§ Mr. Speaker
I remind the House that, as I have said before, I am keen to protect the time for Back Benchers in Select Committee debates, so I hope to cut the statement in 45 minutes, but I also tell hon. Members that they should ask the Secretary of State only one supplementary question.
§ 1.7 pm
§ The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the defence White Paper, "Delivering Security in a Changing World", and a report entitled "Operations in Iraq: Lessons for the Future".
It has been five years since the strategic defence review was published by my predecessor, Lord Robertson, who steps down at the end of this year as NATO Secretary-General. I am sure that the House will join me in paying tribute to his determined contribution to modernising the alliance at a time of unprecedented challenges.
The strategic defence review concluded that we needed to move our armed forces into an expeditionary era and build greater flexibility to face increasingly diverse threats in both war-fighting and peace-support operations. Its conclusions have served us well in those five years, although it could not have anticipated the appalling events of 11 September 2001, or their strategic impact. That is why we published the new chapter last year.
The ability of our armed forces to conduct the full spectrum of operations has been well demonstrated since 1998. We have conducted operations, often concurrently, across three continents: in Kosovo, Macedonia, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Our armed forces have been successfully engaged in combat operations in Iraq this year and are still heavily engaged in large-scale post-conflict activities.
The Ministry of Defence is today publishing its full report on operations in Iraq: "Operations in Iraq: Lessons for the Future". Hon. Members will recall that an initial report was published in July, which provided an authoritative account of the campaign and reflected on the early conclusions that we could draw from combat operations. Since then, a detailed and comprehensive analysis of the operation has been undertaken within the Ministry of Defence. Evidence has been taken from those involved in the operation at all levels, assessing the effectiveness of the equipment that we used and identifying from that work the lessons that we can draw from the campaign.The operation was a significant military success, achieving almost all of its military objectives within only four weeks.Those are not my words, but the conclusion of the National Audit Office report on the operation, whose publication today I also welcome. Our people performed magnificently, the equipment was highly effective, the logistic support most impressive, and the revolution in strategy and doctrine that we set out in 1998 has again been vindicated.
If we want to maintain the battle-winning capabilities of our armed forces, however, we must learn from the difficulties as well as the successes. There is no benefit in 1208 a lessons process that is bland or uncritical. I have encouraged an honest, unflinching report that focuses rightly on the future and outlines the area in which we want to continue to improve. Some changes have already been implemented. Other lessons have no quick solution but will form the basis of work in the Ministry of Defence over the coming months.
It is important to emphasise, however, that we have been successful in recent military operations because we have always looked ahead at the capabilities that we need for future challenges. It is therefore appropriate that the detailed analysis of the Iraq operation is published on the same day as the White Paper, whose title captures what it is about: "Delivering Security in a Changing World". It sets out how we expect to adapt to keep ahead of the challenges. It sets out a policy baseline against which we will make decisions to provide the armed forces with the structures and capabilities that they require to carry out the operations that they can expect to undertake in the future.
The shadow of the cold war, which has shaped our armed forces for two generations, may have receded, and the threat of a large-scale conventional military attack on Europe may seem remote as a result. New threats are emerging, however. We must respond to today's strategic environment and prepare for tomorrow's. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the threat posed by international terrorism, coupled with the consequences of failed or failing states, present us with a real and immediate challenge. Our experience of the recent pattern of military operations demonstrates the increasing frequency of the United Kingdom's involvement in small and medium-scale operations. The need for multiple, concurrent small to medium-sized operations will therefore be the most significant factor in force planning. Counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation operations in particular will require rapidly deployable forces that are able to respond swiftly to intelligence and achieve precise effects in a range of environments across the world.
Regional tensions and potential conflicts are likely to create a sustained high demand for enduring peace support commitments, such as the extended deployments that we have seen in the Balkans, but we must also retain the capacity to reconfigure our forces at longer notice to undertake the less frequent but more demanding large-scale operations of the type that we saw in Iraq earlier this year.
Expeditionary operations on that scale can be conducted effectively only if United States forces are engaged. When the United Kingdom chooses to be involved, we would want to be in a position to influence their political and military decision making. That will involve sharing the military risk, and will require an ability for our armed forces to play an effective role alongside those of the United States. We were able to do that in Iraq, for example, by procuring additional communications equipment for our aircraft. More generally, the key to retaining interoperability with the United States, for our European allies as well as for the United Kingdom, is likely to rest in the successful operation of NATO's new Allied Command Transformation.
1209 Whatever the strategic planning and equipment, it is ultimately people who deliver success. Our people will need to possess exceptional skills to deal with the complexity of modern operations. We must continue to invest in their recruitment and training and reward them properly for the difficult tasks that we ask them to undertake. The excellent contribution of our reserve forces in Iraq shows that they are an essential part of our defence capability and will remain so.
Resources must be directed at those capabilities that are best able to deliver the range of military effects required, while dispensing with those elements that are less flexible. It has historically been the fashion to measure military capability in terms of the weight of numbers of units or platforms—of ships, tanks and aircraft. That might have been appropriate for the attritional warfare of the past, but in today's environment success will be achieved through an ability to act quickly, accurately and decisively, so as to deliver military effect at the right time
. What are the critical elements, however, in delivering this military effect? The answer is threefold: sensors to gather information; an effective network to consolidate, communicate and exploit that information; and strike assets to deliver the decisive action. Technology will be a key driver for change and will present us with new opportunities: for example, the means by which to link "sensor to shooter" through network-enabled capabilities. By thinking about capability jointly rather than as a collection of separate platforms, the effects that can be delivered can far exceed the sum of the individual parts. That will provide significant opportunities when we consider the requirements for future force structures and will place a premium on flexible and adaptable network-enabled capabilities.
It follows that we no longer need to retain a redundancy of capability against the re-emergence of a direct, conventional strategic threat to the United Kingdom. Our priority must now be to provide the capabilities to meet a much wider range of expeditionary tasks, at a greater distance from the UK, and at an ever increasing tempo. The heaviest burden in those circumstances will fall on those key enablers and force multipliers that deliver more rapid deployment, better intelligence and target acquisition, with ever greater accuracy.
The structure of each of the services will also need to evolve to optimise joint operations and provide greater flexibility and capability to project power to counter the threats that we face. In the maritime environment, our emphasis is increasingly on delivering effect from sea on to land, supporting forces ashore and securing access to the theatre of operation. The new amphibious ships coming into service over the next two years, together with our existing aircraft carriers, offer a versatile capability for projecting land and air power ashore. The introduction of the two new aircraft carriers and the joint strike fighter early in the next decade will offer a step change in our ability to project air power from the sea, while the Type 45 destroyer will enhance protection of joint and maritime forces and assist force projection. Some of the older ships can contribute less well to the 1210 pattern of operations that we envisage, and some adjustments will therefore be necessary.
In the case of the Army, experience shows that the current mix of heavy and light capabilities was relevant to the battles of the past rather than the battles of the future. We need to move to a more appropriately balanced structure of light, medium and heavy forces, and place a greater emphasis on enabling capabilities such as logistics, engineers and intelligence. The future rapid effects system family of vehicles that we are currently developing will help meet the much-needed requirement for medium-weight forces. Over time, that will inevitably reduce our requirement for heavy armoured fighting vehicles and heavy artillery.
The work in this area is continuing, but we judge that we can start this rebalancing by reducing the size of our heavy armoured forces. We therefore intend to establish a new light brigade, reducing the number of armoured brigades from three to two. This will be achieved by re-roling 4 Armoured Brigade in Germany as a mechanised brigade, and 19 Mechanised Brigade in Catterick as a light brigade. We will announce further plans for future Army force structures next year.
We want to be able to project more air power from both land and sea, offering enhanced capabilities across the range of air operations. Storm Shadow missiles will provide a long-range precision-strike capability, and the increasing availability of "smart" bombs, such as Paveway IV, will ensure a higher degree of accuracy in our offensive capability than ever before. Around 85 per cent. of RAF munitions used in Iraq in 2003 were precision-guided, compared with only 25 per cent. in Kosovo as recently as 1999. Additionally, Typhoon and the joint strike fighter will offer much greater flexibility and balance in the air component of the future, reducing the need for single-role fast jets. Multi-role capability will also allow us to deploy fewer aircraft than previously thought necessary. We are therefore considering what those developments mean for the number of combat aircraft that we require.
The rapid deployment of land and air combat power is, of course, dependent on having a sufficient strategic lift capability. The core of the airlift capability will continue to centre on the C130 fleet, and the A400M when it replaces older C130s from 2011. We are considering the options for retaining a small force of C-17s after A400M enters service, to carry the largest air deployable items. We now also have a fleet of six roll-on/roll-off vessels that proved their worth in moving our forces to the Gulf and are crucial in achieving a rapid build-up for medium-scale operations.
When military action is required, it will be most effective when it comes in the form of partnerships, alliances and coalitions. For the United Kingdom, the key organisations through which we act will be NATO and the European Union.
NATO remains the basis for the collective defence of its members, and continues to play a vital role in crisis management. It is the transatlantic organisation through which the US engages with its allies in planning and conducting military operations. The European Union's European security and defence policy is complementary and provides a means to act where 1211 NATO as a whole is not engaged. The forthcoming intergovernmental conference will be an opportunity to strengthen the European security and defence policy and European military capabilities. As a result we will strengthen NATO, without any unnecessary duplication.
The security and stability of Europe and the maintenance of the transatlantic relationship are fundamental to our defence. More widely, our security and national prosperity depend on global stability, freedom and economic development. Our armed forces will continue to act as a force for good in the international community. We know that, ultimately, security cannot be delivered by military might alone. It is a matter of changing attitudes and bringing security to those regions where there is a risk of instability. That is a challenge for not only those of us in defence but all of us in Government. The White Paper should therefore be read in conjunction with the White Paper on UK international priorities that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary published last week.
Everything that I have set out involves change. The White Paper, by dealing with the policy context, will ultimately determine the shape of our armed forces. Within that overall shape, we will need to develop the details of individual systems and structures. However, before we can do that, we need to be certain that we have the right procurement and development projects, which is why the Ministry of Defence is undertaking a significant examination of our capabilities and overheads. This is not a new defence review, nor does it need to be, but it is a final check on our planning, to ensure that we have the right capabilities that are needed for the challenges ahead and that we are spending our finite funds in the most effective way. I shall make further announcements on the results of that work next year.
This is a changing world, and we must adapt if our armed forces are to stay ahead of potential adversaries. We must exploit new and emerging technologies and be prepared to make tough decisions to ensure that our armed forces are able to carry out the difficult tasks that we ask of them. It is only through the process of continuous change and improvement that we can ensure that our armed forces are equipped and structured to meet the challenges of the future.
§ Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con)
First, I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in allowing us sight of the White Paper earlier. I join him in the tribute that he paid to the remarkable and distinguished work of Lord Robertson at NATO. Together with Lord Robertson, Conservative Members remain extremely anxious about the Government's plans for European defence and look forward, after the conclusion of the negotiations this weekend, to hearing a rational and sensible plan that will continue to anchor America to Europe.
Despite the lack of detail, we agree with the fundamental thrust of the White Paper. It does, indeed, foretell considerable change for the conduct of the armed forces business across the board. The House must not forget that the strategic defence review—its predecessor—was never properly costed or funded, and 1212 the same must not be allowed to happen this time. For our part, we generally accept the Secretary of State's assessment of the strategic environment and the difficulties that flow from it. Indeed, it is clear that we have come to a decisive moment in history when a new and diverse constellation of threats have appeared that are not nearly as obvious as were their relatively certain predecessors. We assert that since the end of the cold war, the world has never been as dangerous and unpredictable, nor the threats so serious. An era of invulnerability is over and our adversary has changed.
Terrorism is not a technique, an ideology or a political philosophy, let alone an enemy state, but a fiendishly difficult threat with which to deal. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them represents a major threat. We welcome the Government's decision to continue to examine missile defence. We are in a position, as the Secretary of State rightly said, in which we must be prepared for the wholly unexpected as well as being able to deal with conventional military tasks.
We have learned, and continue to learn, from the recent experiences of our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are most profound lessons for us on preparedness, logistics, deployability, jointness, precision, speed and agility, but there are also clearly situations in which light forces are not the best solution. We look forward to studying in more detail today's Ministry of Defence publication, "Operations in Iraq: Lessons for the Future". While we welcome the National Audit Office report on Operation Telic, it rightly makes the point that although it is clear that British troops performed quite brilliantly, there were some serious shortcomings in the supply of nuclear, biological and chemical protection and other vital lifesaving kit, as well as more mundane yet important kit such as combat clothing. That cannot be allowed to happen again, and we look forward to hearing a detailed response to that from the Secretary of State and the Ministry.
Unlike the Secretary of State and what is said in the White Paper, we believe that measuring the capability of our armed forces by the number of units and platforms and the extent of manpower remains significant, because the same unit or platform obviously cannot be in two places at the same time. A combination of capabilities and numbers will thus continue to be critical in any assessment of the potential effectiveness of our armed forces. Infantry and armour on the ground can be augmented by technological wizardry but cannot be replaced by it. The peace in Basra today is being kept by some 10,000 soldiers on the ground. We underestimate at our peril the importance of the foot soldier and all that he can do in both combat and, equally importantly, humanitarian terms.
We welcome the intention to enhance the strategic enablers of communication, logistics and intelligence, but as a former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, pointed out last week,it is important that we do not concentrate our efforts to too great an extent on one emerging threat—a knee jerk reaction—forgetting that there are other threats which have not gone away for which we should still be prepared.We believe that such principles are of the first importance. Indeed, the histories furnish the most 1213 excellent lessons in that respect and we should, and must, learn from them.
We welcome the acknowledgement of the absolute need to continue robust and collective military training at all levels. We consider that it is vital to underpin the new doctrines with the single-service ethos and the remarkable fighting spirit that have done our forces so well over the years, to move to improve arrangements for families and general harmony, and to rebalance key support elements toward brigades from the divisional level.
Current events provide a sombre background to this important White Paper, for today there is a crisis in the Government's Defence budget. Frankly, Conservative Members and many serving and retired military have the gravest reservations about the Government's ability to sustain their current ambitions and equipment programmes. It is reported that the Defence budget is deeply in the red. Is it not a fact that the equipment budget is overspent in excess of £1 billion per annum and that this year's personnel budget is overspent by £600 million? Is it true that the Secretary of State has ordered cuts of £1 billion a year for four years? An internal MOD memo on the White Paper and departmental finances has warned that much of the so-called new money from last year's spending review —£3.5 billion—has already been earmarked for the new weapons programmes.
The reality is that even to balance today's books, let alone fund the new equipment, the MOD will have to defer or cancel elements of major equipment programmes and possibly even freeze recruiting. Is it correct that the programmes earmarked for cuts include Eurofighter, Nimrod, nuclear submarines, Type 42 frigates and heavy armour, in addition to existing assets? Given that there are so few hard facts in the White Paper, however, we are concerned that a whole raft of decisions on cuts in both manpower and equipment will start to leach out later, and we look to the Secretary of State to report back to the House in detail on the substance of his proposals.
May I ask the Secretary of State to answer the following questions? First, the new battlefield technologies will have to be paid for. Where is the funding for that to come from? Secondly, is he aware that the defence research budget has been cut by 10 per cent.? How can the Government be serious about the digitised battlespace and all the other associated technologies, and yet continue with defence research cuts? Indeed, it seems astonishing that, at a time of extraordinary pace in technological advance, military research and development has been so drastically reduced.
While paying the warmest tribute to the remarkable achievements of our Territorial Army and other reserve forces in Iraq and elsewhere, we welcome the chapter on developing the reserves and the acknowledgement in the White Paper of the urgent need to improve support for reservists and their families and employers. Will the Secretary of State give the House some idea of the future manning levels of the TA and other reserves?
1214 In the light of the reference to home capability, will the Secretary of State comment on his thinking on the present timing in respect of future force levels in Northern Ireland, and the possible consequences for manpower of the rumoured peace dividend?
Although Conservative Members recognise the demands for the new technologies and the need wholeheartedly to embrace them, we remain deeply concerned about the consequences that flow from the financial crisis in the Ministry of Defence at a time of severe overstretch. We look forward to the Secretary of State announcing his detailed intentions to the House and thus, we hope, removing the understandable anxieties of many of our loyal servicemen and women and their families.
The British armed forces have a reputation for excellence and skill at arms that is unrivalled throughout the world; indeed, they are the benchmark by which all other armed forces are judged. I am not in the least bit afraid for their ability to cope with change. Indeed, of all the great institutions in this country they have proved time and again at all levels to be the most adaptable and flexible, and certainly the most successful. But it is of the first importance that the Government and Parliament recognise, when addressing these profound changes, that whatever the technological advances, the fundamental character and nature of war will remain unchanged.
For the soldier of today and tomorrow, as it was for his ancestors, warfare will continue to represent the ultimate physical and moral challenge, where these young men and women will encounter extreme danger in rapidly changing circumstances amid conditions of chaos and great uncertainty. They have never let us down, and the Secretary of State must see to it that nothing is done that compromises the astonishing success of our armed forces. The fact is that they are too small for the tasks already laid on them. There is a great deal of work to be done, and the greatest possible thought and care needs to be taken in implementing these future programmes and the profound changes that they foretell if we are not to unbalance something that is truly excellent.
§ Mr. Hoon
I thank the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) for the general tone of his observations and congratulate him on his rapid reabsorption of some of the more difficult issues that he faces when coming to grips with the profound changes that have happened since he served with such distinction as Minister of State for the Armed Forces. His observations today demonstrate that he has already reached a long way round that steep learning curve. I am particularly grateful to him for recognising the importance of the need for change.
If I can echo the hon. Gentleman's observations about the armed forces, I cannot imagine that there is a single organisation in the country that has had to face so much change in recent times. The profound point that we all need to recognise is that unless those changes continue, our armed forces will not be equipped to deal, or be capable of dealing, with the threats that they face in a modern world. Since we cannot anticipate each and every one of those threats and the crises that they may 1215 produce, the key to those changes will be flexibility—a flexibility that, as I indicated, requires us to be able to conduct not only large-scale operations of the kind that we have seen this year in Iraq but a number of smaller operations.
That is the answer that I would give to Lord Guthrie. I read his observations carefully. We are not concentrating our efforts in one particular area; we are not making the mistake of fighting the last conflict, albeit one against terrorism. We are ensuring that we have the flexibility to be able to take on a number of different kinds of operations whenever they present themselves, as inevitably they must.
There is no crisis in the defence budget. What we have is more than £3 billion of extra resources to spend over and above what was previously available. That is the largest sustained increase in defence spending in more than 20 years—not something that, with the greatest respect to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex, he was ever able to say when he occupied a position in the Ministry of Defence. That money will have to be spent on ensuring that our armed forces have the right capabilities and equipment for the future.
I shall attempt to deal with the specific points that the hon. Gentleman raised. Certainly, new technology will have to be paid for, but right hon. and hon. Members need to recognise that it will deliver ever greater effect. I cited a statistic drawn from the "lessons learned" report about the number of smart weapons used. The more our weapons are smart—the more accurate those weapons—the fewer we require. That is a simple statement of fact. If we can deliver, as was done in Iraq, 85 per cent. smart weapons, all hitting their targets, as far as I am aware, that obviously means that the effect is far more dramatic and significant, in military terms, than 25 per cent. smart weapons, which we had as recently as 1999. That is a huge change in our ability to be successful in high-intensity warfare.
I accept the comment about the defence research budget. We certainly need to consider improvements in that area, but we also need to ensure that we maintain our existing equipment programme and our running costs from month to month and year to year. Inevitably, I have to take some difficult decisions, and unfortunately that is one of them.
Turning to reserves, who, like our regular forces, are volunteers, I anticipate and hope that we will maintain the present numbers. If there are more willing to volunteer, I am confident that we can absorb them into our existing organisations.
There has been a good deal of misplaced speculation about the consequences of a peace settlement in Northern Ireland. We all look forward to a peace settlement and to the prospect of reducing the presence of our armed forces back to the level that existed before 1969—to a normal peacetime situation for the Province. I look forward to that as a means of using those soldiers currently engaged in operations in Northern Ireland elsewhere in the tasks undertaken by Britain's armed forces. I want to make that clear. I want to emphasise the opportunity that that will give to relieve some of the current pressures on the men and women of the Britain's armed services.
1216 That probably deals with all the points that have been raised. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks, and I look forward to responding to other questions.
§ Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD)
I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement. I join him and the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) in congratulating the members of our armed forces, who continue to perform their work in Iraq and elsewhere with great distinction. The House also pays tribute to their families.
Liberal Democrat Members welcome the strategic rebalancing that the Government have announced today. However, that investment must never come at the expense of the number of regular and reservist personnel. Yes, our forces need to be able to fight high-intensity wars, but they also need to have the troop numbers to keep peacekeeping operations going and to give support at home. The message today from the Government appears to be that they can manage both—that they can maintain that balance—and we sincerely hope that they are right. However, the evidence so far does not always suggest that that is the case.
Today's National Audit Office report on Operation Telic highlights significant difficulties with supplying large numbers of troops in the desert, all of which were identified as problems after Saif Sareea 2. We warned of those difficulties at the time; indeed, members of one unit even returned to the UK to try to find NBC—nuclear, biological and chemical—equipment, without success. Either in Iraq there was no threat from chemical or biological weapons, or the MOD sent troops into theatre without proper protection. Will the Secretary of State tell us which it is?
Then there is overstretch. This morning, the Secretary of State said on the "Today" programme that the average tour interval is now 10 months, but the MOD's target is 24 months. Is that interval still 10 months, and how many troops would be required to meet the 24-month target? If he cannot tell us now, perhaps he will write to me. He said that reservist numbers will not be cut, but can he assure us that the overall establishment strength of all three armed forces will not be reduced further as a result of today's announcement?
The right hon. Gentleman rightly paid tribute to his predecessor, Lord Robertson, and mentioned the strategic defence review. One benefit of the SDR was that there was the widest possible consultation across the House and, indeed, the armed forces—in effect, the SDR belonged to Parliament, not just the Government. Does he agree that that consultation was helpful to the SDR, and will his future plans include a similar level of consultation? If they do, in the end our troops will be the winners.
§ Mr. Hoon
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observations. It is important to look at the NAO report in context. It highlights the remarkable success achieved by our armed forces and the personnel who supported and equipped them while they were engaged in high-intensity warfare. At the same time, it recognises, as the Ministry of Defence and I have always done, that that was not perfect and that there were difficulties. I have made that point on a number of occasions to him and 1217 other right hon. and hon. Members in the House, so it is not new to say that there were difficulties. Overall, however, there was a remarkably successful operation to deliver in a short period large numbers of people and large amounts of materiel into theatre in time to conduct very effective military operations.
There are certainly lessons that we can learn. The "lessons learned" report that I have published today is a tough document. I did not want to put before the House a bland assertion that everything would be resolved. We have to learn the lessons and make improvements, but I am confident that, with the contribution of the armed forces and civil servants in the Ministry of Defence, we will be able to do so.
§ Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West) (Lab)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a key reason why the United Kingdom Government can act as an influential global player is the high standards and professionalism of our armed forces? What assurances can he give us that the proposals in the White Paper and the detailed proposals that will follow will not in any way lead to a decline in the ability of our armed forces to maintain those high standards and their international reputation?
§ Mr. Hoon
I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to maintain those high standards, and we have to do so in the face of the changing strategic environment. I have come to envy my predecessors who were in office during the stability of the cold war, when force structures essentially remained constant from year to year. That has not been the case during the time in which I have had the privilege of holding this position, nor indeed was it the case for my predecessor. Consequently, we have to face up to the difficult decisions required to achieve precisely what my hon. Friend set out.
§ Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con)
Service personnel at all levels carry a heavy burden of responsibility, and their conditions of service should reflect that. If under the pensions review large new categories of dependants, including unmarried partners, are given rights, and if the Treasury has insisted that the pensions review is carried out on a cost-neutral basis, does it not follow as night follows day that there will be significant reductions in pension entitlement? Is that fair?
§ Mr. Hoon
In fact, that is not the case. Obviously, in the course of considering both pensions and compensation arrangements, adjustments will be made to reflect the modern world in which we live. I gathered from the tone of the hon. Gentleman's observations that he is concerned about providing benefits for unmarried partners. The Ministry of Defence could be criticised for the fact that members of the armed forces have been rather tardy in recognising such relationships. Nevertheless, I anticipate that the change will be broadly welcomed, given the society in which we all now live.
§ Jim Knight (South Dorset) (Lab)
I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, particularly the commitment to sustaining interoperability with the United States and the commitment to Europe and NATO. However, will 1218 he give my constituents and me some reassurance about Bovington and Lulworth, which are based on tank training, given his comments about reducing the number of heavy brigades? Will the Ministry of Defence maintain its commitment to that important part of our armed forces' training?
§ Mr. Hoon
Training will continue to be essential as, indeed, will our reliance on heavy armour, which, as the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex implied, performed magnificently in operations in Iraq. It is important, however, to emphasise the need for flexibility. We need to develop, as the Army has recommended, not only light and heavyweight forces but medium-weight forces that can be deployed with greater protection than light forces currently enjoy. I will set out in more detail the precise implications of the proposals, and I apologise for not saying so to the House before. For my hon. Friend and other right hon. and hon. Members who believe that there may be implications for their constituencies, I should be delighted to discuss those implications with them.
§ Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con)
I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests. I should like to ask the Secretary of State about supporting essay No. 3, which anticipates a policy of reserves being mobilised on any type or scale of operation. Does the Secretary of State accept that if reserves are repeatedly mobilised on low-intensity, medium-sized operations there will not be any reserves, because employers will not run the risk of engaging them—and I include in that my own constituents?
§ Mr. Hoon
I am delighted to welcome the hon. Gentleman back. If he will forgive me for making a personal observation, his period of volunteering in Iraq seems to have been good for him, given his general demeanour, colour, health and, dare I say, weight. I apologise for the fact that I was unable to see him during my visits to Iraq. I saw his colleague, the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), and I know that he was conducting valuable liaison work with the Italian forces, which was particularly important in the light of the losses recently sustained by Italy.
I do not entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman's observations about reservists. There have been efforts across the country to discuss with employers the way in which reservists were deployed, and we need to learn lessons about that. I participated in a number of those meetings and heard nothing but praise from employers for the role of reservists. They certainly want more information and want to be consulted earlier, and I have taken that on board. However, they are proud of their employees and the fact that they went into action as reservists. I saw no sign at all that they want to prevent that in future, although I cannot say the same about the hon. Gentleman's constituents.
§ Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) (Lab)
I should like to ask about the future of our armed forces in Iraq. My right hon. Friend will be aware that the CIA has conceded that Iraqi resistance is getting stronger every day. Because the Iraqi governing council has proved useless, the United States has changed its policy and said that it 1219 would speed up the handover to the Iraqis. If that happens and an Islamic government is elected, will our troops come home? Will that be acceptable to the coalition?
§ Mr. Hoon
The number of incidents has been reducing recently. I am not certain whether that trend will continue or whether it denotes a reorganisation of those who continue to support Saddam Hussein. In any event, we will remain vigilant. The number of incidents in the south, Britain's area of operation, is low. Most of the incidents still involve part of Iraq to the north and west of Baghdad, where the regime had its heartland and was at its strongest. It is vital—I agree with my hon. Friend to this extent—that before there is any kind of transition we must tackle the security situation so that a new government can take responsibility and, ultimately, so that there can be free and fair elections. Obviously, that can only occur once the security situation is resolved. As for the future Government of Iraq, that is entirely a matter for the Iraqis themselves. Our job is to create the conditions in which such a Government can be chosen.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD)
Is the Secretary of State aware that he would not achieve his objective of spending money in the most effective way if he were to accept a proposal to throw away the multimillion pound investment that has just been completed at RAF Boulmer in order to move it all to Coningsby and provide it all over again? Will he note also that in Berwick and the borders, we feel strongly that the King's Own Scottish Borderers should have a role in the strategy that he describes?
§ Mr. Hoon
I indicated only a few moments ago that I would be happy to see the right hon. Gentleman. I emphasise to all hon. Members that such specific decisions have not been taken. I accept that there will need to be further consultation with right hon. and hon. Members, but I do not want to alarm anyone. None of these decisions has been taken.
§ Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op)
The Secretary of State rightly referred to the importance of intelligence. He also mentioned the reserve forces. Is he aware that there are a great number of British Asians who could play an important role because of their linguistic skills and understanding of some of the societies from which terrorism is coming? Can he make a renewed effort to increase the number of ethnic minority members in our armed forces?
§ Mr. Hoon
My hon. Friend is right. There have been steady successes in our recruiting, but he is right that we need to redouble our efforts, partly for the reason that he mentioned, and also to ensure that our armed forces reflect the ethnic diversity of our society—a society that must be properly reflected in the composition of our armed forces. I agree that there are certain advantages in having a range of linguistic skills. He may be aware that Gurkha soldiers deployed in Afghanistan, for example, have been able to understand and communicate with a number of the local people, which has added enormously to their ability to help improve the situation there.
§ Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con)
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for outlining new and clear thinking about how our armed forces will be used. I was particularly interested to hear him speaking about expeditionary warfare and dealing with threats at a distance. What about the threats at home? Where is the clear, innovative thinking about how our regular and reserve forces, beyond the rapidly failing civil contingencies reaction force, will be adapted for the new style of warfare?
§ Mr. Hoon
I realise the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman faces in his particular position. As he well knows, the Minister for homeland security in the United Kingdom is my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. Having set out in the new chapter a detailed response to the kind of threats that we witnessed so tragically in the United States on 11 September 2001, I have not specifically dealt with the homeland implications today. However, I emphasise that they are constantly under review as far as the Ministry of Defence is concerned, and I believe that we make an effective contribution to the efforts made across Government, but specifically by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, to deal with those threats and challenges.
§ Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab)
Should not the emphasis be on unmanned aerial vehicles, better situational awareness, forces-wide communications, asset tracking to improve logistics, and more appropriate armoured wheeled vehicles with suitable protection to back up foot patrols? Would not the money be better spent on those things than on cluster bombs or the unwanted occupation of Iraq?
§ Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con)
I warmly welcome the Secretary of State's reference to the Eurofighter. Will he give a commitment that the use and deployment of the Eurofighter to RAF Leeming will be on the target date and in the same numbers that he confirmed? The Ministry of Defence is aware that there is a problem at RAF Linton. I pay tribute to the flying school at RAF Linton and the tremendous contribution that it makes, but the reduction of the number of flying schools used by the RAF and the Navy puts enormous pressure on the remaining schools. Can he give some indication of how that can be resolved?
§ Mr. Hoon
I am as keen as the hon. Lady to get what I think that we had better call Typhoon nowadays into service. I recognise that her experience in the European Parliament means that she likes to call things Euro-something or other. I hope, by the way, that that does not interfere with her well-deserved promotion. It is important that we concentrate on getting Typhoon into service, working with the RAF, and as I said, ensuring that it has a multi-role capability to deal with the kinds of operations that we currently conduct. I am as keen as anyone to achieve that.
§ Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab/Co-op)
Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to scotch the myth being put around by Opposition scaremongers in Scotland that the review represents some threat to the Scottish infantry regiments? Does he agree that the real threat to our defence installations and personnel in Scotland is from those who would break up the United Kingdom?
§ Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con)
The Secretary of State rightly drew attention to the fact that a National Audit Office report praised the speed of deployment of heavy armoured forces to the Gulf, and also picked up the fact that many commanders feel that our heavy assets—the Challenger 2, the Warrior, the AS 90—were the battle-winning assets. Bearing it in mind that the right hon. Gentleman is proposing a move to lighter forces, and that the threats that we face are rarely the ones for which we are configured, is there not a serious danger that the review may leave us less ready to face the unexpected?
§ Mr. Hoon
It is vital that that does not happen. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observation. Challenger was used extremely effectively in and around Basra, for example, and I expect that tacticians would suggest that that was in a way not originally thought likely. That is why I place so much emphasis on flexibility. If ingenious commanders can use their equipment in a way that achieves the desired effect, and undoubtedly that was the case with the way in which Challenger was used, I for one will be delighted.
§ Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab)
Did my right hon. Friend see the report in The Guardian yesterday that the second largest contingent in Iraq is made up of employees of large corporations? Does he share my concern that that illustrates the growing power of the military industrial complex? What steps will he take to ensure that Britain's defence programme is based on the needs of the country, not the wants of the corporations?
§ Mr. Hoon
My hon. Friend used jargon that I have not heard in some time. It was never a phrase that tripped lightly from my tongue, but I congratulate him on his sophisticated vocabulary. I do not really agree with him. Clearly, we must ensure that the civilians who support our deployed operations are properly protected and capable of doing their job effectively. Those 1222 civilians have done a tremendous job in providing timely assistance to the armed forces and relieving highly trained members of those armed forces from tasks that we do not want them to engage in. That is the point. If we recruit people into our armed forces, we want them to be trained to a level that means that they are no longer engaged on the kind of tasks that civilian contractors can fulfil extremely effectively.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con)
If the Secretary of State follows the policy outlined in the White Paper—which is very short on detail, I might say—is he confident that, in 10 years, this country would be able to cope with a crisis in the Falkland Islands or mount another Iraq-style operation?
§ Mr. Hoon
I am confident. I know that the hon. Gentleman is far too sophisticated an observer of military matters to suggest that, if there were a new Falklands crisis, we would conduct the campaign in precisely the same way. The point of the developments and changes is to allow us to conduct the campaign in quite a different way and, I would argue, a more effective way. I would be more concerned about the implied criticism that he makes if we had had real reverses in military campaigns in recent times. That is not true. It is important that we go on developing such flexibility, both to conduct the kinds of campaigns that have been conducted so successfully in the past, and to give us the ability to conduct the kinds of campaigns, as the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex said, of which we do not know and which we cannot imagine today.
§ Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab)
The best museum in my constituency—in fact, it is the only museum there—is that of the Gordon Highlanders, a regiment that no longer exists, not because they were called the Gay Gordons, but because they were the victims of a previous reorganisation. There is obviously concern in north and north-east Scotland that the Highlanders and Black Watch may suffer a similar fate. Will the Secretary of State assure us that he will listen to all representations from that area, because it is very important that the locality features in any recruitment and to ensure that the kilted regiments will not be consigned to the museum of history?
§ Mr. Hoon
I know that the Gordon Highlanders ceased to exist as a fighting force on 17 September 1994. That is still a cause of great concern to those who are strong supporters of the regiment, but it is an indication of the sort of changes that have occurred over the long history of Britain's armed forces. I cannot rule out such changes in the future, but I can tell my hon. Friend that no decisions whatever have been taken about such matters. I shall certainly consult her and any other hon. Member who is interested.