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Liam Fox: Unacceptable that carriers have taken twice as long as WWII

It is because of the esteem in which we hold our Armed Forces that so many of us were outraged at those who choose to protest against the bravery and professionalism of our troops returning home from operations.

I'm sure the whole House can agree that those returning form overseas deserve the full support of the British public and nothing less.

Decent minded people will be appalled and disgusted by the recent actions of extremists at the welcome home parade for our troops in Luton.  It is thanks to the bravery and commitment of the men and women in our armed forces that we have the freedom of speech that these nasty individuals abuse-they need to be reminded of this fact.

But the best way to show our contempt for them and our support for our brave troops is not to ban the protests but to outnumber them and drown them out.  What would be a better response than to see huge supportive crowds cheering our returning forces. 

Our deeds, not our words, will show what we really stand for. This was demonstrated a couple of days after the Luton parade in Watford, where a parade by the Royal Anglian Regiment drew out thousands of people cheering as the troops marched through the town centre. The crowed was supportive, appreciative and defiant -a complete contrast to the ungrateful extremists in Luton.

Too often we allow minority voices to hijack the debate. The Government and Parliament need to do all they can help encourage public support for our Armed Forces. 

As we debate  "Defence in the United Kingdom" this afternoon  it would be negligent to overlook two major aspects underpinning our nation's defence and role in the world- our nuclear deterrent and our ability to project power with aircraft carriers. 

<h2>Carriers </h2>

Take the carriers first. There is an argument that the carriers are useless in the kind of fight our forces are currently facing in Afghanistan.

As things stand now, in the deserts of Helmand Province, this is true. But this is beside the point. Nobody has ever tried to make the main argument for the carriers on the basis that we needed them for current operations in Afghanistan.   But I remind those who are sceptical that there was once a time in the early days of the war in Afghanistan when aircraft carriers were vital-including HMS Illustrious with its 16 Harriers which took part in the initial attach in October 2001 when there was no regional airbase that could quickly and easily be used.

However, the argument against the carriers is also based on the false assumption that state-on-state conflict is a thing of the past. Unfortunately, history-since the treaty of Westphalia-shows us something different.  Possessing aircraft carriers in the 21st century allows us to project power, influence, and force in way that would not otherwise be possible.

In the era of globalisation Britain's economic, trade, and security interests are not only found here at home, Gibraltar, or the Falklands, but around the globe from the Hormuz Strait to the Malacca Strait -and most everything in between. 

In this complex world, British interests, and the defence of the UK, have no geographical boundaries. Because of this we must have the ability to project power, influence, and if necessary, military force around the world. 

This Government has presided over delay after delay of the two carriers. They have now been in planning and design for twice the length of the Second World War. In December we learnt, in a written statement to the House right before Christmas recess, that we can expect another delay of up to two years. This was initially blamed on the Joint Strike Fighter's entry into service-but we have since learnt that the JSF has nothing to do with it at all. 

I welcome the carriers as an important addition to the fleet and the Government must do all it can to ensure their timely entry into service. 

We might ask, however, why, when the Government was talking about bringing forward spending projects as part of the fiscal stimulus, that major defence projects were actually being put back.

But the current delay is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of this Government's treatment of the Royal Navy. The journey, which has led us to where our Navy is today, has been one of serial betrayal by the Government.  Time and time again, since the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, our Navy has been blackmailed into accepting cuts to its fleet to ensure the eventual addition of the two new carriers which are so desperately needed.

Back then, our Navy agreed to cut its fleet of 12 attack submarines to 10 and its fleet of 35 destroyers and frigates to 32 -in return for the promise of the two carriers. A decade later we find our Navy with only 8 attack submarines (with a probable future reduction to only 6 or 7) and an astonishingly low 22 destroyers and frigates. Maritime commitments have not decreased since 1998-in fact they have risen at a time when our Navy has been slashed, mothballed, and in some cases, sold off.

Having an aircraft carrier capability allows us to better protect our interests globally thus ensuring our security in the UK. Furthermore, it keeps us in the first division amongst world powers.

The fact that we are engaged in two counter-insurgency campaigns at present must not be allowed to serve as an excuse for irrevocably dismantling our potential to defeat more conventional opponents in future state-on-state conflicts which will possibly - if unpredictably - arise in the course of the 50-year projected lifespan of the two Future Carriers.

<h2>Trident </h2>

Many of the same arguments for supporting the carrier programme are applicable to the nuclear deterrent. There are three main reasons why Britain must have a nuclear deterrent.

First is the unpredictable nature of the post Cold War era. The harsh reality is that in some ways we had it easy with the bipolarity and the general predictability of the Cold War. As opposed to the concept of "East verses West", "Democracy verses Communism" the global security environment in which we are now forced to operate most resembles the multi-polarity of the 19th century-not the 20th century for which our instruments of national defence are structured.

No one can accurately predict the threats that the UK will face between 2025 and 2055 - when the next generation of the deterrent will be in service - just as no one 20 years ago could have anticipated the collapse of the Soviet Union, or the nature of the conflicts which currently confront us in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Secondly, nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented; they will remain part of the international security picture in the future. The acquisition of nuclear weapons by North Korea and their attempted acquisition by Iran are real threats to our security. We do not have the right to gamble with the security of future generations.

Thirdly, the United Kingdom has traditionally played a bigger role in acting on a number of global security related issues then to many of our medium sized allies-especially in Europe.  Consequently, we are more susceptible to nuclear blackmail by rogue states in possession of nuclear arms. Furthermore, because Britain is an island nation it would be harder to defeat by conventional military if the European continent was ever overrun. Consequently,  a nuclear deterrent is vital to our nation's defence.

The nature of the threats that we face has changed quickly from the relative symmetry of the cold war to a range of other asymmetric and complex threats-and it could very well change quickly again. The onus is not on those of us who wish to retain a deterrent, but on those who want to scrap it to tell us why they believe that they can predict the risks that we will face in half a century's time.

The Government's White Paper, published in 2006, described the independent British nuclear deterrent as 'an essential part of our insurance against the uncertainties and risks of the future'.  This is a sentiment which I fully endorse.

Mr Speaker, many of the opponents to the carrier programme and our nuclear deterrent are the same individuals who at other times claim that Britain is already too dependent on American foreign and defence policy. Yet, not having the aircraft carriers or a nuclear deterrent would make us even more dependent on America for our security.

While British and American interests are likely to coincide in the future and the Anglo-American relationship remains our most important strategic alliance, the UK must ultimately be able to guarantee its own security.

<h2>Russia</h2>

It has been widely reported in the media, and through written answers that Russia has taken up its Cold War habit of probing UK airspace. I understand that for operational security reasons the government is unable to comment in great detail on the floor of the House on what actions have been taken to deal with Russia's actions, but can the Minister give us an idea of the number and frequency of incursions and offer assurances to this House that procedures are in place to deal with the situation?

In addition, can the minister say if his department has seen an increase in Russian submarine incursions into British territorial waters? We often hear about Russian planes challenging the integrity of British airspace but seldom, if ever, hear about what is going on below the surface.

There is good reason to believe that this is occurring and as an Island nation with only three main naval bases this is an important issue.

For those who think state-on-state warfare is a thing of the past, one only has to look at the recent invasion of Georgia by Russia and the build up of the Russian Armed Forces.

One thing is certain; the global economic downturn has not deterred Russia from driving ahead with vast military reforms requiring huge sums of money. On the contrary, it looks like Russia is speeding up its defence spending.

While we debate the merits of two aircraft carriers in this country Russian plans for the navy include the construction of six nuclear powered aircraft carriers, eight ballistic missile submarines, and the largest nuclear icebreakers in the world for use in the Arctic.

Russian air and ground forces will also benefit from the increased spending. Numerous fifth generation fighters designed to take on the Joint Strike Fighter will enter service in the next several years. Russia also plans to increase its numbers in fighter-bombers and close air support aircraft in the coming years.

On the ground a new main battle tank will enter service sometime after 2010 and will be armed with guided missiles with a maximum range just over four miles.  

Russia may be building from a low base given its degraded state of its conventional forces and it may not pose a direct threat to the security of this country but the Russian leadership has shown in Georgia how they could destabilise our allies and indirectly threaten our security through their strangle hold on energy supplies.

The cyber attacks in Estonia, Georgia and most recently in Kyrgyzstan, where the finger still points at Russia is another reason why we must maintain our vigilance and invest in the technology to deal with future threats.

<h2>Personnel</h2>

Our Armed Forces have seen a lot of combat in recent years-the Gulf War, the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. Improvements in body armour and vehicles have meant that many if the injuries that were once fatal are now survivable. We will see many disabled young veterans as a result-something our society will need to adjust to. But that is only the visible damage. What is invisible has to concern us too.  I want the issue of mental health in the Armed Forces to be much higher up the agenda.

The Hon Member for North Durham and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State and Minister for Veterans (Kevan Jones), earlier this week on GMTV, tried to play down the impact mental illness is having on our armed forces by saying that "the actual number of people presenting with mental health problems is less than 2 percent".  [However, as the DASA report from which the Hon Gentleman refers clearly states, this 2 percent equates to just under 4,000 troops-maybe a small percentage, but hardly a small number.]

The minister went on to claim that the study shows that those who didn't deploy on operations suffered more than those who had.

But this is also a misleading interpretation-and only true for those suffering from mood disorders and depressive episodes. In fact, the report clearly states that the rate of PTSD was higher among those deployed to the Iraq or Afghanistan theatres of operation compared with those not deployed there.

I fear that, deployment after deployment and year after year, the mental health problem could become a mental health crisis. This is because our armed forces are operating at a tempo for which they are neither resourced nor manned.

Mr Speaker, our servicemen and women in the TA experience a further unique set of problems.

When a returning member of the TA returns home from operations there is little or no formal support group, structure or camaraderie with fellow troops who experienced similar things to fall back on.  No familiar faces on the base. No friends to meet for a pint who understand what you are going through.

TA service members, more often than not, simply return to their civilian jobs and back to family life without the safety net apparatus that is provided by being a member of the active forces. 

Increased use of the TA means that we will encounter even more problems in the future. If the time bomb goes off we are simply not prepared for the explosion of cases, or the impact it will have on society.

How we deal with the welfare of our Armed Forces will be integral in dealing with our recruitment and retention problems. As will their treatment in relation to other public servants.

Let me give one example of mismatch.

At present our troops returning from Afghanistan get a maximum of 48 hours decompression, at the discretion of the commanding officer. This often occurs in unattractive surroundings in Cyprus with many tales of lengthy periods spent on airport floors.

Not much respite for those who have faced bombings and shootings.

By contrast FCO officials in Afghanistan get two weeks compulsory decompression every six to seven weeks in theatre.

Even better, if you are a DFID official you are entitled to the same two week break away from post for every six weeks in theatre like the FCO, but a DFID official can take their break anywhere in the world, on condition that this is of equal or lesser cost than a flight back to the UK.

<h2>Conclusion</h2>

Let me just offer the House a snapshot of what a decade of Labour's neglect has done to our Armed Forces:

The top 19 major procurement projects  have gone over budget by a total of £2.95bn (11 per cent  average increase over their initially approved costs);

The Nimrod MRA4 project is delayed by 92 months; is £789m over budget; and the order size has been reduced from 21 to 12. The Astute Class Submarine is delayed by 47 months; and is £1,228m over budget. The Type-45 Destroyer is delayed by 42 months and is £989m over budget;

Since 1997, the army has lost four battalions and the TA has lost 22,000 troops. The Royal Navy has four fewer attack submarines and 12 fewer frigates and destroyers. The RAF has lost nearly 170 fixed wing aircraft, and we have 480 fewer armoured fighting vehicles.

31 out of 36 Infantry Battalions are under-strength (fit for purpose). The shortage    is equivalent to four battalions worth of soldiers

12 out of 14 TA Infantry Battalions are under-strength

The Government abolished the Defence Export Services Organisation

The Government cut the helicopter budget in 2004 by £1.4 billion when we were already involved in two wars

Despite two wars, defence spending is 2.2 % of GDP-the lowest since the 1930's

And finally, despite 9/11, despite Iraq and Afghanistan and the completely different strategic environment, the Government has not conducted a Strategic Defence Review in 12 years

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