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The House will know that my Right Honourable Friend, the Secretary of State for Defence is in Oman. He has earlier this morning spoken to the officers and men of HQ 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, serving in Oman as part of Exercise Saif Sareea II. I should now like to inform the House what he said. But first let me say a word or two about Exercise Saif Sareea II.
The Exercise in Oman is reaching its conclusion. Although a full assessment has still to be undertaken, it is fair to say that the Exercise has been remarkably successful. More than 21,500 servicemen and women have been involved. I pay tribute to them today.
Their response to Exercise Saif Sareea II was typical. For many of them it was their first deployment in desert conditions, but they rose to the challenge and met the very high standards we ask of them. Their skills, determination and professionalism place our Armed Forces amongst the very best in the world.
Exercise Saif Sareea II was the largest single deployment of British Service personnel since the Gulf conflict. Our contribution to the exercise included a Naval Carrier Task Group, Armoured and Commando Brigades, around fifty combat aircraft and three of our four new C-17 Strategic Lift Aircraft.
The Exercise has demonstrated our close friendship with Oman and builds on the longstanding and wide-ranging defence relationship we enjoy with that country. We are extremely grateful to Oman for its generosity in hosting this exercise, and for the tremendous co-operation at all levels that has developed between our respective Armed Forces.
Force integration training has taken place between our respective navies and air forces and a joint live exercise comprising elements of our respective armies is now drawing to its conclusion. This has provided an excellent opportunity to test both our personnel and equipment in the realistic operational environment of the Omani desert.
By deploying, sustaining and exercising a Joint Task Force at medium scale at considerable distance, we have demonstrated key elements of the Joint Rapid Reaction Forces concept. Moreover, we have demonstrated our ability to conduct joint and combined operations with a friendly nation in an area which is of key strategic importance.
When we began planning Exercise Saif Sareea II some four years ago, we wished to send a clear signal of our commitment to peace and stability in the region. I am sure the both sides of the House will agree that through the dedication and skill of our Armed Forces we have met this objective with enormous success.
There has been a great deal of speculation in recent weeks – much of it ill-judged and unhelpful – about diverting our forces taking part in Exercise Saif Sareea II to conduct operations in and around Afghanistan. We did reassign two submarines from the exercise, but as I hope I made clear earlier, Saif Sareea II essentially went ahead as planned.
With the end of the Exercise in sight, the time has come to decide what force deployments offer the right balance of capabilities to enable us to continue to play a full part in the coalition’s military operations. We have rightly made a commitment to our closest ally, the United States, to stand shoulder to shoulder with them and we are determined to do just that.
The House will know that our Armed Forces have already made a major contribution to the coalition against international terrorism. When this House last debated this grave subject on 16 October, my Rt Hon Friend the Secretary of State described our campaign aims. These remain as follows:
· to bring Usama bin Laden and other al-Qa’ida leaders to justice;
· to prevent Usama bin Laden and the al-Qa’ida network from posing a continuing terrorist threat;
· and to ensure that Afghanistan ceases to harbour and sustain international terrorism.
At the time, the Secretary of State also described the forces we have deployed so far. These are considerable - three submarines and some ten specialized air-to-air refuelling and reconnaissance aircraft. The roles these forces have played, both in attacking targets in Afghanistan and in providing vital support functions to coalition strike aircraft, remain crucial. So, too, does our decision to allow the US to use our airbase at Diego Garcia.
We must now look ahead to how else we can help in defeating international terrorism. Our current forces are primarily configured to assist in the coalition’s air campaign. That campaign will continue and develop over time. So must the capabilities we assign to it.
We have therefore decided to create a large and re-balanced force in the region. It is a concrete demonstration of our resolve to see the campaign against international terrorism through to the end. We have said we are in this for the long haul and we mean it. The force has therefore been designed to ensure that we are well placed to deal with a wide range of contingencies – and to maintain operational flexibility for as long as necessary. It also allows us to accommodate the inevitable changes in the tempo of our military operations.
The House will recognise, I am sure, that I cannot go into too much detail about how we envisage the new force operating, but as I have said it will allow us to retain considerable operational flexibility and will greatly widen the scope for future operations.
What I can do is describe the forces we will reassign to Operation Veritas from Exercise Saif Sareea II when this exercise finishes next week. They will comprise of the following:
The aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious which will be re-equipped for helicopter operations;
The assault ship HMS Fearless;
A submarine presence able to launch Tomahawk missiles;
The destroyer HMS Southampton;
The frigate HMS Cornwall
Seven Royal Fleet Auxiliaries, the RFAs Sir Tristram, Sir Percivale, Fort Victoria, Fort Rosalie, Bayleaf, Brambleleaf, and Diligence;
Four additional support aircraft consisting of Nimrod Maritime Patrol Aircraft and Hercules transport planes.
In addition, some 200 men of 40 Commando Royal Marines, based in Taunton, will be aboard HMS Fearless as the lead elements of an immediately available force to help support operations. The remainder of 40 Commando – in the region of 400 men – will return to the United Kingdom but will be held at a high readiness to return to the Theatre should our operational needs make that necessary. This arrangement will also permit us to rotate companies aboard ship and so guarantee the whole Commando remains fresh and fully prepared for operations;
This powerful force totals some four thousand two hundred personnel in Theatre. It represents a major enhancement of the coalition’s capabilities.
The threat from an enemy as evil and indiscriminate as international terrorism places everyone in danger. There is no question that a response to the events of 11 September is necessary. However we did not take the decision to deploy these forces lightly. No Government ever enters into military operations, with the attendant risks for our Servicemen and women, without the most careful thought.
In this case, we were particularly conscious that the reinforcements are men and women who have already completed a long and demanding exercise. They have been long separated from their families in this country. I know that places a great strain on both our Service personnel and their families. The knowledge that loved ones are deploying on operations can only increase the anxiety, the concern, the strain, that the Service families affected must feel. We will do whatever we can to ensure that these families have the support that they need at this time.
The House will recognise that the deployment of our Armed Forces is a grave step. We do it in the confident knowledge that by doing so we can depend upon them to make a difference. Our Armed Forces are special and we are deservedly proud of them. We ask a lot from them and they will not let us down.
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