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A Labour Party View of UK Defence Policy

26 April 2010, 12:00
The Rt Hon Bob Ainsworth, Secretary of State for Defence, outlined his party’s policy of defence in advance of the General Election and subsequent Strategic Defence Review.

Bob Ainsworth imageThe Rt Hon Bob Ainsworth, Secretary of State for Defence, outlined his party’s policy of defence in advance of the General Election and subsequent Strategic Defence Review.

Bob Ainsworth was appointed Secretary of State for Defence on 5 June 2009. A Coventry trade unionist and former local councillor with strong roots in the city, he was elected Member of Parliament for Coventry North East in 1992. He was a long serving Whip in both Opposition and Government before he was promoted to his first ministerial position after Peter Mandelson's second resignation in January 2001.

He served five months as junior minister in the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and after the General Election he was moved to the Home Office with responsibility for Anti-drugs Co-ordination and Organised Crime. In the reshuffle of June 2003, he returned to the Whips' Office on promotion to Deputy Chief Whip. He served as Minister of State for the Armed Forces prior to his current appointment.

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INTRODUCTION

The Labour Party has always been a Party with an Internationalist outlook.

From the men who volunteered to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War; to Ernest Bevin's role as Foreign Secretary building the global institutions that would dominate the post war world, including NATO; to the use of the Armed Forces since 1997 as a 'force for good' across the world: bringing peace to the Balkans and Macedonia, promoting stability in Sierra Leone, building capacity in Africa, countering piracy in the Indian Ocean, and terrorism at home and abroad.

Despite the controversy over Iraq, the motivations at the time were to rid the world of a dictator who was overwhelmingly believed, both here and abroad, to be seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Even if people disagreed on the best course of action in response, few doubted that Saddam Hussein was a threat to stability in a volatile region. Now in Iraq, people are cautiously optimistic for a better future as democracy takes root.

And today we are fighting in Afghanistan as part of an international coalition to protect global security from the threat of terrorism.

Labour believes it should always be the role of powerful nations, such as our own, to support a rules-based international system. We believe in universal human rights, democracy and multilateralism.

We recognise the deterrent value of our armed forces. The threat of force and yes, sometimes the use of it - with all the responsibilities that come with that - have helped prevent conflict and maintain international stability.

We must continue to use our alliances and networks to tackle the big global challenges from climate change, development and economic prosperity to the question of international security.

So today, I want to set out some of the detail of Labour's record on Defence over the last 13 years and the choices that face us at this election.

AFGHANISTAN & EQUIPMENT

But first, while we are fighting an election, trying to win votes; we have 9,500 personnel in Afghanistan, fighting a war, trying to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

And I want to pay tribute to their professionalism and bravery, especially those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country.

As I have said many times before, I have made Afghanistan the main effort for our Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defence as a whole.

We are in Afghanistan to ensure that the country cannot again be used as a base to export terrorism that is a proven threat to our citizens.

We will achieve this by supporting the growth of an Afghan government that rejects violent extremism and is able to deny terrorists a safe haven by maintaining its own security.

We must see the job through as the consequences of premature withdrawal would be profoundly dangerous.

This is the context in which the brave men and women of our Armed Forces are risking life and limb on our behalf.

The conflict in Afghanistan has gone through various phases, the current phase began in 2006 when we entered Helmand.

Risk is inherent in military operations and it is military commanders who have taught me that no plan survives first contact with the enemy.

As the situation on the ground changed rapidly from 2006, we have had to adjust our posture and learn lessons quickly.

For instance, when UK forces first entered Helmand, insurgent fighters came at us in a shooting war in groups of up to a hundred.

Now they are seeding the land with Improvised Explosive Devices which, as we are all too aware, cause the majority of UK fatalities.

As the situation evolved in Afghanistan the equipment available has had to change too - and some requirements can't be delivered overnight.

But as the circumstances changed so have the resources.

Funding from the Treasury Reserve has been provided at the level required to meet the need.

Rising from £738m in 2006/7 when we had around 6,000 troops in Afghanistan, to an estimated £5bn this financial year to support 9,500 troops.

This is of course in addition to a Defence budget that is ten percent higher in real terms than in 1997 and has been held broadly constant at 2.5% of GDP as the economy has grown.

We have deployed a 200 strong counter-IED Task Force, along with specialist equipment, to find and disable these IEDs, and help to identify and target the networks that lay them.

Of course we can't find or prevent every IED laid by the insurgency.

But we can ensure that our troops have the best equipment available to protect them from this threat.

Since 2006, the Labour Government has approved £1.7 billion for 1,800 additional heavily armoured vehicles as the threat of IED's grew, including Mastiffs, which offer world-leading protection.

Labour has almost doubled the number of helicopters in Afghanistan - by next month it will have more than doubled, with planned deployments over the coming 3 months of additional Chinook and Merlin, and Lynx with upgraded engines.

We have ordered 22 new Chinooks as part of a future helicopter strategy that will deliver, by 2016, some 40% more support helicopters suitable for operations such as the one in Afghanistan.

And we must not lose sight of the fact that we are in Afghanistan as part of a coalition of over 40 countries.

We are able to draw on the pooled resources of ISAF, including helicopters.

I have found it disappointing that the Conservatives have gone beyond the legitimate activity of an opposition of criticising the Government's record on providing equipment.

They have chosen to ignore the practicalities of the changing nature of the fight and have misled the public about equipment improvements on a number of occasions.

They would have the public believe that our troops are not properly resourced. In doing so they are both painting a false picture, and they are undermining public support for the mission.

Even the Spectator criticised David Cameron when he said in his conference speech in 2008 that the number of our troops in Afghanistan had almost doubled but the number of helicopters had stayed the same.

In fact the number of helicopters at that time had risen by over 60%.

Liam Fox claimed last summer that Ridgeback armoured vehicles were stranded at Dubai for lack of airlift to take them to the theatre when in reality, these vehicles were being sent to Afghanistan ahead of schedule and ahead of the people trained to use them

A month ago, Liam Fox said that the order for Light Protected Patrol Vehicles had been halved when in fact buying in batches will get the vehicles to Afghanistan faster.

And just over a week ago, he said that troops in Afghanistan were using private donations to buy body armour. He said that "raiding a charitable fund to buy equipment for troops on operations is a disgrace"

It would be.

It's not because it's not true.

This donation was not spent on body armour or on any other equipment. Regimental funds are spent on welfare support, including family travel, family events and memorial items.

The Conservative Manifesto accuses the Prime Minister of using our Forces for Party political purposes but the party playing politics with the operation in Afghanistan is the Conservative Party.

They have never once offered alternatives as to how they might increase vehicle numbers of helicopter hours faster than the Labour government.

At no spending review or election that I recall - including this one - have the Tories argued for spending more on defence.

Quite the reverse. Despite repeated prompting it was only as the election was called that the Conservatives pledged to even match Labour's spending in this financial year.

Their rhetoric is not backed up by a single extra financial commitment. Of course it is legitimate that equipment issues are scrutinised but we have to accept that there are risks. Some have come close to implying that every death is not just a tragedy but a scandal.

If the opposition continue in this way, they will make it difficult if not impossible to commit our forces to action.

FORCES WELFARE & VETERANS

And if we ask our forces to accept those risks and fight on our behalf, we have a duty not just to equip them properly but to look after them and their welfare both during and after service.

This Labour government was the first to deliver a cross-government approach to Forces' Welfare.

I personally oversaw, When Minister for the Armed Forces, the publication of the Service Personnel Command Paper in Summer 2008 which set out improved access to housing schemes and healthcare, free access to further education for Service leavers with 6 years service, increased state boarding school provision for Service families, and extended travel concessions for Veterans and for those seriously injured.

I am very proud that the Royal British Legion felt able to say that the Command Paper meant that the Military covenant was "being brought back into balance".

Labour has worked hard to reverse a legacy of decades of underinvestment in Service accommodation delivering 38,000 new or improved single-living bed-spaces and upgrading over 14,000 family homes.

Armed Forces' pay increases have been among the highest in the public sector for four years running and we've honoured the outcome of the independent pay review body.

And good pay deals come on top of many other improvements - such as the tax free Operational Bonus giving those serving in Afghanistan £2400 for a 6-month tour.

Labour introduced the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme in 2005, a big improvement on the previous War Pension Scheme.

We doubled the maximum up-front compensation payment to £570,000 in 2008.

And after Admiral Lord Boyce's review of the scheme earlier this year, we increased by up to a third the Guaranteed Income Payment which Servicemen and women with severe injuries receive for the rest of their lives.

We are breaking new ground in caring for the wounded.

We set up a military-managed ward at Selly Oak Hospital and are completing the new trauma and orthopaedics military ward as part of the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham.

In partnership with the Service charities, the Labour Government and Army have launched the Army Recovery Capability to improve the way the Army looks after the wounded, sick and injured.

It will provide an individual pathway for injured soldiers to either return them to duty or ensure the smoothest transition to civilian life.

We have been working with Combat Stress to improve mental health care for our forces, and we have announced regular tracking of Veterans' health issues so GPs will know if a patient has served in the Armed Forces - and we have set up specialised mental health pilots for Veterans which we have committed to rolling out nationally.

Labour introduced the Veterans' Lapel Badge, the first British Armed Forces and Veterans Day to honour the achievements of our Armed Forces past and present and we have significantly expanded the free Veterans UK Helpline.

I apologise for the long list of achievements but we are proud of our record.

And if the Labour Government is re-elected, we will create a Forces Charter enshrining in law these improvements we have made to the support to the Armed Forces.

It will commit all public bodies to consider whether any decisions they make would leave members of the Armed Forces Community disadvantaged.

NATIONAL SECURITY & THE SDR

But equipping our forces properly for today's conflict and ensuring that their welfare is looked after is not enough.

We must prepare them for the conflicts of tomorrow.

Globalisation offers great opportunities for Britain, and is a force for progress across the world.

More people are living in democracies, going to school, and have access to health care and other basic services than ever before.

But the future also contains new risks including terrorism and extremism, nuclear proliferation, state on state conflict, the instability of failing states, organised crime, domestic emergencies, and new challenges including modern piracy and cyber security.

We have published Britain's first ever National Security Strategy and reformed the national security structures at the heart of government, setting up a new National Security Committee, including all relevant Ministers, Defence and police Chiefs, heads of the Security Services and others.

Unlike the Conservatives, whose National Security Paper revealed a naïve belief that we can retreat to a 'fortress Britain', Labour believes we can't protect the security of the UK by just 'defending on our own goal line'.

That is not to say that it is a choice between 'home and away'. Labour has always taken its responsibilities for domestic security seriously.

We have trebled investment in domestic counter-terrorism since 2001.

We have doubled the size of the Security Services, and added thousands of counter terrorist police.

We have set up a single Border Agency with police-level powers, and spent £1bn on electronic border controls.

But our national security demands that we tackle threats at source, rather than waiting for them to come to us.

We must ensure that the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is not a hiding place for terrorists - and build up the capacity of those countries to deal with terrorism and extremism themselves.

We must act to reduce the terrorist threat from Somalia and Yemen, and other countries.

The sea routes around the horn of Africa are crucial to world trade and energy supplies, so we must act together with allies to deal with piracy.

Most of the security risks we face are global - and a Labour government will continue to lead multilateral efforts to tackle these problems.

Our influence will increasingly come through relationships and networks - including strong relationships with both America and Europe which the two opposition parties present as a binary choice.

And it is within that context that Labour is committed to a Strategic Defence Review after the election.

General Dannatt argued over the weekend that a hung parliament will make an SDR nearly impossible.

Now he's a wholly, solely and openly a Conservative politician, you won't be surprised to hear that I disagree with him.

The Green Paper I published in February was crafted with input from all three main parties and the better for it.

An SDR will benefit from a degree of consensus as to the future threats facing us and how best to respond.

If we adopt a similar method as used in the Green Paper, reaching out across the political divide, we will be able to tackle the difficult issues that our nation faces.

As part of that process we will need to make decisions about the role we want the United Kingdom to play in the world and the capabilities that the Armed Forces need to support that role.

Labour will go into the Review committed to strong, balanced Armed Forces as our insurance policy for the future - capable of adapting to the various challenges we may face.

We are committed to a strong, hi-tech Army; a Navy based around the aircraft carriers for which steel is already being cut; and an Air Force based around two state of the art fighter fleets as well as additional helicopters, Reaper drones, and strategic air lift.

The Review will not re-open the future of Trident which was itself thoroughly reviewed in 2006.

Labour remains committed to the objective of a world free of nuclear weapons.

We have moved to a minimal deterrent, reducing the number of warheads by almost 50% compared to previous plans, and we will continue to play a leading role in multilateral nuclear disarmament discussions.

But while nuclear weapons exist, we cannot leave ourselves and our children's generation open to the threat of nuclear blackmail.

The Liberal Democrat position, contrary to what many perceive,  agrees that we need the nuclear deterrent but rejects the conclusions of the 2006 White Paper that the Trident system represents best value for money.

The suggestion by Menzies Campbell that an Astute-submarine, Cruise-missile based system could be developed is uncosted, untried technology and would almost certainly require more, not less, warheads than Trident.

The Review will include an update of Labour's Defence Industrial Strategy to promote a sustainable industrial base that retains in the UK those industrial capabilities needed for national security. It will also take forward our Strategy for Acquisition Reform.

The front line must come first but the Labour Government has always understood the importance of the role of industry both in getting the best equipment for the troops and in the wider economy.

The defence industry directly supports 110,000 jobs and a huge amount of manufacturing expertise in the supply chain.

Getting value for the taxpayer is critical but isn't always best achieved by buying equipment 'off the shelf' from abroad as the Conservatives have often argued.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, there are some clear choices at this election.

The Labour Government does not claim to have got everything right over the last 13 years but we certainly stand on our record of improvement.

And Labour is not offering any easy answers for the years to come - there are tough choices ahead balancing our national ambition with available resources in a touch fiscal climate.

But if we learn the lessons of the last decade and build on our achievements, we can continue to protect the UK and promote our values abroad of human rights, democracy and international cooperation.

ENDS

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