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Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): In talking about hazardous operations and—nearly—about the Royal Marines, does my hon. Friend intend to deal with a very significant development in recent defence announcements that flies in the face of all known military experience and

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doctrine since the Falklands: the decision no longer to retain the Sea Harriers? That will ensure that if the fleet goes to sea deployed on major operations, it will have no air cover until the new aeroplane is introduced. Given the dangers in Afghanistan that he described, does he agree that to expose an already tiny British fleet to such astonishing and needless danger is extremely foolish?

Mr. Jenkin: I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. I had intended to address that at some point in my speech, but I shall do so now. It is an extraordinary decision. It is not, as the Prime Minister claimed yesterday, a result of the Government's strategic defence review—it flies in the face of that. It reflects the Government's difficulties in retaining combat pilots and the Ministry of Defence's difficulties in making ends meet under the current budgetary arrangements, given its existing commitments. It means not that British forces chiefs would put British ships in danger, but that we simply could not deploy our carrier forces into a conflict zone unless air support was provided by another power, presumably the United States.

The decision represents a huge reduction in the expeditionary capability of Her Majesty's forces, which was originally the backbone of what the SDR was intended to address. I think that on reflection the Government will want to revisit it and to preserve the life of the Sea Harrier force until the joint strike fighter comes into operation and can take over that role, as they originally intended in the SDR.

This matter has tangential relevance to the operations that are being undertaken by 45 Commando Royal Marines, because we are deploying a battle group without our own dedicated air support—although Sea Harriers would not be used in a case such as this. We remain concerned that the fact that we are not deploying with our own dedicated air cover means that we are reliant on air cover provided by the United States, which necessarily cannot provide the same integration of command and control that is required in such operations.

Mr. Soames: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pursuing this extremely important point. Is he aware that the armed forces wanted to deploy Harriers in support of these operations, on the ground that we would be a completely deployed force? The aircraft were ready to go and capable of doing the business, but it was decided not to send them—for no reason other than cost.

Mr. Jenkin: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving that new and extremely relevant information to the House. We have a right to an explanation from the Minister of State when he replies.

Mr. Francois: Before my hon. Friend leaves the issue, there is another point to add. Several years ago, the Sea Harrier force went through an expensive upgrade to give it improved radar and the ability to carry long-range air-to-air missiles. The British taxpayer has invested a great deal of money in upgrading the aircraft to make it more capable, only for it to be taken out of service. There is no logic in that decision.

Mr. Jenkin: We know that the decision was taken on a very short time frame, undoubtedly under pressures of cost. The aircraft will be replaced with a non-marinised

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aircraft without radar or an air-to-air capability—indeed, a slower aircraft that could not outrun or catch up with attacking aircraft. I understand the Secretary of State's saying that we are concerned only about mounting ground attack operations off our carriers from now on, but the decision severely limits the role and flexibility of our armed forces and it is unacceptable that the Government have made it.

I reiterate that we wish 45 Commando Royal Marines every success. We have every confidence in their ability and commitment. They and their families will be constantly in our thoughts and prayers in the weeks and months ahead.

Before I leave Afghanistan entirely, this debate is about personnel issues, and I ask the Minister of State to deal with the following points. Both ISAF and Operation Jacana are likely to extend beyond their present operational horizons, and it is fair to ask what plans the Government have made to provide for that extension. We welcome Turkey's commitment to take over the leadership of ISAF, but, as the Secretary of State said, the British commitment will remain significant. There is a need for a realistic tour plot for the roulement of 45 Commando Royal Marines, and perhaps for the continued maintenance in theatre of a battalion to support the continuing activities of ISAF. Why leave it all to the last minute? That has a detrimental effect on retention, as I shall explain later.

Another issue that was raised during the exchanges with the Secretary of State relates to the facilities that our armed forces enjoy while they are in theatre. I was distressed to learn from several people in Kabul that the British forces there are lightheartedly nicknamed "The Flintstones" by their counterparts from other national forces. That is not a comment on our forces' professional ability to do their job, but on what are regarded as the stone age facilities that they live out of compared with those available to other forces. I fully agree with the Secretary of State that there is a balance to be struck and that the speed and lightness with which we can deploy is a key part of our capability. However, it is ultimately a matter of force planning and of how long we are likely to be in theatre. Clearly, other national forces are planning and providing for being in theatre for very much longer. Huge amounts of the Royal Engineers' time and money are used in making do with hand-to-mouth facilities instead of setting up more permanent and efficient washing and toilet facilities. Indeed, such a false economy ultimately affects the personal hygiene and cleanliness of our soldiers. I do not think that British soldiers are going soft, but it is right to report that this welfare issue was raised with us on our visit. We should also raise it in the House.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): I apologise for not being present at the beginning of the hon. Gentleman's speech. However, his comments about ISAF gave me the impression that he envisaged that ISAF might have to continue its presence in Afghanistan for up to two years so that it will be able to train a local army. Does he envisage that the United Kingdom will continue to make a contribution for a period of up to two years?

Mr. Jenkin: I am merely asking the questions, because such issues naturally came to our attention during our visit. It is for the Government to explain what they

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envisage. At the moment, their proposals are unspecific and they are reluctant to plan for a commitment to ISAF considerably greater than that which they initially indicated they were letting us in for. Such issues need to be addressed to enable the Government to plan for their own purposes. If they do not know what is involved in the commitments, that adds to the problem of overstretch generally in the armed forces and to all the other problems that I am about to discuss. It is not for me to dictate to the Government how long we should stay in Afghanistan, but it is fair enough to point out that the deployment is turning out to be a very much longer-term commitment than the one that they originally indicated. However, I do not wish to dwell excessively on that point.

Four years ago, the Government said that tackling overstretch—I use that word because they used it—would be one of the key elements of the strategic defence review. In June 1997, the then Secretary of State for Defence promised:

Announcing the strategic defence review in July 1998, he said:

The Secretary of State alluded to that point earlier.

The Government said that one of the most important elements of SDR was its "Policy for People". In the documents supporting SDR, they said:

In the SDR, the Government set out their policy and views on the problem of overstretch. They said:

I could not agree more. The SDR added:

Four years after the SDR, it is clear that the Government have not stuck to their declared policy.

It is also clear that the Government have failed so far in their bid to cure the undermanning problem. As at 1 February 2002, there was a shortfall of 7,477 personnel against the currently assessed in-year requirement for UK trained army personnel. Figures from the Defence Analytical Services Agency show the decline in UK regular forces, including both trained and untrained personnel. Between April 1997 and February 2002, the number of trained officers fell by 804 while the number of trained other ranks fell by 10,800.

The immediate impact is clear. A Tornado air defence squadron was disbanded this year because of lack of pilots, and the RAF said that the mothballing was caused by "pilot shortages". It should have 1,484 pilots, but it is 131 short of that figure. We also know that the units being sent to Northern Ireland are not at full strength and that Royal Navy warships put to sea regularly without their full complement.

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Recruiting is fairly strong, and I pay tribute to the Ministry of Defence for getting quite near to its target. Its performance report tells us that the forces achieved 90 per cent. of the overall recruitment target in 2000–01, against 96 per cent. for 1999–2000. The report adds that recruitment shortfalls were experienced in all three services.

The real problem, however, is retention. In Defence questions on 11 February, the Minister responsible for the armed forces said at column 15 that the trend for retention was "upwards". Yet across all three services in 2000–01, more personnel left than joined the armed forces, and more people left than joined in each of the preceding three years.

Under the SDR, the Army was supposed to increase in size by 3,300 men. In 1998, the whole Army strength was 109,800. In 2001, it was 109,500 but now we hear that the Government have reduced their SDR target for the Army. A document leaked to The Daily Telegraph last month shows that the target of a 108,500-strong Army set by the Government in 1998 has been reduced by 1,500. Can the Government confirm whether that is correct? If it is true, it is a very sorry state of affairs.

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