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Not many noble Lords have touched on the defence budget. The Minister proudly tells us of a budget increase, but is it new moneyextra cashor is it funny money, if I may put it that way? In other words, is it merely extra resource to meet the resource account budgeting costs of holding equipment and facilities? It would be nice to hear that it was all new cash that could be spent on new equipment, spare parts and pay for servicemen. If it is not new cash, what is the split between cash and RAB?
The true measure of a country's defence effort can be described only as a percentage of GDP. The UK compares well with our EU partners, but the difficulty, according to Command Papers 5901 and 5912, is that UK defence expenditure has declined from 2.5 per cent of GDP in 199798 to only 2.3 per cent today. How can the Minister describe that as an increase? If the Minister cannot find time to answer me tonight, I hope that she or the noble Lord, Lord Bach, will write to me. On that point, noble Lords will not have missed the close and welcome co-operation between Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office Ministers in your Lordships' House since 1997.
Urgent operational requirements are a fact of life. If there were no such requirements, it would probably be because we had too much equipment held in stock just in case. My understanding is that, for an urgent operational requirement to count against the cost of an operation rather than the MoD's departmental expenditure limits, the item must be disposed of within about 18 months and must not be in the procurement programme. On top of that, even if the items are held in depot and are unissued, the MoD must still pay RAB costs. That creates bizarre incentives. For instance, the WMIK, which is basically a Land Rover bristling with machine guns and other weapons, is already in service with the British Army, but extra vehicles were purchased for Operation TELIC as
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an urgent operational requirement. Apparently, they are to be disposed of for the reasons that I have just described. I can understand the logic of the staff's decision, but none the less that is bizarre for UK plc.
My noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway raised important issues concerning military discipline. I have raised them previously and in some detail. I am sure that we will have even better opportunities to explore those difficulties later in the Session, but I share my noble friend's concerns.
My noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford touched on the investigation of shooting incidents on operations. I share his concerns. I have negotiated quite a few checkpoints as an unarmed civilian working with an NGO. The drill is to approach a checkpoint slowly and cautiously. One must leave in the same way, checking the mirrors for any signs of a misunderstanding. I know that failure to follow that drill could be fatal for me. Locals in unstable areas understand that drill very well. I am unhappy that soldiers are, for various reasons, being put in an impossible position. However, I feel severely constrained in my parliamentary dutiesquite properlyby the sub judice rule and the need to avoid interfering in tactical matters, of which more later.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay of Cartvale, spoke with her customary skill and eloquence. During a recent Question Time, she suggested that Parliament should not debate the deployment of the Black Watch outside its operational zone. Of course, she was right: the Cabinet should have already agreed in principle that British forces could deploy outside their own AO. Instead, Ministers made a virtue of stating that no decisions had been made. Apparently, the decisions were not made for several days. The inability of the Government to make a decision promptly must have been acutely embarrassing for commanders in theatre.
There is something that we should not discuss: tactics. That applies especially when things go wrong. Parliamentarians, the media and the public must understand that not all encounters with the enemy will be successful. Commanders will sometimes select a course of action that subsequently proves not to be the best one. In short, the good guys will not win in every encounter.
It is absolutely essential that commanders on the ground have flexibility to react to circumstances and are not constrained by a rigid training manual or fear of failure. As far as I can detect, UK Ministers are still extremely good at keeping out of the tactical business. I am very grateful for that; I hope that that continues.
My final observation on tactics is that it is extremely undesirable for parliamentarians to hold Ministers to account over the deaths of individual soldiers, no matter how tragic. The reason is that Ministers would be unable to defend themselves if the victim of the tragedy, or his or her comrades, is not without fault. I am glad that, on the whole, this House avoids such debates.
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I agree with noble Lords who oppose reducing the size of the infantry. However, it needs to be understood that other arms and services will be expanded under the plans. Nevertheless, the Minister proposed cutting the size of the Regular Army when perhaps it needs to be enlarged. Surely the cost of keeping two extra infantry battalions in the light role would be quite modest.
Dispensing with the arms plot must be right. Since the SDR was the first proper post-Cold War defence review, it is a little surprising that it did not identify that opportunity. Not only would that make better use of the infantry battalions, but, under current arrangements, we train soldiers to use complex armoured fighting vehicles and armoured battle group tactics. However, they are used in that role only for a relatively short period. The current training cycle is very expensive to support and it is wasteful. The problem is that certain infantry regiments are under threatwhich I hope is a threat of amalgamation rather than disbandment.
By chance, I have been approached on behalf of a regiment with which I served in Iraq, but I will not go in to bat for it. I have listened carefully to noble Lords' arguments. However, I do not believe that it is helpful to support individual regiments at the expense of others.
The MoD and the Army are extremely complicated mechanisms. They are also a bureaucracy that is too big and too complex, with too many layers and stakeholders. I have lost count of the number of officers who claim that their branch is reorganising the TA. But the prize of more efficient use of the infantry should not be jeopardised by parliamentarians deploying very long screwdrivers deep inside the complex mechanism of the MoD.
I have made numerous attacks in recent years on Clansman and Bowman. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, through his supplementary questions, has twice suggested that I should not raise difficulties in our communication capability. The most recent Bowman engagement was within the past two weeks. I am pleased to say that I lost that engagement and I retired with burnt fingers, because even the Bowman data transmission facility is now starting to work.
The reason for all that is that the noble Baroness, Lady Symonsno doubt due in part to parliamentary pressuredispensed with the services of the useless Archer consortium and put in place a new and effective team. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, continued that process. Subject to the usual political caveats in case it all collapses, it seems that the Minister may be on to a winner. Of course there may be slight technical hitchesthe installation programme may have slipped slightly to the rightbut noble Lords should not underestimate the technical difficulties of installing a radio system into literally thousands of platforms. I look forward to being trained on the system.
Finally, time does not permit me to cover my favourite aircraft, the A400M, but I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, will have something to say on it. Nor can I query why we can reduce our ground-based air defence because there is little credible air threat, but we still need an air superiority fighter.
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Lord Gilbert: My Lords, a few years ago when the Soviet Union was disintegrating into the commonwealth of independent states, my older daughter asked me what on earth was going to happen. Of course I said that I had not the faintest idea, but the one thing of which I was absolutely certain was that Ukraine would be critical. We are now faced with precisely that situation. It is a vivid illustration of comrade Stalin's dictum that it does not matter how the people vote, what matters is who counts the votes.
Alas, this is right on our doorstep. I make no prediction at all of what is going to happen, but there are many possibilities. We may see a repetition of what happened in Georgia with the peaceful removal of Mr Shevardnadze by people invading the legislature. We may see a Tiananmen Square. We may see the country split in two, because there seems to be a fairly logical dividing line down which it might do so. We may see the equivalent of a repetition of the Hungarian Uprising and all the bloodshed brought about by that. I think that the situation is desperately serious; it is very close to us and something could happen at any hour of any day to cause a terrible explosion. The Russian president has put himself on the block and he will suffer a huge loss of face if the elections are reversed. All I would say to Her Majesty's Government is that I hope very much that they are already having discussions with the Government of Poland and the other neighbouring countries to consider what we may need to do at very short notice.
I have enjoyed this debate like few others for a long time. To my surprise, I found myself agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, on some points. I never thought that I would agree with the noble Lord about anything, but today I agreed with more than half of what he had to say. I hope that that does not embarrass him too much.
On Iraq, I enjoyed very much the speeches of my noble friends Lord Desai and, even more so, that of Lady Ramsay. I hope that those noble Lords who were not in the Chamber when my noble friend was speaking will read what she had to say because I agree with all of it.
I want to record that I personally take great pride in the performance of the coalition troops in Iraq, in particular in Fallujah over the past few days. It was a magnificent military victory under the most trying of circumstances. I want to congratulate our troops, particularly the American troops, not only on their military skills and courage, but also on their deportment. They were at great pains to minimise the number of casualties, especially those among civilians. They gave notice of what they were going to do, thus losing the advantage of surprise, so that civilians could be evacuated from Fallujah. As a result, civilian casualties were very low.
What is more, under the most difficult of circumstances they have taken something in the order of 1,500 prisoners. That should be borne in mind when people go around criticising the way in which the American troops behaved. We have to remember that
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these young men and womenours, the Americans and the Australiansare all volunteers. They have come from every county in this country, and from Nebraska, Louisiana and Mississippi. They are all doing their damnedest, at huge risk to themselves, with very high morale, to bring about something decent and democratic in Iraq. They should have our continuing full support.
I deplore the attention given to a couple of incidents in which some people have tried to create a moral equivalence between what some young man did under great pressureand our troops are involved in incidents like this as well as the Americansand the actions of people who go around mutilating, stabbing to death, decapitating and setting on fire women of their own nationality; and people who hang corpses from bridges and torture prisoners. To try to pretend that a couple of incidents in the heat of warfare are comparable morally to such actions is absolutely disgusting. The people responsible for trying to create this false moral equivalence should consult their own consciences very quickly.
As regards the fighting in Fallujah, I shall turn now to a rather unfashionable subjectthat is, the use of non-lethal weapons. This issue has not had nearly enough consideration in the British Ministry of Defence, although it gets a good deal of attention in the United States. Believe it or not, the American non-lethal weapons programme is in the custody of the United States Marine Corps, so it is not a subject in which only the pussyfooters are interested.
I am fully aware that in certain circumstances a non-lethal weapon can be lethal. There are many kinds of non-lethal weapons with which, I know, experiments in the field have been carried out. There have been trials of foam barriers and putting sticky substances on bridges and airfields; the use of noise and even the use of smell. People may find it quite funny, but it is possible to generate a smell in a confined space that will make a healthy young man nauseous and incapacitate him for quite some time. I recognise that that which can make a healthy young man nauseous can also bring an end to the life of an elderly person or an infant, so it can be used only in certain circumstances. However, the fighting in Fallujah was the kind of situation in which such weapons could usefully have been deployed.
I do not mind confessing that at the time of Kosovo I had the idea that we should try to convert some of our tanker planes to dispense liquid pig manure over the houses of Mr Milosovic, the Politburo and others who lived in the very rich suburbs. I thought it was a splendid idea. It would have killed no-one; it would have made the property completely uninhabitable; and it would have made the occupants look ridiculous. There is no greater weapon against a dictatorship than making people look ridiculous.
However, the people at the MoD considered that I was a case for the gentlemen in white coats and took no notice of my ideabut I still believe it is something that we could have done. Your Lordships can all make your judgments about whether I should be taken away by men in white coats.
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I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and the noble Lord, Lord McColl, for their speeches. In the 34 years that I have been in Parliament, they were two of the most moving speeches I have ever heard. They were all the more effective for being delivered in such an understated way.
It is not that the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, has provoked me, but I was hoping to get away with a speech in a defence debate without referring to the A400M and the C17but your Lordships are not going to escape. I have here a booklet produced at great expense by the National Audit Office entitled Major Projects Report 2004. I was a little startled that there was reference to only four C17s as against the fact that we have been told that the lease on the four C17s was going to be converted into a purchase and that we would have a fifth. I hope I am right in believing that only a question of dates is responsible for the confusion and that the Government will confirm what I have said. However, something else struck me when I started looking into this book. The wonderful page 40 gives the key user requirements of the C17, every one of which has been met. In fact, it is my bet that they have all been exceeded.
Then I turned a few pages back to that marvellous Euro-wanking make-work project called the A400M. It lists the key requirements, but does not say what they are. I know that the Minister is not responsible for what the NAO produces, but I suggest that we tell it that we would like to know precisely what the key requirements of the A400M are so that everyone can see how inferior a plane it will be, if it ever arrives, to the C17, which will be for everyone's enlightenment.
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