May I, at the outset, apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who, as Ann Winterton said, is in Portsmouth for the fleet review? He would otherwise have been here to answer this debate.
In addition, I congratulate the hon. Lady on having obtained time for this debate on a key programme for defence and for the Army. I am grateful to her for giving me the opportunity to explain, on behalf of the Department, the thinking behind the future rapid effects system programme. Having asked a number of questions, taken part in debates and raised issues concerning FRES, the hon. Lady has built up quite a knowledge of the programme and the idea behind it. Her contribution has been helpful and appropriate in the context of the wide-ranging debate that we need to have.
It might be helpful if I clarify what FRES is. I shall outline the drivers for the requirement, and give details of the progress that we have made in an immensely complex and demanding programme. The underlying requirement for FRES stems from two strategic requirements. First, we need to replace some of our current armoured vehicles, such as the Saxon, the FV 430 and the CVR(T), and, secondly, we need to develop a medium-weight capability so that we have a balanced force of heavy, medium and light brigades.
FRES will also be rapidly deployable by air at battle group level—in other words, a battalion or regiment-sized force. The strategic defence review and its new chapter identified the need to enhance our expeditionary capability, but since then our thinking has developed further. The 2003 and 2004 defence White Papers clearly explain our vision to develop a highly effective medium-weight capability. As a result of the review, the Army will be rebalanced, reducing the emphasis on heavy armoured forces and increasing the emphasis on light and medium forces.
By ensuring that each deployable brigade is fully manned and has its own integral enablers and logistics, the Army will be better equipped and structured to conduct all types of operations. FRES is at the heart of the Army's equipment programme and it will have wide uses, not only in the medium forces, but also as a key support role for our heavy forces.
Whether for short intervention operations or enduring peace support, we often need forces with greater firepower, protection and mobility than that of light forces, but with deployability and agility that cannot be achieved by heavy forces. By providing this capability, FRES will underpin the rebalancing of the Army and the development of a truly effective medium-weight force.
In a nutshell, FRES will be a family of medium-weight armoured vehicles of around 20 tonnes, enabled by communications, information and surveillance systems, with the growth potential to develop over time. It will be the central pillar of the Army's capable and deployable balanced force, which will have a wide operational role, from warfighting to peacekeeping.