack if it had not been on the ground at the time. If it was not in an ambush position, what was it doing providing a target? That is what some mobiles are doing.
While in Iraq, I asked a very senior person how the Iraqis will patrol when we leave and remove our technology, which is going to happen. I was told that the Iraqi mobile patrols did not seem to be targeted in the same way. We seem to be providing ourselves as a target, especially if an Iraqi patrol can do it. That is fact—it is what I was told.
If you ask a senior officer, "Are you coping with accomplishing your mission?", the answer will be yes. If he gave the wrong answer, you would probably remove him. However, if you were to ask, "If you were provided with substantially more helis, would it change your tactics and make it safer?", the answer would be a resounding yes and you would have a very happy officer. Incidentally, an increase in helicopters to Northern Ireland levels would increase those provided to soldiers by 600 per cent.
"There are medium and long-term plans relating to vehicles, and I shall be considering what we can do to respond to the situation in the short term".
The review should already be under way. We are in an operational situation. How come we have just decided to do it today? The terrorists, or the insurgents, are already reviewing what we are trying to counter, and we are about to set up the review. I suppose that it is something. What are the Government doing when they say that they,
"shall be considering what we can do to respond . . . in the short term"?
The "short term" is tomorrow. Something should already have been done. That debate was on
Later, the Secretary of State said:
"Decisions on which vehicles to use on operations are for the commanders on the ground".—[Hansard, Commons, 26/6/06; cols. 4-5.]
The commander can use only what he's got. It is a lovely turn of phrase, but if he had the helis, he wouldn't be in the wagon.
A number of those in another place and some commentators have asked about bigger or stronger vehicles, but I do not think that that is the right line to go down. We do, however, need a patrolling vehicle, because the type of IEDs being used will disable tracked armoured vehicles. What are you left with after such an incident? You are left with a marooned armoured vehicle. How do you get it out? If you cannot, you may have a riot situation. Or perhaps we do not need to worry about it because, after they have stopped killing people in the tracked vehicle, the crowd will ensure that the situation is sufficiently in hand to petrol-bomb the living daylights out of it. These vehicles are difficult to recover. All I will say is that these reviews are a bit late in the day, and we ought to get some of the 41 per cent of choppers which are non-operational into the air pretty quickly.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, for introducing the debate today and I remind the House of my peripheral interest. My noble friend Lord Luke exclusively and comprehensively covered the issue of defence housing. I am grateful to him for so doing because it obviates the need for me to cover all his points. However, it is worth repeating that we are asking far too much of our service people. We need to alter the balance slightly between shiny new systems and platforms on one hand and decent service housing and accommodation on the other.
On procurement, where are we with the future strategic tanker aircraft? The preferred bidder was announced some time ago. When will an order be placed? The STA seems an ideal candidate for PFI, so it is difficult to understand why the project is not making much progress.
Many noble Lords have noted that defence funding has to be sufficient to provide deterrence to any potential aggressor. That was relatively easy during the Cold War. We put in place credible conventional forces and backed them up with a nuclear deterrent, and it worked without a shot being fired. During the Reserve Forces debate recently I paid tribute to the Ministers and senior officers who so skilfully prosecuted that campaign.
However, current demand for operational deployment appears infinite. Currently we have Afghanistan, Iraq and the tail-end of the Balkans as significant operations, plus many others. If we were not involved in those, there are other candidates such as Somalia, Sudan, Zimbabwe and the DRC to mention a few. If those potential military interventions were backed up with the appropriate international sanctions, they would be a force for good. However, noble Lords should be aware of the risk being taken—we cannot really deploy one extra fighting brigade, even if we want to. The desirable Bowman installation project is not helping because it takes out a whole brigade while it is being Bowmanised.
The demand for British deployment will not go away, as indicated by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge. All Governments—this Government are no exception—measure commitments and liabilities and then provide the necessary resources or pretend to do so, but they never quite succeed. At the last election, my own party said that it would fully fund defence commitments, or words to that effect, which is very reassuring. The good news is that we have a fabulous defence capability. Very few countries in the world can deploy an armoured brigade at reach from home base—only ourselves, the US, the French and possibly the Russians can do so. Given the capability that we enjoy, we must be spending about the right amount on defence. The problem has a symptom starkly laid out by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge—we are doing far too much with just too little. We should be honest with ourselves and admit that we are prepared to spend only about £35 billion.
At Question Time today, the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, told the House that the Government had increased expenditure on international aid by 140 per cent. But this Government, some time ago, proudly announced a minuscule real increase in defence expenditure despite that not being matched by defence expenditure inflation or the growth in GDP. I will be having a chat with the Minister next week in the Chamber and I am sure he is looking forward to that.
If we are honest, we should say how much money we are prepared to spend on defence and then determine what we can do with that while retaining a comprehensive capability and with the expectation of working in an alliance. Rather than having defence planning assumptions that we have failed to adhere to over the past three years, we should have a defence capability statement and then not demand any more from the Armed Forces. We should stick to what we can do. If we desire to do more, we need to increase defence funding. If we decide to continue at the current levels, we need to massively increase the size of the Regular Army and provide it with appropriate support from the other Armed Forces.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, mentioned the lack of a theatre reserve battle group. I was aware of that problem several months ago and I suspect that he was as well. When were the Minister and his colleagues first aware of this lack in the Afghanistan theatre? The Minister should understand that having a reserve battle group outside of the theatre is not good enough. My humble military duties involve being a watchkeeper for a formation headquarters—a brigade or higher. The biggest challenge that I experienced was not having a personal relationship with the officers in the subordinate units, so I had to develop those relationships extremely quickly on exercises and operations.
The reserve battle group would be called up from outside the theatre only in extremis. That is not a good time to develop close relationships and trust, that vital component of command and control. Of course, key members of the battle group's command team would undertake a recce of theatre, but it would still leave poor integration between the unit and the formation at most levels. That is not a very healthy situation.
My Lords, I am glad that I was here for the very powerful opening speech by my noble and gallant friend Lord Inge, whom I congratulate on obtaining this important debate. I am sorry that having to attend the inquiry into the Zahid Mubarek murder meant that I have had to miss a large number of other statements, which I would dearly have liked to have heard.
As my noble and gallant friend mentioned, I would like to include two other subjects in this debate by expanding in some detail on why we get so concerned, rather than merely passing comments, on the tour interval and the need for service directors of public relations. Just before the last Gulf War, a number of us, including the noble Lord, Lord Garden, got together to write a paper to send to the Prime Minister outlining some of our concerns about what such a campaign might involve, and in particular the overstretch of already overstretched Armed Forces that might result. Nothing happened for five weeks, so I sent a letter about when we had been told that letters would arrive back from the Prime Minister. Almost by return of motorbike, I got a letter from the Minister at the Foreign Office, Mr O'Brien, who at the end of five closely typed pages included a pat on the head, saying, "You don't need to worry because the gap between tours is 23 months".
What worried me about that statement was not only that it was wholly incorrect—we would not have written saying that we were worried unless we had had full briefing from the Ministry of Defence, which we had had, and in my case personal knowledge from friends and people who were in the Army who explained about the short tours. I was worried, too, because the fact that the Minister could write that made me think that he believed it—and if he believed that that was the case, it suggested that the flaws were in the planning process, which might result in even further overstretch.
Why are we concerned about this? There is always a danger when old soldiers stand up to speak that you cast your mind back to what used to happen. I am not going to worry about doing that on this occasion. There used to be something called the annual training cycle, because everyone recognised that in all three services you had to train individuals first, and having got their individual skills honed you then put them into teams or sub-units or whatever and worked down to a conclusion in the year with a major exercise, when you put together as large a formation as possible. At that time it was reckoned that to recover from an operational tour and go through a proper cycle of regeneration to enable the full training of individuals in their skills, to move people on to other skills and retrain them and, most particularly, to identify and train your future non-commissioned officers—the middle management—and officers, two years was about right. The first year was left to the unit to do what it had to do and the second year it went through a full process, with the result that at the end of two years you could say, "I have a fully trained and refreshed unit which is fully ready for operations".
An example of the excellence of that cycle was very well borne out to me by the case of the 2nd Scots Guards, who were under my command in Belfast in 1980; they returned to London in 1981 and went on public duties and then went to the Falklands, where they fought some extremely fierce battles, particularly on Tumbledown. They had done nothing like that since the war. When I questioned the commanding officer about how it was possible to go from the streets of Belfast through public duties and out to the Falklands and to perform excellently in all three, he said that it was the quality of the training that they had been able to do on all ranks. Unless you have experienced that, you do not realise why people get so concerned about what is being missed if tour intervals are down to as short a time as 10 months, as they are now, and regiments are going back to Iraq within a year of leaving it.
When I commanded my regiment in Belfast in 1974-75, I became extremely concerned about the quality of our non-commissioned officers—not in the tactical side on the streets, but in all the other things that they needed to do to look after their riflemen, develop them and see that they themselves were identified for future careers. I came to the conclusion that although we were operating at very high activity rates in four-man groups all over the streets of Belfast, the individual middle manager had no responsibility for his soldiers. He led them, came back, somebody else debriefed them, fed them, paid them, sent them on leave and then briefed them again. They were more like bomber crews in the air force than soldiers living a 365-day regimental year. Fortunately, we were sent to Gibraltar and were able to have three-month non-commissioned officer courses to try to put that right, because I reckoned that without a period to do that sort of thing the regiment would have exhausted the talent that it had and would have been left with undertrained people for the future.
I mention that because what worries me about having tour lengths down to as low as they are now is that the regiments and units in the Army are not being allowed to regenerate themselves and, most particularly, to develop the future leadership and skills. It is always the case that the services, with their admirable attitude of "Wilco-ness wins", will go off and do anything that they are asked to the best of their ability. The single servicemen love being on operations and love being away, but the strain is felt by the people who have been there for longer, particularly those who are married. I worry about the figures that suggest that the people at about the 10-year point are haemorrhaging, because they are the people whose experience is absolutely critical for the future.
The seeds of this problem were sown way back in an exercise called Options for Change, which was introduced by the Conservative Government in 1991. What worried my noble and gallant friend Lord Inge and I, because we were both on the Army board that considered the matter, was the sudden reduction in the numbers of the Army from 156,000 to 104,000, a cut of one-third. We argued very strongly that the assessment had not included what was likely to follow the end of the Cold War and all that might be required. We argued—this is not an attempt to score a cheap inter-service point against my noble and gallant friend Lord Craig or the noble Lord, Lord Garden—that the RAF at that time had a strength of 85,000. We felt that there was an imbalance and we argued long and strong for the Army to be up to 125,000, which would have enabled it to cope with its problems. We lost. The figure is still down and is still too low. I cannot see how with the current commitment rate we can get it up to what it ought to be, to be able to have the regeneration process that there ought to be. That is why we feel so strongly about these rates.
Noble Lords will forgive me for repeating anything that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, has said on the business of the director of public relations. What happened was that in 1997 the then director of Army public relations was responsible for a BBC film of a riot control exercise at Sandhurst in which the rioters were depicted as trade unionists. The Prime Minister, Mr Wilson, rang up the Ministry of Defence very angrily and said, "If that's what they think is good public relations, never again must a serviceman be director of public relations for the whole Ministry of Defence. We will have a civilian in charge—they can have people in each of the services but they will not have one at the top".
The next time that the public relations came under pressure was in the Falklands War, when a civilian was in charge. Noble Lords will remember Mr Ian McDonald, with his remarkable speaking voice, who was known familiarly by the press as the warm-up man for the "Lutine" bell. The problem was that, quite rightly as a civil servant, he saw his first duty as to Ministers, so the job of that part of the public relations staff was purely to serve Ministers and their policy. They used to say that they would have a line to take followed by a Q&A brief, and that that would answer anything. The trouble was that when we came to the Falklands War the press did not believe the policy line; they did not ask the "Q"s, nor listen to the "A"s. The public relations staff were floundering. Eventually he had to be rescued by bringing military men in to be the spokesmen and give explanations. That happened after the first battle of Goose Green, and then right on to the end. That is a lesson that should have been learnt.
Immediately after the war, however, there was an inquiry into the handling of the media during it by the Defence Committee in the other place, which recommended a reduction in the number of service directors of public relations. That reduction has gone on until, recently, the previous Secretary of State abolished them altogether. That is a very retrograde step, particularly because the role of those people is not the protection of Ministers but the protection and projection of the image of the Armed Forces.
When I see inaccurate depictions of operations, what worries me is that they are giving a false impression to the public that can lead to wrong ideas. When I see inept handling of issues such as casualty reporting, and when I see media people floundering because they do not understand what they are looking at as they are not defence correspondents but journalists, I realise what a gaping hole there is. Particularly at this time, with all the strains so admirably described by my noble and gallant friend Lord Inge, this is a cry to re-examine that unfortunate decision and give the services back the person who can best help explain what they are all about to the public whom they serve.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, for arranging this important debate. We have heard common themes from noble Lords, with all their wide experience. We have heard of too many operational tasks. We have heard of deficiencies in the current equipment and in the future equipment programme. The question of insufficient resources in the defence budget has come up time and again. Most important, we have heard expressions of concern about the way in which our men and women who serve and try to make the system work in the Armed Forces are feeling bruised. We have also heard personnel worries about the future. I want to keep the personnel issues uppermost in my remarks.
I turn first to operational tasking. I was grateful for the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Owen, about the lack of a debate on Iraq and Afghanistan with a Foreign Office Minister to respond to it. Despite the assurances that I had that such a debate would happen before the Recess, it has not. I trust that it will happen soon after the Recess. For all the reasons that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, gave for the necessity to look at the grand strategic picture of these campaigns, it is important that we have this debate and that it is answered by a Foreign Office Minister.
The challenges that our troops face in these two theatres remain severe, as we have heard. In Iraq, the announcement of the forthcoming handover of one of the provinces to the Iraqi security forces is of course welcome, but it means that we will see a redistribution to the more difficult areas, such as the urban areas of Basra. What effect will the forthcoming departures by the Japanese and Italian personnel have on UK force taskings in that area?
The other major operational challenge, as we have heard, is in Afghanistan. We are in a period of transition as the south goes over to NATO control from Operation Enduring Freedom. It is a considerable test for the alliance, and clarity of purpose and command is essential. The chairman of the Defence Select Committee, James Arbuthnot, speaking in the defence debate last week in the other place, asked whether,
"maintain an inefficient military command structure that cannot deliver the best results".—[Hansard, Commons, 22/6/06; col. 1532.]
He also warned that it might be used to justify a reduced American commitment. We cannot afford to find ourselves trying to solve Afghanistan with allies who operate under debilitating national constraints and with the focus of the United States moving away. I ask the Minister to address this issue in his remarks, as I think that we have yet to be reassured on these questions.
As we have heard, both Iraq and Afghanistan, although different operations, pose common equipment and personnel challenges. Lack of appropriate equipment to give safe mobility has been a common theme in a number of speeches today. Reflecting on his visit to Iraq, the chairman of the Defence Select Committee said in the other place last week:
"The number of helicopters there is tiny, and the number of vehicles is too small".—[Hansard, Commons, 22/6/06; col. 1541.]
I was grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, for giving us the detail behind that. I agreed with everything he said. Whether it is vehicle protection on the ground or lack of helicopter lift, we are seriously hampering our operational capability.
In sum, I worry that we have a serious problem of not concentrating sufficiently on the needs of the two major operations in which we find ourselves engaged. The future of Trident, on which we had two speeches, FRES, new carriers, network-enabled capabilities, Future Lynx, JSF, Astute submarines, A400M, Type 45 frigates and the other new projects are important issues, but I fear—and, having listened to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Levene, am now certain—that they will arrive later than expected and cost more than we have budgeted for, as has been the case in the past. We have to get by in the mean time. As an example, my first operational tour was on the "Canberra"; next July, the "Canberra" goes out of service after 55 yeas of operations constantly waiting for replacement. We have to make do with the equipment that we have, and we need to focus on where to upgrade it.
We know that we are going to be in Afghanistan for at least the next three years, and it would be a brave forecaster who thought that Iraq would be all right in less than that time. What can we do to urgently improve the capabilities that are available now? As the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, reminded us, we need greater numbers of suitable troops and specialists to reduce the operational pinch points, which are defined as the trades where there is insufficient strength to perform directed tasks. The AFPRB identified those pinch points in its February report and I remind your Lordships of the astonishing figures: 20 different manning areas in the Royal Navy, 25 in the Army and 40 in the Royal Air Force.
This is a double whammy. We have the Armed Forces working continuously beyond the defence planning assumptions year after year. We also have a shortfall in the key specialisations for operational tasks, which is why we cannot achieve harmony levels in those areas in particular. That affects retention, which in turn makes shortages more acute and drives down experience levels. As the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, told us, it also affects the level of training that we can give these people, so they are less experienced and less trained.
We had the opportunity on
"if . . . a low or inflation-matching pay award for armed forces doctors is announced, it will have disastrous implications for a service which is already significantly undermanned in critical areas. It is also likely to cause many of these doctors who are the military's deployable medical experts to resign from the armed forces to go into significantly better paid NHS posts where they will not have the added turbulence of repeated deployments".
I turn briefly to the future equipment programme. I am tempted to get myself into the Trident debate, but time does not allow for that and I know, given the guarantees that Ministers have given, that we shall come back and have a proper debate on it in due course. I have a few key questions, though. We want the Eurofighter Typhoon to be air-to-ground. That is what we need it for operationally. When are we going to know what capabilities are going to be added to the Eurofighter to give it that capacity, and when will they arrive?
On the carrier programme, I ask not when will they come into service, but when the Minister anticipates that the first piece of metal will be cut. Where are we on JSF discussions with the US, which seem to go up and down on whether the technology transfer will happen? I have one question on the nuclear deterrent, which reflects a point that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, made: what assumptions have been made about the funding profile beyond 2010? Has the Ministry of Defence already allowed for the Trident replacement, or must this be found at the expense of other capabilities?
On the defence industrial strategy, I remind your Lordships of the conclusion of the Defence Select Committee:
"Adequate funding will be vital for the success of the Defence Industrial Strategy".
Does the Minister agree with that? The committee went on to say:
That brings me to the defence budget. It is the key to how we manage all the problems that we have been talking about. In July 2001, the late Sir Michael Alexander and I wrote an article in International Affairs entitled "The Arithmetic of Defence Policy". We looked back over 25 years of spending and forward for 20 years. Using forward projections and assumptions, we reckoned that defence in 2020 would receive 1.3 per cent of UK GDP. Five years on, the proportion of GDP is tracking our graph exactly. We then forecast a consequential front line of half the 2001 size after 20 years. Again, we have seen such cuts.
We offered a solution that looked much more seriously at sharing capabilities across Europe. Unfortunately, progress there has been too slow. Without any serious uplift in defence funds—which I think is unlikely—or deeper co-operation with allies, I fear that your Lordships will find themselves debating reductions in front-line capabilities every year.
I conclude by talking about the servicemen and servicewomen and how they are affected by operational, budgetary and equipment decisions. We keep speaking about their extraordinary dedication and how they put up with conditions of service that sometimes appear to come from a different age—perhaps the Victorian age. In that respect, I ask the Minister to look more carefully at draft Answers to Questions, because they are read by servicemen. If it sounds as though everything is okay, there is a feeling of disconnect between the MoD and the serviceman. I refer to Deepcut, Gulf War illness, new pension and redundancy arrangements, accommodation standards, which were covered very well by the noble Lords, Lord Luke and Lord De Mauley, or the latest incident of the joint personnel administration system, which has left various people not getting their additional pay when they should have done.
I was not going to talk about the Armed Forces Federation, but the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, mentioned it. Other nations manage to operate serious militaries while having a federation. If there is no other way of solving some of the problems that we have been talking about than to raise their profile, that may be a reasonable way forward. Certainly, directors of public relations are important for internal and external PR. We need the services to feel good about themselves and that means that they need service people doing the public relations, both internally and externally.
We ask an incredible amount of the services and we mourn the continuing deaths and serious injuries, but the focus must be on the people and giving them adequate standards of care. The duty of care is greater than in any other sector of the community. If that means reducing operational commitments, that may be the price that has to be paid, or we will find ourselves with a great deal of shiny equipment but nobody to operate it.
My Lords, our debate has touched on a range of distinct but related issues, but they add up to a profound expression of anxiety. There is anxiety in this House about the insufficiency of the resources coming into our Armed Forces to enable them to prepare for and undertake the always demanding and often dangerous tasks they are asked to perform on our behalf.
In opening the debate so authoritatively, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, put that case in the clearest possible manner. I am also grateful to him for providing us with the occasion for this excellent debate. Sadly, one name is missing from the speakers' list: that of my noble friend Lord Lyell. I am sure that all those speaking today will wish him a very speedy recovery.
The noble and gallant Lord was right to remind us and the Government of the fundamental need to have sufficient numbers of the right people in the Armed Forces. I also pay tribute to the outstanding work that they are doing as a force for good in different parts of the world, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan. I am sure that the Armed Forces will be grateful for the strong support they received from the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont.
The noble and gallant Lord also reminded us that the Armed Forces must be well motivated and that their mood and morale must be sustained and not undermined. That, including sustained confidence in their leaders, is and will be at the heart of improvements we shall seek to bring about in the Armed Forces Bill.
To the need for sufficient boots on the ground, and waiting in the wings, I add the equally fundamental need for a sufficient number of appropriate warships in the fleet, similarly with aircraft and particularly with helicopters. Military tasks, to be properly performed, are people-intensive and require a sufficient number of individuals deployed. But the recruitment of this sufficient number of individuals is in crisis in all three services. In addition, too many servicemen and women are leaving. They feel undervalued. Are this Government standing up for them? We have seen with the Trooper Williams and the Royal Tank Regiment cases that Ministers do not. The noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General did a great disservice to morale in the Armed Forces when he referred the Royal Tank Regiment cases to the CPS, as he said,
"to ventilate the issues in the civilian courts", heralding a disgraceful delay before the five soldiers were able to clear their names. Many soldiers of all ranks cite this apparent application of civilian legal standards and abandonment of serving soldiers as a significant factor in wanting to leave.
Incessant back-to-back tours in Iraq are not good for retention. What are the Government doing to ensure that the interval target of 24 months is met for all troops? Another example of feeling undervalued is an issue that very many servicemen and women have complained about: the nightmare of flights to and from Iraq. Noble Lords will know that I am a great admirer of the Royal Air Force. I was privileged to see the Typhoon just the other day. But why does the RAF make most of these flights to and from Iraq a drawn-out and seemingly badly run affair? Why is it necessary to ask 200 carefully vetted soldiers to report to Brize Norton 12 hours before take-off? I have heard many stories of young servicemen and women with confirmed flights home sitting around Basra airport, where there are very few facilities, sometimes for several days as there are no seats for them. If morale is damaged in this way, there are once again serious implications for retention. Will the Minister undertake to look into this problem urgently? He may think that it is trivial but too many servicemen and women tell me that they feel they are treated very badly.
The noble Lord, Lord Garden, mentioned the Defence Medical Services. The BMA's Armed Forces Committee is concerned about the recruitment and retention problems of the Defence Medical Services, particularly in the light of what can be earned by consultants in the NHS in comparison to their military counterparts. Are the Government confident that they have sufficient regular medical officers to support current operations?
My noble friend Lord De Mauley spoke about the Reserves with the authority of a former CO. Undoubtedly, the Reserves are in a very poor state. Over a quarter of them, 13,400, have resigned since April 2003. Every branch of the Reserve Forces is below strength. The reduced numbers and increased levels of deployment create a dangerous combination. The noble Lord, Lord Levene, made a very important speech on procurement. I agree with him that the success of the DIS depends on the defence industry's willingness to be open. The challenge for the Minister will be to drive improved relations past his own civil servants.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, mentioned the story in today's FT that the DPA will merge with the DLO. Will the Minister tell the House whether there is any truth in that? Like the noble and gallant Lord, I have concerns. If the story is true, could the Minister explain the merits of creating one massive organisation embracing everything from initial concept studies to final delivery? When will we see the publication of Mr McKeen's advice? Several noble Lords have mentioned different forms of equipment and, as my noble friend Lord Selsdon said, our Armed Forces must have the best and most appropriate equipment available.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, and my noble friend Lord De Mauley mentioned the Snatch Land Rover. I have had quite a mailbag about the accuracy of the Minister's reply to my question about the RG-31 a couple of weeks ago. I would be grateful if the Minister could give some further thought to his response and write to me. Some 25 per cent of the soldiers killed in Iraq have been killed in Snatch Land Rovers by IEDs. The Snatch is a brilliant vehicle, but there are times when troops would definitely be safer in a better protected armoured patrol vehicle than the Snatch Land Rover, but with a less aggressive profile than a Warrior. Several noble Lords, including the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, asked about the much-needed replacement of helicopters. I was particularly interested to hear about his experiences in Northern Ireland.
My noble friend Lord Attlee mentioned the Bowman. Will the Minister give a Written Statement after the Recess to bring the House up to date on the progress with that important equipment? My noble friend also asked about the progress of the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft. The noble Lord, Lord Garden, asked about the carriers. I am hearing rumours that an order is about to be placed for 2,000 logistic vehicles. Will the Minister comment on that?
We need money to pay for all this much-needed equipment. Can the Minister confirm or deny the strong rumours mentioned by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, that £1 billion will be moved from the defence budget to homeland security? I hope that is not true. As the noble and gallant Lord said, the front line is already underfunded. Several noble Lords, notably my noble friend Lord Trefgarne, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, spoke about the UK nuclear deterrent. I will say only two things about that. First, as my right honourable friend David Cameron made absolutely clear at the weekend, we regard the long-term continuance of the independent UK deterrent as a prudent and necessary insurance policy. Secondly, and this is directly relevant to our debate today, the necessary costs and appropriate long-term continuance must be spread over a suitable period of years as an addition to the regular defence budget and must not be used as an excuse to shave from that budget the money needed now to meet more immediate requirements, a need stressed by so many noble Lords today.
I am sure that the noble Lord, as the Minister responsible for defence procurement, has already identified the importance of this point in relation to matters for which he has personal responsibility. It may not be too much to hope, given the well publicised conversion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the cause, that the noble Lord will be able to give us the necessary assurances about the additional status of this investment. Several noble Lords have asked about the operational objectives in Afghanistan, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's clarification. The noble Lord, Lord Owen, made a very powerful speech calling for a commission to look into the conduct of the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. I look forward to the Government's response.
My noble friend Lord Luke mentioned the poor state of defence accommodation, which is so important for morale. As my noble friend said, most service families care passionately about their homes, which offer such important stability. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, spoke about the importance of uniformed DPRs. I am sure we will return to that issue in Committee on the Armed Forces Bill. I hope that Ministers will do more than hear what has been said today. I hope that they will understand it and, more importantly, act on it.
My Lords, I thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, for bringing these important issues to the House and for the even-handed and calm way in which he made his points, which he expressed with tremendous authority. I welcome the opportunity to respond to the points that he and other noble Lords have made. It is very important for us to consider these issues in a balanced way. There is no doubt that there are considerable challenges in how we meet the threats that this country faces, but to say that there is a crisis is simply not correct. It is important for us to focus on the specific issues, and I will attempt to do that in answering noble Lords' points. Before I do so, I add my voice to those of other noble Lords who have rightly paid tribute to the men and women of our Armed Forces in the tremendous job that they do. I completely disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Dykes; it is very important for Ministers to continue to do so at every opportunity.
A number of noble Lords, such as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, raised concerns over the image of the Armed Forces and the role of the public relations offices in the Ministry of Defence. It is important to look at the data. The latest MORI polling on the public's view of the Armed Forces says that 80 per cent of people in this country regard each of the services as among the best in the world, and 3 per cent of the population do not. That suggests that there is no crisis in the confidence in which our Armed Forces are held, which speaks to the effectiveness with which the Ministry of Defence handles its public relations. I stress that the changes to the handling of media relations made by the previous Secretary of State led to a coherent, single voice and involve active participation of serving officers in all the services to provide that voice.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, raised questions about morale, which also led to the question of a defence federation. It is important, again, for us to look at the data. There is no evidence of worsening morale in the Armed Forces. Recruiting is steady and manning remains overall in balance; we have more than 98 per cent of the troops that we need. The figures for personnel going absent without leave are steady. It is important for us to focus on the areas where we recognise and have evidence of serious problems. We have the existing mechanisms for personnel to express their views. I absolutely agree that we must do nothing to undermine the chain of command, but we must be open-minded about, and look at, modern ideas of how we can find and facilitate new ways for people to do so.
I want briefly to highlight the fact that we recently had in this country the first Veterans' Day, which was an opportunity for us all to honour those who have served in our Armed Forces in the past and the contribution that they make today. This weekend we will commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Somme. As so often in the past, our servicemen and women are helping people less able to help themselves—as they are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan—and some of them have made the ultimate sacrifice, including the two soldiers who died in Afghanistan this week. We owe them a great debt.
I remind the House why we are in Afghanistan. We have about 4,500 service personnel there in support of a UN-authorised, NATO-led mission, ISAF, and are part of the US-led, international coalition that involves 40 countries. We are there to help the Afghan people to rebuild their country to prevent it from again harbouring terrorism. We believe that we have the force package necessary to carry out that task as part of that coalition.
The mission is clear. There can be no security or stability in Afghanistan unless the Taliban and other illegal groups are tackled. Without international help, democratically elected government in Afghanistan will not take root. We are sending 3,300 personnel to Helmand province as part of the long-planned expansion of ISAF into the south, where government authority and rule of law today do not run. That force will reach its full operational capability this weekend.
The noble Lord, Lord Garden, raised a concern, highlighted last week, about fears that the ISAF expansion would lead to a US withdrawal. We are confident in the United States' commitment to Afghanistan, NATO and ISAF. We believe that that confidence, based upon continuation of the United States' provision of key and often unique capabilities to the alliance operations in Afghanistan, will continue.
The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, asked me when Her Majesty's Government knew that no theatre reserve for Afghanistan would be put in place. Initial discussions, scoping the deployment of forces into southern Afghanistan, took place in 2005. We believe that we can make the greatest contribution in that area; it makes the ISAF expansion possible, but within a collective NATO framework. The provision of a reserve within Afghanistan is a decision for NATO.
The noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, asked whether we were there to keep the peace or to defend drugs farmers. I wish to be absolutely clear that we are there to ensure that the rule of law and democratic government can be established in that country. This is a country that depends absolutely upon the drugs trade. We must pursue our aims in partnership with NGOs and other government departments to ensure that those people are provided with an alternative livelihood. This is a form of international development. Because of the nature of Afghanistan's environment, that has to be fairly muscular international development, but we believe that we have the combination across the three government departments to deliver that.
The noble Lord, Lord Owen, said that there had been an extraordinary degree of incompetence in Iraq. I respect the noble Lord's great experience, but that is simply not correct. It is important to look at the progress taking place today. We have a real opportunity to build upon the fact that Iraq has a democratically elected Government. We now have a strong relationship with the governor in Basra province. People who live in southern Iraq today will tell you that the proportion of the time for which they have electricity has gone up significantly. The data on oil production in Iraq show that it is improving. The Iraqi security forces are strong. Progress is becoming established. That is not to say that we are complacent or that we are underestimating the challenges; the changes are really having an effect and there is no doubt that, by continuing our efforts, we are transforming the country.
It is not correct to say that we rampaged into Iraq with no proper explanation, as the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, said. The Government would not have taken that action unless we were satisfied that it was lawful. It was taken as a last resort, due to Saddam Hussein's continued defiance of UN resolutions, and the United Kingdom obviously takes its own decisions based upon our security needs.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, asked me to clarify the Government's strategic goals in Iraq. He and other noble and gallant Lords, with their deep experience as ex-chiefs of staff, know how important it is for us to be clear about our strategic goals. We are absolutely clear: we are in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi Government under a United Nations resolution. We are there to do a number of things: training and equipping the Iraqi security forces, and supporting the Iraqi Government with their political and economic reform, which has clearly been done. We are there for as long as the Iraqi Government need us to be there and we are achieving that by working with the coalition and the Iraqis. The evidence that that is taking place is there.
Of course we recognise the challenges. In Basra there has been a deterioration of late, due to a vacuum in the period taken to form a Government of national unity. In that period, sectarian rivalries and strife in the area have increased. However, now that we have a Government of national unity and a good working relationship with the governor in Basra, we believe that that together with the Basra security plan and the establishment of a state of emergency there by the Government will make a significant difference. We are beginning to see that.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He has painted a rosy picture of the Iraq occupation, but am I not right in thinking that the American Secretary of State recently said that thousands of mistakes were made in the occupation phase in Iraq? Does that not amount to a large level of incompetence?
No, my Lords, I do not believe that that corresponds to a large level of incompetence.
The noble Lord, Lord Garden, asked about the effect of the withdrawal of certain coalition partners' forces, including the Italians and the Japanese. We are confident that the process of handover by states within the regions for which we are acting will not have a negative impact on our troops. We are going through a transition process. We have seen recent progress in al-Muthanna province, and that is what we need to build on through this year.
Noble Lords have highlighted issues relating to the balance between the resources provided to our Armed Forces and the commitments that they are asked to undertake. We continually review the commitments that our forces undertake, both at home and abroad, to ensure that they are appropriate to the task. The British Armed Forces are exceptionally good at what they do. That means that they are significantly in demand by coalition partners, and I am sure that our friends and allies recognise that a British presence in any coalition operation is greatly valued. As a result, the operational tempo is high and our people are heavily committed.
This is a challenge which we accept. This is a challenge on which we as a Government are actively working. But I stress that, as the noble and gallant Lords will know, as ex-chiefs of staff, the decisions relating to deployment levels are judgments made by the chiefs of staff. Their judgment today is that these deployment levels are manageable.
We recognise that we are operating beyond the planning assumptions. Therefore, we are carrying out the necessary changes and reforms to manage that, with a focus on the way in which we go about defence equipment procurement and on the structure of the Armed Forces. Making the Armed Forces appropriately equipped and structured to meet that challenge is a reform which, as a number of noble Lords have said, has been needed for some considerable time. Many of the issues relating to equipment and the structure of our forces go back decades, but this Government are tackling them and we can see that significant progress has been made in a number of areas.
The effect of all that on recruitment and retention means that we require some 18,000 new recruits each year. This is an environment where the economy is strong and therefore the competition is in itself strong, but our recruitment is good and the retention levels are satisfactory. During the past financial year, we recruited 96 per cent of our requirement—the same as in the previous year. There is no manning crisis. Last year, the Armed Forces were 98.2 per cent manned. However, a number of noble and gallant Lords mentioned the pinch points relating to medical personnel and some logistics personnel, and we recognise those. They require us to respond to those areas and to make progress, and, on another occasion or in writing, I should be happy to provide noble Lords with updated details.
When I took on the role of Minister for defence procurement, I was struck that a comparison of the level of funding for defence is made on the basis of the proportion of GDP spend, but I do not think that that is the right test to apply. We should be looking at the absolute level of investment within our defence resources but not as a proportion of the country's GDP. We have seen an acceleration of GDP growth over recent years. The absolute level of investment that this Government have made has been the longest consistent increase in investment in the Armed Forces. The record of the previous Government shows that there was a decrease in the level of investment in the Armed Forces. Under this Government, starting from 1997, we have consistently spent more on our Armed Forces, and we have maintained that level of spending.
Of course, that needs to be balanced with an emphasis on driving efficiencies to ensure that the Armed Forces are provided with the funding, and that they use that funding, in the most efficient way. We have been able to identify £2.8 billion-worth of efficiency savings within the Armed Forces, and that money is being reinvested in defence.
I was asked about rumours of £1 billion-worth of cuts. I can tell the House that there is no truth in those rumours.
When we talk about the level of commitments and the significant operations in which our forces are engaged, it is important to recognise that the Treasury funds specific additional costs arising from operations on top of the defence budget. That amounted to an extra £1.25 billion in the last financial year.
Yes, my Lords. The amount is £1 billion over three years. I want to rattle quite rapidly through some of the issues that have been raised about equipment, not least because it is my area of responsibility. I hope to give noble Lords detailed answers to the many questions that they have asked, but I shall do so quickly.
We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Levene, an excellent summary of the challenges that we face in defence procurement. This Government are taking a modern approach to balancing the conflicting pressures which the noble Lord clearly explained. We need to recognise the international environment with which we are faced in the defence industry, and we need to make judgments within a framework which is clear to our international partners, to the defence industry and to our Armed Forces. This Government stated in the Defence Industrial Strategy White Paper last year that the Armed Forces' needs come first. There are questions relating to industrial capability, and jobs are very important to the country. But we are absolutely clear about the importance of equipment to our Armed Forces and so, in the decision-making framework, we put the Armed Forces first, and we have stated that as our policy.
A number of concerns were raised about the Snatch Land Rover in Iraq and its alternatives—the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, referred to the question mark over the RG-31. The noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, said that he has received a number of letters about this. I make it absolutely clear that when I answered the noble Lord's question earlier, the vehicle that I was talking about was the predecessor to the RG-31. It was also called the Mamba and it has been called the Mamba mark 2. The RG-31 offered today is the current version of that vehicle. After giving careful consideration to the matter, we judged the size and mobility of the vehicle not to be appropriate to the needs of our Armed Forces today.
The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, raised a point about the review being announced and said that surely these things are kept under constant review. That is absolutely the case. Issues relating to the protection of our Armed Forces, including the provision of armoured vehicles, are kept under continual review. That sounds like a trite and easy phrase but, as Minister for defence procurement, I can tell noble Lords that it is carried out very thoroughly indeed. The way in which the Ministry of Defence goes about deploying its resources for science and technology and industrial purposes to provide our forces with the appropriate levels of protection is very impressive. But I have to tell noble Lords that I cannot go into these things on the Floor of the House. They go to the heart of the level of the threat that our forces face. I do my best in this House to give your Lordships a clear exposition of these issues but there are some areas that we just cannot go into here. If noble Lords agree, I shall be happy to offer them a briefing at the Ministry of Defence to give them an opportunity to understand that better. We are taking urgent action relating to the threat facing our forces in a number of areas. That action is already having an impact today and we expect to see its effects.
The noble Lord, Lord Garden, and the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, raised the issue of helicopters. In response to a question posed by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, relating to Lynx and Puma, last week we announced an agreement with AugustaWestland both to provide additional helicopters in the form of the future Lynx and, importantly, to incentivise the company to improve the serviceability and availability of the helicopters that we fly today. That is an example of this Government taking real action to address the issues. Here is a company that has been motivated, through the placing of a new contract for new helicopters which we have to buy, to improve the way that its services provide spares to our existing helicopter fleet, and that will go directly to the heart of the serviceability of our fleet.
I shall write to noble Lords with updates on other areas of equipment and shall give clear details of the progress on the FSTA and FRES. However, in the remaining time, I want to touch on the issue of Trident. As a number of noble Lords have highlighted, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has said that there will be a White Paper by the end of the year setting out the options relating to the potential replacement of the nuclear deterrent. The Ministry of Defence is actively working on those options, which will then be described to both Houses of Parliament; there will be an opportunity to debate them thoroughly. I am sure noble Lords will recognise the importance of decisions relating to the potential replacement of the nuclear deterrent and to the maritime industry.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, raised issues about the overall resource levels which were provided to our maritime fleet. I can confirm to the House that, this year, the resource levels have been restored to normal after a two-year period when resources were reprioritised for overseas operations.
My noble friend Lord Truscott asked what we are doing to build on those reforms, as regards our defence industrial strategy, in terms of research and technology. For the first time in a considerable period, we have increased the Ministry of Defence's research budget. We plan for it to rise in line with inflation over the next four years. We have also carried out a review of all of our defence research and technology and, later this year, we shall be announcing the results of that technology review.
The noble Lord, Lord Luke, asked a number of questions relating to defence housing. I shall write to the noble Lord with those answers, as I do not have time to go through them today.
In summary, our forces are busy. We recognise that and the significant challenges we face in ensuring that we respond to today's environment. We also face challenges on the pace of technological change in industry and ensuring that we provide our Armed Forces with the equipment that they need to do their job. We are addressing those challenges.
As we focus on these issues, I hope that we can build a consensus across the House because they are too important for party politics. Much can be learnt from the experiences of the past and I look forward to continuing this debate in the House. I am grateful to a number of noble Lords, in particular the noble and gallant Lords—former chiefs of staff—for sharing with me their wisdom and experience on these matters.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this important debate, which I have found educational. I have been struck by the number of issues raised by many Members. I hope the Minister listened very carefully, as a common theme ran through them.
On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Owen, on the strategic direction of the war, I am not sure that I would want some great committee to be set up, but at least we should look at the strategic direction of the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The linkage between the two is enormously important. I did not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dykes. I certainly did not intend to give the impression that there is a crisis in morale. I was saying that there are indications about federations and unions and that we need to listen to what is being said. The morale of the Armed Forces, despite the huge pressure on them, is fantastic. I am second to none in saying, "Thank you", to them for what they do.
I believe that the Minister will write to noble Lords about the Defence Procurement Agency and the reorganisation that has been taking place in the Defence Logistics Organisation. They are two very important parts to ensuring that our Armed Forces have the kit and logistic support that they deserve. Referring to what I said earlier, I have an idea about what we are trying to achieve in Afghanistan, but I am not clear how we shall achieve that. That discussion is still to take place.
The noble Lord, Lord Garden, talked about federations. My noble and gallant friend Lord Boyce asked me to ask the noble Lord whether those who have federations and unions have ever won. My final point is that adequate funding is the ghost that hangs over all that has been said. I thank noble Lords for taking part and I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.