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House of Lords

Friday, 12th July 1996.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Carlisle.

Defence Estimates

11.5 a.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe) rose to move, That this House take note of the Statement on the Defence Estimates 1996 (Cm 3223).

The noble Earl said: My Lords, it is a privilege for me, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, to open this annual debate on the Statement on the Defence Estimates. I look forward to an informed and stimulating discussion and have no doubt that the debate will live up to its usual high standards.

When I spoke in your Lordships' House last year, I began by pointing out something which bears repeating. The world has changed dramatically in the past decade. The risk of global war is low. It is true, I think, to say we are safer now than we have been for several generations. But some things will always stay the same. The things that motivate people to violence will not change. The causes of conflict will continue to exist. Of course, they may take new forms. But access to natural resources, territorial disputes, nationalism, religion, ideology--all will retain their power to plunge us into conflict. In the increasingly inter-connected world in which we live, there is the increased potential for conflict to spread and for conflict and suffering to be shown nightly on our television screens. So we should not delude ourselves that we are moving to a brave new world of peace and harmony. While we have seen enormous progress in recent years, unrest and instability will always be with us.

Britain cannot isolate herself from these challenges, for we have interests and responsibilities across the globe. Our prosperity and well-being depend on stability. So even against a changing strategic setting, our interests are unlikely to change: the defence of our territory and that of our allies; promoting the spread of stabilising factors such as liberal democracy, in the belief that their spread will create the conditions in which we can best pursue our economic, trading and social interests; and averting or containing conflict that might challenge our interests.

We have set out in the White Paper our clear belief that these interests are best promoted by the use of a wide range of political, trade and cultural as well as military tools. The consequence of this, and of the changes in the strategic setting, is that our Armed Forces are deployed on a broader range of tasks to promote our interests than at any time in the past 50 years. This is the first of the three main themes of this year's White Paper.

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I should like first to mention some current operations and other successful tasks accomplished in the past year; and to pay tribute to the achievements of our Armed Forces.

In recent days, there has been ample, if unwelcome, evidence of the fact that Northern Ireland is the Armed Forces' largest operational peacetime commitment. Approximately 17,500 service men and women are currently deployed in Northern Ireland; and we are currently in the process of reinforcing them with further units.

I was particularly pleased to have had the opportunity to see all three services in action in Northern Ireland earlier this year, and to appreciate at first hand the important work which they continue to do. In the uncertain and delicate circumstances which currently prevail in Northern Ireland, I was especially impressed by the professionalism and sensitivity with which members of all our Armed Forces continue to carry out their duties.

Events this week in Drumcree and the civil unrest which has broken out sporadically across Northern Ireland, together with the recent PIRA attacks in London, Manchester and Osnabruck, show that the future is far from certain. But let me make clear that the safety of the people of Northern Ireland is paramount. Our forces will remain at whatever level is required to support the RUC in the maintenance of law and order and countering terrorism.

In the former Yugoslavia, our Armed Forces continue to serve with distinction, as they have done since 1992. They are making a tremendous contribution to the success of IFOR in implementing the peace agreement. With some 10,500 forces involved in the IFOR operation, we are the second largest contingent after the United States.

Most British personnel are in Multi-National Division South West. This British-led division has successfully presided over the largest transfer of land under the peace agreement. The divisional headquarters has transferred to Banja Luka to reinforce IFOR's even-handedness and further stabilise the situation on the ground.

Building on the successful approach of our UNPROFOR contingents before them, British forces are performing splendid work at the local level. Besides implementing the peace agreement, ensuring freedom of movement and providing security, they are building up civilian confidence on all sides. British forces are helping to solve local problems and are undertaking many local projects--often in close co-operation with the Overseas Development Agency--to help restore normal life.

The overall land operation is being most ably led by Headquarters Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps which is largely British-manned and is commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Walker. The headquarters' performance, in its first operation, is a source of great satisfaction to the UK and to NATO allies working alongside us.

Peacekeeping missions have become established as an invaluable instrument of the international community. We continue to make direct contributions to operations

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under United Nations auspices. Today, British personnel are contributing to UN missions in Cyprus, Georgia, Angola and on the Iraq/Kuwait border, and in support of Security Council resolutions over Iraq. For the UN itself, we provide military officers with specific expertise to several areas of the headquarters in New York to assist in the management of operations. During 1995 we undertook a particularly successful deployment in Angola, a battalion providing logistic support for the establishment phase of the UN Angola verification mission.

This has been only a brief resume. But it shows that it has been another busy year for our Armed Forces. And it demonstrates their continuing achievements. Wherever they have served, our servicemen and women have demonstrated the virtues of initiative, determination and discipline that are the hallmark of the British Armed Forces and which have made them admired and respected around the world.

The achievements of our Armed Forces are built on, and draw from, the successful changes made to our policies, plans and force structures since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is the second theme of the White Paper.

Our security and defence policies remain rooted in assessments of our national interests, and of how those interests can best be promoted, in conjunction with our allies and partners. We believe that NATO is, and will remain, the linchpin of European defence arrangements. The further adaptation of the NATO alliance has been an initiative strongly supported by the United Kingdom.

We were delighted with the successful outcome of the meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers at the end of May where our view prevailed. That meeting agreed that the so-called European security and defence identity should be built within rather than outside NATO as the alliance continues to adapt to meet the demands of the changed strategic setting, including preparing for peacekeeping and humanitarian operations and for eventual enlargement.

The decision was aided by the courageous decisions taken by President Chirac to adapt a number of areas of French defence policy. We are now taking forward work to put in place suitable arrangements to allow the Europeans, acting within the Western European Union, to draw on NATO assets and capabilities in mounting small-scale missions in future. Implementation of NATO's combined joint task force concept will be the key to this.

The Government firmly believe that the United Kingdom has adapted its policies and plans to the changed strategic setting better than most of our allies. We are now reaping the benefit. We have a smaller force structure than that which we maintained during the Cold War but one which is better able to respond to the demands of the changed security environment. We have capitalised on decisions to sustain flexible and highly capable forces. In particular, we have invested in mobility, deployability and rapid reaction.

It is these capabilities that have enabled the United Kingdom to become the framework nation of the Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps, now playing

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such a successful role in Bosnia. As such, we continue to be firmly positioned at the centre of NATO's European defence arrangements.

Two particular initiatives which come to fruition this year are the permanent joint headquarters in Northwood and the joint rapid deployment force (JRDF). Both will enable us to be more proactive in our approach to developing crises and problems around the world.

The PJHQ will enhance our ability to plan for, and to execute, joint operations. The fact that the PJHQ is permanent will also allow it to develop a wealth of experience that leaves it well placed to act as a centre of joint excellence. It will be a focus for the further development of aspects of our joint military capability such as joint tactics and procedures.

Over the past few months the PJHQ has undergone an intensive period of testing and validation. In May it successfully participated in the UK/US Exercise Purple Star, and over the last two weeks it has been taking part in another challenging exercise, Exercise Purple Viva. This exercise has been the final test of the PJHQ abilities before it takes over responsibilities for live operations. The exercise ended yesterday and I am delighted to announce that the PJHQ has successfully demonstrated that it is fully capable of assuming these weighty responsibilities. The PJHQ will become fully operational on 1st August. It will then begin progressively to take over responsibility for operations in the Middle East and Bosnia as well as any new operations.

The JRDF will also become operational on 1st August and will improve our ability to undertake a wide range of short notice missions in future. The permanent core of the JRDF will be based on 3 Commando Brigade and 5 Airborne Brigade with further elements being drawn from a range of assigned units from across all three services. This will allow the permanent joint headquarters to draw upon the JRDF to assemble a force carefully tailored to the needs of each particular operation.

The third theme of this year's White Paper is our continuing drive to achieve value-for-money in defence and to concentrate resources on the front line and on the support to the front line.

Strong defence does of course come at a cost. We, in turn, are determined to get the most out of every penny spent on defence. We have an excellent record of achievement to date. The Defence Costs Study was a huge success and enabled us to make large savings while maintaining--and in some cases increasing--our investment in the front line. The implementation of the many recommendations of the study is a major challenge for the department. But we are well on track to achieving both the projected implementation dates and savings. Indeed, by the end of the decade we shall be achieving annual savings in excess of £1 billion. These are in addition to annual savings of around £3 billion already generated by the department's efficiency programme, which has been running since 1988.

We will continue to build on the principle of the Defence Costs Study, which is that any activity which does not add value and cannot be shown to be necessary

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to the ultimate delivery of front-line capability should not be done. The substantial savings achieved have enabled us to plan to continue to devote an increasing proportion of the defence budget to equipment. Around 40 per cent. of this year's defence budget will be spent on equipment. That is a marked increase on the proportion spent four years ago, and we expect the proportion to continue to rise in future as the measures that we have put in place to achieve value for money in defence take effect.

Let me briefly remind your Lordships about the projects that we have in hand. For the Navy, recent orders have been placed for Tomahawk land attack missiles, and a further three Type-23 frigates. We have signed international agreements for the common new generation frigate. We are participating with the United States in a technology demonstrator programme to assess options for a possible successor to the Sea Harrier. We are in negotiation with industry on a number of other projects, including helicopters and missiles for the Army and for the Air Force. All that shows that this Government's commitment to maintaining well equipped Armed Forces is undiminished.

This year's Statement on the Defence Estimates underlines our clear view of Britain's commitments and responsibilities in the world, and the successful development of our defence policies. We are determined that our forces should be fully capable of undertaking the commitments that we ask of them, and are adequately resourced to do so.

We are committed to maintaining the capability of the front line and where possible enhancing it. Our very large investment in equipment over the past 15 years translates today into formidable power on the ground, at sea and in the air. Our forces have never been better equipped.

But I want to conclude as I started--with our people. The distinction and professionalism with which our servicemen and women have carried out the wide range of tasks that they undertake throughout the world are as much a source of pride as they have ever been. It is on their shoulders that our hopes and aspirations rest. We owe them a great debt. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House take note of the Statement on the Defence Estimates 1996 (Cm 3223).--(Earl Howe.)

11.22 a.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl for introducing this debate. I imagine that some of your Lordships may feel a certain irritation that the House's annual debate on the Defence Estimates, which is, by general consensus, as the noble Earl said, a debate on what I might call the state of the nation in defence terms, has now been reduced to a relatively short exchange on a Friday just before the Long Recess. Your Lordships will be aware that I put that point of view through the usual channels, but, I am afraid, without success. All I can say is that the Government have the final say in the matter, since it is their Motion and their document that we are debating, but I personally would have thought that the annual

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review of the defence of the United Kingdom and the state of our international defence relationships deserves somewhat greater attention from your Lordships than a mid-July Friday morning and early afternoon. At least, I hope that we shall be spared a repeat of yesterday's charade, which was described by The Times this morning as:

    "An Iolanthe-style parade of hereditary Peers".
They will not come out on a Friday, my Lords. But there it is, and we have to do our best in the time allotted to us. In order not to trespass too far on your Lordships' patience just before a summer weekend, if your Lordships will allow me I propose to deal with no more than three matters, each in their own way distinct but interrelated, and leave other subjects to my noble friend Lord Howell who will wind up from these Benches.

The first is a matter which may, I am afraid, be familiar to your Lordships but which cannot in my view be too frequently restated. I refer to what seems to me and others to be the failures over the years of Ministers, who appear--I use the word "appear" for lack of a better one--to be in some sort of charge of the Ministry of Defence. Quite how Ministers will wish to shuffle off the blame for a series of financial failures on to the backs of civil servants (who, of course, have no right of reply in either House) is for them to decide. But I should be surprised and rather critical if the noble Earl, when he comes to wind up the debate and answer these points, tries to evade the essential responsibility of Ministers. After all, it is they who are responsible to Parliament and to the country for the conduct and efficiency of their department and nothing--no fine phrases, or even, as I understand it, anonymous letters from consultants--can persuade me to the contrary.

The second matter is again the general question of how far what I would call "the balance of our defence"--the matching of resources to commitments--is in any kind of reasonable equilibrium; in other words, whether the problem of what is known in the jargon as "overstretch" is now behind us or still with us. In passing, it will not have escaped your Lordships' attention that there are well informed leaks that the Treasury is demanding a further £400 million of cuts in the defence budget in the next financial year. Like me, your Lordships will wish to measure those intentions against the published views of Ministers, including the Prime Minister. To quote what the Prime Minister said at the Conservative Party Conference in October 1994:

    "the big upheavals in our armed forces are over".
I shall be moving into that territory a little later.

The third matter deals with the question of what happens now. What happens now will depend, of course, on what happens when the political complexion of the Government changes, which will happen at any time within a year or so from now. I should be failing in my duty if I did not give your Lordships an idea of what an incoming Labour government intend and of the rather different approach that we propose to the defence needs of the country.

Let me look at the first matter that I mentioned, in other words, the record of what is popularly known as the "Ministry of Waste". To put the matter in its proper

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context, your Lordships may wish to know, for instance, that the National Audit Office reports that 23 of the MoD's 25 largest projects have seen collective cost overruns of some £650 million. It goes on to report that 90 per cent. of those projects failed to reach their planned in-service dates, with average slippage of 3.1 years. Five of the projects were delivered five years late. The Eurofighter 2000 is now well over £2 billion above budget. It is also running well behind schedule, as a result of which the operational life of the Tornado F3 and the Jaguar have had to be extended, at a cost of more than £100 million. There has been, in the words of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, "mismanagement on a grand scale" of the re-equipping and expansion of the Trident submarine base at Faslane. We are further told, on reasonable authority, that after the enormously expensive refits of ships, such as HMS "Renown", HMS "Andromeda", HMS "Battleaxe" and others, they have been sold off at a loss; and that, furthermore--a much more serious point--many ships of the Royal Navy are still not fit to go to sea, let alone engage in action against a potential enemy. So it goes on. It is not a happy story. To cap it all, the National Audit Office tells us that the Ministry of Defence has lost 205 works of art lent to it from the Government's art collection. It is not a happy story. Yet, despite all that bungling, at the Conservative Party Conference last year the Secretary of State felt able to claim--I use his own words--

    "every day, every week, every month, we will convert waste into weapons".
However much I wish to give the Secretary of State the benefit of the doubt, I am afraid that he was wrong, since the truth is that he and his predecessors have been busy converting not waste into weapons but weapons into waste.

Nevertheless, given the history of mismanagement of defence procurement, that might all be tolerated, or indeed condoned, if the taxpayers' money so squandered had led to the preservation of our defence industrial base. In fact, and again I have to tell your Lordships the truth of the matter, the opposite has happened. More than 345,000 jobs in the defence and defence-related industry have vanished since 1980. In the face of this there has been no form of assistance or encouragement from the Government to facilitate the diversification by the companies affected into other markets and other products, to use productively the advanced technological expertise which they, and particularly their employees, have developed in the defence equipment industry.

I take the view that defence contractors are one of our greatest industrial strengths. The industry, even after the cuts, still sustains nearly 400,000 jobs. With annual exports of some £5 billion our success is second only to the United States. And yet, in this high-tech and high-value added sector, the industry's share of manufacturing output has declined by one-third since 1980. No one can believe that that is sensible. I have to remind your Lordships yet again that we believe that it is Ministers at the MoD--they are the largest customers of the industry--who are responsible for this state of affairs.

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My second concern is this; and I put it in the form of a question. What has been the result of all this dishing out of taxpayers' money in which Ministers have been engaged? Over the past six years this Government have introduced cuts in the strength of our Armed Forces of somewhere around one third. Between 1990 and now, in terms of personnel the Army is down 27 per cent., the RAF down 42 per cent. and the Navy down 30 per cent. Those cuts would no doubt be reasonable if our defence commitments had been similarly reduced. But this has not happened. British forces are on more operational commitments throughout the world than at any time since the Second World War; and it makes no sense whatsoever to cut the strength of the services without cutting the commitments to which they are engaged. In short, "overstretch" is still with us, despite the assurances that we were offered in Options for Change and Front Line First. Those assurances, in particular in view of the current situation in Northern Ireland to which the noble Earl referred, must now be considered something of a poor joke. Why have Ministers wasted all this taxpayers' money which could easily have been spent in preserving and indeed enhancing our defence capability?

There must be a better way of facing up to these problems. We cannot go on with a system in which the Treasury demands financial cuts and no one reckons the defence consequences. Another £400 million, we are told, is to be lopped off the defence budget for next year. Again we find ourselves in the bizarre situation in which domestic, and possibly party political, financial considerations dominate our whole defence posture. The result of the Russian election, with its sinister undercurrent of resurgent nationalism?--forget it, my Lords. The increasing requirement to put men and women on the ground, in the air and on the sea to support United Nations peacekeeping operations?--do not mention it, my Lords. The need to reduce our defence commitments so that our resources can match them?--we do not want to know.

I come now to what the incoming government will do. The first requirement will be to review our essential security interests and to consider how the roles, missions and configuration of our Armed Forces can be appropriately adjusted so that there is a match between commitments and resources. In this exercise, strategic long-term thinking will be put at the centre of policy-making and, once the exercise is completed, we will make good our promise to provide the resources necessary for the effective defence of Britain, Britain's dependent territories and British interests. Our country is, as the noble Earl said, fortunate in having highly efficient men and women in our Armed Forces, but too much is being asked of them.

It would be absurd for me to judge in advance the outcome of such a review. But there are two strands in our thinking which are clear. The first is our commitment to the United Nations. In the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War there was a great surge of optimism about the role that the United Nations could play in international peace and security. But the experience in Somalia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia has been, to say the least, rather sobering.

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But there is no virtue in being plunged into deep pessimism, as some commentators have been. Lessons must be learned, but on the basis that the UN will continue to have an important role to play in dealing with future conflicts. In particular, we believe that the UN must have a much more effective early warning system, that the military advice available to the Security Council and the Secretary-General must be upgraded, that UN-led or UN-authorised missions must be given clear and achievable mandates which include an exit strategy, and that member states should clearly earmark troops and equipment that they are prepared to make available to the UN. We believe that that is the sensible way forward.

The second clear theme is our commitment to NATO. It was, after all, a Labour Government which were instrumental in the creation of NATO in 1949 and we have remained faithful to it ever since. My noble friend Lord Howell will have more to say about this when he winds up from these Benches. I would only say that we must be very cautious and sensitive in approaching the enlargement of NATO to the east, and that the process must proceed in parallel with measures to include Russia in a wider security framework. But it would be wrong to imagine that the process will be easy or quick. Leopards, I am afraid, tend not to change their spots.

There is no point in pretending that decisions about the defence of our country and our interests abroad are easy matters, and I, for one, will never try to disguise the difficulties. We must all try to do our best. But we must recognise that no country in these days, not even the United States, can realise its security objectives in isolation. Our interests are bound up with stability and security in Europe and with a stable international environment. We are faced with challenges which were not on the agenda 20 or 30 years ago: the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; the growth of ethnic nationalism and religious extremism; international terrorism, crime and drug trafficking, and conflicts over the exploitation of natural resources. There are, as I say, no easy solutions. But on one thing we are determined: that our Armed Forces should have a clear understanding of what they are there to defend, and, above all, that they should have the resources at their disposal to fulfil their appointed role. I believe that our country, and our Armed Forces no less, deserve that; and we will deliver.

11.37 a.m.

Lord Mayhew: My Lords, the noble Earl began and ended his speech with graceful and well deserved tributes to the work of our Armed Forces overseas, in particular in Yugoslavia and Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, spoke about our servicemen in Northern Ireland. From his speech we were all made aware that the shortage of Army manpower is the greatest problem facing the forces at this time. It is profoundly disturbing to see how suddenly and quickly more demands on our manpower are made as a result of the appalling mess in Northern Ireland. It is strange to remember that not long ago we were demanding compulsory redundancies in the Army. We were closing recruiting offices. It is an extraordinary situation; and the fact is that it is a self-inflicted wound on the Armed Forces.

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From the beginning of Options for Change the Government disproportionately lessened Army manpower. Deeper cuts were made for the Army in Options for Change for some reason than for the Royal Navy and the RAF. I agree very much with what the noble Lord, Lord Williams, said. It is certainly a subject which worries us on these Benches, and we look to the Government to remedy the position.

I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Williams, say that he would tell us what we are to expect from the new government. Immediately, I expected him to echo the remarkable statement of the Leader of the Labour Party, made, I believe, a week or two ago--an unequivocal statement of support for the Trident fleet, the Labour leader adding that, if necessary, he would be prepared to press the nuclear button. There was no reference to that from the noble Lord, Lord Williams. And that is natural. Because what has the Labour Party leader been doing? He has been bringing himself and his party into alignment with the nuclear weapons policy held by the Labour Front Bench in this House for many years. Those like myself who, for 15 years, have been listening to statements from the Labour Party Front Bench--especially my old colleague with whom I fought unilateralism in the Labour Party, the noble Lord, Lord Howell--have known for years of the rift between the Front Bench in this House and the Labour Party. We congratulate noble Lords on the Opposition Front Bench on their sustained period of disloyalty to their party's policy on nuclear weapons.

I wish to speak with greater detachment from the actual Defence Estimates White Paper than previous speakers. I ask first about the negotiations for the comprehensive test ban treaty. I was not at all satisfied by the answers given from the Government Front Bench at Question Time the other day. No one doubts the importance of the treaty and the enormous effort that has gone into reaching agreement on it. I recall last month at Question Time the Government speaking, I believe, for all parts of the House in saying that the prospects were very promising for the signing of a treaty.

Now things have gone wrong in a very serious manner. It was obvious from the start that India and certain other countries were going to demand that if the non-nuclear countries renounced for all time and completely any nuclear capability, they would ask for at least a measure of disarmament from the nuclear powers in return. They did that consistently throughout the long negotiations, and many countries agreed with them. I do not understand why that was not negotiated and why there was no compromise suggested between the Indian point of view and that of the nuclear powers. We now have the situation where India has stuck to its position, supported by the Pakistanis, the Israelis and no doubt others. I understand that the Government are saying that if those three countries will not sign the treaty, the United Kingdom will not sign it; that is to say, this huge and promising initiative is going to founder. I ask the noble Earl to try to reassure us about the position when he winds up the debate. We all know that the treaty will not make nuclear war or even nuclear proliferation

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impossible, but it makes them far more difficult and improbable. We must do our utmost to see that the treaty succeeds.

The noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Williams, both mentioned the question of NATO extension. I believe that the re-election of Mr. Yeltsin has been a considerable relief to all of us. It suggests to me that the Russians have finally ditched Marxist-Leninism and that is a great blessing for the world. But I do not understand why it should be thought that peace and goodwill in Europe will be strengthened by extending NATO's frontiers eastward. I cannot understand that. I cannot see the acute need for this very radical departure. It is perfectly natural that the Russians, Ukrainians and the people of Belarus should resist the idea. Foreign Minister Primakov said in March,

    "Russia will never accept NATO enlargement, not because it has any right of veto but because it will not tolerate the worsening geopolitical situation and will stand by its interests".
Similar statements have been made on behalf of Ukraine and Belarus.

It seems to me perfectly understandable especially--and this is unthinkable--if nuclear weapons are moved up to the frontiers of those countries. In their position we would feel the same. The noble Earl referred in passing to NATO enlargement; perhaps he will expand on that when he replies. There are all kinds of practical difficulties as well. The accession of new members will make consensus very much more difficult to obtain, and that is a vital NATO question. The interests of the new members conflict. It is not obvious to me what great military value they have for NATO.

The key is Poland. The Poles wish to belong to NATO and they are lobbying the United States to join. No doubt they hope that in an election year they will gain support from Polish voters in Pennsylvania, Illinois and places like that. But I do not believe at this time we should proceed with it. By all means bring them into the European Union, which is quite a different matter. But I cannot see any advantage at present in expanding NATO.

As usual, the defence debate has centred on Europe almost exclusively. Being a European country, I suppose that that is natural. With vivid memories still of the last war, the Cold War and the war in Yugoslavia, it is natural that we should think first of Europe. However, I confess that I see the major threat to peace in the next decade arising not in Europe but in the Middle East. It is a little surprising to me that we do not debate that threat more often in this House. I do not believe that the noble Earl mentioned the subject at all. It is very grave and getting worse. He referred to the tendency of crises to spread. I insist that war in the Middle East would be of intimate importance to ourselves and our European partners.

Noble Lords may have seen the report of the Select Committee on Defence in the other place regarding NATO's southern flank. It is well worth reading and it is profoundly disturbing. It reports the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. That was before the Israeli elections. Those elections have greatly sharpened tensions and reduced

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the possibility of peace in the Middle East. Weapons of mass destruction are held by unreliable governments with passionate grievances, some of them against each other, but all of them against the United States and United States-Israeli dominance in the Middle East. Until the Israeli election there were some signs of hope. Under the brave leadership of Mr. Peres and President Arafat, Arab-Israeli relations were improving and tension was dropping. Since then the Israelis have voted by a minimal majority to counter the Oslo agreements by increasing settlements in the West Bank; maintaining the occupation of south Lebanon and the Golan Heights; and refusing any discussion of the future of Jerusalem.

It is true to say that the decision of the Israeli electors was deplored by every civilised and peace-loving government in the world. It was a disaster. To make matters worse, the Israeli Prime Minister has now appointed General Sharon to his Cabinet. It was General Sharon who commanded the invasion of Lebanon and who is answerable for the brutal bombardment of civilians in Beirut and for the horrible massacre of Palestinians in the camps of Chatila and Sabra. He is the Israeli Karadzic, idolised by the religious and racial extremists in his country and rightly feared and hated by the Arabs. His appointment is a very grave move to the bad in the Middle East.

As the Select Committee reported, the weapons of mass destruction are multiplying in the Middle East all the time. I ask what is to be done, and I hope the noble Earl is able to reply. The Select Committee recommended serious consideration of an anti-ballistic missile defence for Europe. If one thinks of the geography of it, the technology and the finance of it, it seems a desperate remedy. Of course we must try to make stronger the conventions against weapons of mass destruction, and I have spoken about the disappointing situation as regards nuclear weapons. While Israel maintains a nuclear monopoly, not unreasonably the Arab countries decline to sign the conventions on chemical warfare, and so on.

Even more worrying in a way is the study being made by the Israelis and the Americans of the weapon of pre-emptive strike. Not long ago, the American Defense Secretary, William Perry, talked about the Tarkunah chemical plant in Libya. Asked whether he proposed to attack it by military means, he said:

    "I wouldn't rule anything out and I wouldn't rule anything in".
In the Israeli Prime Minister's statement to Congress this week, again, quite plainly, he indicated that pre-emptive strikes were on the agenda.

Of course, at any time, there may be another terrorist attack on some Israeli, American, British or western facility or people. No doubt Mossad and the CIA will see some connection with Libya, Syria or Iran, and the political situation for a pre-emptive attack on those countries will be very serious indeed.

I doubt whether there is a military solution. What should be done is surely obvious to everybody. By one means or another the peace process must be put back on train. That must be the solution. I have no doubt that President Clinton will try, and is trying, his best, but in

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an election year I doubt it is realistic to think he can exert enough pressure on Israel to restore the peace process.

The United Kingdom and its European partners must do their best to fill the gap. They share the same objectives; they have the same interest in peace in the Middle East; and they have some cards to play. They must go beyond simply stating their objectives and wringing their hands; they must now make it clear to Israel that the close diplomatic and economic relations between them are directly related to Israel's fulfilment of her obligations under the Oslo agreements.

That is the best we can do. It may not work, but it is something we must do. I know of no other proposal to meet a violently accelerating crisis in the Middle East. I hope that when the Minister replies he will show that the Government are aware of the dangers that I have spoken about and that they are working along such lines.

11.56 a.m.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, in his introduction to this year's Defence White Paper Mr. Portillo draws our attention to three striking features of the statement. On cue, the noble Earl has reminded us of them today. These points need close scrutiny because they serve to highlight things which are good or getting better in our defence arrangements and also--perhaps unwittingly--where there is still much room for improvement or cause for concern.

The first is the wide range of activities which our forces are undertaking in many parts of the world. In all the years of confrontation with the Warsaw Pact, I doubt that the three services, now so much smaller than a decade ago, were proportionately so stretched as they are today. It was fashionable a decade ago to refer to the overstretch which our forces then faced and to the need to take steps to reduce these pressures on our personnel and to be given assurances by Ministers that remedial actions and measures were in hand to alleviate the problems that they faced.

Today, with overall uniformed numbers down by 30 to 40 per cent. of their strengths of a decade ago, our forces are spread far and wide, with little prospect of any significant reductions in their commitments, whether in Northern Ireland, in and around Bosnia or in the protection forces to the north and south of Iraq. With decisions about our ongoing Bosnia commitment due soon, I hope Ministers will bear these pressures in mind.

Mr. Portillo's second point is to draw attention to the efforts made to invest in mobility, deployability and rapid reaction. Of course, these steps are welcome, and I hope that these measures will be continued. Commendably, the Government have been making some progress in updating the front line by replacing obsolete equipments and weapons. Nevertheless, there is still much to be done in order to realise the correct balance between front line and support, which, in spite of the efforts of successive chiefs-of-staff, for so long through the years of the cold war had been allowed to fossilise.

We had too little war-fighting capability to match the size of the then front line. Whatever the detailed criticisms of Options for Change, I had always seen it

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as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get a better and more coherent balance between the front line and the essential weapons, logistics and support structures to ensure that we could mount and sustain in the face of enemy opposition a cohesive and formidable joint force, maybe a long way from its normal peacetime operating bases. Paradoxically, the end of the cold war makes it more, rather than less, likely that our forces could become involved in hot wars, and these would call for a better mix of platforms, weapons and support than we have had for 30 or 40 years before.

But have the Government's policies of the past few years achieved that balance? While the jury may still be out before a firm judgment can be made, I have been much struck in the past year or so by a number of worrying features. These affect personnel strengths and their training and availability. We have debated those on a number of occasions in various ways over the past year in your Lordships' House, so I do not want to do more than touch on some of them this morning. First, there is a very worrying and severe shortage of soldiers--around 4,000 at the last count. Apart from the actual undermanning against requirements, such a severe shortage has all sorts of knock-on effects on the management and training of the units affected.

Retention levels are still a cause for concern. The major redundancy programmes have had their effect on morale, most damagingly in the Royal Air Force because of the large numbers who have recently been made redundant. It is therefore not surprising, but no less worrying, that the services still face the premature voluntary retirement or resignation of many highly trained and experienced individuals. Given time and money, they can be replaced, always assuming that increased recruiting targets will be met. However, the pressures to produce a training machine of adequate size from a depleted frontline spread widely on operational duties will not be easy to meet.

With regard to the doubts about the right mix of medical support, about the future for pensions, and similar issues, the concerned but outside observer is left with a very strong impression that the effort to communicate what Ministers have in mind, and what the benefits to the servicemen and their families will be, has not been well handled. The Government are taking an incredibly long time to respond to the Bett Report.

Ministers have made a great deal of the importance that they attach to the setting up of the tri-service staff college. They have stressed their view that it is important, not merely as a cost-saving exercise, but as an important contribution to the command effectiveness of modern armed forces. But we now learn that, far from ensuring that the plans so quickly produced at the time of the Defence Costs Study were practicable and achievable in the time allowed, the best that can be provided is a portacabin city at Bracknell with a life--but watch this space--of a couple of years. Indeed, there are now even doubts whether the trumpeted decision to site the tri-service college at Camberley is cost-effective.

Such lack of care at the time those decisions were being rushed through by Ministers only goes to remind us all that there are no good short cuts in such planning.

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Servicemen and women will live to rue the day amidst frustration and wasted effort. I should not wish to be a student at Bracknell during this autumn session. The portacabin installers will be drowning all speech and thought with their noisy activities. Staff College training is too important a step in the development of our senior commanders and staff officers to be treated in such a cavalier fashion. Surely those people, as much as any equipment, add value to our front-line capability.

I worry too about some of the steps being taken to economise on flying training. Not so long ago it was deemed to be a resigning matter if the initial and formative training of our young officers was to be handed over to civilian outsiders. We must never lose sight of the fact that we are not seeking merely competent aviators, but individual officers and men who understand the ethos and motivation of their service, the need to put duty before self, the importance of firm discipline and all those other essential and demanding personal characteristics of an officer or man in the Armed Forces.

I doubt that we can afford the time and delay to get these aspects of service training properly established in our new arrivals exposed merely to a few short weeks of initial entry training. They need to be constantly reminded of them by example and encouragement from their immediate seniors in uniform throughout the many months that they spend on their way to operational appointments. Excessive savings on training and on the welfare of service personnel are not a basis for a sound policy.

No matter how good the weapons and the equipment, these are of little use without motivated and disciplined men and women to use and operate them. Of course, the Government are right to seek the greatest military output from the large sums of money devoted to defence. That is Mr. Portillo's third point. But the mix of people and equipment, training and support are as vital to achieving that balance of value as any number of new weapons and platforms for them.

Some of us are concerned that the balance is tilting too far away from the individuals and their training and motivation. If that is not corrected, it could have serious consequences in the years ahead. Of all the separate ingredients which go to make up a fighting force, nothing--not even the magic of modern technology--can hope to replace the man in the loop. If we do not have people, highly trained, highly motivated and imbued with the ethos and sense of duty, if required, to put their life on the line, we do not have a true fighting capability, let alone good fighting value for the taxpayers' pound. I urge the Government to be seen clearly to be giving those immutable truths the weight that they deserve.

12.6 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, I rise with some feeling of embarrassment both because I agree largely with what has just been said by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, and because of the knowledge that I am to be followed by the noble and

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gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, who knows more about defence than any other of your Lordships. It is always extremely embarrassing to speak before someone who knows more about a subject than you do, and so much easier to speak after him.

I should also like to say how much I agree with what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel. I wholly agree that it is a pity that the Government (or whatever aspect of government deals with these matters) arranged for what is probably the most important debate of the year to be taken on a Friday morning. That indicates a certain disregard of the importance of the subject. I very much hope that next year my noble friend Lord Howe--I am sure that he will still be in charge of this subject--will arrange for the defence debate to be taken mid-week and in the early afternoon. As I have said, it seems a pity that it should be treated as if it were a comparatively minor matter when it is probably the most important subject which your Lordships discuss.

Defence is of vital importance. Twice in my lifetime this country has been very close to defeat--at the beginning of the earlier war and at the beginning of the later war. It is only as a result of great devotion to duty and great efficiency on the part of the Armed Forces of the Crown that we survived both those ordeals, admittedly after years of effort, and that we are still here and free to debate the matter in this House. I urge on my noble friend Lord Howe and the Government the necessity of treating this as a matter of very great importance.

I do not have a great contribution to make. I should like to make a strong comment on the manpower aspects of defence. There has been a steady decline in the manpower of the forces. I ask your Lordships to look at the figures in the White Paper. In 1992 the Army had 148,531 personnel. In 1996-97 that figure will reduce to 116,300. We have been given no explanation for this. That is paralleled by what is happening in the Royal Navy. In 1992-93 the Navy had 61,089 personnel. In 1996-97 the number will reduce to 47,200. The position is even worse for the Royal Air Force. There is a reduction from 83,219 in 1992-93 to 63,100 in 1996-97. What is the explanation for that reduction? Is it a deliberate reduction in the size of those forces or a failure to obtain adequate recruits?

I believe that to a considerable extent recruitment is part of the problem. Without wishing to go over the matter which your Lordships debated yesterday, surely it is important that no action is taken to discourage members of the public from joining the Armed Forces of the Crown. It is disturbing to see such a reduction in the forces without any apparent governmental intention. The question I put to my noble friend is whether this has been deliberate or whether it has happened despite the wishes and policies of the Government; or is it a bit of both?

The White Paper is full of most interesting material about the seven mission types for British forces. It brings out the enormous demands on our forces which the present situation has produced. It also brings out what is called the procurement programme, which is to

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be of modest dimensions. The material called for under the procurement programme provides for only £376 million in respect of surface ships.

Another disturbing matter referred to in the White Paper is that our Trident missiles, which are our ultimate weapon, have to be sent back to the United States for reprocessing. If I read the White Paper correctly, it is impossible for these missiles to be kept in proper condition by work done in this country. It is apparently necessary for them to be reprocessed in the United States. If that is true, it renders this country very sensitive to American influence and control. It only requires a change of policy by the United States to disallow the reprocessing of British Trident missiles to place this country in a second-grade defence position.

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