Armed Forces: Future Defence Policy

My Lords, I begin by saying that members of the Armed Forces have to carry out the commands of their political masters but concurrently act within the constraints that politicians put on them. The fact that they are undertaking two medium-sized conflicts on a peacetime budget of about 2.5 per cent of GDP is a testament to their abilities. In view of the time limit on speeches today, I wish to address three constraints, which include proposed cutbacks in training for the Territorial Army, the Government’s culture of disregard for the safety of ageing equipment, and the ongoing lack of adequate kit for servicemen in Afghanistan.

Some 20,000 Armed Forces reservists, the majority from the TA, have been deployed on active service since 2002, with 14 sadly losing their lives. The contribution that they make to the United Kingdom‘s ability to conduct overseas operations is invaluable and it is what made the decision, which has now been reversed, to cut the training budget for the TA so unfair. If we are to expect young men and women to risk their lives in combat zones, we have a fundamental moral and tactical duty to ensure they are fully prepared. The cancelling of all routine training would have been disastrous for morale, for the recruitment of soldiers and for the overall preparedness of the TA. We need to remind ourselves that the Cotton review, which was accepted by the Government, said that training was,

 

“pivotal to the Proposition. The delivery of training should be overhauled to make it more relevant, consistent and correctly resourced”.

The routine TA training is the vital groundwork that allows skills, comradeship and tactical awareness to be built up, which can then be honed during pre-deployment training. Without this, we would expect units to go into action on the back of just one month’s intensive training. We would otherwise be sending troops around the globe without all the strings to their bow. Will the Minister therefore confirm that the TA budget will be ring-fenced to ensure that sneaky savings cannot be made out of an easy target? Will the Minister undertake to produce a wholescale review into the role of our Reserve Forces and their training, so that their numbers are fully deployed and our Armed Forces properly augmented?

Preparedness is crucial in any theatre of military conflict. That is what makes the Haddon-Cave report into the Nimrod crash so telling. The MoD failed in its principal paternal duty to ensure the maximum well-being of service personnel. The loss of the plane was preventable; early-warning signals were repeatedly ignored. The report states that it was,

“a lamentable job from start to finish. It was riddled with errors. It missed the key dangers. Its production is a story of incompetence, complacency, and cynicism”.

This shows that we need urgent cultural change in the MoD. There will always be risks in a contact zone, but loss of life should never occur due to internal safety failures.

How will such safety projects be conducted in future? Will there be a Minister with responsibility for operational safety to ensure that projects are met to specification, that guarantees made by safety contractors are met and that independent audits of work undertaken occur? Afghanistan demonstrates how overstretched we are. The principal issue is one of underinvestment in suitable kit, which has been described by one commander as:

“Cavalier at best, criminal at worst”.

The shortage of helicopters, emanating from the budget cut of 2004, is significantly endangering the safety of soldiers. Two Chinook helicopters have been destroyed recently. What plans are there for their immediate replacement and for maintaining adequate helicopter transport capacity in Afghanistan? On the ground, the Vector vehicle has been deemed unsuitable for patrols. Indeed, this summer a British serviceman was killed riding in a Vector. When will the Vectors be fully phased out of Afghanistan, as promised, and the replacement Mastiff and Ridgeback armoured vehicles finally delivered and in full operational use? The increase in funding of £700 million for replacing the Snatch vehicle with Vixens and Warthog armoured vehicles is to be welcomed, although I have ongoing concerns about the long lead-in time for them becoming operational.

Only 44 per cent of the TriStar fleet responsible for getting the troops from the UK to Afghanistan is considered fit for purpose, adversely affecting troop logistics, transport conditions and leave time. What are the Government doing to ensure we have adequate transport capacity between the UK and Afghanistan? Once in Afghanistan, there is a need for flexible troop transport planes, yet we are seriously short of Hercules and C-17s. What options have the Government considered for buying or leasing more troop transport aircraft? When will a decision be finally made on the viability of the delayed replacement A400M project? Such increases in investment must be matched by our NATO allies. Will the Minister assure me that the increase in troop numbers by 500 will be matched with equivalent increases from across NATO?

I have only touched on three pertinent issues among many today, but these constraints are beginning to have a seriously detrimental effect on the operational capacity of our Armed Forces. The constraints I have outlined are not responsible and not sensible. I urge the Government to examine these issues. I look forward to receiving the Minister’s reply to the points I have raised.

Updated: 07/11/2009 — 12:54 PM