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For example, in 2005 we used the urgent operational requirement process to introduce new Kestrel and Osprey body armour for our forces in theatre. That represented a step change in capability in comparison with the body armour that they had before, but we cannot rest. The feedback from troops is, predictably, that they like the level of protection afforded but do not like the extra weight. We are now working on a better fit of body
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armour, which will make carriage easier and which we expect to be in theatre by summer. We are also making further improvements to the infantryman’s helmet.

Mr. Ellwood: As the Minister knows, we have just returned from a two-week recess during which a number of announcements were made about defence issues. It was announced, for instance, that the Territorial Army might be cut by 10,000, that we might be sending 900 more troops to Afghanistan, and that as a result of a strategy change led by President Obama we would examine the Anbar awakening project in Iraq with a view to allowing militias in Afghanistan to be paid to do their own patrolling. Those actions will have huge significance for the way in which we operate the British Army.

Will the Minister take this opportunity to clarify what is going on? Many people in uniform are wondering what on earth the Government are doing. They read about decisions in the press that do not—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Gentleman’s intervention has been very long, and he has asked a number of questions. I think that the Minister would be entirely within his rights to answer only in terms of defence procurement, which is the subject of today’s debate.

Mr. Ainsworth: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You have made the point for me. I cannot go further than the debate allows without risking your wrath. It does not surprise me that the hon. Gentleman was as out of order as he has been on a number of other occasions.

I got good feedback on the equipment package that we are now providing from the Royal Marines of 3 Commando Brigade, whom I visited in Afghanistan in December. Everywhere I went, Royal Marines of all ranks had nothing but praise for the Jackal vehicle. There are now 200 Jackals in service, and the new, improved Jackal 2 is due to be delivered later this year, six months after the requirement was first raised.

Jackal is only one small part of the vehicle fleet that we are delivering to the front line under the UOR regime. We have approved more than £1 billion on new vehicles for operations, with a focus on providing our commanders with a range of options to allow them to select the most appropriate vehicle for the task in hand. As well as heavily armoured vehicles, they must have more mobile vehicles that can penetrate the narrow streets of villages in the green zone in Helmand, and vehicles that can cover rough terrain in pursuit of the enemy.

We have been making good progress in delivering this comprehensive programme. In October 2008, the Secretary of State announced that we would be procuring approximately 700 new and upgraded armoured vehicles. This included £350 million for more than 400 new light, medium and heavily protected utility vehicles, to be known respectively as Coyote, Husky and Wolfhound. We have now signed contracts for Husky and Wolfhound and expect to sign the contract for the Coyote vehicle very shortly.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Will the Minister explain to the House the problems associated with the UOR system, particularly as in historical terms it now
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accounts for such an enormous proportion of equipment procurement, and what that means for the maintenance of that equipment in the Army’s inventory over a prolonged period?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is right in that integrating programmes bought through the UOR process with the main programme is problematic, but surely he would accept that, as we cannot always predict every military circumstance, we need our ongoing procurement capability and the UOR process in order to be able to supplement quickly the urgent needs of troops in theatre. That is exactly what it is designed to do. Governments then have to try as best we can to integrate and mesh the UOR process, and the equipment we have bought through it, with our ongoing core equipment programme. That is, of course, problematic, but leaving troops without both the vital equipment they need and a rapid response to changing threat scenarios would be a lot worse.

Mr. Gray: The Minister’s explanation of why UORs are important would be absolutely right if they were, indeed, simply a way of providing our troops with the equipment they need at times of war such as now, but is there not a problem with UORs in that the Treasury has capped the budget—if my memory serves me right, at £700 million a year—and anything more than that comes out of the ordinary defence budgets in subsequent years, which will be after the next general election? Is there not something rather bogus about the whole UOR project, therefore?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. For the benefit of those people outside this House who are not specialists, will the Minister explain what UORs are in his reply to that question?

Mr. Ainsworth: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The urgent operational requirement programme is in theory not capped but becomes refundable for the Treasury at a point in time. However, it is an academic argument at the moment because we have not gone over that capped amount. There may well be issues at some time in the future, but we have not gone over it yet, so no repayment is required at present, and it is a hypothetical argument to say that it might present a problem at some time in the future.

I was talking about vehicles. Mastiff continues to prove its worth in Iraq and Afghanistan, and deliveries of the enhanced Mastiff 2 began in late 2008, bringing the available Mastiff fleet to more than 280. Ridgeback, which will provide similar levels of protection to Mastiff but is based around the smaller Cougar 4x4 chassis, is expected to start arriving in theatre later this month. The first batch of the Panther command and liaison vehicle has arrived in theatre. It is expected to become operational in the next few weeks.

We use the urgent operational requirements programme to ensure that we are prepared for operations today. We have to ensure that our core budget is properly balanced between equipment designed for the kind of operations that we are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and those that we may face in future. In his budget earlier this month, the American Defence Secretary, Bob Gates, said that the USA is shifting its emphasis to equipment designed for counter-insurgency operations. His analysis
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is that the US needs to be realistic about what kinds of conflicts its armed forces are likely to face in the years to come, and to tailor its equipment accordingly. In future, the enemy is more likely to be the masked insurgent than the Russian tank commander.

Last December, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced the conclusion of the equipment examination. That, too, was designed to prioritise current operations. Among other measures, he announced that we would prioritise the future rapid effect system Scout vehicle and the Warrior upgrade programme for the Army. He announced that we would redeploy the Merlin helicopter from Iraq to Afghanistan, making significantly more helicopters and flying hours available to commanders, and that we would invest £70 million to upgrade 12 Lynx mark 9 helicopters with new engines, allowing them to operate in the high altitude and heat of the Afghan summer. Those helicopters are expected to be ready to deploy in 2010.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): The Minister says that priority will be given to the FRES Scout vehicle, as the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), has said before. May we have an indication of the time scale in which that vehicle will come on stream? This FRES story has been going on for a little bit now.

Mr. Ainsworth: The Under-Secretary of State for Defence has just told me that he is hopeful that we will get to the initial gate with the FRES Scout vehicle within the next 10 months. I hope that that answers the right hon. Gentleman’s question.

The US’s shift towards procuring equipment for counter-insurgency operations has been well reported. Perhaps less well reported are the measures in its budget to maintain the US contingency capability for state-on-state conflict and power projection, measures such as the commitment to the joint strike fighter, an extra $700 million for theatre missile defence systems, and the announcement of a replacement programme for the US Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. The US is making sure that its programme stays in balance.

Given the relative sizes of our armed forces, maintaining that balance is more difficult for us. We need to make sure that we do not abandon our high-end capabilities on the altar of the needs of today. Once abandoned, those capabilities, dependent on complex equipment and highly trained personnel, would be difficult to re-grow. In our uncertain world, our armed forces will need the tools to deal with many potential threats. Equipment such as Trident, Astute, the Type 45, the new carriers, Typhoon, the JSF and the future surface combatant is essential to our ability to defend ourselves and our ability to project force.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): The Minister mentioned the joint strike fighter. Will he inform the House of what the Obama Administration’s initial reaction was to sharing the technology so that we can operate that aircraft entirely independently? Will he also tell the House whether the variant that we will get will be the same, in stealth terms, as the one that the United States will have? Or will we get the “export” variant, which I suspect will be much less stealthy?

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Mr. Ainsworth: The programme for the joint strike fighter is in the early days, as the hon. Gentleman knows, but we are involved in it and securing our position by the purchase of three aircraft. That will ensure that not only do we obtain the very highest capability—including full stealth capability—but we are able to understand and maintain the aircraft in the future, and we have full access to the technology. That is the whole reason for our involvement, and we are determined to be embedded in the programme to achieve independence of control in the future. We are receiving every indication of co-operation from our American colleagues in that regard.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend mentioned the future surface combatant programme. Does he agree that, as with the future rapid effect system, or FRES, it will suffer from having a name that nobody understands? Will he please call a spade a spade and call it the future frigate programme?

Mr. Ainsworth: I try desperately to avoid falling into MOD jargon— [ Interruption. ] Perhaps I should say, “Ministry of Defence” jargon. I try to avoid it, but it is impossible. Some of the names that we give to our equipment defy any ordinary person’s understanding of what we do, so there is a lot to be learnt by the Department and those involved with it in trying to call equipment by names that are understandable to the ordinary person. I insist on calling a carrier a carrier, not a CVF—a carrier vessel future—much to the annoyance of many people in the Royal Marines.

Mr. Arbuthnot: As always, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) makes an extremely good point. Can we not accept that the FRES brand is now broken and should be dropped? We should move to a system of vehicle procurement that people can understand.

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend was making a point about the titles that we hang on the kit and equipment that people do not understand. The fundamental capability embodied in what has become known as the FRES programme is still something that the Army wants and needs in the future—vehicles that are capable of operating in different theatres of war, not just in counter-insurgency.

Linda Gilroy: I thought that my right hon. Friend had agreed that plain English should rule the day. As far as I am concerned, FRES is French for strawberry. Could he not refer to it as a suite of utility vehicles?

Mr. Ainsworth: I cannot do that, because FRES is more than that. It does not just involve utility vehicles. In any case, I think that the French for strawberry is “fraise”, not FRES, although my French is not brilliant.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): The language issue is like “The Hunting of the Snark”. Perhaps the Minister of State can explain what a “Boojum” is when he finds one.

On the question of Typhoon, can the Minister of State explain what is happening with tranche 3? I understand that it has been split into tranche 3A and tranche 3B, and there is international agreement that tranche 3B should proceed with us counting 30 aircraft off to Saudi
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Arabia as part of our tranche. Why will not the Treasury agree that? Or is every major procurement decision now being stalled by the Treasury?

Mr. Ainsworth: We fall straight into a trap when we talk about tranche 3A and tranche 3B of Typhoon and nobody other than ourselves understands what anybody is talking about. We are in discussions with our partners about this tranche of aircraft, but I am not able to make an announcement on that at the moment and I am sorry to have to say that to the hon. Gentleman. We will make an announcement as soon as we can on our intentions to buy tranche 3 and we will try to keep the House informed on that.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): My constituents, particularly those who live close to RAF Leuchars, understand well and truly that the Eurofighter Typhoon is a new fighter aircraft. They are particularly pleased that the Government have yet again committed themselves to the deployment of three squadrons to replace the two squadrons of Tornado that are based there. However, my constituents are a little concerned at reports that 43 Squadron, which has a strong Scottish tradition, may be disbanded. If that is to be the case, would not the effectiveness of one of the new squadrons of Eurofighter Typhoon to be based at RAF Leuchars be more than enhanced if the new squadron were renamed 43?

Mr. Ainsworth: I shall come back to the right hon. and learned Gentleman on the naming of squadrons. We will try, if we can, to give assurance or at least certainty to his constituents. I am not sure, to be honest with him, what the consequences are of what he is talking about. However, I will talk to him outside and separate from the debate, if he wants, and will try to give him at least some clarity.

Sir Menzies Campbell: Perhaps I can reverse the usual circumstances and say that I will write to the Minister.

Mr. Ainsworth: Yes.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): May I inform my right hon. Friend how important tranche 3 is not only as regards jobs and skills in the north-west but to the RAF, too? It is a crucial, world-beating aircraft and we are sending out a clear message around the world that says, “We believe in this aircraft; come along and buy it.” What is he doing to ensure that those export orders are coming on board to ensure that the skills will remain in the north-west?

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This fantastic aircraft is spoken of very highly not only by all those who have flown it but by those who have seen it perform. We have tried, wherever it is appropriate, to make the aircraft available for export, as have other partner nations. People are aware of it. The doubts that people in this place and elsewhere have cast on the Eurofighter, going back some years, have largely been removed as people have seen the real capability that the Typhoon provides.

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Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): When there was a gap in production between tranche 1 and tranche 2 of Typhoon, the MOD had to pay £100 million in compensation to cover that gap. Will the Minister tell us what the figure would be if there were a gap in production between tranche 2 and tranche 3 of the Typhoon?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman describes a hypothetical situation, which would include the questions of whether there would be a gap and of how big that gap would be, so I cannot answer his question. We will come to the House, as I said, and we will inform people as soon as we can about the situation regarding tranche 3 of the Typhoon.

High-end equipment, such as that which we have been talking about, can be used very effectively across the spectrum of conflict. That is borne out by the experience of current operations. The armed forces are using equipment designed with very different theatres in mind for roles for which they were not originally intended. Such equipment includes the Tornado, which was bought as a deep-attack bomber but is employed in Iraq for close air support and will soon perform the same role in Afghanistan. However, making the right decisions about the equipment that we need is only one side of the equation. The other side involves ensuring that when we go on to procure equipment, we procure it as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Delivering equipment programmes has always been challenging. In 1958, the then Ministry of Supply estimated that defence equipment cost 2.8 times as much as forecast, so delays, slippages and cost overruns are nothing new, and nor are these difficulties something with which the UK alone struggles. In his budget speech, Secretary Gates said:

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): I agree with the Minister and accept the point that he is making—procurement is not easy, and many other countries have great difficulties—but there is no need for us to have those great difficulties. American defence procurement is on a scale vastly bigger than ours, and is vastly more complicated and vastly more complex, covering many more areas and systems. What we choose to require of our desperately small armed forces should not be as complicated and difficult as it is. The Government need to make things run much better, whichever Government they are.

Mr. Ainsworth: Our problems are different, but that does not necessarily make them easier. We procure relatively few things, so we cannot utilise the economy of scale available to the Americans, which brings its own set of problems. Yes, our problems are different, but they are not always easier—sometimes, indeed, they are more complicated as a result of our smaller procurement runs and equipment runs on individual items.

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