HC Deb 12 April 1994 vol 241 cc11-2
12. Rev. Martin Smyth

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is the latest estimate of United Kingdom forces required in Bosnia and the subsequent impact on other theatres of operation.

Mr. Rifkind

The United Kingdom currently has some 3,300 service men on the ground in the former Yugoslavia, with a further 3,000 deployed offshore and in Italy. Our contribution naturally takes into account our operational commitments elsewhere.

Rev. Martin Smyth

While I welcome the right hon. and learned Gentleman's statement, can he assure the House that, with the overstretch in the emergency plot and the planned reductions, the United Kingdom will have sufficient forces in the years ahead to undertake its rightful peacekeeping role, maintain its presence in Northern Ireland and, at the same time, make provision for engagement in collective brigade and Army training?

Mr. Rifkind

It is our intention to meet all those commitments. Our plans envisage that the emergency tour interval will meet the target of some 24 months by the end of the draw-down period. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that our commitment to Northern Ireland will be of the highest priority. We believe that the first obligation of our armed forces is the protection of the territory of the United Kingdom wherever a legitimate contribution can be made to that end.

Lady Olga Maitland

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that while we must indeed undertake our own role in overseas operations, this must not be done at the expense of operations in Northern Ireland? In particular, does my right hon. and learned Friend realise that there is a serious shortage of helicopter flying hours for surveillance purposes? Surely it is essential that we demonstrate that we are absolutely resolute in countering terrorism in the Province.

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend is correct, but she should take into account the fact that there has been a massive increase in helicopter activity in Northern Ireland. Helicopters have been found to be a most valuable means of meeting our security commitments, and there has quite properly been a major deployment of helicopter assets in the Province. We shall continue to try to ensure that the availability of those assets is consistent with operational requirements.

Dr. Reid

At this critical juncture for our troops in the former Yugoslavia, will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to lay to rest some of the fears that have been expressed both at home and abroad by assuring the House that the use of military force in Bosnia, under United Nations mandate, will continue to be related to specific achievable and impartial humanitarian objectives and that forces will not be allowed to stumble into an ill-considered partisan or futile intervention of a more general nature in that theatre?

Mr. Rifkind

Yes, of course, it has been Her Majesty's Government's view, since the very beginning of this conflict, that crucial to the authority of the United Nations and its forces is the need for them to remain bipartisan in making a contribution at the humanitarian level and at the peacekeeping level so that the country may see the United Nations as the protector of all its peoples, as an organisation that is not partisan in the way it carries out its responsibilities.

Mr. Brazier

With regard to the impact on other theatres of operation, will my right hon. and learned Friend tell us when it is next intended to hold a brigade or divisional exercise? The removal of infantry for various tasks—vital tasks such as those that have to be undertaken in Northern Ireland and others such as are being discharged in Bosnia—has created an overstretch that many of us feel has prevented the remaining formations from carrying out such exercises. When is the next brigade exercise planned?

Mr. Rifkind

That will be for the Army to decide.

However, the work being done by our forces in Bosnia and elsewhere is regarded as very valuable training and experience. Thus, it is seen as being in no way irrelevant to their true purpose or role.