The future carriers will be a key component of the improved expeditionary capabilities that we need to confront the diverse range of threats in today's security environment. They deliver on the Government's commitment in the strategic defence review.
If the Secretary of State believes that there is a future role for the aircraft carriers, he should get on and replace them as his inaction is becoming an embarrassment not only to him but to the Royal Navy. The Illustrious has twice had to be towed back into port after breakdowns, and a tug is on standby in case it breaks down again. There is no air defence cover for the fleet until well into the next decade. Does the Secretary of State not agree that that smacks of a Government who do not understand the nature of maritime power and the lead times involved—unless he is looking to cancel the project?
If what lies behind the hon. Gentleman's comments is a question about whether there is any change in the in-service dates for the carriers, there is not.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with the article in February's Parliamentary Brief by Dr. Eric Grove, director of the Centre for International Security and War Studies, on "Tomorrow's Navy for tomorrow's world"? It concludes that, by 2020, "the Brown years" may be seen to be those
"when the seeds were finally laid for a renaissance of British maritime power and global presence".
I am not qualified to see that far into the future and retrospectively assess the position. However, since 1997, when the Government came to power, 31 new ships have been brought into service. We plan to spend approximately £14 billion on naval equipment in the next 10 to 15 years. That constitutes historic investment in our Navy, which will significantly increase its capability. I am sure that future generations will thank us for that investment.
As I have said repeatedly, we are working closely with the industry over months for this complex contract to be ready for signature. In the mean time, however, as the hon. Gentleman knows—I was in his constituency awarding a contract—a number of contracts have been placed in the supply chain, for design, engineering data, materials in support of the manufacture of the carriers and infrastructure, including in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, which will be necessary to construct the carriers after the individual elements have been built. We are getting on with the job, and as long as the in-service dates remain the same—and they do remain the same—he can rest assured that we will contract at the appropriate time.
My right hon. Friend said that we could not look that far into the future, but the purchase of aircraft carriers that will remain in service for many years requires us to do so. When we look at future defence requirements and defence expenditure, should we perhaps not be asking our European allies to enter into an arrangement whereby we can joint-purchase such equipment, to be leased to the nation that needs it at any point in time?
The Government's approach has been to encourage each individual country to meet its own commitments to invest in its capabilities and armed forces. That process has paid dividends—not as quickly as we would have wanted in some respects, although progress is being made. In particular, Afghanistan has been a transformatory process for a number of countries in that regard.
The Select Committee on Defence said 18 months ago:
"If the In-Service Dates for the" carrier
"programme are substantially later than 2012, there is a serious risk of a capability gap emerging which would impact upon the ability of the Royal Navy to undertake its role effectively."
Last July, the Government announced that they had delayed the in-service dates by two years, to between 2014 and 2016. Reports this weekend suggest further delays and that even if the matter is not delayed, the contractors will be asked to delay cutting metal. If there is no further delay, as the Secretary of State has just told the House, why is the Prime Minister dithering about a programme described by his own Minister responsible for security, Admiral Lord West of Spithead, as the
"jewel in the crown of the Strategic Defence Review"?
There is no dithering. We are talking about a complex contract. It was announced in July that we were going forward, and there has been no change to the in-service dates. The important thing is the real-terms increases in defence investment for which the Government have been responsible, year on year and planned into the future of the comprehensive spending review—exactly the same investment, I understand, that the Conservative party has agreed it would make if it came into government, although that is now in some doubt because of other commitments that have been made. Those who are interested in defence spending might wonder where those additional cuts might be made. However, there will be no change in the in-service dates, and the hon. Gentleman should not consider this idle speculation.
My right hon. Friend is aware that we are talking about two important platforms from which the Royal Navy will project its presence round the world. However, to go with those platforms, we need the joint strike fighter. Can he ensure that we will not see any delays in that order?
The JSF programme is developing. Indeed, flight testing of the JSF has been commenced and is progressing well. In fact, I understand that the first short take-off and vertical landing aircraft was rolled out in December 2007 and is undergoing testing, with the first flight planned later this year. We remain committed to the joint strike fighter as the optimal solution to operate from the future carriers, as the joint combat aircraft requirement. As is normal in a programme of such size and technical complexity, reports may emerge concerning progress—that issue was raised in the last Defence questions—but we remain committed to the aircraft.