HL Deb 06 February 2003 vol 644 cc374-84

3.35 p.m.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement that has been made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence in another place. The Statement is as follows:

"I would like to make a Statement on further contingency preparations in relation to Iraq. In a Statement on 7th January, I announced the deployment of maritime forces including 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines and a substantial naval task force. In a further Statement on 20th January, I announced the composition and deployment of land forces involving Headquarters 1 (UK) Armoured Division, 7th, Armoured Brigade, 16 Air Assault Brigade and 102 Logistics Brigade. Today, I would like to set out to the House our plans for the deployment of air forces.

"As with the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force already maintains a significant presence in the Middle East region, routinely involving around 25 aircraft and 1,000 personnel. For more than a decade, the Royal Air Force has played an important part in patrolling and enforcing the northern and southern no-fly zones in Iraq, in support of UN Security Council Resolution 688, to provide the Iraqi people with some protection from Saddam Hussein's regime. In carrying out this task, they have on many occasions been attacked by Iraqi forces. I am sure that the House will join me in saluting their courage and professionalism.

"As part of our contingency planning over recent months, we have been considering carefully what additional air capabilities may be required in the event of operations against Iraq. The details of this planning will necessarily continue to evolve.

"It is in the nature of air forces that they can be deployed over long distances more rapidly than maritime or land forces. But we envisage that in the days and weeks ahead we will increase the Royal Air Force presence in the region to around 100 fixed-wing aircraft supported by around 7,000 personnel, including members of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force.

"This will be a balanced and highly capable force, including E3D Sentry aircraft for airborne command and control; Jaguar and Tornado aircraft in the reconnaissance role; VC 10 and Tristar air-to-air refuelling aircraft; Hercules transport aircraft; Tornado F3 aircraft with the newly integrated ASRAAM missile providing an air defence capability; and Tornado GR4 and Harrier GR7 aircraft providing an offensive capability should it be required, including precision-guided weapons. The RAF Regiment will protect the deployed forces.

"In addition, the Royal Air Force element of the Joint Helicopter Command will deploy a very substantial proportion of its equipment and personnel, providing helicopter support to other deployed forces. Its contribution will consist of 27 Puma and Chinook helicopters and about 1,100 personnel.

"I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the Royal Air Force's air transport squadrons who, in addition to operating in the region itself, will be working to maximise capability in deploying and sustaining forces of all three services, supplemented as necessary by civilian charter aircraft.

"As with the maritime and land forces that we are deploying, these air deployments will provide a balanced and flexible force package, bringing together a wide range of capabilities. I do not intend to discuss the specific tasks that might be undertaken. But it will be obvious to the House that this represents a very substantial contribution by the Royal Air Force to the building of a credible threat of force in support of the policy objectives which I have previously set out for the House.

"I have now announced the composition and deployment of forces from all three services. I recognise that this may tempt some people into speculation about the likelihood or timing of military action. But it is still possible for Saddam Hussein to change his behaviour, co-operate actively with the weapons inspectors and disarm by peaceful means.

"But as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has said, time is running out. The Iraqi regime must decide whether it will comply with its obligations or face the consequences".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.41 p.m.

Lord Vivian

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in another place earlier today. From these Benches I once again assure Her Majesty's Government of our support on the situation in Iraq.

This is a helpful Statement. It leads to a number of queries. I cannot help feeling that although such Statements keep us up to date with the situation as it develops, the time has come when there should be a full debate in this House on the overall situation in Iraq, putting the whole matter into perspective. I believe there is a strong feeling in the House for holding that debate in the very near future. There have been two full debates on Iraq, the first on 24th September, when Parliament was recalled, and the second on 28th November. Will the Minister convey our request that there should be a full debate in the near future?

Turning to the Statement, the scale of deployment by the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force, although absolutely necessary, is an exceptionally large commitment for all three armed services to take on and can only exacerbate dire overstretch. One hundred fixed-wing aircraft and 27 Puma and Chinook helicopters, supported by 8,100 RAF personnel, is a very major commitment which will strain the availability of pilots. The Minister will be aware that there is an overall 7 per cent shortage of combat pilots in the RAF. To sustain operational readiness, what steps are being taken to bring manning levels of combat pilots to the agreed establishment? Are reserve combat pilots being called up? It is noted that there is no mention of any provision of combat search and rescue facilities. Perhaps the Minister can comment on that.

There is also no mention of inter-operability with the United States air force. Can it be confirmed that our aircraft have the capability of inter-operability? It appears from the Statement that the FA2 Sea Harriers are not being deployed. They possess the outstanding Blue Vixen radar. They operate a superb advanced medium-range air-to-air missile, and the air temperatures at this time of year would not adversely affect the engines. Will the noble Baroness explain why they are not being deployed?

The Statement starts with the deployment of ground forces. In my reply to the Statement made on 20th January, I asked a number of questions that the Minister said he would write to me about. I have received no letter yet and I have written to him listing my questions again. I do not intend to repeat them. Will the noble Baroness say why the desertisation and the correct colour painting of Challenger 2 tanks cannot be completed at sea during the journey to Iraq? However, the news that new desert uniforms will be available for our troops in theatre before any conflict starts in the Gulf is most welcome.

Finally, I am unable to understand why the commander of British forces has not been publicly nominated for overall command in the Gulf. Perhaps the Minister can explain why the nomination has not yet been announced.

Our contribution to the Gulf is a very large commitment for British forces. We on these Benches have full confidence in the ability of our commanders and troops. They are highly skilled, devoted to duty and extremely well motivated. Their morale is high. Their courage and professionalism will ensure success and they will complete all their tasks in an exemplary manner.

3.46 p.m.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. Our thoughts on these Benches go out to those who will shortly be flying off to the Gulf. The noble Lord, Lord Vivian, referred to morale. I hope the Minister can say what actions are being taken to deal with morale problems among the troops. There seems to be a great deal of debate in this country over whether this is a justifiable action. Those questions will be reflected among the men who are going over to the Gulf at the moment.

Considering these large troop deployments, a question has to be raised about the sustainability of the process. We hope very much that the inspectors will be given the time and space to complete their job, because that will be the most effective way of bringing about disarmament. However, if so many troops are left there for a long period, is it realistic to believe that the Army can meet its other commitments?

Are the questions raised in the press about aircraft serviceability actual problems? There was a question about one quarter of the aircraft not being available for service at the moment. We have asked before but have not received an answer to the question: under whose command will the forces be? If action is undertaken, the first units to be involved in any action will be from the air force. Will the air force be directly under American command or under British command?

I have a couple of smaller questions. One that has obviously raised its head, although it could almost be seen as frivolous, is whether, considering the deployment of RAF personnel, the planners of any action will take significant steps to make sure that the historic heritage of Iraq is not destroyed in any air campaign. It has been damaged in the past. Iraq is incredibly well endowed with buildings from all periods of history.

Is the use of cluster bombs being considered? There are serious concerns about cluster bombs. We still have real concerns too about the use of depleted uranium. That is a particular concern if the current speculation about British forces being used in the long term to secure the peace in Iraq means that they will be dealing with decontamination after the use of depleted uranium rounds.

I conclude with the most important question. I should be happy if the Minister could answer this if not the others. Will the Government consider a debate on Iraq, as the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, flagged up? The UNMOVIC inspectors are giving their crucial report on 14th February. If a decision to take action were made on the back of that report it would be seen as almost irresponsible of the Government not to have brought forward a debate in this House. I say that specifically because time is short. Will the Government consider, if necessary, recalling the House of Commons from its short recess?

3.50 p.m.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Vivian and Lord Redesdale. I am grateful for their support. I agree to take to the usual channels the request of the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, for a substantial debate. I am sure that we will get a positive response. I was asked to do the same by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, and I am happy to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Vivian, referred to the scale of commitment. We are aware that this is a major commitment. It is extremely large, much larger than the deployment in the Gulf War in the early 1990s. We can say with full confidence that we are capable of undertaking this deployment while still providing the requisite number of personnel to support the home front and any operations required here. Early preparations and careful management have ensured that a commitment of forces on this scale is manageable. That was the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Vivian. We are a flexible organisation, and we will continue to respond to new demands on our Armed Forces as they arrive.

I was asked about steps to bring forward reserve personnel. The noble Lord, Lord Vivian, will know that a call has gone out to reservists. We have 1,600 reservists from the Royal (Auxiliary) Air Force who will be deployed in that role. The noble Lord also asked about the way in which we are enforcing the no-fly zone operation. As he knows, we have a number of aircraft in the region on a key humanitarian mission, enforcing the Iraqi no-fly zones. Following that deployment, we will begin to increase the Royal Air Force deployment in the region to some 100 fixed-wing aircraft, supported by some 7,000 personnel.

I was also asked why Sea Harriers were not being deployed. Without going into too much detail because of the need to ensure that there is security protection in all our plans, it is to do with the nature of the amphibious operation.

I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, has had no reply to his correspondence. I shall look into the matter and ensure that he does get one. He asked about paint for desert camouflage and equipment. We have ordered sufficient paint to apply desert camouflage to vehicles on Operation TELIC. Some vehicles will be painted before they are transported to the theatre and others when they arrive. The Government see no problem with painting on the ground as well as transporting to the theatre. I can also tell the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, that the announcement on senior commanders will be made today.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, asked about the morale of our Armed Forces. I believe firmly that there is no doubting the commitment of our Armed Forces to the job should they be asked to take part in military action. We shall keep them informed so far as possible regarding their future in the coming days, weeks and months. The noble Lord will know that an operational welfare package is being rolled out as we speak, looking clearly at the operational welfare needs of our troops in the field.

I was asked whether the inspectors would be given time. They have been given eight weeks so far. We shall hear from Mr Blix next week when he reports back to the UN Security Council. The Iraqi regime has been given something like 800 weeks to comply with the UN resolution. The onus is on Saddam Hussein to prove that he has no weapons of mass destruction or, if he has, to disarm.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, asked where the British forces would ultimately find their command and control. Ultimately, they come under the command of the British Government, as my right honourable friend Geoff Hoon said in another place today.

On historic heritage, I have no doubt that any action will be sensitive to the wonderful historic environment in Iraq. I shall write to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, on cluster bombs—I do not have any brief in front of me on that. I recognise his concern on the issue of depleted uranium, which has been raised several times in this House over the years. However, the Government do not believe that there is robust evidence that the amount of depleted uranium envisaged would be harmful.

On the matter of a parliamentary debate, I understand that Members are keen to have such a debate. That will depend on how we can ensure that Parliament is closely consulted on military action, should it come to military action, which we still hope it will not. One hopes that Parliament will be able to be consulted before military action takes place, but if the security of our troops is in question, Parliament will be consulted as soon after the start of military action as possible.

3.59 p.m.

Lord Bramall

My Lords, I assume that all these deployments have the full support of the Chiefs of Staff. If war is inevitable, as sadly now seems likely, can the Minister assure the House that British troops will not be committed to battle without the clearest of national political aims? Those must include not only the initial objectives but also, once the battle is won, the interim political arrangements in Iraq itself in view of the great risks of internal strife. There must also be a clear exit strategy. The last two will always be much more difficult than the first.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I agree very much with the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall. I repeat that no decision has been taken to launch military action against Iraq. However, it would be quite wrong to take forward military contingency planning without taking into account the humanitarian and post-conflict considerations to which he referred. Any coalition force on the ground would bear responsibility for the immediate future and security of the country in the aftermath of any operation. We take very seriously our current and potential responsibilities towards the Iraqi people. In the aftermath of any conflict, Britain would remain at the forefront of efforts to help them.

Lord Jopling

My Lords, can the Minister give an assurance that when aircraft are deployed, they are properly prepared for combat in that region? We do not want a repeat of the situation in the previous Gulf War when deployed Tornado aircraft had to return to this country so that the cockpit warning lights—which negatived the crews' infra-red night flying facility— could be filtered. That situation should have been foreseen, but it was not. Can she give an assurance that such matters have been foreseen this time?

Baroness Crawley

Yes, my Lords, I can give that assurance. Preparatory steps to increase the readiness of air assets in the region through adjustments to existing deployments were announced on 22nd January. We take very seriously the points which the noble Lord makes, and we shall apply them to any future deployment.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that if Saddam Hussein is able to maintain his current course much longer, it will represent an enormous international failure and the possible castration of the United Nations as the world authority? My noble friend's Statement today at least means that the finger of blame will not in future be directed at the United Kingdom. Despite the commitment from the United States and ourselves, there is still a risk that Saddam Hussein will pursue the same scorched earth policy that he pursued to great environmental damage and economic cost in the retreat from Kuwait. In order to deter such a development in Iraq should military conflict begin, would it not be appropriate for Iraq to be informed that any damage done in Iraq in pursuit of such a policy will mean that Saddam Hussein, his family and those responsible for the Baathist party will—down to the sixth cousin—be required to pay the appropriate compensation?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I agree very much with the first part of my noble friend's contribution. Should the decision be taken to instigate military action, I believe that Saddam Hussein will be dealt with very firmly.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, does the noble Baroness recall that perhaps the single most courageous contribution made at the start of the previous Gulf War was by the RAF pilots involved in the airfield denial programme to prevent the Iraqi air force flying? Today's announcement on similar aircraft and similar requirements is therefore all the more sombre and significant. Everyone hopes that that will not be necessary. However, the single most important contribution to the avoidance of war is the credibility of force so that Saddam Hussein knows that he has no way out.

Our military forces will provide that credibility on the ground. However, it is the duty of their political masters to ensure that there is credibility about the position of the Government, Parliament and people in support of the forces engaged in this undertaking. Saddam Hussein keeps himself very well informed about public opinion and western opinion by means of international television. I am concerned that the wrong signals will be sent. If there is not greater public conviction, which it is the Government's duty to try to achieve, there is a real risk that he will not get the message, perhaps making war inevitable.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord King, on the credibility of force. He speaks from great experience in these matters. The message that should be going out to Saddam Hussein is that Iraq has failed both tests of United Nations Resolution 1441 by failing to disclose and failing to co-operate, and is in material breach of the resolution. These deployments, with earlier deployments announced in both Houses, are in support of that resolution. Time is now running out for Saddam Hussein.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the House has heard her comments today in the context of the Prime Minister's commitment to seek a second and specific resolution from the United Nations authorising the use of force? Does she also agree that concern about the political analysis and political objectives is not limited to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, and the Cross Benches, but that, among all of us who are thinking about this desperate situation, there is a real anxiety to know the Government's analysis of the political aftermath in Iraq and in the region should force be used? To deploy men and women to fight on our behalf without being satisfied that that analysis has been thoroughly done would be unsatisfactory.

Does my noble friend also agree that there is concern about the humanitarian dimension, not only on the Liberal Democrat Benches? We cannot have it both ways. We say that the people of Iraq are suffering under a tyrant. While the noble Lord, Lord King, is obviously right to talk about the credibility of possible force, there also has to be a credibility about our commitment to the people of Iraq. Can she assure us that in our preparations, strategic arrangements and tactical planning, the punishment to innocent civilians will be kept to an absolute minimum? It is not simply a matter of cluster bombs, although that is important, but of how the general campaign is conducted.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I acknowledge my noble friend's concern in these matters. I also pay tribute to his political work in promoting the route to peace. We are committed to going down the UN route, as we have been from the start. As my noble friend will know from Statements in this House and in another place, we would prefer to have a second resolution, and we are working hard towards having one. He asked about minimising damage. If military action has to take place, and we still hope that it will not, we will regard it as a damage limitation exercise. We are very aware of the problem of civilian casualties. We want to ensure that civilian casualties and infrastructure damage are kept to the minimum. I assure my noble friend of the Government's commitment, and the commitment of all partners in this endeavour, to the ultimate welfare and well-being of the Iraqi people.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the noble Baroness will recognise that an important part of getting the right signals to Saddam Hussein at the moment is securing the unequivocal support of Parliament and the public. Will she convey to the usual channels therefore that the wish for an early and full debate at the present time is not something merely expressed by Front Benchers but is also warmly felt by Back Benchers certainly on this side of the House and, I suspect, elsewhere?

Anti-personnel cluster bombs are among the most hideous of weapons as they are unreliable, a large percentage remain unexploded, and they look rather like things children wish to pick up. The results of doing so are perfectly horrific. We should like to hear something more on that matter than a letter from the noble Baroness to the Liberal Democrat spokesman. It should be the subject of an undertaking given in debate.

Nothing has been said about medical support. I believe that a field hospital has been sent out. Is there extra provision for the RAF? I always understood that British forces are under the command of Her Majesty's Government, but that where they assist other, larger forces, they are often under the command of those forces locally. I assume therefore that there is an American element intervening between Her Majesty's Government and the supreme commander of our forces in the area. The question that some of us would like answered is whether the British contingent as a whole is subordinate to the American commander, or whether it will be broken up. Will the air arm, for instance, be under a separate command?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, the support of Parliament and the public is essential. Indeed, Parliament gave its overwhelming support in a vote on 24th November. It is essential in this whole process continually to involve Parliament. Not only Front Benchers but also Back Benchers in this House wish to have a substantial debate on this issue. I shall ensure that noble Lords who have spoken receive copies of any detailed response that I give today on the status of cluster bombs. We, as a country, are signed up to the Ottawa Convention. We take very seriously the fact that we are a signatory of the convention. We would not countenance having anti-personnel cluster bombs at any of our bases or using them in our UK operations.

The noble Lord asked about command and control. I can only repeat what the Secretary of State said earlier; namely, that the British forces will ultimately be under the command and control of the British Government. He does not want at this stage to go into any further detail on planning.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, am I right in assuming that the Government would not have deployed forces on this scale without having estimated the financial cost of so doing and being satisfied that it is affordable in the present economic situation? If so, will the Minister share with us what that estimate of cost is at present'? Have the Government also estimated the cost of possibly committing all these forces to military action? Do the Government have it in mind that other countries which may not take part in the military action, or deploy forces at all, should be asked to contribute to the cost? I think particularly of countries in the Gulf, other members of the EU and other members of NATO.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, financial estimates of the cost of the deployment are made on a continual basis. I cannot go into any detail but I can say that it will cost whatever it takes. We shall ensure that our forces are equipped to carry out their duties in this operation whatever the cost. I cannot go into further detail as regards obligations of other countries. As the noble Lord knows, many other countries are now considering deployment and are actually deploying.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, will the noble Baroness answer the question that my noble friend Lord Elton asked about medical reserves? I declare an interest as chairman of the National Employer Advisory Board for the reserve forces. Perhaps she will encompass in that answer whether or not today's announcement entails further deployment of more reserve medical forces.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I understand that the announcement today is additional to a call-out order that was made under Section 54(1) of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 on 7th January for possible operations against Iraq, following which call-out notices sufficient to ensure 1,500 reservists were sent out. In broad terms our requirement for the RAF is about 1,600 reservists. We are talking about 900 medical staff of whom 100 are doctors.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I remind the House that I have a direct interest in this matter. My noble friends Lord Vivian and Lord Elton, and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, asked who would be in command. Is not the reality that a US commander will have operational control of our forces—what we call OPCON? Is that not a perfectly sensible arrangement? Is not one of the weaknesses of our European partners that they will not agree to such an arrangement and therefore are of far less utility to the US commanders? As regards the painting of vehicles, the infra red reflecting paint used on vehicles is highly toxic. Can I take it that we shall adhere to UK health and safety regulations when applying this paint in theatre?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I really cannot go any further this afternoon on the detail of command and control. All I can say is that, of course, we shall work closely with our American allies. Ultimately British forces will be under the control of the British Government. I can confirm that our health and safety regulations will be upheld.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, I did not hear the noble Baroness reply to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Vivian about the interoperability of our air component with American counterparts. I hope that it is not unfair to ask her to deal also with the matter of whether our front-line units on the ground will be equipped with communications that enable them to speak directly to their American counterparts.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, the British Government are confident that there will be effective interoperability between our own troops and the United States forces. I believe that my noble friend Lord Bach talked about radio communications in a previous Statement on this issue.

The Earl of Liverpool

My Lords, when repeating the Statement the noble Baroness mentioned the deployment of 27 helicopters. I believe that those comprise Puma and Chinook helicopters. However, she did not say anything about the Apache helicopter. Will any of those be deployed and, if so, how many?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I do not know, but I will write to the noble Earl.