Armed Forces

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:06 pm on 15th March 2007.

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Photo of Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank Crossbench 3:06 pm, 15th March 2007

My Lords, like other Members of the House, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord King, for securing this debate. Also like others, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, on his promotion. I know that it will be much appreciated in the services, not only because he is held in great respect but because, for the next few weeks, he will be expected to celebrate by buying drinks in every sergeants' mess that he visits.

Recently, a number of senior serving officers have spoken out publicly about their concerns and about the difficulties that their services are facing. In principle, I very much disapprove of serving officers doing that. It is not our way, but I am not very surprised that they now feel compelled to do so, and I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord King, said. They owe loyalty not only to their Ministers—their political masters—but also to their subordinates and their services. There is now a feeling—probably stronger than I can ever recall—that the Government are not keeping their side of the bargain and honouring the military covenant, to which others have referred. The services are suffering from years of under investment and of being taken for granted, and from a lack of understanding of what is required.

We should know that defence planning is notoriously difficult and, perhaps more than with any other department of state, the future challenges are harder to predict. One needs to remember that, practically without exception, every major emergency involving the British services over the past 25 years has been unforeseen. I include the Falklands campaign in 1982, the Gulf in 1991, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Macedonia and, now, Afghanistan. That is to say nothing about the emergencies at home—the fuel crisis, the foot and mouth outbreak, firefighting and the July terrorist attacks. Today, the ill-intentioned can wreak havoc in a way that only a short time ago would have been unimaginable. I know of no serious commentators who believe that the world will soon become a safer place. They predict that new challenges will arise, such as energy security and population movement.

Many people feel that, as a country, we are far too ready to send expeditionary forces to far-away places, but our security does not only depend on "fortress UK". We live in a globalised world, and what happens in Pakistan, the Middle East or the Horn of Africa can affect us. It is easy to say that we have a choice and can avoid involvement, but Governments do not always have the luxury of choice. That is rarely recognised, particularly by opposition parties. It would be very unwise to predicate our defence and foreign policies and budgets on avoiding trouble.

Of course, the forces cannot prepare for every scenario, threat and instability currently imaginable. There is no equivalent of a geographical comprehensive insurance policy in today's world. That makes it necessary for us to have a balanced defence force that can adapt quickly to the demands of a new crisis. But allotting resources is extremely difficult. To many, the defence budget seems enormous and it is in comparison with many, but certainly not in comparison with all spending departments. Undoubtedly, the Ministry of Defence can be criticised for some of its procurement policies, as we have heard. Large sums of money have been wasted and serious problems have arisen, from over optimistic cost estimates to overruns. The new defence industrial strategy, driven by the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, certainly should eventually bring great advantages, but the Minister, who deserves our congratulations on his initiative, has a huge task and previous attempts to improve procurement have had very mixed results. The 1998 exercises, Smart Procurement and Smart Acquisition, were both disappointing.

Other noble Lords have and will talk about Iraq and Afghanistan. I agree with all that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, said about Afghanistan. All I would add is that operations by the British defence forces are being conducted successfully today, but they cannot be maintained at their present tempo on current human and equipment resources and funding for much longer without inviting a dramatic deterioration in capability and performance, damage to the forces and risking operational failure. The defence planning assumptions have been proved to be inaccurate and need to be revisited, but many in Whitehall still feel that once the campaigns we are fighting are over all will be well and we can return to a notional status quo ante of normality, where demands on defence will be much less. To adopt that attitude at this time is wrong, irresponsible, very risky and dangerous.

I hope that Ministers and civil servants really understand the very great difficulties that commands have: new savings measures following hotfoot on previous savings measures; stoppage of programmes; cancellation of exercises or a reduction in their scope; failure to maintain housing; difficulty in obtaining spares and keeping elderly equipment running; and secondary medical care, which has been much in the news.

I am pleased to see that the Chief of the General Staff now seems happier with the treatment of our casualties, but it is worrying when he says that conditions have improved and every hospital is getting better. That is hardly a ringing endorsement. We have been at war for four years now. What has been happening in those four years? I agree with all that the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, said about the National Health Service and its excellent work. I am delighted that the Defence Select Committee will now address the problems. I, like I am sure many noble Lords, was deeply shocked by what some of the casualties, their wives, their partners and parents have had to say about their handling—I am not just talking about Birmingham.

We must be concerned about the future. It could get much worse in Afghanistan; we could have many more casualties. Can we really cope? What is planned? Do we really believe in the present arrangements? Like most people who have served in the Army, Royal Navy or Royal Air Force, I come from a fairly sceptical position. So often we have been let down by the medical plan. We were promised a single hospital; we were assured we would get it, but it never happened. We were promised separate wings at hospitals around the country; the concept was changed. We were told that Birmingham would be a large facility which would be able to deal with large numbers of casualties and that there would be military wards, but that is still to happen. We can hardly be blamed for being a little sceptical.

Of course, it is not all gloom. Some equipment, as people have said, is as good as any in the world, but commanders and their staffs spend an inordinate amount of time managing crises caused by inadequate budgets and financial measures imposed at short notice. We will be in real trouble if the main preoccupation of a commander is financial rather than training and going on operations. With all due respect to the noble Lord, Lord James of Blackheath, we do not want battalions in Afghanistan commanded by bean counters.

What should be done for defence? It is quite obvious that we cannot afford, with the resources that we have today, everything that we would like. The sums do not add up. We have three options. First, we can funk it: we can count on the world becoming a safer place. Quite honestly, that would change the services and we would be too weak everywhere.

Secondly, we could keep the defence budget at much the same size but change the priorities of how it is spent. That would mean directing more money to the Army, which is too small by several thousands, and would probably have a devastating effect on the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Today, operations are manpower-intensive. We need more people and the Ministry of Defence misled us when we thought that cuts imposed on defence would be compensated by clever new technology: the Revolution in Military Affairs and Networked Enabled Capability.