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Baroness Strange: My Lords, having already spoken only two days ago on the debate on the future of the Lords, I should not wish to speak again too soon lest your Lordships accuse me of chattering. However, I received a letter from the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, Secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Defence Group, as I suspect did many of your Lordships who are speaking today. He is unfortunately not able to be with us due to the unforeseen circumstances of the debate being put forward. It is events which catch us all. However, it is not quite as ill a wind as all that because we have gained the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, to open the debate and it has blown back a little sooner the dear and noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, who is not technically my noble friend, at least on this side of the House, although of course she is.
It has also been a pleasure listening to my noble and gallant friends, and, indeed, to all noble Lords who have spoken. Having spent the past two days in the Chamber listening to over 95 of your Lordships and to some of the best speeches I have ever had the pleasure to hear, it was in the early hours of this morning that my noble friend Lady Warnock dropped me off in Lambeth. All I could think of was to crawl into bed with one or two useful books which I thought I might run through later in the day when it came to writing a speech. Unfortunately, when I woke up later this morning, I discovered that they were a little out of date. So, I have many grateful thanks to the office of the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, at the MoD for its help and kindness and for the accurate and up-to-date information.
In the Royal Navy in 1992 there were 62,100 people on the strength. On 1st January this year there were 39,325, a drop of nearly 23,000. In the Army in 1992 there were 145,000 men. On 1st December last year there were 96,822, a drop of nearly 48,000. In the Royal Air Force there were, in 1992, 86,000 and on 1st January this year, 55,905, a drop of nearly 30,000.
I think that those figures speak for themselves. Seven years ago we did not have any more commitments than we have now. In fact, with Bosnia now an ongoing situation and Kosovo possibly starting, perhaps less. Yet we have 23,000 fewer people in the Royal Navy, 48,000 fewer in the Army and 30,000 fewer in the Royal Air Force.
Although we are always working towards the magic and desirable figure of 24 months between front-line tours, it is still never more than 18 months and sometimes very considerably less. I hope that those figures will indeed draw attention to the thinness of the red line. We are talking about people. However well trained, efficient, brave and loyal they all are, they are still people and cannot be stretched too far.
Now to Kosovo, on which we have already had a Statement, so I can cut out huge chunks of my speech. As we know, there are 1,250 international observers in considerable danger, of whom 101 are British, and the rescue force, which is currently called an extradition force, of 500 is currently on standby in Macedonia, awaiting the arrival of ships carrying the necessary equipment which were due to dock at six o'clock tonight.
Here, I do not think that it does matter that my books are a little bit out of date, because the whole situation in Kosovo goes back to the foundation of the Ottoman Empire, with its founder Othram, or rather his son, Orchan, whose vizier, Black Habil, conceived the idea of trained slave armies of Janissaries, made up of captured Christian children trained as professional fighters. At the same time as that was happening in Asia, Serbia, under Stephan Dushan, was emerging as a battling and patriotic Christian state. Stephan Dushan's son was Lazarus, who was a sort of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce rolled into one. He started a great Christian campaign against the Moslems with a huge assorted army of Serbs, Bulgars, Poles, Hungarians, Bosnians, Albanians and Mongols, none of whom spoke the same language, and when they met the Moslem army at Kosovo under Orchan's son, Murad, composed of Christian enslaved children, now grown-up and welded into a taut, professional fighting body, the great conglomerate did not stand a chance, and lost. But Murad, the Moslem leader, was killed. That was in 1389, about the time of the Battle of Poitiers. It was the Serbian Dunkirk, and is so celebrated.
While we always pray for peace and do what we can to preserve it, we do not want to fight 600 year-old battles for other people. The protection of our own forces, however reduced they are, must always be our first priority.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I should thank the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, for referring to my distinguished ancestor, but my recollection of what I have read about the Battle of Stirling Bridge is that William Wallace's forces were neither very well trained, nor organised into trained regimental units, nor supplied with adequate reserves. Thankfully, the English were even worse supplied at the time.
I am grateful for this debate on such an important subject. In another place on Monday, the Secretary of State for Defence said very soberly that maintaining the deployment in Bosnia and Kosovo would be very demanding. I echo the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, in saying that we have a number of other existing and potential commitments about which I hope the Minister will be able to say a little when he replies. I refer, for example, to the question of whether in East Timor there will be a need for a UN-sponsored peace keeping force. I understand that the Secretary of State for International Development is making a major speech the week after next on the use of armed forces in development and disaster relief. That is another potentially substantial role for our Armed Forces. There is also the whole question of defence diplomacy and defence training in central and eastern Europe. Those are all considerations.
The lesson that we are learning very rapidly from Bosnia and Kosovo is that, in the post-Cold-War world, we need flexible armed forces and we need the ability to expand and contract our full-time professional forces as different demands present themselves. As a number of noble Lords have suggested, that requires us to rethink the role of reserves. I recall that 100 years ago continental armies had a number of battalions which were held at CADRE strength with reserves to come in. That is perhaps the sort of thing that we need to consider ourselves. We clearly need an adequate and skilled ready reserve, from which individuals could be integrated into units at relatively short notice. After all, 10 per cent. of the forces in Bosnia have consisted of people called up from the reserves. There is considerable anxiety in this House and in another place that the cutbacks in the territorial forces have not provided sufficiently for this.
I should also like to reiterate the point that several of my colleagues have made from these Benches on previous occasions; namely, that we perhaps may need to consider the "arms plot" under which whole units are moved around together. There are those in the services who consider that to be a source of inefficiency and misuse of manpower. A move towards multi-battalion regiments, in which sub-units and, indeed, even individuals, could be posted on a rolling basis, should also provide for more flexible arrangements when long overseas postings are necessary. One may anticipate that the obligation to maintain some military forces in Bosnia will be medium to long term. If a peacekeeping force goes into Kosovo, we may anticipate that that will also require a long-term commitment.
I should like to make one further suggestion in that respect. What we are seeing in Bosnia, and what I hope we might see if a force goes into Kosovo, is the demand for an initial, substantial heavily armed force and then, slowly, a reduction in the level of force and in the heaviness of the weapons provided. It seems to me that the sort of Petersburg tasks which the European militaries are now facing will require rather more gendarmerie-type armed forces. We have had some difficulties in Bosnia in matching the gap between the provision of the civilian police from Britain on secondment and full-scale highly-trained armed forces. There again, it seems to me that there is a cause for rethinking precisely where in between civilian police and full strength Army units we might perhaps need to have an intermediate force in the long term.
Moreover, in the long term it seems to me that there is a great deal to be said for encouraging closer European co-operation and more joint forces so that--and this relates to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hardy--others of our allies will be more effectively able to share the burden. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, commented on the larger size of the German Army. However, I am sure that he is well aware that, out of that larger size, the German Army has considerable difficulty in providing at short notice as substantial a number of troops as the British Army is able to provide. In that respect, it seems to me that the British Government's latest European defence initiative--the San Malo declaration, and so on--is exactly the right direction in which we should be moving. Indeed, I hope that they will move further with the pursuit of closer integration of British forces with those with whom we are most likely to find ourselves in joint
Lord Burnham: My Lords, it is particularly opportune that my noble friend Lord Trefgarne should have introduced this debate within minutes of the House receiving a Statement on Kosovo, because it is Kosovo and its associated problems which have revived the doubts as to whether the Armed Forces are capable of doing all that may be required of them. At the same time perhaps I may say what a joy it is to listen to my noble friend Lady Park. It is a gloomy joy in the light of what she had to say. However, my noble friend has returned to this House with a bang, making speeches in both of the two debates this afternoon.
Within the past week both the Chief of the General Staff and the Chief of the Air Staff have made speeches in which they have expressed their concern about overstretch. With 5,675 servicemen in Bosnia and its neighbouring countries and 2,225 as the advance guard of the peace implementation force in Kosovo, any senior commander must be looking nervously over his shoulder to see where the next demand will come from. Air Marshal Johns is already particularly concerned about overstretch in connection with aircrews.
But if we think we are overstretched now, there is undoubtedly worse to come. It must at least be possible that more troops will be sent to Northern Ireland if the situation deteriorates, as it well could. Within NATO there must be a major fear that Kosovo, if not Bosnia, will suck in an increasing number of men for a period of at least three years. Outside NATO, South Africa is already a far from happy place. Chile has apologised to the Argentine for its support of Britain at the time of the Falklands. It has problems. We have commitments to the United Arab Emirates, Brunei and Kuwait. Belize remains a hotspot, while Australia, as has been said, may have troubles with countries to the north, in particular East Timor. Today's Statement on Sierra Leone concerned another point, but a rescue mission--if not more--is already in place.
The proliferation of NATO is, almost more than anything else, due to the wish of many of the new members and applicants to make use of Article 5 of the treaty whereby they may call upon other members of the organisation to come to their aid if they are in trouble. It is unlikely indeed that all, or indeed a number of these, will hit us at once, but more than one could do so, and that would be a problem.
The position of the Secretary of State and all concerned with financing the Armed Forces is an extremely difficult one. It is not reasonable to expect expenditure to increase to a higher proportion of GNP in the face of other demands which are perceived to be of greater importance, particularly education and health. Therefore the generals and their equivalents have to do the best with what they have in the hope that those who have been responsible for formulating the foreign policy on which the SDR was based have got their sums right. It is at this moment that
It is not only a question of money. The SDR is now nine months old but its presumptions are already showing signs of strain. The trouble is that the British Armed Forces are too good, everyone wants them. Britain is the only country in NATO which has a rapid reaction corps and even that is only kept up to strength and maintained with relevance to any particular forthcoming operation by borrowing from other units. Those points were well made by my noble friend Lord Glenarthur and the noble Viscount, Lord Allenby.
The United States has a "one for one" policy whereby every man will spend a month at home for each month on deployment abroad. There is no way that this is achievable here. On Monday the Member for Carlisle in another place recorded that the Border Regiment had spent the past two Christmases in Macedonia and Bosnia and it is now rumoured that it will be in Kosovo this coming Christmas. For, as the Chief of the General Staff pointed out, British forces went to Bosnia on the strict understanding that it would be for six months only. That was seven years ago. While we aspire to reducing our commitment this summer, in common with our allies, it is much too soon to say that the worst is over. And now Kosovo, with the ARRC and a two-battle group brigade on standby, is already consuming 8,000 men. Before Kosovo, 28 per cent. of the trained strength was either on operation, preparing to deploy or recovering. Including the forces warned for Kosovo, that figure goes up to 41 per cent.
In the light of what the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, has said, I should say that my noble friend Lord Attlee has passed me a note. He has his nose much closer to the grindstone than anyone else in your Lordships' House, and he is telling me how much the soldiers enjoy relief work and other civilian activities in which they are asked to take part.
All the work that our Armed Forces are doing comes at a time when recruitment, we are told, is up by 18 per cent. Premature voluntary release, commonly known as PVR--these acronyms are horrible, and that is a particularly nasty one--is also well up. A number of noble Lords have referred to this, and a Written Answer in another place yesterday showed the increasing number of Army officers and RAF pilots who have left the service for voluntary reasons. That figure is much higher than it was three years ago.
Of course recruitment is important--vitally important--but retention is even more so. These are the middle-ranking officers and men on whom the Armed Forces so particularly depend. The Government have compounded the problem by four mistakes, for which they alone are responsible. Two, already made, are reversible; two are in the process of being made but I believe them to be avoidable. First, the Government have written into the SDR forecasts and assumptions regarding the intensity and duration of operations which are less demanding and less realistic than the professional planners would have recommended. As I understand it,
Secondly, with overstretch already a problem, the Government have reduced reserves when these are an essential factor in managing overstretch. To increase reserves, rather than to reduce them, was the logical consequence of the SDR foreign policy base line. Incidentally, I note that at the present moment the Ministry, as the noble Lord will confirm, has not yet trawled the regiments for volunteers for Kosovo.
The mistakes which the Government are now making are of ignoring the warnings of their professional advisers with regard to the evidence and implications of overstretch. Unfortunately, they believe their own propaganda about the success of recruitment. The Government are committed to full staffing by 2004. I fear that is optimistic.
If I sound critical, I hasten to say that no one would say it is easy. From these Benches, I may be unwise to criticise the state of the Defence Medical Services, and we certainly do not want the German system where they have 84 doctors in a brigade. But I believe I am right in saying that there are only three orthopaedic surgeons in the whole Army; and if you break a leg in Kosovo you are in trouble! Without doubt, we shall have to rely on the reserves and can only hope that relations between the MoD and the National Health Service are good.
Maybe--and I am not being sarcastic--if there is to be a proliferation of problems, the Ministry of Defence will have to employ Sandline. After all, until after Waterloo, British forces continually employed large numbers of Germans, particularly Hanoverians, and Americans. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, is himself a member of an American regiment. War may well have to be privatised if we do not have the resources to carry it on professionally ourselves. But let us remember, as has been said, that we have the Gurkhas. Yes, they are mercenaries, but let us increase and strengthen the force of Gurkhas. That is very much an easy method of increasing our capability to deal with any problem. I must say that I should like to let them loose in Northern Ireland.
Let us hope that in all of this I am being over-pessimistic. But we are treading a very narrow path. I am sure the Ministry of Defence realises the difficulties and dangers. Do the rest of the Government and the whole of the country realise them?
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert): My Lords, I agree with all the encomiums that have been delivered to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, and I thank him very much for raising this subject for debate. I confess that in the middle of the debate I said to the noble Lord that I did not think I would take up my full 20 minutes. However, so many interesting points have been raised that I think I will have some difficulty in keeping to 20 minutes. I will do my best, as usual, to answer in as factual a way as I can all the points that have been raised.
The noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, asked me how many troops have already left on deployment to Kosovo. According to the figures I have available to me this evening, as of now a total of 1,332 personnel are in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia and Greece and it is planned that a further 390 will fly to Skopje tomorrow. Of those 1,332, 305 are at Thessalonika in Greece preparing for the reception and onward delivery of heavy equipment and vehicles that will be arriving there by sea shortly, 40 more are at the extraction force headquarters in Kumanovo barracks in Macedonia and 987 are at Skopje. That figure includes the UK contribution to the NATO extraction force and personnel who have deployed since last weekend for possible peace implementation in Kosovo. I hope that that answers the noble Lord's question.
The noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, and other noble Lords discussed the whole question of overstretch. That is what the debate is about. I will not contest many of the figures that have been quoted in the debate for the very obvious reason that I am quite sure that noble Lords have been ringing my office to get the right figures. So I am in no position to contest them, am I? However, it is a fact that recruitment is improving and it is also a sad fact that retention is not improving. Retention is going down. That is not a secret; it is not even an open secret; everyone knows that. The Government fully recognise the difficulties. We have set some targets. We hope to be at 95 per cent. by 2001 and fully up to the higher establishment for the Army by 2004.
I can assure the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, that I sing no complacent tune about this. It will be extremely difficult to achieve these figures. I hope they are not optimistic, to use the word of the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, but they will be very difficult to reach. The fact is that recruitment is up. It is up very satisfactorily at the moment. Most gratifying of all--this touches on the point raised by my noble friend Lord Hardy--recruitment from the ethnic minorities is up. We set ourselves an initial-- I emphasise the word "initial"--target of 2 per cent. of our recruits to come from ethnic minorities. That will be a rolling target, increasing over time. I believe I am right in saying that the figure stands at 1.8 or 1.9 per cent. already. That is extremely gratifying.
I emphasise the extremely important point made by my noble friend Lord Hogg during his perceptive remarks; namely, that it is very difficult to recruit for the Armed Forces at a time of high levels of employment in the economy as a whole. I am sure that your Lordships accept that.
The noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, referred particularly to the recruitment of more engineers. With his normal candour he said how difficult it was to attract young people into engineering work in civilian society. During every visit that I make to a defence manufacturer I ask the question: "What are you doing about employing more women engineers?". I gave the chairman of a well-known company a hard time this very afternoon on precisely that subject. The more that your Lordships can help in increasing employers' awareness that one of the great under-utilised assets of this country is the brainpower of
I quarrel with the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, over his remark that support of the Territorial Army for the Army is to be reduced. That is certainly not the intention of our proposals for the Territorial Army. Our aim is to make it much more closely integrated with the Regular Army, and that has occasionally been a matter of some controversy.
I take issue with the noble Lord on one or two further points. He said that the reduction in the number of submarines would increase overstretch. First, we shall not be reducing the number of submarines for a couple of years yet. My remarks will apply equally to the number of frigates that will be taken out of service, and also to the reduction in the front-line fast jet strength. Perversely, those two decisions will work to reduce overstretch because the proportion of trained men available to the assets will increase.
I wish to make one general point about the Royal Air Force's difficulties over pilots. The problem is not in any way unique to the Royal Air Force. It has been going on for many years in almost every country that has an air force worthy of the name. I believe I am right in saying that the Royal Air Force currently has a pilot-to-fast-jet ratio of the order of 1.5:1. For that, we should be grateful; I have seen some horrific figures in other countries. We are not complacent. We know that there are great problems of retention. However, we are not nearly as badly off as some noble Lords may imagine.
The question was raised as to why this country is the biggest contributor to possible forces in Kosovo. There are two reasons. One is that Britain, as the framework country, will be supplying the headquarters for the ARRC. If that happens, it will be of the order of a couple of thousand men at least, which brings the figure up to 8,500. Our contribution to forces in the field will be very much along the line of those that are presently contemplated from France and Germany and from the United States.
The noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Chalfont, raised the question as to why we were providing so many troops if we compare the size of our Army and comparative overstretch with the contributions of our major partners in western Europe. The answer is, as the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, said, that our forces are very much in demand---everyone wants them. In addition, we derive great benefit from the fact that our forces are entirely volunteer. It is much easier to deploy a higher proportion of a volunteer army than a conscript army. That is why the efficacy of the British Armed Forces--and I am sure I carry your Lordships with me--is much greater than that of other countries which have nominally much larger forces but do not have the effective deployment capability and the trained men that we have in this country. That is one of the principal reasons we find ourselves making such a major contribution to international forces.
I am sure that, like the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, is seized of what the Government are trying to do with the Defence Medical Services. I have had many exchanges of correspondence with the noble and gallant Lord and I do not think anyone in the House would dispute that at least the Government are trying hard to do something about the condition of the Defence Medical Services.
I take the point made by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, that the Army manpower ceiling may have been set too low, but at least the Government have raised it for the first time for quite a while. I hope very much that we shall be able to achieve the 3,300 extra.
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