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Mr. Ingram: The debate is about procurement issues, and we should deal with them. Some hon. Members may have doubts about whether the settlement can meet the demands, but they have not yet heard what I have to say about our procurement programme. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman wants to rush away to get home, but if he cares to hold on, I may give way to him when he has, I hope, absorbed some of the other information that I will impart to him and his hon. Friends.
Since 11 September, British armed forces have been actively engaged in the war against terrorism in operations against al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan. The challenges of mounting and sustaining operations at that range and in such a harsh environment should not be underestimated. It is a credit to our service men and women and their equipment that United Kingdom forces were able to make the contribution that they did, alongside American and other allies.
Let me assure the House that Ministers take any reported shortcomings in the SA80 very seriously indeed. We attach considerable importance to making sure that our service personnel have reliable and effective equipment that is up to the job. Indeed, that was one reason why I insisted that troops deploying to Afghanistan should take the modified SA80 with them. Notwithstanding the problems encountered there, the SA80 A2 is a more capable and much more reliable weapon than its predecessor. The question is whether it is good enough.
The modified SA80 performed very well during the trials in highly demanding conditions, but, given the new reports, a full and thorough investigation has been set in hand. Specialists have been sent to Afghanistan to assess the problems at first hand with the Royal Marines and to conduct test firings under typical operational conditions. That team has now completed its work and is preparing, as a matter of urgency, a full report on its findings. It would be inappropriate for me to comment further until the investigation team's report has been received and its findings assessed.
Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): I am reassured by my right hon. Friend's comments on the SA80's performance, but is that not a typical example of why we must get our procurement right? We inherited that gun from the previous Government with very severe problems, and we have had to invest a lot of money to get it absolutely right now. We need to avoid such problems in future.
Mr. Ingram: It is easy to apportion blame. It is true that the SA80 was procured under the previous Government. Notwithstanding the extensive upgrade programme£90 million was spent on itand the intensive testing, we must now analyse the concerns that have been raised and find a way forward. I take my hon. Friend's point, and hon. Members know that he makes his point well. He is apportioning blame, but I want to ensure that we get this right.
Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): The Minister is right, and I welcome the news that he has just given. Will he assure the House and, more importantly, the men and women who carry the SA80 that, if that report shows any doubt at all about that weapons's serviceability and record, the Government will be prepared to procure a different rifle, if not for the entire British armed forces, at least for those infantry, special forces, paratroops, Marines and so on who might use it in battle?
Mr. Ingram: Let me answer this question first. We must assess the problem, analyse it, and test the rifle against other potential rifles while remembering that not all of them may have been tested in those extreme conditions. It is easy to jump from one rifle to another, saying that the other is better, but all that testing must take place. Let me therefore judge the options once I have the analysis.
David Burnside: Will the Minister confirm that other weapons are already used by special forces, including in Afghanistan? The problem being raised is not relevant to many operational forces, at present, who are using a Heckler and Koch.
Mr. Ingram: I shall not comment on what special forces may or may not use in theatre. Clearly, as I said in my earlier response, we must carry out that detailed analysis. We must consider that rifle in connection with other equivalent weapon systems.
On this point, the Minister referred to the extensive testing of the weapon prior to and after its modification. What were the extreme conditions in Afghanistan that were not tested during the extensive testing and after the £92 million had been spent? Having spoken to troops who have recently returned from Afghanistan, they would say that the performance of the weapon was no better than it had been previously.
Mr. Ingram: Extensive testing was carried out in the whole range of extreme weather conditionscold, hot and dusty. The weapon was tested not by politicians or civil servants, but by soldiers, in all those conditions. The hon. Gentleman may recollect the announcement at the conclusion of that extensive test programme and the launch of the SA80 A2. Evidence was adduced that showed the mean time in relation to failure of that rifle, which unquestionably showed a big improvement on what had occurred previously.
Part of the analysis that is now taking place must, of course, take into account the maintenance regime. Are orders and advice properly given so that they are well understood, or are there factors that come into play that take the rifle into a more extreme environment than all the other testing environments? I am not in a position at this point in time to say what the conclusion is. I must wait for the expert advice before I can respond. I ask hon. Gentlemen, however, not to be quick to make judgments and decisions, and not to make them on the back of speaking to one or two service men or women. They should take balanced advice on this matter.
I want to turn in more detail to the progress that we have made since the last procurement debate nearly two years ago in delivering some of the key projects that make up the defence equipment programme. Decisions taken during the strategic defence review have led to a broad range of powerful new equipment, some already in service with the armed forces and some in the pipeline to enhance our future capabilities.
The House will be aware that we have embarked on the most extensive warship-building programme for a generation. On 2 July, I announced the findings of the RAND study into alternative procurement strategies for our future warship programme over the next 15 to 20 years and it dealt, in particular, with acquisition options for the Type 45 destroyer. The initial results from the study were used last year to help to inform our decision to proceed with a revised procurement strategy for that ship. To increase productivity and to retain the potential for future competition, we have decided that blocks or modules of each ship will be built by BAE Systems Marine and Vosper Thornycroft. Final assembly will be carried out by BAE Systems Marine. We now have a total of six Type 45s on contract, and they are due to enter service from 2007. All that demonstrates our clear commitment to a modern and powerful Royal Navy while guaranteeing work for UK industry and providing better value for money.
The Royal Navy's ability to respond rapidly and flexibly to crises around the world will also be enhanced with the acquisition of the two next-generation aircraft carriers. Good progress is being made on their development. We expect to advise the potential prime contractors this autumn about the type of carrier design to take forward. We plan to announce the selection of our preferred prime contractor early in 2003, with the award of a build contract planned for early in 2004. The construction of the carriers will offer tremendous opportunities for UK shipyardsand I stress "UK shipyards".
An important element of that programme is the decision that I announced on 2 July that the future carriers will be base-ported at Portsmouth. As well as being good news for Portsmouth, that allows the relevant companies to construct their bids with that certainty in mind.
Work continues on the new Astute class of attack submarine and on the replacement landing platform dock ships. Progress on these projects has been too slow, largely owing to a range of design and project management difficulties on the part of the contractor. That is very disappointing, but the Ministry of Defence is actively engaged with BAE Systems on all these projects to ensure that the vessels are brought into service as quickly as practicable. The company is in no doubt about our expectations.