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The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid):
In September 2004, the United Kingdom and India signed a joint declaration reaffirming the commitment to the comprehensive strategic partnership that exists between
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our two countries. Co-operation on defence and security issues forms an important aspect of this partnership, and we have excellent defence relations on a range of activities, including joint exercises, the co-production of defence equipment and high-level strategic dialogue.
Dr. Kumar: I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. I praise the Government for their efforts in building relations between Britain and India. Our relationship is the strongest it has ever been, certainly in all the years of my adult life. Given that the declaration was agreed nearly 18 months ago, what real progress has been made between us and India on defence co-operation?
John Reid: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, which recognise the closeness of the relationship, not only because we have a strong bilateral link with our Indian colleagues, but because we fully recognise the strategic importance of India and its emergence as a great world power.
Our defence engagement with India is growing significantly. Last year, for instance, we held the first joint Army exercise, and we are now planning for joint naval and air exercises later this year. We have a number of other bilateral relations. On the industrial side, there has been a major contract for the Hawk jet trainer, and there are other aspects, too. We have also formed an excellent platform, through the purchase of the Hawk, for co-operating on other defence matters, such as the joint training of Indian pilots alongside their British counterparts at RAF Valley. Of course, we have strongly supported the US-Indian nuclear initiative from its inception. We are beginning to put a lot of flesh on the bones of our partnership.
The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): I have regular discussions with NATO and other allies regarding the deployment of forces into Afghanistan, including a recent informal meeting of NATO Defence Ministers at Taormina.
David Wright: Further to the Secretary of State's earlier reply about British forces in Afghanistan undertaking predominantly a policing role, will he tell the House what discussions he has had with neighbouring nations, and indeed NATO forces, about Afghanistan's fairly porous borders, where insurgents come across from other countries and then escape and evade capture? How does he ensure in those discussions that British troops on the ground are protected effectively?
I would not accept the description of a policing role, although my hon. Friend is correct in that I did make the point that we are not in Afghanistan primarily to wage war or to search for and destroy terrorists. Rather, we are there to act as a protective military force, protecting not only ourselves but the Afghan Government and those working with them to build their economy, their democracy and their security.
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There are two elements to our force protection. The first is our force configurationincluding air mobile components and Apache helicopters deployed for the first time in actionwhich was specified by our chiefs as the necessary one to defend our forces. Secondly, we are of course not going into the south of Afghanistan alone: to the east of us will be about 2,500 Canadian troops; and to the north in Oruzgan province there will be 1,400 Dutch troops, several hundred Australians, and Estonians and troops from the Afghan national army. There are around 9,000 troops there, and although I do not for one moment belittle the difficulties and dangers of deployment to the south, I am satisfied that, subject always to preliminary operations of our forces on the ground and what they discover, we have the configuration necessary to protect our troops.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): The Secretary of State has set out this afternoon three rather general aspirations that the deployment of our troops and NATO troops to Afghanistan is supposed to supportnamely, promotion of democracy, economic infrastructure building and poppy eradication. Will he, perhaps by way of written answer, set out more detail on those three aspirations so that the House and the country at large can judge whether they have been achieved?
John Reid: On the first point, the House will accept that not only did my predecessor set out the origins of our intervention in Afghanistan but I made an oral statement clearly outlining those aspirations at the recent deployment of our troops to Afghanistan. Secondly, it is rather difficult to set out now what we have achieved there since we have hardly even got the troops there. A better time to do that would be after a period spent there.
Mr. Hurd: I thank the Minister for that reply and remind him that on 26 January the Secretary of State confirmed to the House the "essential" role of both support and attack helicopters in our operations in Afghanistan. Will the Minister confirm the accuracy of reports in The Mail on Sunday this weekend suggesting that of 227 Lynx and Gazelle helicopters only 94 are fit for purpose and of use? If those reports are true, can the Minister explain how we have come to this sorry pass?
Mr. Ingram: Reluctant as I am to confirm anything in The Mail on Sunday because it is always hard to find anything that I would agree with in that newspaper, I can say that the report was based on a written answer that I gave
Mr. Ingram: What I was going to say was that "fit for purpose" means that there are a number of helicopters that are just short of attaining that, and one has to look at fleet availability in the round. In terms of what is required, the capability will be there and it will be sustained. Let us be clear: the Apache attack helicopter, which is a very important force, will play its part in Afghanistan if it is called upon to do so.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The National Audit Office report on progress on combat identification published earlier this month identified a number of areas where we are pursuing improvements in combat identification, including working with international partners on compatible approaches and solutions; delivering new equipment capability; putting greater emphasis on human factors; improving data collection; and learning from operational and exercise experience. We shall continue to take that work forward to a conclusion.
Mr. Kidney: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Is he aware that David Clarke was 19 when he died in Iraq three years ago last weekend? David's tank was hit by a shell fired by another British tank, but obviously that is not the only incident of so-called blue on blue during the conflict in Iraq. Does my right hon. Friend agree with my summary of the NAO report that the Ministry of Defence is doing the right work on combat identification and has the right plan of action for the future? However, the report advises the Department to undertake that work with much more urgency. Does he agree that it would be a fitting tribute to David and all the brave troops who have died in Iraq in such incidents if we completed that work quickly?
Mr. Ingram: I know that my hon. Friend takes a close interest in the matter, and I am only too aware of his constituent's age. The board of inquiry into the Challenger incident made recommendations in eight specific areas, including operational doctrine and training and procedures, and they have all been accepted and followed up.
It takes time to ensure that there is interoperability and compatibility between allies. If we develop new technical solutions to deal with the problem, we must ensure that they stand the test of time, are robust and meet specific needs. Anyone who understands the issue, as my hon. Friend does, knows that it is not just about technical solutions but about situational awareness and dealing with the human factor. Lessons on training and approach have had to be learned from the tragic incidents that have taken place, and they will clearly help us to improve in all those areas.
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