Armed Forces — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:09 pm on 7th April 2014.

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Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 9:09 pm, 7th April 2014

My Lords, I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, for introducing this very important issue. I share the right reverend Prelate’s thoughts for those members of the Armed Forces serving on operations and, of course, for their families. It is right that we should do everything we can to ensure that our country is not caught unawares in the event of unforeseen crises and threats. The noble Lord’s Question concerns the sufficiency of our manpower. In addressing it, we should look first at the existing scope and scale of our commitments worldwide.

Currently, we have more than 30,000 service men and women committed on operations. They are providing significant contributions to security and stabilisation in Afghanistan, combating piracy off the Horn of Africa, countering narcotics in the Caribbean and keeping open vital choke points in the Strait of Hormuz. Recently we have seen British Armed Forces support the French in Mali. We have deployed HMS “Daring” and HMS “Illustrious” to the Philippines to assist in the humanitarian effort in the wake of the hurricane. We have seen regulars and reserves protecting possessions and property against the recent floods. In the past week we have dispatched a submarine to help hunt for the missing Malaysian aeroplane. These are examples of the activities that our Armed Forces are currently engaged in, and all happening in a period of transition. If anyone was under the illusion that the post-Afghanistan world would be a quieter place, then events in Syria and latterly in Ukraine have swiftly dispelled that illusion.

Several noble Lords, including my noble friends Lord King and Lord Burnett, asked about Ukraine. What has happened there is completely indefensible. This is the most serious risk to European security that we have seen so far in the 21st century. The priority now is to deter further Russian military action, de-escalate and find a diplomatic solution. The Government have made it clear that they remain committed to a diplomatic solution to the current crisis in Crimea and Ukraine, and in this respect are pursuing a number of diplomatic and economic initiatives, including targeted sanctions and representations in international fora. In terms of reassuring allies, the UK was one of the first to offer tangible contributions, with our offer to supplement NATO’s peacetime Baltic air policing mission. NATO will continue to provide appropriate reinforcement of visible assurance of NATO’s cohesion and commitment to deterrence and collective defence against any threat of aggression to the alliance.

My noble friend Lord Burnett asked about Russian defence spending. Russia has previously stated that it intends to increase defence spending. It intends to spend $650 billion up to 2020, including the acquisition of eight nuclear submarines, 600 jets, 1,000 helicopters and 100 warships, in an attempt to modernise its armed forces.

The noble Lord, Lord Soley, mentioned the next SDSR. Clearly the SDSR in 2015 will consider whether our foreign policy and security objectives have changed in the intervening five years, and the implications for our Armed Forces.

The noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, asked what we are able to do under Future Force 2020. It will enable us to conduct simultaneously an enduring stabilisation operation of up to 6,500 personnel, equivalent to operations in Afghanistan over the past decade; one non-enduring complex intervention of up to 2,000 personnel, equivalent to that undertaken in Libya; and one non-enduring simple intervention of up to

1,000 personnel, equivalent to the UK’s support to France in Mali. This level of capability has been tested against a wide range of scenarios and a whole of government assessment of the likely future threats and commitments facing the UK. We are confident that it allows us to protect and promote the UK and its interests in an effective, sustainable manner.

The noble Lord also asked about risks. The Armed Forces are going through significant restructuring. Throughout this period, there will be shortages in some roles. However, we can be clear that there are safeguards in place to ensure that front-line operational capability is not affected. All three services continue to recruit, and the Army recently launched a major recruiting drive for both regulars and reservists. We are confident that we have, and will continue to have, the right personnel and skill sets to satisfy all strategic defence priorities.

Several noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Lee, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and my noble friend Lord Lyell, asked about reserves recruitment. The latest reserves recruitment campaign began in January. All three services have used a range of advertising methods from radio, TV and online recruitment targeted at the youth audience to deploying uniformed personnel at prominent locations such as shopping centres. The initial response to the recruitment campaign is encouraging, as my noble friend Lord Freeman said. Local reserve units have been heavily involved in recruiting activity as they know their local areas best of all. From this, the Army is analysing the lessons identified and the reports of good practice, and is encouraging units to share and promote their good practice.

We have introduced a number of new initiatives to simply the recruiting process. These include the revised medical process, introduced in January, and the new online application forms. It is still early days. The length of time that it takes applicants to progress through the application and training pipelines means that it will take a while for the actual impact to become realised, but we are very positive.

My noble friend Lord Glenarthur asked about recruiting levels against the 2018 target for reservists and regulars, and he also asked about retention in the regulars. The figures released on 13 February in the defence statistics demonstrate that the Reserve Forces are on track to meet or even exceed the interim target for April this year. We have always said that growing the reserves would be a challenge, and the start of that challenge is reversing the long decline in numbers. The trained strength figures are expected to dip initially because it takes around two years for a recruit to complete the training and join the trained strength.

Regular Army recruiting is forecasting a 30% shortfall in soldier entrants caused by a combination of factors. This is being tackled through an improvement to the recruiting process. This shortfall has been taken into account in our manpower forecasting and planning. Under Army 2020, the Regular Army is reducing from 102,000 to 82,500. Today, the Army has a shortfall of some 4,000 people against the structure, but this will be cancelled out as the structure is reduced over the next three years. Current voluntary outflow levels are above the 10-year average. The range of criteria used when forecasting VO is wide and includes economic advice from the Office for Budget Responsibility, historic behaviour and expected trends. The result of this forecast was used when modelling the requirements and it led to a reduced requirement for tranche 4.

My noble friend Lord Lee asked me about the carriers and the cost increases. Until a new contract is signed, the current agreement remains extant. This agreed a 90:10 share of costs. The Secretary of State stated in November 2013 that,

“under the new agreement, any variation above or below that price will be shared on a 50:50 basis between Government and industry, until all the contractor’s profit is lost”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 6/11/13; col. 251.]

The revised deal, including the revised 50:50 share line that better incentivises industry to control costs by allocating an equitable share should costs grow beyond the new target, is expected to be approved this spring, and the new contract will be signed on completion.

My noble friend also asked about escorts. The Royal Navy has 19 operational frigates and destroyers: 13 Type 23 frigates and six Type 45 destroyers. These ships are held at varying degrees of readiness. Three ships are currently deployed overseas, conducting operations in the Persian Gulf, the eastern Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Four ships are undergoing training in preparation for forthcoming international deployments or are held at high-readiness for contingency operations. One is conducting defence engagement in Dover in support of the HMS “Cavalier” 70th anniversary celebrations, eight are in routine maintenance in their home port, and three are in deep maintenance. I hope that that addresses my noble friend’s questions.

My noble friend also asked about Joint Strike Fighter dates. Initial operating capability for the UK’s F-35 aircraft is scheduled for December 2018, with carrier strike capability scheduled for 2020. I am happy to tell my noble friend that these remain on track.

My noble friend asked for an update on ScanEagle. The ScanEagle has been successfully, swiftly and safely introduced into service, fulfilling an urgent operational requirement. This day and night capable UAS is operated from Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels and provides an important uplift in persistent surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. It is currently in use on deployed operations, providing real-time intelligence to the ships’ staff and has already proved itself to be an important addition to our maritime capabilities.

My noble friend asked about the numbers of Type 26 frigates. The Government’s current planning assumption is the construction of 13 Type 26s.

I will do my best to answer as many questions as I have time for, but I am conscious that I will not be able to answer all noble Lords. I shall write to those whom I am unable to answer now and copy in all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate.

Several noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Bilimoria and Lord Rosser, and the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, asked about morale. This is a challenging time for defence. Morale and esprit de corps are monitored within the Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey. We take this issue seriously and we are aware that we have work to do.

My noble friend Lord Burnett asked about the Trident replacement. Over the next year the programme will continue to evolve as the submarine design matures. Detailed preparations will continue for main gate in 2016, ensuring that the design, costings and procurement strategy are mature. A further report to Parliament will be made later this year.

My noble friend Lord King mentioned small and medium-sized enterprises and their concerns over reliance on reservists. We recognise the contribution of SMEs and that Reserve service can affect them more greatly than larger firms. That is why we are bringing in employer incentive payments of up to £500 per reservist per month when a reservist is mobilised.

My noble friend also asked about accommodation in the UK for forces returning from Germany. The MoD has set aside £1.6 billion to implement the army basing plan, providing nearly 1,900 new service family accommodations and 4,800 new single living/bed spaces.

The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, asked about our resilience to cyberattack. Defence takes cybersecurity extremely seriously. Across the UK as a whole cyber skills are in short supply. The best way to address this is through a mixture of Regular and Reserve forces.

The noble Baroness, Lady Dean, asked about working hours and the minimum wage. We have worked to ensure that the sacrifices and dedication of our personnel are recognised. They have continued to benefit from pay rises and other benefits, including subsidised accommodation, generous pensions and plenty of paid leave. It is therefore entirely misleading to suggest that any of them earn less than the minimum wage.

I am running out of time. This Government have taken difficult decisions in order to preserve the sustainability of the Armed Forces. That was the responsible course of action. No one thought that the transformation of our Armed Forces to Future Force 2020 would be easy—if they did, it would have been done much sooner. The services are rising admirably to the challenges of change. They are shaping their own future while continuing to deliver everything required of them in current operations.