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whether it is ever likely
that the revamped Nimrod MRA4 will deliver the capability needed. As former President, now Prime Minister, Putin expands his arsenal, not least his submarine fleet, should we be cavalier about dispensing with the long-range anti-submarine capability provided by the Nimrod?
On the plus side, we believe that the decision to replace Trident was an example of essential longer-term planning consistent with the need to continue to prepare for a range of threats as yet unidentified. Mention was made in Westminster Hall last week of the Gates doctrine,
according to which we need to concentrate on the actual war, not a possible war. I well understand that, but the people of this country would be very concerned if the House took such a short-sighted view as to think that we could rule out, for the foreseeable future orheaven forbideven over our lifetimes, the possibility of state-upon-state conflict. Defence has always been an insurance policy, and that applies no less today than it did in the past; indeed, it probably applies more today than in the past. The only difference is that today we are fighting actual conflicts for which we have to provide.
The Minister ended his remarks by saying that some felt that there had been failures, which he was prepared to acknowledge. The Government are in complete disarray in their procurement programme. Let me go through some of the examples. Chinook helicopters intended for our vital special forces operations have been grounded for seven years while Ministers have tried to work out what to do.
Mr. Howarth: I know all the arguments, and that is entirely true, but the Government have been in office for 10 years, during which they have sat around trying to cope with the problem and decide what to do. The failure to resolve that procurement issue is a failure of ministerial decision making. At the end of the day, the Minister knows that if he were asked to make that decision today, he would not be in a position to judge, but would have to rely on his experts. Indeed, he has already said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) that he has to rely on his experts. The question then was: why did the experts get it wrong in that case? Now the question is: why have Ministers taken seven years to resolve the matter?
Mr. Jones: Possibly to sort out the mess that the previous Conservative Government left in that contract. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that was not the only poisoned legacy that the previous Conservative Government left? They left us a complete farce over the sale of Annington Homes, which has left the Armys housing stock in the hands of a private company. If the hon. Gentleman wants lessons in supporting our armed forces, let me remind him that the £1 billion-odd that the Conservatives got for that was taken straight out of the defence budget and used for tax cuts.
Mr. Howarth: The Minister is fortunate that he can rely on the hon. Gentleman to blame the previous Conservative Government, after 11 years, for the failures of this Government. That argument might have worn for a few years, but it does not wear today. The Government have only themselves to blame.
I have already mentioned the Chinooks. There has been a combined in-service date slippage of almost 14 years on three projects, with cost overruns of nearly £3 billion, which, as the Defence Committee said, are not limited to legacy projects. There has been scathing criticism from the National Audit Office of the bungled sell-off of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency,
which, we now understand from the former Minister, Lord Moonie, the Ministry of Defence was opposed to, but which it was dragooned into doing by a Treasury anxious to get its hands on MOD money.
The Royal Air Force soldiers on with clapped-out VC10 and TriStar aircraft, while Ministers fashion a convoluted rental deal for delivery in three years time. The Royal Navy is operating Lynx aircraft with less than 200 hours of airframe time left. There are still no contracts signed for the cornerstone of the Governments 1998 strategic defence review, the aircraft carriers, on which the French claim to be negotiating with Ministers in this country on a timeshare basis, like some holiday apartment.
We are no nearer to a decision on the Armys essential new battlefield vehicle, the future rapid effect systemFRESdespite what the Minister has said. I will come to that in more detail in a moment. Urgent operational requirements are funded for the short term by the Treasury, as the Minister said, and are not part of the overall core defence budget. There is no comprehensive, through-life plan for the bits of equipment that are required under the urgent operational requirements.
Mark Pritchard: Would my hon. Friend like to put on record our thanks for all the hard work and dedication that have been put into fulfilling urgent operational requirements by the Defence Logistics Organisation staff, the Defence Support Group staff and the Army Base Repair Organisation in my constituency? They often work overtime for no extra pay in order to fulfil those UORs on the front line.
Mr. Howarth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as I am sure the House will be, for making that point. I warmly endorse everything that he has said. Indeed, that is one reason why we have to maintain an integral British defence industrial base, without which we would not have access to that kind of spirited national effort in times of conflict.
The Defence Export Services Organisation, which delivered huge benefits to the United Kingdom, was scrapped at the behest of an ennobled Treasury official, possibly in cahoots with the Campaign Against Arms Trade. The second instalment of the defence industrial strategy has been lost in the Department, if not on one of South West Trains. I could go on, but I will not because time is limited. It is little wonder that the one man with a grasp of the issues and the ability to make decisions, Lord Drayson, threw in the towel at the end of last year to go motor racing, leaving the defence industry with no clear vision of the Governments strategy.
The recent equipment planning round for 2008EP08has proved so unsatisfactory that the Government have invented a stalling device that they have called an equipment examination, which is set to take three months. The House will be interested to know what the Minister has said this afternoon. Apparently, it is to be a short examination designed to look at a 10-year requirement. The Minister needs to make up his mind whether this has been designed to provide a reflective peace in order to wrestle with some of the longer-term issues to which I have already referred, or, as we all suspect, it is a stalling device designed to get the Government through planning round 08 or 09. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire was absolutely right
to say that we have no idea whether PR08 has been concluded or not [ Interruption. ] The Minister says that he has just told us. Perhaps he will tell us when that short examination is going to report to the House. I will give way to him if he would like to put that on the record now [ Interruption. ] For the benefit of my right hon. and hon. Friends, he says it will be in a few months.
Mr. Bob Ainsworth: We do not report the end of planning rounds, and I am not aware of any previous Government having done so. We report decisions that have been taken, at the appropriate time, and we will continue to do so. From a planning point of view, it is common sense to undertake this short reviewshort in terms of the time that we hope it will takein order to inform the next planning round. Of course we will inform the House of any individual decision as soon as it is taken, and as soon as we are able to do so.
Mr. Howarth: I think that my right hon. and hon. Friends will be amused to hear that. As the Minister and others have said from the Dispatch Box, there are a lot of programmes on which they cannot tell us that a decision has been made. This would appear to be a prolonged EP08, and we await a decision on it. I am prepared to wager money that we will get a statement on the day before the House rises next month, or possibly on the day that it actually rises. We shall have to wait and see.
Mr. Jenkins: I await the development of the hon. Gentlemans speech with interest. He complains about the length of time the preparation takes but, like most of the Defence Committee, I am keen to go through all that preparation before we get to the main gate. Astute, Brimstone, Nimrod, Stingray, Type 25 and Typhoon, which together are now more than £2.8 billion over budget, and have a time delay of 25 years between them, were all signed off by the previous Government without going through that gateway and that scrutinised preparation. How can the hon. Gentleman argue in favour of that?
Mr. Howarth: It is, of course, incumbent on the Ministry to make decisions more swiftly than it is at the moment, but those decisions must be informed. I shall come to explain how I see that happening, so the hon. Gentleman will get my answer in a few moments.
Let me continue with EP08. So disastrous has the Governments handling of defence procurement become that the three services are effectively at each others throats. Each one explained to whomever would listen that the key project for their service was vital, while the projects for the other services were either not priorities or irrelevant to current operations. The overall impression is that the Government have lost interest, know that they face defeat at the next election and are anxious to postpone as many decisions as possible for the incoming Conservative Administration to pick up, having bankrupted the country to boot.
it is totally untrue that we are trying to merge the English, British and French navies[ Official Report, 18 June 2008; Vol. 477, c. 942.]
whatever that curious SNP-type description of the Royal Navy was supposed to mean. What the French are saying is that their officials are in negotiation not about merging the two navies, but about somehow sharing aircraft carriers. That is what the Minister needs to explain. Are French and British officials in negotiation and, if so, on what? If the Minister does not want to answer that now, I hope that the Under-Secretary will specifically answer it in his concluding speech.
The Minister has told us the pretty desperate newsalbeit something that we had expected all alongthat the Type 7 and 8 ships of the Type 45 class are to be cancelled. I think that the House will want absolutely cast-iron assurances today [Interruption.] The Minister for the Armed Forces says They were never ordered, but they were all part of the strategic defence review and, still more important, they were a key component in the whole carrier force. Unlike the current class of pocket carriers, if I may call them that, which have heretofore had the protection afforded by the Sea Harrier, those carriers have no on-board protection against air attack. That is what the Type 45 is designed to provide. What the House and the Royal Navy will want today is an assurance from the Secretary of State that there is sufficient protection in six ships to look after two aircraft carriers at any one time. Without that assurance, I am bound to say that the entire project encapsulated in the strategic defence review will be put at risk.
As far as FRES is concerned, the Minister said that General Dynamics had been appointed as the provisional preferred bidder, but as far as I am aware, the line seems to have gone dead since. The Minister set out the roles that the vehicle is expected to perform, but what we need to know is when we will get delivery. General Jackson said about five years ago that he needed this by 2009 and the Minister will be aware from todays debate, as well as from discussion in the press, that this is a critical programme for the Army.
The battlefield multi-role helicopter, in the form of the future Lynx, is also critical. That aircraft has little in common with the current Lynx, but it is essential for the British Army. Are we going to have to await the outcome of the Ministers short equipment examination and when can we expect to hear news on that front?
Time does not permit me to expand on all the Governments failures, so I shall concentrate on three themes. The first is the balance of forces. I am very conscious of the argument that we are spending vast sums of taxpayers money on exceptionally high-tech kit to fight an asymmetric conventional war in Afghanistanan argument that deserves to be addressed. We need to be aware that even close-quarter combat is today conducted in the full glare of international media coverage and that there is a belief that modern warfare is a kind of enhanced computer game in which only the baddies get zapped. Collateral damage or the death of innocent civilians is widely regarded as unacceptable.
Only the use of sophisticated equipment such as the sniper pod, which is carried by the Harriers, enables the precise identification and targeting of individuals and buildings. That kit is expensive and that new equipment
also needs relatively expensive defensive aid suites attached for force protection against an increasingly sophisticated enemy. But there is, as the House has considered today, an overriding imperative to provide better force protection against the enhanced threat from improvised explosive devices, which, as I forecast, have migrated to Afghanistan from Iraq.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) rightly pressed the case on when the Snatch Land Rovers are to be withdrawn and replaced by the new WIMIK. The Under-Secretary ought to tell the House something about when we can expect that vehicle, which has much more armour and an example of which I have seen, to be much more readily available to forces in theatre. I accept everything that the Minister for the Armed Forces said about the Mastiff and it not being suitable for every role.
My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) will deal further with the issue of force protection in his winding-up speech, but the one thing that we have to be clear about is the fact that we cannot provide 100 per cent. protection for our armed forces in the field, and there would be no point in our deceiving the British people that we can so do.
Secondly, I want to discuss the procurement process and the role of industry. Although I have been highly critical of the Governments overall procurement strategy, I am happy to join the Minister in acknowledging the fact that the urgent operational requirement programme has resulted in improvements in body armour; the off-the-shelf purchase of Predator unmanned aerial vehicles, renamed Reaper by the Royal Air Force; and provision of armoured vehicles such as the Mastiff.
Mike Penning: Body armour is obviously there to protect servicemen and women on operations, but is my hon. Friend aware that it is not fire protected? In other words, it will burn. Individuals such as Lance Corporal Compton, who suffered horrific burns after his vehicle was hit in Afghanistan, received those injuries because the body armour, which is designed to protect them, burns and their bodies are damaged.
Mr. Howarth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information, which I did not know. I am sure that the whole House will also be grateful to him and that the Under-Secretary will want to respond to that information in his winding-up speech.
The Minister referred to further helicopter capability, and we do indeed have another six Merlins, which we have acquired from Denmark, but which will not enter service until they have been modified for current operations. However, those programmes are essentially one-offs with, as I understand it, little in the way of planned through-life support.
I understand that the Danish Merlins, unlike the ones ordered by the UK, carry the traffic alert and collision avoidance systemTCAStogether with weather radar, but they will not be maintained once they become unserviceable. TCAS would prevent the loss of life in mid-air collisions and I find it hard not to have contempt for a deliberate decision to refuse to maintain a life-saving piece of equipment. As a result of acquiring one-off pieces of equipment such as those I have mentioned, we
find that there is no consistency across the fleet, with a multitude of variants having to be maintained, all of which adds to the cost.
There seems to be agreement between us that there needs to be a fundamental review of the procurement process so that we develop an ability to respond much more swiftly to the rapidly shifting nature of the threat while being able to fit the new equipment into a coherent overall core programme. I accept that that is no easy task, but it must be undertaken. The Treasury needs to be part of the process so that it can understand why its agreement to fund the simple acquisition of a UOR should not be the end of its responsibility.
I note that the Defence Committee has again expressed concern about the skills available to the MOD to enable it to monitor procurement projects. The Ministry needs to ensure that project development personnel with experience of controlling major projects are brought in from the private sector so that the MOD has the benefit of serious commercial knowledge that enables the customer to be an informed one and not be taken for a ride by industry. Alongside such savvy commercial people, I accept that we need military personnel with current knowledge of the kit in question.
Under proposals made by Lord Drayson in the defence industrial strategy, British industry, which plays such an important role in supporting our armed forces, had some idea of where the Government were going. The Minister is correct: today, it is extremely unhappy and has no sense of direction. Lord Draysons strategy is clearly set out in paragraph A1.16 of the defence industrial strategy:
Promoting an overall business environment which is attractive to defence companies and investors... identifying key industrial capabilities which are important to Defence to retain in the UK industrial base to maintain appropriate sovereignty, with sustainment strategies where these seem at risk.
We agree with that assessment. The Astute submarine programme ran into trouble in part because of skill fadethe loss of key skills to build the boatsand it is essential that we do not allow that situation to prevail.
Equally, we need to maintain investment in defence research. The defence technology strategy acknowledged as much when it said that todays battle-wining kit is the result of yesterdays investment. A programme of technology demonstrators may be one way of ensuring that we keep feeding the research base.
It is important to preserve Britains world-class research base not only for the benefit of our own forces but so that we have something to bring to the party with the US. The moment when we cease to be such a contributor, we shall become a supplicant, and that would dramatically alter the relationship. I know that the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), the former Secretary of State who is now the Government Chief Whip, felt that ownership of Britains defence industry to be of little consequence. Since he made that assertion some four years ago, however, two of our major enterprisesBAE Systems and QinetiQ, both of which happen to have their headquarters in my constituencyhave been developing faster in the US than in the UK.
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