Portsmouth North MP Penny Mordaunt has got stuck in to her new job as armed forces minister with a four-day whistlestop visit to the Middle East.
From Bahrain to Afghanistan, Ms Mordaunt met with members of the armed forces from all walks of life but many of them had one thing in common – Portsmouth and our surrounding towns.
The Conservative MP, herself a naval reservist, spent time on board Royal Navy warships in Bahrain and at British bases in Afghanistan and Dubai.
She said: ‘Every place I visited there was someone from my own city at work.
‘Our city has a reach beyond compare and I have never been prouder of what Portsmouth’s sons and daughters are doing to make the world a safer and more stable place.’
Ms Mordaunt kept a diary of her four days abroad, which The News is publishing here to give an insight into her experiences.
I fly out to Bahrain to conduct a number of visits to Royal Navy ships, open a new navy headquarters and have meetings with the Bahraini Ministry of Defence regarding operations in the Gulf.
I arrive on Sunday evening and head straight to HMS Duncan, a Type 45 destroyer, currently deployed to the Gulf.
The ship’s home port is Portsmouth, and I meet a number of the ship’s company from Portsmouth and Gosport.
Our city has a reach beyond compare and I have never been prouder of what Portsmouth’s sons and daughters are doing to make the world a safer and more stable placePenny Mordaunt MP
I received briefings from UK Maritime Component Commander and Deputy Commander Combined Maritime Forces based in Bahrain and the senior officer team of HMS Duncan.
It is an opportunity too to catch up with our ambassador and our defence attaché.
The Royal Navy does a huge amount in this part of the world, including mine countenance, counter-narcotics, combating piracy and protecting trade routes, stopping people trafficking and tackling terrorism as well as supporting US Fifth Fleet.
First meeting is with the Commander-in-Chief of the Bahraini Defence Forces. We discuss threat levels in the Gulf, the operations we are conducting in the area and joint training for our respective armed forces.
The Bahrainis are helping us establish a permanent navy base. We have had ships there since the 1930s, but our personnel have been tied to living on board, which on a minehunter, is pretty unpleasant. The new base will provide on shore accommodation as well as leisure facilities. The Bahrainis have given us the land to do this, and I check on progress. Then I travel back to the dockyard to open our new UK Maritime Component HQ.
As well as office space where operations can be planned and enacted, the facility has new engineering workshops.
This will enable much quicker refitting and maintenance of our minehunter fleet.
It is this model that Portsmouth will replicate in the larger shiphall. I open the facilities with a speech. This new HQ will upgrade the strategic, operational, logistic brain behind our maritime operations and immeasurably improve our effectiveness. We head back to HMS Duncan for lunch and a cake cutting to celebrate the new HQ. Then it is off to meet with the crew of HMS Chiddingfold, a mine counter-measures vessel. I spend time first in the senior rates mess, then the junior rates, listening to their views about the navy and hopes for the new base. They have some great ideas which I will ensure are implemented. Most of the crew are from Portsmouth and we catch up on news. I then tour the ship and speak to the commanding officer. The contribution these ships make to security in the Gulf is substantial, and many of their personnel will not serve on any other type of ship. After futher meetings I head to the airport to fly, courtesy of the RAF, to Afghanistan.
From Kabul airport we take a helicopter to The Afghan National Army Officer Officer Academy – an institution set up and supported by the UK, in the shadow of the Hindu Kush.
Two years ago while a member of the Defence Select Committee, I visited the newly-formed academy. I had recently passed out of Britannia Royal Naval College, and I spoke to the Academy’s Afghan General about the merits of men and women training together having discovered their female officer cadets were training separate from the men, behind a brick wall.
Despite there being no physical difference in the standards of cardiac fitness or strength required between men and women in the Afghan army, I could not see how cadets could have confidence in each other’s ability if they are not able to train alongside each other.
Today I was back at the academy in Kabul to witness the passing out ceremony of the first female graduates.
Those women may have started their training behind a wall but, through the mentoring provided by our own armed forces, the Afghan training programme has evolved into a fully integrated model. Those women cadets will have not just trained alongside, but will have taken command of their male counterparts.
The Afghan army and those women have seized an opportunity, to make best use of the talent they have, resulting in history being made with the army’s first female officers, and this year’s sword of honour, a prize awarded to the most outstanding officer of the entire cohort, being won by one of those women. To be one of 250 Afghan male officers selected out of 10,000 to enter the academy is an enormous achievement. But to be one of 19 female recruits, in a deeply conservative country, takes courage of a different order. And those women faced additional challenges in getting through a rigorous 42-week course based on the elite Sandhurst model.
Cultural constraints put them at a disadvantage to their male colleagues – physical exercise to prepare for the course had not been an option open to many prior to attending the academy, to name but one example.
As I watched the culmination of their efforts in the passing out parade, and later meeting those graduates in person, I got an insight into their inspirational story and their motivation as well as their love of ‘selfies’. One cadet, juggling motherhood as well as the demands of the course told me: ‘I love my country, I want to defend it, I want to shape it and make it better for my child.’ Among the personnel mentoring these cadets is a lad from Gosport, whom I chatted to over breakfast.
Then back to the helicopter, and on to spend time with an Afghan special police unit and our own troops who are protecting the remaining Brits working out here, including the soldiers manning the Foxhound vehicles. Then it is over the our Embassy where I meet with the Acting Afghan Defence Minister and then make a speech to several hundred people from government, the international community and Afghan society to celebrate the Queen’s birthday, the 800th anniversary of the Magna carta and the officer graduation.
Then it’s back into the helicopter, for the short hop to the airport and on a plane back to the UAE.
I head out with the UAE defence attaché and our ambassador to call on the deputy foreign minister to discuss what is happening in Iraq and Syria.
I then return and tour our facility near Dubai saying hello to everyone on the base, from the operations room, to the freight handlers, to the Sea King maintenance crews from RNAS Culdrose.
This base was the main hub in getting all our kit and people back from Afghanistan, and they did a terrific job.
That afternoon I’m back on a plane, back to Bahrain for further meetings and then back to the UK for a mid-morning vote in the Commons on Thursday morning. My first overseas visit as minister for the armed forces has been a whistlestop one.
I am struck by the vast reach our armed forces have, the strength of their impact, the unique capabilities we have. Such visits are so helpful to understand what I need to achieve as minister, and gather ideas from speaking to our service men and women, every one of which I see as my new boss.
Every place I visited there was someone from my own city at work. Our city has a reach beyond compare and I have never been prouder of what Portsmouth’s sons and daughters are doing to make the world a safer and more stable place.