NGO Military Contact Group conference 2015

Speech by Mark Francois, Minister of State for the Armed Forces.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Mark Francois


I’m delighted to be here

And first…let me thank… the Red Cross, the Foreign Office and the NGO Military Contact Group for organising this conference today

On a light-hearted note, the programme kindly says I’m down as the keynote speaker

…but I’m then followed by an expert

…you quickly learn in this business that humility is a fundamental part of the job!

For those who don’t know…what my job does involve…is responsibility for operations in the armed forces

It’s a unique privilege

One that has afforded me the rare opportunity to see our brave servicemen and women in action in theatres right across the globe

And it’s emphasised something I knew in theory but only really grasped in practice when I became an infantryman in the Territorial Army

…during the height of the Cold War

That while the primary purpose of our armed forces is to keep you and our country safe

…we do much else besides

Operational versatility: at home

For instance…over the last few years…we have displayed considerable versatility in providing assistance to our own domestic civilian authorities when it’s been required

In 2012 in Operation Olympics …with the world watching on…our armed forces helped secure… at short notice…a great and glorious Olympic Games…making sure people left those marvellous arenas with smiles on their faces

In 2014 in Operation Pitchpole …they rescued people and possessions in flooded areas of England… helping provide vital reassurance…not just to those affected but to the wider public watching on TV at home

Recalling these events I remember one rather sodden Saturday morning…helping to build a sand-bag wall…alongside army reservists from 7th battalion the Rifles…to protect an electricity substation in the outskirts of Reading

It was raining and we got soaked

…for that morning at least I was… unquestionably… a wet Tory!

And …in the last few months in Operation Prismed…our armed forces have stepped up once more…driving ambulances during a period of industrial action

…showing again that …in a time of difficulty… our military are there to help

Operational versatility: abroad

But our armed forces have not just provided resilience on the domestic front…they have continued to show their mettle abroad as well

As part of Operation Recsyr …escorting chemical substances and weapons out of Syria for safe destruction …and in Operation Patwin … sending HMS Daring and HMS Illustrious to the Philippines in the wake of the devastating Typhoon Haiyan …helping…literally thousands…of people who had lost almost everything

The proud crew of HMS Illustrious were subsequently celebrated at the “Millies”, The Sun Military Awards in December last year [2014]. I was there on the night to see it.

One of the crew members who was interviewed for the award ceremony explained that…when the ship’s Commanding Officer realised what was happening…the risk to life and limb

…he accelerated his 20,000 ton warship up to 27 knots

…which is a speed more familiar to a frigate than an aircraft carrier.

According to said crewman in the interview …“the boss drove it like he stole it”!

Yet another illustration of the Royal Navy’s readiness to help people in dire need


Over the last 6 months

… we have deployed more than 900 armed forces personnel

….support ship RFA Argus… providing a Role 2 medical facility

… as well as aviation support from her 3 Merlin helicopters

Within a matter of weeks

…our medics have trained 4,000 Sierra Leonean volunteer health-care workers

…our logisticians have helped set up command and control centres across the country

…and our engineers have overseen the construction of 6 Ebola Treatment Centres or…in effect… mini-hospitals

…including the pioneering Kerry Town Treatment centre

…where we are still running a specialist medical facility…for international healthcare workers… alongside Save the Children

…and we have treated a number of Ebola sufferers successfully at that facility

This is now….from MOD’s point of view… our largest overseas deployment

And…in terms of the fight against Ebola… second only in magnitude to that of the United States

Visiting Sierra Leone

My line manager…the Secretary of State…returned from Sierra Leone just the other week

And prior to Christmas I visited and saw for myself the Kerry Town Treatment Unit

There I had the great privilege to meet the men and women of 22 Field Hospital

…or the “other 22” as some in the military now refer to them

I saw for myself … the control and monitoring centre… the decontamination unit

… I remember in particular

…talking to a brave 19 year old nurse

…who had recently emerged from the “red zone”

…putting herself in harms way to protect others

…and I must confess to thinking

…that I’ve never been prouder to be British

… or indeed to be the Minister for our armed forces

…it was genuinely something I’ll never forget my whole life

3 lessons from Sierra Leone

Remaining active

I believe there are 3 important lessons from our experience in Sierra Leone that will determine our approach to these types of humanitarian issue in future

And I’d like to share them with this conference today

First, that defence will have to remain active on the global stage

Not just because it’s the right thing to do …but because in a 21st century world …of expansionist states… terrorist death cults…piracy on the high seas… weapons proliferation…and deadly epidemics

….we cannot take an isolationist approach

Just as Ebola does not respect borders we have to be prepared to participate in other timely international responses

The Duke of Wellington once said in the 19th century that “he who fails to plan to meet the enemy abroad will one day meet the enemy at home”

And…in a 21st century context…we deployed personnel to West Africa

…not just to help the Sierra Leoneans, right though that was

…but to seek also to prevent a terrible disease

…from spreading to our own countrymen here at home

For the record the British government has spent more than a third of a billion pounds in fighting Ebola

And for all the debate about international aid …for all the controversy which has been generated…I would submit that even the most narrow-minded person …would have to accept that this money has been money well spent

Ready for anything

This brings me to my next point

That …in an age of uncertainty and unpredictability …the United Kingdom must remain ready for anything

As we transition from the conflict in Afghanistan…and a Lance Corporal has just been awarded a VC for his brave actions in that conflict….as we rebalance our armed forces or return to contingency as we tend to say in the MOD…there will be implications not just for our military and defence roles

…but for international engagement and wider humanitarian aid as well

We’re keen to ensure we can keep responding to trouble down the track

That’s one of the reasons why we’re transforming our Reserves and Regulars into a flexible future force

…and why we’re continuing to invest in the most advanced military equipment

…which though procured primarily for a military purpose

…also has a clear utility in a humanitarian context as well

For instance…our 65,000 ton aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales….the largest warships ever to be built in Britain

…both of which… I’m proud to say…will now be entering service

Look at what Illustrious did in Patwin, these carriers are 3 times as big!

Like our world class Type 45 destroyers

Like our highly versatile C-17 transports, which brought people back from Sierra Leone …supplemented by the new A400M aircraft

And like our Mark 6 Chinook Helicopters…giving us one of the largest Chinook helicopter fleets in the world outside of the US….

Published 3 March 2015