HL Deb 01 July 1992 vol 538 cc772-6

3.15 p.m.

Lord Wedgwood asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are reconsidering Options for Change and their plans for the future strength of the Army.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, last year's decisions on the restructuring of the armed forces took account of changes in the international security environment and the need to provide forces relevant to the challenge of the mid-1990s and beyond. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence has recently made clear in another place the importance that the Government attach to ensuring that future force levels are appropriate to the demands placed on the armed forces and that he intends to keep that requirement firmly in mind.

Lord Wedgwood

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his helpful reply. Does he agree that our combat forces are currently experiencing unacceptable levels of overstretch, especially the infantry, which bears the brunt of all our military activity? Does he further agree that, owing to the emergency operational requirements, our forces, including those in Germany, are considerably depleted to the point where we cannot reasonably deploy a well trained and co-ordinated task force at the request of either NATO or the WEU?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his remarks. The question of overstretch is constantly in our minds. I draw the attention of your Lordships and my noble friend in particular to the very high degree of capability and equipment that will be available to the first British division, which is the principle contribution that we expect to make to the Rapid Reaction Corps. I agree with my noble friend as far as his remarks about the infantry are concerned, and I also pay tribute to them.

One of the principal measures of overstretch is the tour interval that infantry battalions have to take during the course of emergency tour plots in Northern Ireland. There are a number of battalions which have not taken part in the less than 24 month interval which has been the benchmark of late in Northern Ireland, stretching back in some cases to January 1987.

Lord Bramall

My Lords, in the light of his answer, is the noble Viscount aware that there are as of now battalions continuing to serve in Northern Ireland which have done no fewer than four tours there in the past two and a half years with tour intervals of as little as six months to eight months? Does he agree that that represents as severe an overstretch as can be remembered since the troubles started and that is a very long way indeed from the hoped for two-year intervals forecast by Ministers in various Statements?

Is the Minister also aware that individual battalions of the King's Division, retained in the order of battle presumably because they had very good recruiting figures, now have to be reinforced by up to 100 men each from regiments of other divisions, merely to make them fit for duty? Finally, does the Minister appreciate that capping recruiting, as is now being done, presumably in a desperate attempt to get down to the manifestly inadequate and unworkable ceiling of 116,000, will inevitably lead to fewer units which are even weaker and further below establishment? If all that is not sufficient for the Government to do something now, will he tell us what is?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, as always, I am grateful for the advice of the noble and gallant Lord in these matters, in which he is a considerable expert. I hesitate to bandy examples with him. However, quite apart from the examples that he gives, battalions such as the 1st Grenadier Guards, the 2nd Battalion Grenadiers, the Royal Scots and the Royal Regiment of Wales have not been back in Northern Ireland since January 1987 and April 1988 respectively. There are examples on both sides. Once the drawdown has happened and we have got from here to there, the tour interval will once again increase. The element of overstretch is always in our minds.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, when, as seems very likely, more infantry are needed for international peacekeeping and other tasks, will the Government take into account records of recruitment and, equally important, retention in both of which aspects the Scottish regiments have excelled?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. After drawdown has occurred, the proportion of the Army occupied by Scottish regiments will be at least as high, and in some cases higher, in terms of the armoured corps than it is in the present Army.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, although it is slightly wide of the Question, perhaps I may ask this. Since reference has been made to service in Northern Ireland, does the noble Viscount agree that this is a good opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the Ulster Defence Regiment, now to be abolished after 23 years' service, despite the fact that its reputation has been slightly tarnished by the actions of some few individuals in that regiment?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords. I am most grateful to the noble Lord for the opportunity that he gives me to pay an unreserved tribute to the performance of the Ulster Defence Regiment during the years of its history. I am delighted to hear that your Lordships fully subscribe to that view. The amalgamation that is taking place between the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Rangers is proceeding well. We look forward very much to the best traditions of both those magnificent regiments being continued in the amalgamated unit.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, does the noble Viscount accept that Options for Change has drawn intense and sometimes ferocious criticism from all political parties, from the Select Committee on Defence in another place, and, as we have heard today from the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, from distinguished former service chiefs? In the light of that, is it true that the MoD has a committee at present reviewing Options for Change? If that is true, when may we expect its report to be leaked—as it surely will be?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, if it is true, the noble Lord, Lord Williams, is rather better informed than I am. I hesitate to admit that such a possibility could even exist.

However, I refer the noble Lord to the Answer that I gave to my noble friend's original Question. We are conscious that we live in an extremely uncertain world and that the demands on our defences are likely to change at short notice. As my right honourable and learned friend said in another place, we intend to keep that requirement firmly in mind.

With regard to the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence, I remind the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that when it examined the results of the Options for Change, it commended the Ministry of Defence, stating that the resultant army, both Regular and Territorial, would be outstandingly well equipped.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, bearing in mind that problems often come from more than one direction at once, I ask this question. Were the troops committed to the ACE Rapid Reaction Corps to be fully committed with that force, from where would a balanced fighting force be obtained which might be required to go, for instance, to the aid of the Falkland Islands?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, with his experience in military matters, my noble friend will be well aware that it is impossible to guard against every possible eventuality. The Ministry of Defence has to make a judgment. It has made a judgment and believes that the judgment is at least adequate for our present purposes.

As I have to repeat to your Lordships in answer to every Question on the subject, the matter is permanently under review. If the circumstances change, we shall not hesitate to change our disposition.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, is there not a strange contrast between the cuts in the Army and the proposed overall considerable increases in our nuclear capability? What is the explanation?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, knows at least as well as I do that our nuclear deterrent is the minimum necessary for credibility. That is consistent with our policy and will continue to be so.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, perhaps I may follow that up. Is the noble Viscount aware that successive governments have described our deterrent as the minimum deterrent? Why do we now need a greater minimum deterrent?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I go down a rather recent memory lane in these exchanges. In previous exchanges in this place over the past few weeks, I have reminded the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, of the considerable number of cuts in our nuclear capability that we have announced in the tactical and substrategic sphere. We have also emphasised that the present deployment of warheads, so far as concerns Trident, is very much the maximum.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that Options for Change was finalised during the euphoric period after the collapse of the Soviet military empire? Since then the world has realised that there are many dangers in other parts of the world. Are we sure that if the process of Options for Change continues, and indeed is not revised, we shall still have the forces necessary to meet those possible new needs?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am happy to agree with the noble Lord when he states that we live in a dangerous and uncertain world. It is for that reason that it is important, in particular in view of the danger of proliferation of nuclear weapons, that we should maintain our nuclear deterrent. At the same time it is important that we realise that our conventional forces should be flexible and capable of reacting to any threat that emerges. As your Lordships well know, the threat that is emerging nowadays is all the more dangerous because of its very uncertainty. In the wake of the fall of great empires, the world does not necessarily become a safer place.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, will the noble Viscount tell the House what consultations have taken place with the NATO countries on the implications of the new policy?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn. Consultations are constantly taking place with our allies. We still regard NATO as the cornerstone of our defence policy. On the whole, the cuts made by our NATO allies as a result of the events in the Soviet Union have been rather more severe than those that we contemplate.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, can we assume from what the noble Viscount said that our allies in NATO are in favour of Options for Change?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the decision regarding Options for Change clearly has to be taken in the light of the overall plans within the NATO Alliance. It would be unwise for us to take those decisions in isolation from our NATO allies. Certainly that has not happened.

Lord Wedgwood

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the reasons that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is reluctant to commit our combat forces to the Balkans is the current overstretch of those combat forces, especially the infantry?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving me that opportunity. Emphatically, the answer to his question is no.

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