HC Deb 08 September 2003 vol 410 cc11-4
14. Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)

What measures are being taken to improve the ability of Britain's armed forces to be more rapidly deployable as set out in the strategic defence review. [128431]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

The 1998 strategic defence review established the concept of the joint rapid reaction force to provide more capable, more deployable and better-supported joint forces. In order to ensure its deployability, we have greatly enhanced our strategic air and sealift capability through the leasing of four C-17 aircraft and the phased acquisition of 25 new C-130Js and 25 A400M aircraft, six ro-ro vessels and a number of new ships to support amphibious and sea-based operations. The landing platform helicopter, HMS Ocean, together with our two new carriers planned to be in service in 2012 and 2015 respectively, provide a valuable additional capability in support of rapid deployment operations. All that represents a significant enhancement of the current and future mobility of our armed forces, the value of which has been demonstrated time and again, most recently in Sierra Leone, in Afghanistan and obviously in Iraq.

Ms Taylor

In thanking my right hon. Friend for that frankly excellent reply, may I ask him as he prepares the defence White Paper to ensure that the new structures for the armed forces, if there are to be such structures, and the equipment provided for them are the best available? We ask our armed forces to do an increasingly complex task and they deserve the best. In his considerations, will he look at language training for the armed forces, particularly the infantry? I think that that is more and more of a requirement. Finally, does he agree—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That makes two questions.

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend will recall that when I announced the £3.5 billion extra spending in the defence budget last year, I said that the additional resources for defence were a mandate for accelerating the modernisation and evolution of the armed forces. I am sure that that extends to language training as well. I have set out to the House on many occasions the need to adapt our armed forces to changes in the strategic environment and technology. In doing so, we need to apply the lessons of recent operations, focusing on what can be achieved—on the effects—and move away from a rather outdated approach that simply counts the number of platforms and units.

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup)

Is the Secretary of State content with the quality and availability of kit deployable at company and battalion infantry level in the theatres in which our troops are now working? Despite whatever difficulties he is experiencing at the moment, the jury on supplies and services to our front-line troops will be very harsh on him indeed if he continues to behave as he is and send men and women into active theatre without decent and serviceable equipment.

Mr. Hoon

I simply do not accept that that has been done. While there is always a necessary trade-off between efficiency and delivery, I assure the hon. Gentleman that no decisions are taken to allow our forces to go into dangerous situations without the appropriate equipment. What is important is that we reach our destination quickly. If we simply wait for every last piece of equipment to be available, the rapid deployability that I described will not be such a strong feature of our armed forces and so envied by other countries.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

In assessing the Secretary of State's observations, it would be helpful to know the background when we took office in 1997. How much force were we able to deploy rapidly in 1997? Did it differ significantly from zero?

Mr. Hoon

It did differ from zero. I accept that the United Kingdom has always had the ability to deploy certain forces rapidly—that was a hallmark of those forces. What has changed since 1997 is that that has become commonplace for our forces and in all three services, as well as the support systems that they require. There has been a very significant step change in the ability of our armed forces to deploy rapidly.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

The Secretary of State says that it is outdated to count platforms, yet he must be aware that the First Sea Lord has expressed concern that the 32 frigates and destroyers that he currently has available may not be enough for the tasks in hand. Will the Secretary of State give the House an assurance today that he has no plans to cut further the numbers of frigates, destroyers or submarines? If he will not give that assurance, will he tell us by how many he intends to cut those classes of vessel? If he does not want to answer directly, will he undertake to brief the MOD press office to give the right answer to any journalist who comes up with the right numbers?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman is obviously an assiduous reader of The Sunday Telegraph. Unfortunately, in reading The Sunday Telegraph he should not be seduced into thinking that he is reading the news. The interview in yesterday's newspaper, to which he refers, was conducted on 21 January this year and published on 7 March. The article has an invented headline and contains a purported quotation that is extracted from several different parts of that interview. It omits various quotations from the First Sea Lord, such as: I think the Royal Navy is in a very good condition…I think…the Navy has an equipment programme in progress that is its biggest since I joined the Royal Navy 37 years ago. A whole series of selective extracts are used to create the quotation in The Sunday Telegraph.

The reality is that we have set out clearly to the House the importance of ensuring the availability of equipment to do a particular job. If the hon. Gentleman wants simply to count platforms, he will no doubt include HMS Victory in that.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that during recent weeks we have heard several rumours emanating from Opposition Members to the effect that we are about to lose a number of our regiments. Quality regiments such as the King's Own Scottish Borderers and the Cheshires have been put very much at the forefront of people's minds. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that they are nothing more than rumours, and can he scotch the whole notion of dispensing with some of our quality regiments? Does he agree that that does nothing to assist the morale and recruitment of those regiments?

Mr. Hoon

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that those observations are no more than rumours. Speculation about the loss of infantry battalions is certainly damaging to those in the regiments that he mentioned, to their families and to their morale. I encourage people not to repeat such speculation.

Angus Robertson (Moray)

In that case, will the Secretary of State give a categorical assurance to the House that none of the historic regiments in the UK armed forces is set to be amalgamated or disbanded? If he is not prepared to give that assurance, how on earth can he argue that it would improve the deployability of the armed forces?

Mr. Hoon

I find it rather surprising that the Scottish nationalists should take such an astonishing interest in defence given that, as I understand it, their policy remains to withdraw from NATO and from any kind of international defence organisation—in which case, there would be no regiments left to defend.

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