Bob Ainsworth: You Ask The Questions

The Defence Secretary answers your questions, such as 'Why is our Army so poorly equipped?' and 'Do you regret voting for the Iraq war?'
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Indy Politics

I am a member of the Armed Forces serving overseas with ISAF. This will be the second year in the last three that I have spent more than 183 days outside the UK; this rate of absence from the UK is likely to continue for the majority of my career.

My American, Australian and Canadian colleagues do not pay income tax when serving their countries. Are there any plans to make UK forces more equal with our closest allies? I am well aware that our basic salaries are higher, in relative terms, than these colleagues; the much greater cost of living in the UK more than cancels out this advantage and our relative purchasing power, rank for rank, is similar. Flight Lieutenant Alex Morrison by email

The Labour government introduced a tax-free lump sum operational allowance of up to £2,380 (paid at the end of a six-month tour). We opted for this rather than tax-free pay because it puts more money in the ordinary soldier's pocket. It gives equal benefit to all ranks. In addition to the operational allowance, personnel on six-month tours also get a minimum of £1,194 in separation allowance. The independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body has commissioned a survey on remuneration, nation-by-nation, and this will inform its 2010 report. Deployed personnel also receive a council tax relief payment.

Did you know anything about military matters before you became Defence Secretary? What experience did you have? Alan Pugh, Preston

I was Minister for the Armed Forces in the Ministry of Defence for two years prior to being appointed Defence Secretary.

Have you read any books on the history of Afghanistan? If so, which ones? Robin Lang, Seaford

I have always had a keen interest in defence and military history and read more on this subject than anything else. I've read about Afghanistan going back to the Great Game. Right now I struggle to find the time to read, but on holiday I managed to read Grant Takes Command (about the second half of the American civil war). Currently I am reading Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, which is about lessons on counterinsurgency.

Would it not make sense in a recession to increase the number of UK-based defence projects? For example a few more Type 45 destroyers, Astute submarines, a sister helicopter carrier for HMS Ocean, more Merlin and Lynx (Wildcat) helicopters? Michael Gregg, Armagh

The programmes that you highlight are already doing much for UK industry and jobs. Astute submarines will provide jobs for 5,000 people at BAe in Barrow. And about the same number are employed through the supply chain. Many of the primary contracts – as well as sub-contracts – for most of the equipment we buy are awarded to British companies, giving direct benefit to the local and national economies. This helps to retain skills in areas such as shipbuilding and create apprentices who learn the trade.

Given that no recent military action has truly been in defence of these islands, why wouldn't you be honest (like the Victorians were) and rename your department The Ministry of War? Nigel Fordham, Gloucestershire

As the Chief of the Defence Staff says, you don't defend on the goal line. Defending the interests of the UK means tackling threats early and at source and that means intervening overseas. Many of the terrorist plots against this country originate in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan – the international forces fighting there are directly defending the United Kingdom.

Does it really irk you when you get accused by MOD senior officers of not providing enough resources, such as helicopters and body armour in Iraq and Afghanistan? Sean O'Toole, Hampshire

Commanders on the ground in Afghanistan tell us they have enough equipment for the tasks they are being asked to do. Our Osprey body armour is world-class and we've spent more than £10bn on equipment through urgent operational requirements over the last three years, getting the best kit we possibly can. The Merlin helicopters deployed this month have added to our helicopter capability. We are also embarking on a programme of fitting new rotor blades to the Sea Kings, more powerful engines for Chinooks and better engines for the Lynx to provide all-year-round capability in Afghanistan.

The current cabinet has an unusually high number of Lords (most notably Lord Mandelson). Do you see this as an issue, and do you think there is a lack of accountability for these ministers? Steven Heales, Coventry

No. This government has done a huge amount to improve accountability and openness. We introduced the Freedom of Information act, a devolved parliament in Scotland and a devolved Assembly in Wales. It is important to ensure the Cabinet has the right mix of expertise and knowledge. The Government would be much poorer if we did not have people like Lord Drayson or Lord West in it.

Ministers, senior commanders and ordinary servicemen often have widely differing views on the effectiveness and availability of equipment in Afghanistan. Can we have an independent judicial enquiry to establish the facts and any culpability? Ken Cameron, Vienna

Our service personnel often express their confidence in and enthusiasm for the equipment they use and we know that the kit overall is doing a good job in Afghanistan. New vehicles are entering service all the time, with the mine-resistant Mastiffs and Ridgbacks, Coyote, Husky and other vehicles giving an excellent capability to get the job done. The number of service personnel surviving due to their Osprey body armour is testament to its effectiveness in protecting our troops when they are on the ground and our Chinooks excel across many tasks.

The decline in British public support is because we are losing soldiers unnecessarily by supporting a thoroughly corrupt Karzai administration and we also supported elections that were thoroughly rigged. Why are you being disingenuous and blaming the Obama administration for your shortcomings? Anil Vadgama, Watford

The death of military personnel on operations is always a personal tragedy and nothing can compensate for the loss felt by their loved ones. But their contribution is not in vain – we are making a tangible difference and all UK Armed Forces personnel can be justly proud of what they are achieving. This year's election was the first Afghan-led election process in 30 years – and we knew it was never going to be perfect. That it took place at all is a significant achievement..

On "blaming the Obama administration", you should read what I actually said not what was reported. I have not been critical of the US efforts in Afghanistan – the US are making the biggest contribution to the Nato effort in Afghanistan. They are our most valued ally.

Do you regret voting for the war in Iraq, or do you now accept you were lied to by your own PM? Dean Jennings, Coventry

No I don't. Tony Blair acted in the best interests of this country at the time. And Iraq is a lot better place without Saddam Hussein.

Your handling of a great office of state has been nothing short of incompetent and totally inept. You now seek to offload falling public support on to a Nato partner when, all along, it is you and your government's utter failure to properly fund and equip our services that is to blame. When are you going to resign? Clive Goddard, email

I am extremely honoured to be the Defence Secretary and I would not do the job if I did not think that I could make a useful contribution in the role. Since taking on the job I have ensured that Afghanistan is the department's main effort. We have managed to deliver more equipment – helicopters and armoured vehicles – to our forces serving there. I have announced that we will publish a Green Paper in order to best prepare the department for the next Strategic Defence Review, and we have seen our troop levels in Afghanistan increase on a permanent basis, on the advice of the Chief of the Defence Staff.



Is Tony and Cherie Blair's obvious love of wealth and socialising with the super-rich consistent with socialism and Labour party values? Robert Hesketh, Sefton, Merseyside

Tony Blair was a strong and effective Prime Minister. He achieved a lot during his time in office – not least the introduction of the minimum wage, alongside billions of pounds invested in health and education. He was also a great statesman and made a valuable contribution on the international stage. Gordon Brown is carrying on this role and has led the way in dealing with the current economic crisis.



Were you as surprised as the rest of us when Peter Mandelson returned to become the most powerful man in the country? Arnold Travers, Huddersfield

Peter Mandelson is a very capable politician and the Cabinet is a lot better for him being in it. That said, the PM is still the man in charge.

Is your moustache an act of rebellion? Susannah Timson, Hartlepool

I have had it for 40 years, so it is more a case of dogged determination than rebellion.

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