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9.23 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I confess that I am becoming a little worried about following the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) as he appears to like the sound of my voice more than that of his own.

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The United Kingdom has played a full part in the coalition's military operations from the moment that they began on 7 October. On two occasions, Royal Navy submarines have launched Tomahawk cruise missiles against terrorist training camps—most recently, last Saturday. As the House is aware, the United Kingdom authorised the United States to use the base at Diego Garcia in the Indian ocean. Since 9 October, the Royal Air Force has flown almost 50 reconnaissance and air-to-air refuelling sorties in support of American strike aircraft, including eight sorties last night.

I must emphasise how important those sorties are. Air operations depend on them. About 10 RAF aircraft are involved—the United States particularly requested those in view of the RAF's high level of expertise in that field. Our VC10 and Tristar air-to-air refuelling aircraft fly for several hours at a time, including over Afghan airspace, refuelling up to 14 strike aircraft on each sortie. They are playing a crucial role in the continuing operations.

In addition, we have deployed Canberra PR9 reconnaissance planes. These aircraft provide a capability that few other countries can match. They will be used not simply for military purposes, such as targeting and battle damage assessment; we will also use them to plot precisely the movement of the many refugees still stranded inside Afghanistan as they try to flee the Taliban regime. That will enable us to provide important information to the World Food Programme and others who are delivering humanitarian aid, allowing them to bring some relief from hunger inside the country.

We have also authorised the call-out of a small number—about 150—of our reservists in support of the operations in response to the terrorist activities in the United States. Initially, at least, this will be on a voluntary basis. We will employ those skilled men and women in augmenting headquarters and other specialist positions, mostly in this country. Many of them—including photo-analysts and interpreters—will serve in the defence intelligence staff. Others will support the Royal Air Force, both in the United Kingdom and overseas.

The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) raised several concerns about that process. I can assure him that employers' attitudes and concerns will be taken fully into account and, indeed, that civilian employers are being contacted to gain their agreement to release reservists for military service. I hope that he will accept from me that this will not lead to employment tribunal cases. If he has examples of likely difficulties, I should certainly like to hear from him and we shall thoroughly investigate those matters. We have no wish to make life difficult for either the reservists or their employers.

As regards the interest shown in weather issues by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)—at least in the previous debate on this subject—we have also authorised the call-out of members of the mobile meteorological unit. These men and women, who normally work for the Meterological Office, will provide important operational and tactical meteorological information to our deployed forces.

I want to single out the many talents and high quality of our reserve forces. The new demands build on the equally valuable efforts of reservists currently serving in the Balkans, the Gulf and Sierra Leone. They play an invaluable role in each of those theatres, providing considerable expertise to augment existing members of the regular armed forces.

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The House has consistently supported our armed forces, particularly when the Government have taken the difficult decision to deploy them on operations. I want to thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their many kind words about our service men and women. We ask an enormous amount of our armed forces. Their performance over the last few days and weeks, as part of the global effort to counter international terrorism, is further proof of their abilities. Our armed forces are, without doubt, among the best in the world. I know that the House will join me in offering them our full support.

I make no apology for repeating my commitment to the families of service personnel. It is not easy for them when their close relatives deploy overseas on operations. We value the enormous contribution that they make to the United Kingdom's defence community. I was particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) for the personal observations that he made on that subject.

I also thank the House and the country at large for their support for the actions that we are taking. Sometimes, we are faced by critical events that unite us—a point well made by the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), earlier in the debate. The attacks of 11 September and their aftermath are one example of such a situation. This support, from Members of Parliament and members of the public alike, means a great deal to our armed forces. On their behalf, let me say that I am grateful for it and for the spirit in which it has been offered.

In the light of the observations made by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), I emphasise that we will not take for granted the support of the House. Indeed, that is why we have already held four debates on this vital subject, in which all Members have had opportunities to set out their views.

Mr. Salmond: Is the Secretary of State able to confirm or deny the reports in later editions of the Evening Standard this evening that, following the discussions that Colin Powell has held in Pakistan, there is a suggestion of a deadline of 17 November—the onset of Ramadan—for the bombing phase of the military action?

Mr. Hoon: I have not seen the late editions of that newspaper, and I am not aware of any particular deadline. I shall deal with some of the military strategy in due course, but I think it highly unlikely that that report is accurate.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has explained that our strategy in response to the events of 11 September contains a number of different elements, embracing action in the diplomatic, humanitarian, economic, legal and military spheres. Our immediate aims have been stated clearly. First, we want to bring those guilty of perpetrating the attacks on 11 September to account. Secondly, we want to ensure that Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network are never able to pose a terrorist threat again. Thirdly, we want to ensure that Afghanistan no longer harbours and sustains international terrorism or terrorists. Assuming that the Taliban regime fails to comply with those perfectly proper and legitimate requests, we require a sufficient change in the leadership

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in Afghanistan to ensure that that country's links with international terrorism are broken and that its support for international terrorism is ended.

Those aims are set out in the paper that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has placed in the Library. In response to a question asked by the hon. Member for North Essex, I assure the House that those aims are entirely consistent with those set out by the United States. I recognise that the objectives are ambitious, but they are necessary, and with our allies and partners, we will achieve them. That will not be easy; it will certainly take time, but we will succeed.

The continuous military action by the coalition will play an important part—but only a part—in achieving those objectives. We have three clear military goals: to destroy the terrorist camps; to pressure the Taliban regime into ending its support for Osama bin Laden; and to create the right conditions for future operations in Afghanistan so that that pressure is sustained for as long as it is required.

Mr. Dalyell: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development stated in public on the radio that every target was approved by a Law Officer. I do not know the answer to this question, but is every target approved by a Law Officer?

Mr. Hoon: I believe that my right hon. Friend actually said that every target was approved on advice from the Law Officers. My hon. Friend understands the fast- moving nature of military actions—he has considerably more experience of them than I am ever likely to have—so I am sure that he will appreciate that legal advice cannot always be given precisely before any particular attack takes place. Therefore, the general practice has always been to ensure that all targets conform to international law and, indeed, national law. That is our practice in relation to the current operations, and that will continue to be the case.

I have set out our military goals, and our justification for pursuing them is very well known. The atrocities of the 11 September may have taken place overseas, but they still represent the largest ever single loss of British lives through terrorism. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set out for the House the conclusions that we have reached about who was responsible. Those conclusions have convinced Governments around the world of the guilt of Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network. We are now taking proportionate action in self-defence, in accordance with international law, as I have said, to protect our citizens and, indeed, those of other countries.

This is a very different kind of conflict from those that we have fought in the past. It is not a classical military campaign. Our enemy is a not a standing army, such as the one that we faced in the Gulf conflict or, more recently, in Kosovo.

In Kosovo, it was necessary to render the significant Serbian military machine incapable of continuing to massacre innocent civilians. NATO took military action to prevent an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe. Despite what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) said about the situation in Kosovo, I have been there several times in different ministerial roles and hundreds of thousands of refugees

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are back in their homes and jobs. Indeed, in my most recent visit to Pristina I saw signs of growing prosperity, which after my first visit I would have found remarkable. That is a tribute to the military campaign that was undertaken on behalf of the refugees to enable them to return to their homes.

However, this time we need to operate in different ways. The phasing, tempo and scale of our operations will differ markedly from how we would act against a conventional opponent. Already we can see that this campaign is very different. The coalition has attacked many targets in the past nine days. They are much smaller than they were in Kosovo and there are not so many of them. We struck more than twice as many targets in the first 10 days of the Kosovo campaign than we have attacked in Afghanistan despite the appalling weather that we faced in Kosovo. The targets now are not as obvious. In contrast to the Taliban, the Serbian military machine was a formidable opponent and considerable effort was needed to degrade its military capability so that we could operate safely. This time it is different. The Taliban are not a significant military power, but rather one that has persistently supported international terrorism.

We have committed ourselves for the long haul so that we achieve our objectives, however long it takes. The military element of our strategy against international terrorism may take some time. Of course, the precise length and shape of the military campaign will depend on how we can best achieve our objectives.

Military operations will not necessarily continue at their current level. Their tempo will fluctuate: they may slow or intensify; they may even appear to stop. Everything will depend on our analysis of how we can best meet the military objectives and how those contribute to the broad front of pressure that is being applied to the Taliban regime.

Military operations do not need to be confined to air strikes. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said on 11 October, we have always been aware that we may have to back up air strikes with other forms of proportionate and targeted action. That could include the use of ground forces. A number of options are being considered and we have not taken any final decisions. When we do, we will, of course, keep the House fully informed, not least because we will have to face up to the risk of casualties of our own. We have to recognise that that is a real possibility. We will obviously work to minimise those risks, but we cannot eliminate them entirely. The decision to deploy our armed forces on ground operations is never taken lightly, but such is the gravity of the threat posed by terrorism that we may ultimately have no choice.

On the details of the campaign, I shall set out the extent to which we have achieved the military aims to which I referred earlier. So far, the coalition has attacked more than 60 different military targets. I emphasise that we have addressed exclusively military targets. Our targets have been terrorist training camps, the Taliban's military infrastructure and, in particular, their early warning and air defence capabilities. Those include military command and control sites, early warning radars, airfields, surface- to-air missile sites, military aircraft, military garrisons and military and maintenance sites, all of which are military targets. Not a single civilian infrastructure target—if that

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was the phrase used by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway—has been attacked deliberately by the coalition.

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