It is a pleasure to introduce the debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Taylor, and I am delighted to have secured it on my first attempt-normally I try for months to secure debates, but on this occasion I was lucky first time.
I wanted to have this debate not least because my years in the House of Commons are drawing to an end after nearly 27 years and I shall not be around when the next defence review takes place. I would like to use the opportunity to pull together matters raised in defence debates I have previously initiated and those to which I have contributed. I will set out a narrative and throw what I hope are constructive points into the melting pot, which I trust will be pursued in the next Parliament when the defence review is taken forward.
I have never regarded defence as a party political issue and have always tried to praise or, at times, constructively criticise both Government and Opposition parties on their defence policies. I apologise to the Royal Navy for not including ships in this debate and hope that the senior service will not be miffed, but Back Benchers sometimes have to focus on a narrow brief rather than take a broad-brush approach to all defence matters. I believe that the issue of vehicles and aircraft offers a clear insight into military thinking and direction, and it is pleasing to note that some of the issues I raised when I began to be more active in defence matters in 2004 are now bearing fruit and perhaps are being taken more seriously in some quarters.
In July this year senior figures from the British military and from coalition countries, together with Ministry of Defence scientists and engineers, gathered to discuss strategy and tactics for countering the threat from improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan, an issue I had raised three years earlier in the House, predicting what would happen based on our experience in Iraq. I pose the following rhetorical question: why did it take three years for the experts to catch up?
I begin with the issue of Snatch Land Rovers in Iraq. General Jackson thought that the aftermath of the Iraq war could be handled with the tactics used in Northern Ireland by sending in Snatch Land Rovers. Once casualties started to mount up and criticism of the vehicle's vulnerability to explosive devices began, we entered a propaganda phase with all the great and the good averring that a small vehicle was required to win hearts and minds and to be able to access narrow streets. Then Snatch patrols were escorted by Warriors through the most dangerous places, which obviously gave the game away in respect of the line that had previously been taken.
However, because of the lack of a suitable vehicle, a bunker-down approach was taken which eventually led to our failure in Iraq. Convoys became so unsafe that they withdrew to their bases, where they were mortared and rocketed, until they withdrew from those places as well. We lost manoeuvrability and tactical advantage and were put on the back foot.
The Mastiff arrived too late to turn the tide of the damage that had already been done, but that is a story in its own right. Why was the first built-for-purpose mine-protected vehicle-the Mastiff-built at the opposite end of the scale to that which was required? In other words, why was it so large when something smaller like the Ridgback, or something even smaller than that, would have been more appropriate from the outset? It was clear that the Army did not want that design of vehicle at all. It plumped for the death trap Vector, which we thought had been withdrawn from service but will not be withdrawn until next year-too late, sadly, for the last RAF fatality.
The politicians, though, were right to support the procurement of Mastiff, which has been a great success in saving the lives of so many troops.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She rightly makes the point that we did not react quickly enough. Does she blame the Army chiefs or civil servants in the Ministry of Defence for that? Where does she feel the blame lies for our failure to react with the speed that we should have?
I am grateful for that intervention. I do not feel that I should blame either of those two bodies; certainly it was a combination of both. The problem so often in the procurement of vehicles, aircraft or whatever, is that the process is convoluted and complex, and there are people such as the hon. Gentleman who campaign for certain projects that affect their own constituency. I think, too, that there is perhaps a mentality in the armed services, because of their loyalty and the way they are trained and so on, which means that they are not always able to think quickly out of the box-except when they are in the field, of course, and that is totally different. I believe that that is why the present situation has arisen, but I am not accusing anyone. I am just making what I hope will be a jolly good case for change in the future.
Just like the Snatch-Warrior combination in Iraq, we recently saw two Mastiffs of the counter-IED team escorting a Brigade Reconnaissance Force convoy of 26 Jackals during Operation Panther's Valour in Afghanistan. The lead Mastiff was struck by a massive IED that would have obliterated a Jackal. This vehicle, like the Vector, is one that I have been critical of in the past.
We ought to remember that the Mastiff was initially purchased for use in Iraq, where there are paved roads, but it has since been deployed in Afghanistan.
I know that my hon. Friend has a great interest in promoting Israel. I am not aware of the attributes of that vehicle, but I am sure that those who are present today will have heard what he says about it.
The sales pitch for procuring the Vector and the Jackal was based on their off-road performance and manoeuvrability, which is fine for special forces and true reconnaissance. However, when it comes to general duties, using off-road vehicles that are not suitably armoured is suicidal. When the Jackal first came into service, there was no intention to add armour, but when it was later heavily criticised, the usual cycle began of adding to a vehicle armour for which it had not been initially designed.
Of course, young lads, who are always boy racers at heart, love driving the Jackal-that is, until they or their mates are killed or maimed. The Ministry will not reveal how many vehicles have been lost for the good reason that it is the Army's prestigious toy, and the figure is high.
If convoys have to be taken off road, what signal does that send to the local population? The international security assistance force regards the roads as unsafe, but expects local people to use them for business and commerce. The difficult and varied terrain of Afghanistan, with its canals and pinch points, is not conducive to manoeuvrability, and many Afghans have also been killed by IEDs.
Meanwhile, because the UK gave away its mine-clearance equipment from Bosnian days-that is, the Chubby sets and engineering plant-it has had to purchase Talisman, which is due in 2011. There is still no mine-detection vehicle such as we had in Bosnia. That vehicle was called the Husky, which is confusing, as two vehicles are coming on stream with the same name. Even the Rhodesians had mine-detection vehicles more than 30 years ago with the Pookie, which had been developed from a Volkswagen Beetle. We now have to resort to foot patrols using hand-held mine detectors and, believe it or not, we do not have an armoured bulldozer.
Until recently, the problem has been the Army's obsession with the future rapid effect system concept-this partially answers the question of Mr. Hoyle-including the futuristic medium-weight vehicle and electric armour, which is far ahead of its time as far as the technology is concerned. The design structure has proved useless for the form of warfare being pursued in Afghanistan.
While not officially a FRES vehicle, the disastrous Panther was part of the overall package. It is highly complicated-one just has to lift the bonnet and have a look. I will admit that I have not done that, but a friend of mine has and assures me that that is so, in case anyone challenges me on that point.
The Panther has been upgraded at enormous cost to try to make it work in Afghanistan. The cost has been £20 million for 67 vehicles, and therein lies the problem. The Army chose unsuitable vehicles that look futuristic but cost a fortune, bearing in mind the cost of loss of the vehicle plus its replacement, and not forgetting death and serious injury compensation.
The Panther is quite a large vehicle, and now is probably top-heavy. If it rolls over, there is no rear exit. There are only side doors, so those inside rely on the air conditioning-not a pleasant scenario to describe. Compare the Panther with the Mastiff and Ridgback, which work on blast deflection rather than blast absorption. If I had £5 for every time I have used those two phrases, I would be a wealthy woman by now. And Mastiff and Ridgback are not written off when they have been hit. They may not be easy on the eye, but they are practical and have saved life and prevented injury on innumerable occasions.
From the same stable as the Mastiff comes the Ocelot light protected patrol vehicle, which was launched at the Defence Systems and Equipment International Exhibition held in London in September. The Ocelot is based on simplicity and quick change of modular use and, like the Snatch, has a rear dismounting capability. Its competitor from the Jackal camp is a future model of the Supacat, the SPV 400, which, interestingly, has a curved windscreen. I wonder if that has a practical purpose or whether it is just a bit of window-dressing for marketing purposes, because curved armoured glass would cost a small fortune to manufacture.
I hasten to add that I am not favouring one manufacturer over another. One should always consider the basic overall design. That issue was obvious from the start with the Vector and, as a result, affected its performance, because more weight was added to armour it, which caused problems once it was operational, as the number of injured and the number of body bags that have resulted show.
Money has been poured down the drain because of poor procurement decisions on vehicles. So is it any wonder that the United Kingdom cannot now pay its Territorial Army? After the propaganda of the past two years, promoting one Army of regulars and reservists, we are now experiencing massive discrimination against reservists and we could be portrayed as a country that cannot pay its soldiers.
Another flawed vehicle is Tellar, the totally unprotected bomb disposal vehicle, which is discreetly being replaced by a variant of the Mastiff, which was seen in Operation Panther's Valour. I also have doubts about the new Husky vehicle, which will probably not survive an IED attack, but which is the preferred choice of the Army.
Insurgents always find the weak spots in vehicles, and they know which ones are vulnerable. That is why it is so important to understand the physics in blast deflection-to save life and limb. Just like the British public, I am a complete outsider on military affairs, but we are all becoming wary of the unreasonable level of death and injury, the human costs involved and the financial cost of the military's choice of vehicles and platforms. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the military's belief that state-on-state conventional high-intensity warfare equipment can be used in long-term conflicts, such as Afghanistan, is flawed. No nation on earth can afford to put such equipment through such long, drawn-out warfare.
Since the hon. Lady has mentioned Afghanistan, does she agree that safe mobility is the key issue for British troops there? She may not be aware that three companies of the Royal Anglian Regiment from my constituency flew to Afghanistan last week and are probably engaging the enemy right now, in their usual brave, totally professional manner. Does she have any estimate of how quickly we can improve safe mobility and armoured mobility in Afghanistan? Does she expect the Minister to give her answers on that this morning?
The whole tenor of my speech is about safe mobility of one sort or another. I commend the hon. Gentleman's constituents, who are fighting and are probably in an engagement in Afghanistan as we speak. It is for the Minister to reassure those Members of Parliament present about how quickly some of these vehicles and aircraft-I have not got on to those yet-can be brought into theatre. Certainly, safe mobility is what we are all about. That is why Ricardo and Force Protection Europe have produced the Ocelot for ease of maintenance, versatility and a low centre of gravity. How many personnel have been killed or injured, including, sadly, being drowned, when their vehicle has turned over into a canal and they have been trapped underneath? The overturning of a vehicle can be an exceptionally difficult thing to handle and is a horrible way for people to die.
A typical example of using expensive equipment is the use of the Nimrod maritime reconnaissance aircraft, which costs a cool £30,000 an hour to operate. Compare that with the Iraqi's using a Sama CH2000, which can be purchased for about the cost of 12 hours of Nimrod flying and can be operated from theatre, unlike Nimrod, which clocks up massive airframe usage. Of course, the Sama uses the same camera. I think that it takes a considerable time for Nimrod to get to theatre from wherever it is based, so there is a lot of unnecessary wear and tear.
I will gloss over the A400M airlift aircraft and those original six or eight not-fit-for-purpose Chinooks, the history of which goes back over successive Governments.
Yet another suspect case is the Merlin helicopter, about which reservations have also been expressed by others. I understand that the Danish Merlins that we purchased are not the same version as ours, so they will require different training to be involved. At RAF presentations, that aircraft was presented as the most brilliant going, but it still has to be upgraded to go to Afghanistan, no doubt including Carson blades. I am concerned that this aircraft is so complex that, in the heat and dust of Afghanistan, it will be a nightmare to service, just like the Typhoon Eurofighter. Getting spare parts is difficult, as they cannot be bought off the shelf, as most equipment can be. Therefore there are delays in getting parts to keep the aircraft in the air.
For the money that has been poured into helicopters that are still not working, and in trying to make the Army's Lynx version work at huge expense because of the Navy requirement, we could have had the US Blackhawk helicopter at a third of the cost and a fleet of Hueys-Bell 212s or 412s. To call those cheap and cheerful might be a slight exaggeration, but they work in high and hot environments and their size makes them ideal for counter-insurgency work, as the concept of the Rhodesian Fireforce tactics teaches. There is no need for a helicopter shortage. Do not let us forget that, in the Rhodesian conflict, damaged helicopters were often repaired by the crew when they landed in the bush. These days, it seems that we only blow up our damaged Chinooks, which could only have been airlifted out of the unsecured areas that they were in by the Russian-built Mi-26. The one that the UK hired was blown up by the Taliban and was described as a transport aircraft at the time; but of course, it had a much more important role.
Many areas of present helicopter use could be undertaken by single engine, fixed-wing aircraft, such as the PC-6 Pilatus Porter, which would be safer, more practical and cost-effective. What an asset such aircraft would be, operating as an integral part of the brigade reconnaissance force. There is no doubt about the future and benefit of unmanned aerial vehicles, but again we must not forget how much has been squandered on such projects as the Phoenix-is it millions or billions of pounds? There are so many noughts on the end that one gets confused, but I believe that the actual sum was £350 million. For the same sum, we could have had small, fixed-wing aircraft undertaking surveillance work, which would also have tied in with future Afghan air force requirements.
I have often mentioned the Super Tucano ground-attack aircraft simply because the RAF presently uses the Tucano trainer, but there are many other types of fixed-wing aircraft available. Boeing, for example, is considering restarting production of the OV-10 Bronco turboprop, which is a twin-engine aircraft upgraded with modern defensive suites. That is a Vietnam-era light attack and observation aircraft, which was last produced way back in 1976. In contrast, in future, we will use up the airframe time of the Eurofighter at £90,000 an hour. In addition, the Tornado has to be massively upgraded to increase its shelf life: the first aircraft will cost £28 million and, if successful, a further 40 aircraft will be upgraded at £5 million each. For a further £1 million, we could have had a fully equipped, brand new EMB-314 Super Tucano, which can carry the same ordnance as a Harrier but with greater endurance.
Time after time, I have suggested that the use of hi-tech, high-intensity warfare equipment, designed for short-term conflict operations, sets the wrong tactics for counter-insurgency, or however we want to describe long-term stabilisation wars. Horrendous present and future financial problems face us, with money coming from different budgets, but all of it coming finally from taxation or borrowing and with the Territorial Army being one of the victims. General Sir David Richards has said that
"we simply can't afford to retain a full suite of capabilities for all eventualities."
That is the crux for consideration in the defence review.
What does the United Kingdom want the military to do? That is what must be decided-not what the military believe it should do-and that will not be easy. Hon. Members are campaigning for the two new aircraft carriers, but will we have any aircraft to put on them? Did we need all those Eurofighters, or is the contract so expensive to break that we are stuck with them? A correspondent told me recently that
"they fly over us at work in fours, and they are" in sight
"for about ten seconds so we see a thousand pounds worth of cost fly by."
Those are large sums. I also wonder what will happen to the A400M.
If the military continue to be obsessed with high-tech, high-intensity warfare, pushing aside practical alternatives, they will bankrupt themselves and us. Some people seem to believe that they have a divine right to an unlimited pot, but General Richards seems to think differently.
If we are not careful, our defeat in Iraq may be repeated in Afghanistan, so a decision must be made on whether we should ever again be involved in anything similar. On present performance, we should stay out of conflicts unless we have equipment and platforms that are simple, practical, cost-effective and able to be sustained in the long term.
I thank the hon. Lady, who is being generous in giving way. The A400M is not high tech-far from it. It has a joint Rolls-Royce-Snecma twin-turboprop prototype engine, which will be very good. It could be the workhorse, as it comes midway between the C17 and C130 jets, and it could have a civil application throughout the world, as well as a military application. There would be many benefits if we went ahead with it.
The hon. Gentleman has made his case and almost made his speech. I am sure that all hon. Members hung on his every word. He is a very good salesman, or should I say a good member of the marketing team? I shall leave that rhetorical question. I do not propose to go into it today, because I have had more than enough to say on different vehicles and aircraft.
Simple, practical and cost-effective platforms that can be sustained in the long term should enable sensible tactics to evolve to win without having to enter a propaganda war to pretend that we won, when in reality, we lost. The new Parliament and the new Government will face some difficult decisions following the defence review, which will set the agenda for decades to come. I trust that I have added some food for thought to the process, and I wish those hon. Members who will be involved in that review and its aftermath every success.
I congratulate Ann Winterton on securing this debate. She raises some important issues. I agree with her general principle that we need a strategic defence review, that we must decide our objectives, and that we must put an end to the ad hoc arrangements.
I am reminded of a Christmas cracker that I opened many years ago. As with all crackers, it had a motto in it, which said that all we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. It is a cheap little joke for Christmas, but there is an element of truth in it, and when it comes to military campaigns and procurement there may be more truth in it than is comfortable.
The principle is exactly the same. Those are two ways of saying the same thing.
We must examine our defence needs, and try to find the equipment that fits them. That is why we need the strategic defence review. As politicians, we must be truthful about the cost, but we have not been. We have always said that we must work within the defence budget, but then expected people to pull the proverbial white rabbit out of the hat without giving them the money to buy the white rabbit to put in the hat in the first place. That makes it difficult for our commanders, the Ministry of Defence and the forces on the ground who ultimately pay with their injuries or their lives because we have not provided them with the right equipment at the right time. We had a phase of the "just in time" principle, but I heard it said in Iraq that the "just too late" principle would have been more accurate.
I take issue with the hon. Lady on a couple of matters. She said in ePolitix that
"we were virtually defeated in Iraq and are sadly heading the same way in Afghanistan."
She is not contradicting that, so I take it that it is an accurate reflection of her view. I thought that the war in Iraq was illegal, that it was immoral, and that we should not have gone there, and I voted against it. However, I do not hold the premise that we were nearly defeated, because that would make an assumption about what we were trying to do while we were there. That raises an important point. When examining our equipment and what we are trying to achieve, the equipment will not necessarily achieve our objectives. The Army, Navy and others have understood what is required, but politicians and those in Departments often did not understand what was required in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I visited Iraq in 2003 with the armed forces parliamentary scheme, which is excellent and I recommend it to any hon. Member who has not been on it. We were there in the June just after the President of the United States had declared the fighting to be over. I went out in Snatch Land Rovers, and on top of a Challenger 2 tank, so I know the difference between heavy and light armoured. Both were appropriate for what they were being used for. The Snatch Land Rover was perhaps the right vehicle at that time and in that place. However, we were quite unprepared for what to do with the peace. We might have won the war, but we lost the peace that followed. That is the danger in Afghanistan-that we will lose the hearts and minds because we are not putting enough in to secure basic resources.
In Iraq, we tried to put in electricity, but local people dug up the cables that we put in, stripped out the copper and sold it over the border because they needed the money. The Iraqi army's containers full of munitions were left unguarded, so kids went into the containers, stripped out the mortar shells, left them on one side, and took the wood back to their houses because they needed to boil water. They also played genie games by opening up the mortars. Our preparedness after Iraq was totally lacking. We did not put in enough resources, the Americans did not put in enough resources, and we thought that we could operate on a shoestring. We nearly lost Iraq-at one point I thought that we had-because of that lack of preparedness.
We followed exactly the same pattern in Afghanistan. We diverted ourselves by first going into Iraq, so we did not have enough troops and resources on the ground, and we did not do enough on the ground to secure the peace, to rebuild, to replace the opium poppies and so on.
I have spoken about that in debates, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman on the reconstruction, bringing civil enterprises into being, and so on, but that is a different argument. When we went into Iraq, we were inadequately prepared militarily because we simply did not have the vehicles to save soldiers' lives. We had Snatch Land Rovers, which were deployed because we had nothing else at the time.
That point is right. We had no other replacement, but this is about the pre-planning; we were not prepared. We knew we were going in, but we did not work out in advance what we required to build the peace. This is where hindsight is a wonderful thing. We did not see the insurgency that was to follow. In not securing the peace and security afterwards, we allowed the insurgency to grow. We left those people all the armaments in the containers, so they could take the explosives and use them. We did not do the other things required, so we created, politically, the circumstances that meant that the vehicles that we put there were inadequate, and in addition we did not plan to replace those vehicles.
The point that I am trying to get to in a roundabout way is that circumstances change. Sometimes they change because of our lack of planning-I think that in Iraq it was our lack of planning-and circumstances are changing in Afghanistan, in a way because of our lack of planning and lack of determination to build the peace.
Generals have to deal with that change on the ground. They also have to deal with-the hon. Lady referred to the high end-future war. I do not know what the next big conflict will be. I do not know the type of weaponry that we might need if there is a major conflict elsewhere in the world. I would like to think that the idea of Russian tanks rolling across the plains of western Europe is something of the past, but military planners must assume the worst and certainly until the early 1990s, they were still working on the basis that there would be that type of major conflict. Military planning is in tramlines; it is blinkered at times-the hon. Lady made her point in that regard-and is slow to change. She also made a point about FRES. Sometimes military planners have been slow to get away from that kind of thinking, but that does not mean that they should think, "We don't need the high tech", because at some point we might. If we discard that totally, we will perhaps do an even greater disservice to our services than we are doing by our rather blinkered thinking at the moment. I shall come on in a moment to the detail of what the hon. Lady said.
The fact is that the next Government, after the defence review, have to decide what we need as a country because we cannot afford to have it all. My point is that we have ensured that young men and women have served in Iraq and are serving in Afghanistan and while they are in mortal danger, we should do our best to support them with appropriate vehicles and aircraft. In the long term there may be different decisions, but frankly, bearing in mind the economic situation in this country, we cannot afford a full suite of capabilities, as General Richards said.
Unquestionably we cannot afford the full suite; that is the purpose of a defence review. That is perhaps why we need to consider working more with our European allies and colleagues in the European Union and others so that we can examine where we can make savings in costs and bring together resources to ensure that we are more effective.
The hon. Gentleman has just made a point that I cannot let go without challenge. He suggests that the solution to our budgetary problems might be to engage in more extensive co-operation with our European partners. I gently point out to him that it is that collaboration with our European partners that has resulted in equipment taking an inordinate time to produce and coming in at vastly excessive cost. It has been much more expensive and taken much longer to bring in than it would have if we had gone it alone in the first place.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Certainly in the past what he describes has been the case, but that does not mean to say that it has to be that way in the future. We just have to have smarter procurement, which I will come to. The term that applies is pork barrel politics. There has been a lot of that in past European programmes and in the collaboration that we have had with the United States, which has its own problems.
We are able at times to change equipment. The Challenger tanks were seen as unfit for purpose when they were in Oman. We managed to change them so that, as I was told when I visited Iraq in 2003, they were exactly the right vehicle for the time. The SA80 guns that we gave our forces were deemed not fit for purpose. We have managed to change them and, when I spoke to our forces on the ground, they said that the SA80 is a wonderful gun, second to none. There are perhaps one or two other rifles that are as good if not slightly better, but it is in the top tier.
We have mentioned the Snatch Land Rover. Clearly, we needed to bring in other vehicles such as Mastiffs. The difficulty comes with the procurement programme and its ability to change fast. We are looking at changing circumstances and this is about how we can have the structure in the Ministry of Defence and in procurement to allow rapid change and for Ministers to sign off rapid change. They have tried to do that under the urgent operational requirements programme. That has worked to a point, although it has diverted money from the other programmes, which leaves the MOD short for some of its preferred options.
Let us consider the conflict and the threat. A few years ago in Afghanistan, the threat was very different from what it is now. The terrorist tactics-insurgent tactics-in Afghanistan have changed from conventional, almost all-out conflict to try to gain ground and territory, to the simple terrorist attack involving IEDs, which were used in Iraq. However, even the technology of IEDs has changed, which requires a change in our vehicles. We need to look ahead to such changes. The conventional mines were replaced. The IEDs changed and then people started using shaped projectiles, which are very high technology. They have a convex shape. When the explosion goes off at the side of a road, they can penetrate through extra layers of armour plate, so we ended up having to put extra layers of armour on some of our vehicles-we had not done that before-because the risk was increasing. Again, the debate comes back to how we deal with that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kindness in giving way. He is coming on to a point that is of some interest to me and many others. It relates to adaptability. Of course, it was a completely different conflict in Northern Ireland, where the security forces had to learn over time to be exceptionally adaptable as the terrorist regime changed course, but that is equally so in Iraq and Afghanistan. How does he consider that such adaptability can be pencilled in with regard to procurement and trying to ensure that sufficient resources are made available for the future?
I will come on to that, because the Gray report, which has just been published, covers the procurement process. It is a very important point. The main thrust of what I am saying is that we must be able to adapt rapidly to changing circumstances. There is no point in just blaming generals for not having the right equipment at the right time, because we do not always have the structures in place that allow them to respond in that way. In dealing with Northern Ireland, which is-
My apologies, Mr. Taylor. Mr. Campbell made his point, but in Northern Ireland the circumstance was slightly different; it is smaller. Dealing with a country of the size and complexity of Afghanistan is much more complex, and the adaptability for different circumstances is changing. We were dealing with lower-altitude fighting in Iraq. The average person reading a paper in the pub on a Sunday in the UK might think that Iraq and Afghanistan are the same, but the altitudes are very different and how the helicopters and other equipment perform at altitude is entirely different. It is not always obvious to a lay person exactly how we should deal with that.
There are two or three specific points on which I am in a lot of agreement with the hon. Member for Congleton. She referred to the Chinooks. Why the Chinooks are still sat, having their digital wiring ripped out for analogue to be put in, I do not understand. Will the Minister give us an update on those Chinooks and when they will be ready for service? My understanding is that only a few people are working on them. Will the Minister explain how progress can be speeded up so that those important Chinooks can come into service?
There has always been criticism-the hon. Lady referred to this-of the number and types of vehicles that we have. That is a very valid point: we have too many types. She talked about simple equipment. It is not necessarily a case of having simple equipment, but having equipment that is the same, so that people do not have to work on a series of different vehicles in theatre, is easier. It will save on training and all the other costs if there are fewer models of vehicle and people do not have to move from one to another.
I have to wonder why the Ministry of Defence is looking to do a life-extension programme for the Puma and the Sea King. The Minister has responded on this, and the Defence Committee is still debating the issue. However, in its 11th( )report of this Session, the Committee wrote:
"Given the age of both Sea King and Puma and the poor survivability of the Puma, extending their lives at considerable cost is not the best option".
My understanding is that the MOD has not yet accepted that point, and I hope that the Minister will reflect on it. Other, off-the-peg vehicles are available.
Conclusion 4 of the Committee's report said:
"We are also concerned that operational commanders find they have to use ground transport, when helicopter lift would be preferred, both for the outcome and for the protection of our forces."
That is probably one of the most significant sentences in that document. Not providing commanders with the equipment that they need on the ground will put lives at risk-indeed, it will actually take lives. The hon. Member for Congleton referred to pinch points, and that is exactly the problem in Afghanistan. Troops can go off road, but they will come to a narrow point at some stage. That is what the terrorists tend to concentrate on and what poses the greatest risk to our forces. Our troops cannot always do a helicopter lift over something, but if they can, they can reduce the risk of people being targeted on the ground.
To conclude, the Gray report said:
"Balancing this equipment programme, and keeping it in balance, is clearly a very significant objective of this report. As a result, the report recommends routine Strategic Defence Reviews, to be conducted in the first session of a new Parliament, as a mechanism to ensure periodic 'resetting' of the MoD's plans."
That resetting and the ability to be flexible are vital if we are to ensure that we have the right equipment at the right time for our forces on the ground.
I am delighted to follow Richard Younger-Ross and I will pick up some of the points that he made. However, I want, at the outset, to congratulate my hon. Friend Ann Winterton on yet another masterful piece of debating and on bringing intelligence about our armed forces to the Chamber. That intelligence is hugely valuable to us all, and I am just sorry that there are not more hon. Members in Westminster Hall to hear what she has had to say or to participate in the debate, which is crucial to the men and women of our armed forces. They are all our constituents and they are out there fighting for their lives and for our country as we speak.
I have no doubt that when my hon. Friend, sadly, leaves this place, she will apply to take part in that excellent competition "Mastermind". We have no doubt what her specialist subject will be or that she will be able to see off virtually every question that is put to her on it. She has taken a great interest in the issue before us, and we have all been the beneficiaries of the contributions that she has made. That is not to say that I have always agreed with everything she has said, but she has provoked a debate that we need to have.
My hon. Friend was right to set out the deficiencies with much of our equipment. She rightly started with the Snatch Land Rover, and it was perfectly clear quite early in the Iraq campaign that that vehicle was not up to the task. It is not as though that was something new, because we had precisely the same problem in Northern Ireland. There, however, we addressed it by bringing in helicopters, rather than more heavily armoured vehicles, as we have in Iraq and Afghanistan. Using helicopters allowed us to avoid the improvised explosive devices, or the roadside bombs as they were then known, and to lift troops to the front line at Crossmaglen, Armagh and further west. Like many of us, my hon. Friend will have flown in a Puma into what, in Afghanistan, would be called a forward operating base, thereby avoiding any risk from roadside bombs.
The hon. Gentleman alludes to the usage of helicopters in Northern Ireland. The loss of life, particularly in South Armagh, was significant over 30 years, but it would have been vastly more so had it not been for the deployment and usage of helicopters in particularly troubled parts of Northern Ireland.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, which speaks for itself. It also rubs in the fact that the Prime Minister has failed to show any vestige of understanding for the needs of the armed forces. Despite all that experience in Northern Ireland, where we had a body of knowledge, the Prime Minister, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, refused properly to fund the helicopter programme. Indeed, he cut £1.4 billion from it, and we have suffered the consequences ever since. Notwithstanding the advice of the Public Accounts Committee at the time, he persisted with a ruinous policy, which has undoubtedly cost lives.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. May I just tell him that the situation in Northern Ireland was completely different from that in Afghanistan? The problem in Afghanistan, as he will well know, being a pilot himself, relates to flying helicopters hot and high. We have nothing that is totally suitable for the environment there, so many helicopters spend masses of time on the ground. The spare parts situation is critical, and it takes a huge amount of effort, money and time to keep those helicopters in the air that are in the air. The choices that the military and the MOD have made regarding helicopters have been a bit of a disaster.
Yes, some of the helicopters are not adequate, and the Lynx, which my hon. Friend mentioned, is an obvious example. That is why the future Lynx is important, because it will have an upgraded engine and will be able to operate hot and high. However, I have to tell her that the Chinooks and C-47s that are operating in Afghanistan are doing absolutely sterling work. Yes, there is a shortage of spares, to which I will come in a moment, but there simply are not enough aircraft in theatre. My hon. Friend mentioned the Merlin, which is about to be deployed. The six aircraft bought from the Danes are of a slightly different specification from the Royal Air Force Merlins, but I have no doubt that they will add hugely to our capability. Above all-I want to emphasise this-they will give commanders in the field the range of choices that they need. Simply giving them a narrow range of choices is not the answer. We are talking about a complex military operation, and we owe it to our servicemen and women to give them and their commanders the range of air and land vehicles that they need to adjust to the enemy's changing tactics.
I entirely agree with the point that the hon. Gentleman has just made. On flying hot and high, it is surely understandable that we had problems when we were first in Afghanistan in 2001-02, because we may not have expected the conflict. Given that we have now been there for a long time and that we knew that this would always be a long-haul campaign, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the failure to supply the right equipment is an appalling indictment of MOD procurement?
I think so, but in this case I am going to leap to the defence of the Ministry of Defence, because it was the Treasury and the then Chancellor of the Exchequer who were at fault. The then Chancellor was personally responsible for what happened, and it is only fair to pin the blame on him-he starved the Ministry of Defence of the money it needed to provide kit that was identified as necessary. As Prime Minister, with his current Chancellor, he is responsible for starving the Territorial Army of the money it needs now. It is grotesquely unfair to blame the service chiefs. They have no money. They have got to find the money from somewhere, and wherever they found it they would have been criticised; but we shall debate the Territorial Army tomorrow and I do not want to stray out of order today, Mr. Taylor. Nevertheless, the point made by the hon. Member for Teignbridge is valid.
The only other observation that I want to make about helicopters is that it would be helpful if the Minister told us why he decided to proceed with the Puma life extension programme, by which the helicopter, the accident record of which is not a happy one, is being upgraded in France and Romania, and will take three years to be fit to enter theatre. It is a damning indictment of the Government that they have gone for that programme, which I am told by the manufacturer could be accelerated if they wished. Those of us who have seen operations in Afghanistan know that our forces could certainly do with more Chinooks in the field. They have proved to be extremely capable and resilient aircraft, and perhaps the answer would have been to order more of them. We shall see about that after our defence review next year.
In fairness to the Government, since 2005 they have responded. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton knows that when I came back from Iraq in September 2005, having seen the inadequacy of the Snatch Land Rover, I picked up the phone to the then Secretary of State and said that something had to be done about producing better armoured vehicles. He said that the matter was in hand. Sadly, at that stage, it was pretty well the Vector, which my hon. Friend rightly criticised. Since then a new range of vehicles has been introduced. My hon. Friend mentioned the Mastiff, which has proved extremely effective. However, that protective kit is not cheap. The Mastiffs are about £1 million a copy. Inside, yes, they are bank vaults on wheels, and the Mastiff in particular has a fantastic record of saving lives, but they are not suitable for all operations. They have limited off-road capability.