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17 Oct 2002 : Column 551—continued

5.44 pm

Angus Robertson (Moray): The issue of global terrorism is clearly at the top of the agenda following the tragedy in Bali, and I associate myself, the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru completely with the condemnation of that attack by right hon. and hon. Members during the debate. As has been pointed out by many, including Vice-President Al Gore, the recent increasing concentration on Iraq should not detract from the challenge posed by terrorism and al-Qaeda. However, I shall focus my comments not on geostrategic or tactical questions posed by the campaign against terrorism or on whether or in what form there should be military intervention in Iraq, but on preparedness for any eventualities.

The Scottish National party position against unilateral military action by the UK and the US is clear and unambiguous, and we hope to see the start of weapons inspections soon. Nevertheless, should it come to pass that our service personnel have to take part in multilateral or unilateral action, I am keen to seek reassurance from the Government on a number of fronts.

The Minister will be aware of my constituency interest in the matter, as many of the current air operations over the middle east and Afghanistan involve personnel from RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Kinloss in Moray. I was pleased to meet many of them in theatre recently while on a visit to bases in the region, together with the hon. Members for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) and for Workington (Tony Cunningham). I put on record my thanks to the RAF and the Ministry of Defence for the excellent tour, which was valuable for learning the views of men and women in the UK armed forces in the region. It is those service people who are at the front line of any potential offensive against Iraq.

Initial reports suggest that any eventual UK military operation in Iraq will also involve an enlarged armoured brigade and air support. Two Scottish regiments—the Scots Dragoon Guards and the Black Watch—are currently assigned to the Desert Rats and they could play a part in any deployment. In addition, Scottish-based Tornado and Nimrod squadrons are expected to be involved.

For that reason, there is a particular interest in Scotland about how those service personnel, either recruited or stationed north of the border, are likely to participate in any eventual action, and whether worries about equipment and Gulf war syndrome have been fully addressed. Bearing in mind the experience of the UK's Operation Granby as part of Desert Storm in the last Gulf war, there are still serious concerns about Gulf war syndrome and how those afflicted have been treated since the conflict.

Can the Minister confirm whether the same mixture of vaccines used to inoculate our troops the last time is likely to be used in the future, and what monitoring

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procedures are in place for theatre operations to detect emerging symptoms similar to those suffered the last time that troops were involved in offensive action? Those are concerns that have been articulated to me and other Members by service personnel, and they deserve an answer.

Military sources also show that the UK is likely to be asked to produce a force at divisional strength of around 25,000 men. Ministers will be well aware of the problems highlighted by the National Audit Office about the most recent military exercises in Oman. Operation Saif Sareea II highlighted how essential military equipment failed to deal with the extremes of desert warfare. Soldiers' boots fell apart and armoured vehicles, guns, helicopters and heavy lifting equipment could not deal with the heat.

UK armoured regiments will use the same Challenger tanks that were used in Oman, despite the discovery that that desert dust clogged up the tanks' air filter so that they could operate for only four hours. Quite apart from interoperability difficulties with the United States, the filter issue is key. I was glad to see that assurances were given to the Select Committee on Defence yesterday that contingencies have been arranged to deal with that. Can the Minister confirm how long it will take to fit filters on more that 200 Challenger tanks? Have the filters already been constructed?

Following on from the NAO report, further questions remain unanswered. Have modifications been made to the plastic air filters on AS90 artillery pieces, which melted in operation Saif Sareea II in Oman? What improvements have been made for radio communication? Given that the Bowman system is not expected until 2004 at the earliest, will UK troops still depend on Clansman, which is not secure, or will they have to depend on mobile phones, as they did in Kosovo?

In addition, there are the questions that continue to surround the SA80 rifle. There is no doubt about the weapon's accuracy and balance, but it has been prone to a long list of defects that have been debated often in the House and which the Government assure us have now been dealt with by the Heckler and Koch upgrade. Nevertheless, there has been a profound lack of trust in the weapon's reliability, and many service men tell me that they would far prefer to see the SA80 replaced by the M-16 or M-4 carbine.

Is the Minister confident that, with the upgrade and new cleaning guidelines for the SA80 A2, we will not see a repeat of the experience of 45 Commando during Operation Jacana in Afghanistan? Are there any contingency plans to replace the SA80 at short notice if the realities of desert combat show that the weapon is still not reliable?

All those questions are legitimate and have been posed by members of the service community. I hope that the Government will take the opportunity to answer them without claiming that plans are not being drawn up by the MOD for future eventualities in Iraq. Plans are being drawn up, strategies are being developed, assets are being ring-fenced, spares are being cannibalised and service men and women have been told when they can expect leave to be cancelled.

All this also has a potential domestic impact. The call-up of reserve and Territorial Army medics would have an impact on the national health service, and account

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must also be taken of the impending industrial dispute involving the Fire Brigades Union. Until recently, the Black Watch and the Scots Dragoon Guards were reportedly on stand-by for firefighting duty, but they have now returned to normal military training. While the ring-fencing of combat units based in Germany may be prudent in military planning terms, it raises questions about how domestic fire cover could be optimised if there were a strike. Similar manpower shortages are also likely to be highlighted in other areas, should there be a substantial additional deployment.

In the RAF alone, there are significant shortages of motor transport drivers and cooks following the increase in contractorisation. That puts an enormous strain on those serving in those blue-suit roles who already seem to be on the permanent detachment rotation. What contingency plans are being made to diminish the pressures on those and other key roles in the services? I am certain that, in his reply, the Minister will rightly praise the professionalism of the armed services, and I agree with that wholeheartedly. Nevertheless, the questions that I have posed have been raised by service men and women, and the issues are vital to the future of operations that may take place sooner rather than later.

5.51 pm

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): Saddam Hussein polled 100 per cent. of the vote in a recent referendum not because of his telephone canvassing and popularity but because the main hope in life for most people in Iraq is to die a natural death—there is so much torture and execution there. He is not only evil but dangerous. He has invaded his neighbours in Iran and Kuwait, sent missiles to Israel, and killed hundreds of thousands of Kurds and Marsh Arabs. Indeed, he killed his own son-in-law, Hussein Kamal, in 1995—after he had disclosed plans for the manufacture of nuclear warheads—along with some 40 members of his family.

Since the weapons inspectors left Iraq in 1998, we have faced a threat that means that if we do not act, Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons, at which point it will be too late to use military force to decommission them. Many Members have pointed out that if we do anything to Saddam Hussein, he will unleash weapons of mass destruction such as biochemical weapons. Surely the argument must be that the longer we wait, the worse the threat of unleashing mass destruction becomes, particularly when he equips himself with nuclear weapons. That is why it is imperative that the United Nations act to enforce the decommissioning of his weapons of mass destruction.

The United States has not helped itself, because its attitude towards world affairs is demonstrably one of self-interest rather than world interest. We have only to look at Kyoto, in relation to the environment, or the effect of steel tariffs on free trade. There are also question marks over human rights in relation to the United States' lack of support for an international court. Indeed, the situation in Camp X-Ray is not altogether acceptable. One of my own constituents has been incarcerated there for nearly a year without any rights and without being charged. He should be either charged and punished or repatriated. Nevertheless, action must be taken before it is too late.

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As I said in my intervention on the Secretary of State, it is important that we obtain a United Nations resolution that is simple and achievable, and that commands the respect of the rest of the United Nations. It is unacceptable to couch a resolution in terms of requiring 600 prisoners of war to be accounted for, or requiring the end of persecution and oil smuggling, or the provision of US armed guards. Such a resolution would not be accepted by others, and would inevitably trigger a war if implemented.

The Bali tragedy underlines the value of united action on world affairs. America has the economic and military might to act unilaterally to bring about regime change. However, that would be to attack individual countries rather than combat terror. Unilateral, pre-emptive action would open Pandora's box. It would legitimise an attack on Taiwan by China, continuing attacks on Chechnya by Russia, and an attack on Pakistan by India. Legitimising unilateral pre-emptive action would encourage the use, rather than the control, of weapons of mass destruction.

People have asked whether the Iraqi threat can be separated from combating terrorism. Despite what has been alleged, Saddam is a secular tyrant who has killed various mullahs and he is not a friend of al-Qaeda. It is a shame that people confuse the issue. However, managing the Iraqi threat has an impact on the war against terror. As the report by the Council on Foreign Relations disclosed today, the Saudi Arabians are not helping us much in gaining access to the funding streams for terrorism. George Bush's policy is not to use full United States power and influence to combat funding from Saudi Arabia to terrorist organisations. I presume that the reason for that is his short-term preoccupation with success in dealing with the threat of Iraq.

Clearly, we must balance our objectives. I hope that the focus and noise from the United States will change slightly after the 3 November congressional elections, when the political focus in America will be on world affairs rather than the awful state of the economy.

The United States needs to build trust in the world by using its diplomatic and economic power to create a better world. That does not simply mean neutralising the threat in Iraq, but using its strength to enforce peace in Palestine. The US is the only nation with the power to do that. In the opinion of many Arab states, unless it sends the right signals to Ariel Sharon, who is not a friend of peace, it will not demonstrate an even-handed approach to world affairs.

We have a historic opportunity not only to neutralise the Iraqi threat but to move forward on Palestine. Britain is the only voice to which the United States listens; it simply dismisses everyone else. We should say that we want a resolution, decommissioning and to avert war, but that decommissioning will occur only with the threat of war. We should also say that we want delivery on Palestine and the rebuilding of Afghanistan. If the global community witnesses solutions emerging in Palestine and the rebuilding of Afghanistan, it is more likely to support a collective ambition to sort out matters in Iraq.

We have an opportunity to make major headway and I hope that the British Government will take the lead in putting other issues on the agenda and in producing a simple, clear resolution about unfettered access and

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decommissioning. There could then be progress on neutralising the Iraqi threat without necessarily having to resort to war.

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