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The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The objectives of Exercise Saif Sareea 2 were to deploy and sustain a major joint force across strategic distances, and conduct combined war-fighting training in a testing desert environment. As such, it was a major test of many of our joint rapid reaction forces. Overall, our initial judgment is that the exercise has met its aims most successfully.
Mr. Brady: Can the Minister confirm that a year ago the Secretary of State pressed for the cancellation of Exercise Saif Sareea 2? Was that not because he knew then that severe resource constraints would highlight serious shortcomings in the readiness of tanks, armoured vehicles, helicopters and communication equipment?
Mr. Ingram: The short answer is no, but it is worth while explaining that when any major exercise of this nature is being planned, there should be a full examination of its likely cost implications. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would expect that of the Secretary of State and others involved in making those judgments. He should have listened to the earlier answer; a decision was made to go ahead with the exercise, and it has proved successful.
Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North): The Defence Committee, of which I am a member, is taking a great interest in the lessons to be learned from the exercise in Oman. However, all that effort could be wasted if nothing is learned, which was the case after the Gulf war. I hope that my right hon. Friend will ensure that lessons are learned, rather than ignoring them as the previous Government did.
Mr. Ingram: My hon. Friend knows how comprehensive that exercise was, and we are aware that many lessons are to be learned from it. We are beginning to collate all the information so that we can do that, and ensure that we achieve our overall objective of building on the success of all aspects of the strategic defence review.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): I am sure that the House will be reassured by the Minister that the Secretary of State did not plan to cancel Exercise Saif Sareea, which has been extremely effective. It went to the very heart of the services' intentions, which is to train for operational capability, as the Chief of the Defence Staff said. Will the Minister tell us, first and foremost, what lessons have
Mr. Ingram: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's latter point. We learn a lot from live exercises, and major exercises of this nature provide extensive lessons. I know that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that we should take time to analyse all the information, find out how we can build on success and identify any major shortcomings or weaknesses and develop them into strengths. I look forward to meeting the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues tomorrow to examine the details that he has learned from the exercise, and I am sure that it will help with our examination, which will benefit future exercises.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Will the Minister take this opportunity to pay tribute to the airmen and women of RAF Lyneham whose Hercules aircraft played a key role in Exercise Saif Sareea, and who pride themselves on being the first into, and last out of, every operation, wherever in the world they may be deployed? Did he see the report in The Mail on Sunday yesterday, which quoted a senior defence source as saying, about the sale of the base:
Mr. Ingram: I could have expected that question from the hon. Gentleman if he had been campaigning from the Back Benches on matters directly affecting his constituency. He did not mention Brize Norton or any of the other RAF bases whose involvement in this exercise has also been very helpful. He knows that a review has been undertaken to consider ways in which we can best utilise the available resources. As I explained in written answers and in a letter to him, he and other hon. Members will be advised when that review has been concluded.
The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): All three services are challenged by undermanning, with the crucial factor being balance in skills, not merely total numbers of personnel. The requirement in capability may also change over time. Consistent with this the Navy and RAF plan to achieve their manning targets by 2004 and the Army by 2005.
Dr. Cable: Is it not the case that the armed forces are collectively 9,000 short of trained strength? Will the Minister comment on his Department's experience of trying to meet that shortage, particularly in Scotland, and trying to use commercial recruiting agencies to build up numbers? Has that been a success, is it being made permanent and will it be extended throughout the United Kingdom?
Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman alights on a particular scheme; we are currently looking at any number of schemes, including pilot schemes and other more established ones, both to examine ways of being more successful in recruiting across a range of areas and to look at retention strategies. That does not stand still. By their very nature, pilot schemes must be tested on the ground. Lessons will be learned from the experience in Scotland, as they will from other pilot schemes. I know that the hon. Gentleman shares my belief that we should do our best to encourage people to look at the armed forces as a career.
Mr. David Cameron (Witney): When the Minister looks at manning levels in the RAF, can he not go a little further and deny the reports that all three bases, including RAF Brize Norton in my constituency, could close? The report in The Mail on Sunday goes way beyond anything that the Department has said. Does the Minister not understand that having a cost-driven, Treasury-led review at a time when British forces are overseas is the height of crass insensitivity?
Mr. Ingram: I can deal with the answer, but I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman will gain anything by heckling. Everything must be considered by being examined. The A400M is a certainty for the United Kingdom, and an international programme is also attached to it. A judgment must then be made about which air bases, as referred to by the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), will deploy the A400Ms, along with other aircraft. It is not a case of responding to a newspaper article. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts assurances from members of the Government, both in written answers and letters, that that is an honest review, which will be subject to the same type of consultation that applies to any other bases that have been subject to reviews both recently and further back.
Caroline Flint (Don Valley): Is not it the case that hundreds of women are on active service in the operation in Afghanistan, including two women pilots? Is that not a good time to talk about the many career opportunities for women in our armed services? We should look at that to make sure that vacancies are filled.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): If at a time when the defence budget is under such manifest pressureif Saif Sareea teaches us anything, it teaches us thatthe Army and armed forces are undermanned by many thousands, what will happen to the budget if the Minister gets anywhere near his target of full manning? Will it be augmented or will there be procurement cuts?
The Parliamentary UnderSecretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): The Government are undertaking the largest programme of new warship building in this country for decades. We have already placed orders, or announced our intention to place orders, for 15 new warships for the Royal Navy, and we plan further orders for new aircraft carriers, Astute class submarines, type 45 destroyers, the new surface combatant class, as well as a number of support vessels. It remains our policy that all warships will continue to be built in the United Kingdom; that extensive programme offers the UK shipbuilding industry a solid platform of work opportunities.
Shipyards in the north-east have already benefited from the programme with the contract to build two alternative landing ships logistics at Swan Hunter on Tyneside awarded last December. Swan Hunter is also the lead yard for a further two vessels of that class to be built by BAE Systems at Govan on the Clyde. We fully expect shipyards in the north-east to be in a position to bid strongly for future orders when they are offered for competition.
Mr. Hepburn: The Minister will know that the north-east work force is one of the best in the world, but is he aware that the average age of the skilled worker on the Tyne is 50 and rising? The north-east shipyards are important not only to the economy of the north, but to the strategic interest of the country. Will my hon. Friend use his procurement powers to bring orders forward, and will he make a more detailed statement on the aircraft carrier, which is so important to the north-east and the future of its shipyards?
Dr. Moonie: Yes, we are well aware of the value of military work for the north-east. As my hon. Friend knows, Swan Hunter will be placing a great many subcontracts for the vessels that it is building, and I hope that many of those will be placed in the north-east. Contracts have recently been placed, for example, with Sir Joseph Isherwood Ltd. in North Shields and Imtech UK in Middlesbrough. Although the final choice of supplier rests with Swan Hunter as the prime contractor, we hope that many of those orders will be placed and will help to maintain the skills base.
With regard to the aircraft carrier programme, it is difficult for me to add much to what was said last month. The down selection is continuing, with the competing primes going through assessment work and developing proposals for the final build for the carriers. I shall keep the House informed as soon as we have further information to impart.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Why are the ALSLsalternative landing ships logisticsbeing built in Glasgow, when no requirement for them was identified in the strategic defence review? Is not the truth that the ships are part of the Government's industrial and political policy towards Glasgow, rather than a proper part of the defence policy, to make up for the fact that the shipyards in Glasgow failed to win the orders for the roll-on/roll-off ferries?
Dr. Moonie: I must point out that there was a requirement for other ships. We decided to bring the order forward because that was the way we could secure best value for money under our new contracting system, which, as the National Audit Office report indicated last week, is already beginning to pay off very satisfactorily in terms of our procurement programme.
Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central): I am sure that the Minister appreciates that Ministry of Defence civilian employment is lower in the north-east than in any other region or nation of the United Kingdom. He also knows, as he has just referred to it, that the design capability for the landing ships about which he spoke exists in the north-eastwhich, for the benefit of Opposition Members, does not include the city of Glasgow. Will my hon. Friend ensure, by the placing of procurement orders, the continued existence of that design capability in the north-east, whose benefits he has just celebrated and recognised? Unless he offers the basic line of procurement support, that design capability could well cease to exist, to the disbenefit of the north-east and the whole of Britain.
Dr. Moonie: Yes; I am well aware that the north-east is under-represented in terms of Ministry of Defence staff. We have looked into the matter, but I have not been able to identify anything that could conveniently be sent up there. However, that does not mean that we will not continue to look, where possible, to disperse civil servants from the centre to the periphery. The maintenance of the skills base is not just the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence. Nevertheless, the orders for the ALSLs are already in place, and I would expect the north-east to share in the orders to come over the next few years.