Armed Forces

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:22 pm on 22nd November 2007.

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Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Deputy Chief Whip, Spokesperson in the Lords (Sport), Culture, Media & Sport, Spokesperson in the Lords, Defence 3:22 pm, 22nd November 2007

My Lords, I am extremely nervous about summing up a debate that has featured quite so much expertise. One thing that has become apparent is that we as a political class are only just starting to wake up to the reality of the fact that we are involved in two wars which could last for many years, indeed possibly even for decades. Our forces are deployed to a level that was never planned for, and that is a historical problem which has affected all Governments for the past couple of decades. We did not expect this to happen and we have not planned for it. Moreover, we do not have enough intelligence—I use the word in the sense of information gathering—to enable us to decide what we can do successfully. We do not know how long these things may go on for, and that is the backdrop to the entire debate.

We have to square up to the fact that these wars we have chosen to become involved in have to be fought and won. That is certainly the case in Afghanistan, but I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, that I do not think we should have gone into Iraq in the first place and that we could probably leave without affecting the outcome. Unless we back up our forces with sufficient resources and political capital, we risk encouraging the groups we have set out to confront. We have to ensure that we are there for the long haul. This, however, will lead to considerable attention being drawn to the way in which we have planned, the way in which we are prepared to spend money and the priorities that we in the political world give to this expenditure.

The case for a new Strategic Defence Review has become overwhelming. It has already been said that the attempt to take a peace dividend at the end of the Cold War has led to our Armed Forces being, if not cut, slightly whittled away and allowed to wither. We did not think that there would be any great long-term commitments so we became slightly more adventurous and thought that we could make interventions at a lower level. Ultimately, this policy has led to our troops being greatly stretched.

As to the covenant, I thank the Minister for replying to the questions I raised in the debate on 7 November. I am afraid I have not studied his reply in any great depth as I picked it up at two o'clock today. I have covered the situation of our troops at home. The second part of the covenant is to make sure that troops in the field have what is required to win a conflict with the minimum casualties. However, as has been proved, casualties will be an ongoing factor for the foreseeable future. Not only must we make sure that our troops have the right weapons in the field but—as has been pointed out by people who, if they do not know, no one does—the right training and equipment properly to prepare them to take the right action. This will in turn enhance the chances of a successful outcome and cut down on casualties. Our troops in the field should have this backing, this logistical support, and sufficient colleagues to call on to meet the challenges in front of them. It would be a positive note if we could have an assurance that this Administration will never undertake another military operation unless that back-up and support can be made available to those involved. These are wars of choice. We are not defending our own borders or those of our allies; we chose to take part in the action.

What options would be available to us if there were to be a Strategic Defence Review? We could carry on as we are, looking at the budget and trying to find a little more money to maintain a general cross-capacity; or we could pump more money in to make sure that we can do all the things we have traditionally tried to do. We could consider what is to be the role of the Armed Forces in the future. Do we have the capacity to fight the kind of war we are fighting in Afghanistan, the capacity to fight an armoured rapid movement war, the capacity successfully to deploy a fleet with the ability to wage war by itself—or do we withdraw from such operations? Do we decide that there are things we cannot do that we have previously said we should do? Do we decide publicly to admit that we can no longer take independent action?

These decisions would be enhanced if we could achieve a political consensus by opening up the discussion to those involved. This would require a degree of political courage by all concerned. Are we going to say, for instance, that we will take certain types of action only in conjunction with our primary ally, the United States? This is not an easy decision to make, especially for those on these Benches who have not liked the political decisions of the United States. However, it is a decision we have to take.

What are we going to do in the future? At the moment, the deployed forces are stretched and we are in danger of starving of resources the branches of the Armed Forces which are not under the spotlight at the moment. This may affect their capacity to engage in the future. We should not even contemplate leaving our Armed Forces exposed in this way and still give consideration to the possibility of future deployments.

We must remember the covenant. These are our service personnel. They are potentially not only in danger but that danger is enhanced and defeat may well be inevitable. We must grab hold of this problem. We have heard from all around the House that if we do not take a grip on this situation we will simply muddle on and through, constantly undermining and endangering our personnel. We must look at what is required to support them.

I turn to the matter of the covenant. Are we going to continue to ensure that not only do our Armed Forces personnel have sufficient personal resources to keep them involved and interested in the forces, but that it remains an attractive career in the future? The noble Baroness, Lady Dean, said that it was not just a question of pay. I have recently spoken to senior serving officers who said that their soldiers, on coming back from operations and covering for firefighters during the recent dispute, had said what an easy job it was and how much better paid firefighters were. There is a perception that they are undervalued compared with, for example, policemen. It does not matter that they are comparing chalk and cheese—and indeed a firefighter may have a distinct opinion on exactly how good a job the soldiers did—but the fact that they feel that way is the most important thing. It is not just a question of pay, but if your accommodation is not right, you are doing more service without the chance to do the right training, your wives and girlfriends—this is predominantly from a male perspective—are saying, "It's either me or your job" and your children are not getting the right education or are having to move schools, the issue of pay will certainly be one of your grievances.

The idea that you are being undervalued is probably as important as any one action. The idea that you are held in esteem has historically attracted people to the armed services, and we should be prepared to take action that enhances that feeling. I forget exactly who mentioned it, but merely saying, "Aren't our Armed Forces wonderful?" does not really cut it. There are only so many times a man can be put into a dress uniform and paraded around while people say, "Isn't he wonderful?" before he starts wondering about his pay packet and his housing.

We have to try to address the situation. We have to admit that we are fighting a war and asking our servicemen, when they don a uniform and go on operations, to risk their lives as the direct result of someone else wanting to kill them. We cannot get by on the policy that was described to me as "jogging along" as we did during the Cold War. We have to take more assertive action, such as identifying targets and establishing what the Government think are the minimum standards of support for servicemen. Unless we achieve these two things and marry them together, we will have a failure at some level. It may not be this time around and it will probably not be dramatic or even obvious at the time, but we will build up a great probability of failure at some point in the future.

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Caroline Taylor
Posted on 27 Nov 2007 12:33 am (Report this annotation)

As an army wife i agree 100%