Armed Forces

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:07 pm on 22nd November 2007.

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Photo of Lord Chidgey Lord Chidgey Liberal Democrat 12:07 pm, 22nd November 2007

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, has made a telling contribution to this debate based on the wisdom of his own experience, on which we should dwell throughout the hours to come. I am sure that your Lordships' House will want me to pass on good wishes for the speedy recovery of my noble friend Lord Lee of Trafford, while he recuperates in hospital. He will be disappointed not to be here today to follow the speech that he made in the debate on the gracious Address when he focused on the key issues, as appears to be well known.

From almost every quarter in the defence and security world, whether from defence analysts, think tanks and institutes or military personnel, warning bells are ringing. There are growing concerns that our Armed Forces are unable to sustain the tasks required of them to respond to government policy. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, made the point that the covenant with the Armed Forces is an essential part of our relationship with them. If we choose to have Armed Forces that are prepared to engage in this difficult, tough and challenging campaign—to be war fighters as well as peace makers—then, in recognising that this is a new situation for our Armed Forces, we must recognise that new commitments are necessary to make it work and to make it fair. The covenant between the Armed Forces, the Government and the people must be renewed. For our part, in government, our former Prime Minister said that it will mean increased expenditure on equipment, personnel and the conditions of our Armed Forces—not in the short run, but for the long term.

That is the nub of the debate today: whether the commitment made by our Government on behalf of the nation, and subsequently endorsed by both the former and current Prime Ministers is being met in reality. An increasing body of informed and expert opinion is telling us that it is not. British forces are now suffering critical overstretch due to the mismatch between resources, capabilities and commitments. They were suffering even before the Iraq war and, we are told by many, are now stretched to breaking point. For example, General Sir Richard Dannatt said in July:

"The enduring nature and scale of current operations continues to stretch people ... we now have almost no capability to react to the unexpected", and that reinforcements for emergencies or operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are now "almost non-existent".

That was in late July, and of course the Government may well now claim that the situation has moved on, with troops being withdrawn from Iraq and reinforcements being deployed in Afghanistan and so on. But the bald facts, according to the RUSI Acquisition Focus of spring 2007, are that the Government's defence planning assumptions, on which the defence budget is based, have been exceeded for at least the past seven years. Experts will of course tell us that it does not matter too much if we exceed the planning expectations for maybe one or two years. But this has been a continual problem for at least seven years, which suggests that our lack of capacity to react to the unexpected or emergencies is not just a one-off but is becoming systemic and endemic.

It is almost 10 years since the Strategic Defence Review in 1998 set out the Government's vision for the future. Since then, global security has changed significantly, particularly following the terrorist attacks of 2001, the resulting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan against the Taliban, and the campaigns against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda across the region. Those are in addition to our continuing roles in the Balkans, Bosnia, Africa and Sierra Leone and, more widely—as the noble Baroness who introduced this debate said—working with the EU, the UN and AU peacekeeping efforts.

Although the SDR was largely welcomed at the time, the global security situation has moved on; added to which, many of the problems that the SDR was supposed to solve—a posture more suited to the Cold War, undermanning and overstretch—remain a major concern today. The SDR set broad benchmarks that visualised, for example, either a response to a major international crisis that might require a military effort and combat operations of a similar scale and duration to the Gulf War—I am advised that, in broad terms, that means deploying an armoured division, 26 major warships and more than 80 combat aircraft—or undertaking a more extended overseas deployment on a lesser scale, as in Bosnia, for example, while retaining the ability to mount a second substantial deployment, probably involving a combat brigade and appropriate naval and air forces, if this were made necessary by a second crisis. The SDR did not, however, expect both deployments to involve war fighting, or to be maintained simultaneously for longer than six months.

In that context, it is worth emphasising the point made by my noble friend Lord Ashdown in a recent article, that only one twenty-fifth of the troop numbers and one fiftieth of the amount of aid is being put into Afghanistan per head of population than we put into Bosnia and Kosovo. Yet the war in Afghanistan is seen as the conflict in which we must succeed if we are to contain and defeat international fundamentalists launching their terrorist campaigns across the world. It is therefore worrying to see reports in our national papers that, according to the MoD's own performance report, almost half of Britain's forces are ill prepared to be sent on operations because of equipment shortages; this in spite of the MoD's previous rebuttals of claims from the military that even troops training for Iraq or Afghanistan have inadequate equipment.

I hope that the Minister will address the claims that paratroopers preparing to go to Afghanistan in April have only half the required number of Challenger tanks and Land Rovers fitted with machine guns available for training. Will she respond to claims that the report states that 42 per cent of UK forces have critical or serious weaknesses in their ability to be ready to deploy and that 35 per cent stated that they could not even be certain of meeting their basic peacetime requirements?

A further concern has to be that, in spite of reassurances from NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the tensions between members over the mission in Afghanistan have not been resolved and still threaten progress. It transpires that at a recent meeting of NATO defence Ministers in Holland, up to nine nations might have offered to increase their contributions to the mission in response to US pressure, but there were no responses to the call from the US for major reinforcements. In fact, the possible offers appear to be of more soldiers to help train the Afghan national army, not of troops to take on the war-fighting aspects of the mission. Countries such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain continue to be constrained by what are called national caveats, which restrict their forces to non-combatant roles away from the war-fighting zones. These are political decisions that they should surely find increasingly difficult to sustain, particularly when time is running out to get the mission right and when reconstruction is progressing more slowly than hoped and the Taliban are regaining some hold in the south, in parts that the Afghan national army is as yet unable to protect.

Reports from the British American Security Information CouncilBASIC—last week reinforce that view. They record that, after the NATO chiefs of staff meeting on 14 November, General Ray Henault, the chairman of the alliance's military committee, confirmed that shortfalls in troop levels have slowed progress in Afghanistan. He added that even though forces have grown by 8,500 troops, military commanders are still in need of helicopters and other resources. We need to be reassured that all NATO members are still agreed that the mission in Afghanistan cannot be allowed to fail. It cannot be allowed to fail because not just the future of Afghanistan but also the credibility of NATO is on the line. NATO members must be prepared to provide the means and not just to wish for the outcome. I hope that the Minister can confirm that the Government are sending to our allies the message that all members have an individual responsibility to provide the means to achieve a successful outcome for the good of the alliance, their citizens and the success of the campaign against international terrorism, and that the burden has to be shared or it will become unsustainable.

In the mean time, our Armed Forces continue to suffer overstretch from unsustainable commitments, inadequate resources, inappropriate equipment and insufficient trained personnel. In that context, the Armed Forces' continuous attitude surveys record that overstretch and frequency of operational tours are now cited as major reasons for service personnel of all ranks deciding to leave the forces. Not surprisingly, there are now acute shortages of qualified personnel in key areas, in particular in military medical services. For example, we have less than 65 per cent of the nurses needed, less than 50 per cent of the surgeons and only 20 per cent of the radiologists. I speak from experience as one who has had every reason to be grateful for the level of healthcare provided by military medical services at Haslar hospital, now sadly closed, and at Frimley Park Hospital in Surrey. I feel very strongly about the need to maintain the morale and capabilities of our Army, Navy and Air Force medical services.

The impact on the Armed Forces is aggravated by the number of personnel exceeding the harmony guidelines meant to ensure a reasonable lifestyle for our troops. The figure given by the MoD to the Public Accounts Committee in July this year was still around 12 per cent—one in eight—of Army personnel. We would like to hear from the Minister where the statistics are today and how the Government intend to respond more urgently to the eventual loss of these and other key personnel and to restore the covenant with the Armed Forces that is clearly so close to foundering.


Daniel Jackson
Posted on 27 Nov 2007 8:58 am (Report this annotation)

As a point in note, welfare that was envisaged in the Armed Forces was the smallest chapter in SDR, being a total of only 6/7 pages if memory serves.