My Lords, I strongly welcome the opportunity to debate this vital issue, as we are currently a nation undertaking two medium-sized conflicts on a peacetime budget of just 2.5 per cent of GDP. At the outset, I state that as a Muslim leader I totally condemn the appalling protests against our servicemen by a small group of misled persons when our troops returned home to Luton last month. A fundamental distinction is to be made between the politicians who commit to war and the Armed Forces whose role it is to execute their will. It is therefore unacceptable to make political points to soldiers. Such points should be directed in a peaceful and non-offensive manner towards politicians.
The UK is fortunate to have an apolitical military, which is not a political force in its own right. We must defend against any politicising of the Armed Forces. I am proud to say that my father and members of my family fought in two world wars. My uncle served in the King’s African Rifles, as did the noble Lord, Lord King, who served as an officer.
The military exists to execute the defence of this country according to the direction of the Government. Thus there must be a reciprocal relationship between politicians and servicemen. They are not allowed to go on strike or to join a trade union. Therefore, in return, we owe them a duty of care. For the Armed Forces to do their job, they and their families must be properly respected, equipped, resourced and looked after in the field and at home by us as political masters. Yet this pact or military covenant has not been properly honoured in the past decade, as the Ministry of Defence admits. It has said that our servicemen are continuing,
“to operate above the overall level of concurrent operations which the Armed Forces are structured and resourced to sustain over”,
time. Following an inquest, the deputy coroner of Oxfordshire has said that the Ministry of Defence should hang its head in shame.
Afghanistan demonstrates with terrifying clarity how overstretched we are. It is imperative for us to ensure that any involvement or commitment overseas must be matched by an adequate size of our Armed Forces, which need to be suitably equipped and resourced. Will the Government therefore reassure the House that any troop increases in Afghanistan will be matched by a proportionate increase in equipment, especially in suitable armoured vehicles and helicopters? I applaud the £700 million increase in funding for new armoured vehicles for Afghanistan to replace the Snatch vehicles, which have inadequate resistance to roadside bombs. Will the Minister therefore give the House a date when all the new 700 armoured Vixen vehicles should be on the ground? Will she also give an update on the delivery of the new Warthog armoured track vehicle? I have concerns that these government commitments are not reaching the front line fast enough.
The troops on the ground rely on being able to get out to the theatres of conflict easily and quickly. However, only 44 per cent of the TriStar fleet which is responsible for getting the troops from the UK to Afghanistan is considered fit for purpose, which adversely affects troop logistics, transport conditions and leave time. What are the Government doing to ensure that we have adequate transport capacity between the UK and Afghanistan?
In Afghanistan, there is a need for flexible troop transport planes, yet we are seriously short of Hercules and C-17s. Furthermore, we now hear that the replacement of the A400M transport aircraft will not be with us until 2011, having been subjected to a four-year delay. What options have the Government considered for buying or leasing more troop transport aircraft? Furthermore, what discussions has the MoD had with the contractors and Airbus Military on the viability of the A400M project and on when we can expect a final decision?
There are also important political issues which we must work through. The Afghanistan mission is being undertaken under the banner of NATO, but the troop contributions mainly come from the US, the UK, Canada and Poland. I welcome the increase in troop and police training additions pledged by Germany, Spain and France, but what further pressure are the Government applying to our NATO allies to ensure further long-term troop deployments? It is vital that everyone carries their weight in the NATO alliance, as the security of Afghanistan is vital for our security. In addition to taking military action it is important that we win the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan, and build their institutions and infrastructure to achieve long-term peace. We should not be fighting there for a long time.
The security of Afghanistan and Pakistan are closely linked. Therefore, what work are the Government undertaking with the Pakistani military and the ISI to bolster military capability and aid their defensive strategy?What steps are being taken towards promoting good governance and joint working between the MoD, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development at local and district levels in Afghanistan and Pakistan as the stable blocks for regional and world peace?
It is vital that our servicemen are treated fairly and with compassion, which requires a holistic approach that encompasses a true duty of care both in the field and when they return home. On their return, it is important that our servicemen are looked after in every possible way to ensure their welfare and well-being, as well as the welfare of their families. It is essential that we provide them with financial, material, medical and psychological support. We owe it to them. Finally, I urge the Government to consider all the points raised in this wide-ranging debate. We must take stock of where we are and where we need to be heading.