Carrier Strike Group Deployment

– in the House of Commons at 6:20 pm on 26th April 2021.

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Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence 6:20 pm, 26th April 2021

I would like to make a statement on the forthcoming deployment of the carrier strike group. Before I do, I wish to send my condolences to the Indonesian navy and the families of the ship’s company of KRI Nanggala following the tragic news that the submarine has been lost. I know the sorrow is felt particularly strongly within our own Royal Navy submarine community, who understand the risks faced by their friends all too well. The United Kingdom stands ready to help our Indonesian colleagues in any way we can going forward.

The UK has a long history of involvement in the Pacific. This year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of our five power defence arrangements between the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. Few outside military circles are familiar with the relationship despite the fact that it is Asia’s most enduring military multilateral arrangement. It is a partnership that has grown in scope to cover everything from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to counter-terrorism and maritime security. It is a partnership based on the common shared values of tolerance, justice and the rules-based order. But even as the Pacific’s importance to our future economy continues to rise, so the challenges to the freedom of navigation in that region continue to grow. Our trade with Asia depends on the shipping that sails through a range of Indo-Pacific choke points, yet they are increasingly at risk whether from hostile state actors or from piracy on the high seas.

We have to be clear to any who wish to challenge our international rules-based system that the laws must be upheld. But our partnership gives us strength. Friendship is the one thing that our adversaries lack and we deliver a powerful message of strength when we show our solidarity. That is why in recent years we have begun returning to the east. The UK now has a persistent presence in the region through British Forces Brunei, a regional and logistics hub in Oman and our maritime component command in Bahrain.

Our carrier strike group gives us something different. HMS Queen Elizabeth is a floating piece of sovereign territory that can sail over 70% of the world’s surface. It is probably the most guarded UK airfield to be found. It gives the Government unprecedented options to act independently against hostile forces on land or at sea for months without having to access bases ashore. It is a warship, a mothership, a surveillance reconnaissance ship, a convener of allies and partners, and a great projector of Britain’s soft and hard power.

The UK has a proud history of being a carrier nation. Those legendary second world war vessels HMS Courageous, Glorious, Illustrious, Ark Royal, Formidable and Indefatigable are synonymous with the unquenchable spirit of our people. Carriers have also continued to play a defining role in our nation’s history well into the modern era. Those who recall the Falklands war will not forget the fundamental role that HMS Hermes played in providing air cover for the vulnerable taskforce while 8,000 miles away from home. Our last carrier HMS Illustrious’s career spanned some 900,000 miles and took in service from Bosnia to the Gulf and Sierra Leone.

British ingenuity has long driven carrier innovation forward, from the angled flight deck to the ski jump developed for the Sea Harrier, but our newest carriers provides a true step change in capability. One can only appreciate the sheer enormity of each vessel when standing on its vast deck, as I did this morning. At 65,000 tonnes, HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales, are the most powerful surface ships ever constructed in Britain. Longer than Parliament and taller than Nelson’s column, she has a range of more than 10,000 nautical miles and can fly 72 fast jet sorties per day. This is British engineering at its best: a supreme example of a national endeavour, built by six dockyards—Appledore, Birkenhead, Govan, Portsmouth, Rosyth and Tyne. A cast of more than 10,000 took part in the construction. Some 8,000 apprentices helped complete the major construction in almost five years. Hundreds of small companies lent their niche capability, and 90% of those suppliers came from the United Kingdom.

The carrier does not operate alone, however. She will be surrounded by a ring of capability: Type 45 destroyers HMS Defender and HMS Diamond; Type 23 anti-submarine frigates HMS Kent and HMS Richmond; and, tanker and storage ships Fort Victoria and RFA Tidespring. We will also be accompanied by the Dutch frigate, HNLMS Evertsen, and the US Arleigh Burke destroyer, The Sullivans.

Our carrier’s cutting edge is located on the flight deck, with the renowned RAF 617 Squadron, the Dambusters, operating eight world-class, fifth-generation, F-35B Lightning II fast jets, partly made, I am proud to say, in Lancashire. While 815 Naval Air Squadron will pilot four Wildcat maritime attack helicopters, 820 Naval Air Squadron will fly seven Merlin Mk2 anti-submarine and airborne early warning helicopters, three of which will be fitted with the new Crowsnest, and 845 Naval Air Squadron will operate three Merlin Mk4 commando helicopters. Below deck, a company of 42 Commando Royal Marines will be embarked, while in the ocean depths, a Royal Navy Astute-class attack submarine will deploy in support.

Over the coming 28 weeks, from May to December 2021, we will see our carrier strike group travel over 26,000 nautical miles from the Mediterranean to the Red sea, from the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian sea and from the Indian ocean to the Philippine sea. Besides the full integration of units from the UK, US and the Netherlands, the carrier strike group will operate with air and maritime forces from a wide number of international partners including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, France, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Turkey, Israel, India, Oman and the Republic of Korea.

The deployment will see the units of the strike group visiting more than 40 countries and undertaking more than 70 engagements, visits, air exercises and operations. Critically, these events will provide excellent opportunities for the UK to develop new and existing trade and political links, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. Not only will we meet our commitment to UN-mandated operations in the region but, 50 years on from the creation of the five power defence arrangements, we will further augment our friendship by participating in Exercise Bersama Lima. Meanwhile, units from the strike group will visit Association of Southeast Asian Nations partners as part of our commitment to a more enduring regional defence and security presence. Four major stops on the Indo-Pacific leg of their journey will be Singapore, the Republic of Korea, Japan and India. It will help tighten our political ties in the region. In late summer, we will host our first Pacific future forum in Korea.

Meanwhile, China is increasingly assertive, building the world’s largest maritime surface and sub-surface fleets. However, we are not going to go to the other side of the world to be provocative. We will sail through the South China sea. We will be confident, but not confrontational. More often than not, the carrier group will be in the eastern Mediterranean or the Atlantic, carrying out our duties in support of NATO. As part of this deployment, our strike group will be in the middle east, conducting bilateral exercises and engagement with our long-standing defence and security partners, confirming our commitment to a lasting stability.

Critically, in Europe, our carrier strike group will demonstrate the UK’s enduring commitment to the NATO alliance—the cornerstone of our defence—by participating on this deployment in NATO-level exercises such as Exercise Steadfast Defender. Not only will there be a period of dual carrier operations with the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle in the Mediterranean, but elements of the strike group will support NATO missions in the Black sea region, demonstrating that we do not go alone to deter a tier 1 power; we go as NATO.

The contribution of the United States to the rebirth of UK carrier strike has been immense, but our carrier strike group will take our integration with our US partners to a new level. We will have the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS The Sullivans providing the strike group with air defence and anti-submarine capabilities, not to mention a squadron of 10 US Marine Corps F-35B Lightnings—the Wake Island Avengers—flying side-by-side with their UK counterparts from the decks of the Queen Elizabeth. This is the largest air group of fifth generation fighters ever put to sea, as well as the greatest quantity of helicopters assigned to a single taskforce in a decade.

It has been a year since the last Royal Navy ship deployed to the Pacific. It has been more than seven years since the last carrier—HMS Illustrious—deployed there as well. It has been more than 20 years since the last carrier strike group deployed to that region. Our carrier strike intends to return us to that presence. As the crew of the carrier strike group embark on their maiden mission, we wish them well. The threats are moving on, and we must move with them. In this anxious and insecure world, Fortress Britain cannot batten down the hatches. We must stand up for our values and rights wherever they come under threat, not just in our backyard, but far from our shores. Our carrier strike group will send a signal to allies and adversaries alike that Britain will continue to play its part in shaping the international system, not stepping back, but sailing forth to promote our prosperity and protect our interests.

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 6:30 pm, 26th April 2021

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for the advance copy, and I add Labour’s condolences to the friends, family and comrades of the Indonesian submariners who tragically lost their lives in the service of their country this week.

We welcome this first major deployment of the Queen Elizabeth, and pay tribute to all those involved who have made this possible. The Secretary of State rightly says that the UK has a proud history as a carrier nation, but Britain has not had a carrier strike force since 2010, when the Conservative defence review scrapped all three of our aircraft carriers, along with 74 newly upgraded Harriers that flew from them. This deployment fills a big gap in Britain’s military capability over the past decade. It is a major achievement that, in the words of Sir Nick Houghton, vice-chief of the defence staff in 2011, is as complex as “staging the Olympics.”

The successful design and build of our two new aircraft carriers is a tribute to the UK’s shipbuilding industry and our UK steelmakers. Will the Secretary of State confirm how much UK-produced steel will be used in the new Type 26s, Type 31s, Astute, Dreadnought and Fleet Solid Support ships? This is a big opportunity to back British industry and jobs. If done well, it will strengthen the UK economy, and our sovereignty and self-reliance. The carrier strike group will sail east with the support of US and Dutch naval warships, and with US F-35 fighters on board.

It is good that the Queen Elizabeth sails with allies, but it is not good if she can sail only with allies. Despite state-based threats to the UK growing and diversifying, the Secretary of State will cut the number of Royal Navy frigates over the next two years. When, if ever, does he plan to have enough British warships to sail with our own British carriers? Will he confirm clearly that the majority of planes on the deck of the Queen Elizabeth will be US not British fighters? Despite the increasing military threats to the UK, he confirmed last month that Britain has ordered only 48 of the planned 138 F-35 fighters. When, if ever, does he plan to have enough British F-35s for our own British carriers?

There are serious concerns about the carrier’s long-delayed Crowsnest radar. Will the Secretary of State confirm that Crowsnest is now fully operational, and that the carrier strike group is fully combat ready? With the Royal Navy currently almost 1,600 under strength, and with the real cuts to the MOD’s resource budget through to 2024, will he confirm the full cost of this year’s deployment?

The Secretary of State has spoken of hard power and soft power, and across the House we hope that Britain will see significant diplomatic and trade benefits from that deployment. With covid security, however, how far will the diplomatic impact be reduced when a carrier cannot host guests or send people ashore? This deployment is important proof of our new British carrier strike capability, but let us not fall for the illusion that Britain is somehow able to project force everywhere in the world at once. Global Britain is a beguiling phrase, but this time-limited deployment will not significantly alter the balance of military power in the Indo-Pacific region. Surely we should focus our defence efforts on where the threats are, not on where the business opportunities might be. Can the Secretary of State confirm that, after the Queen Elizabeth’s gap-year tour of 40 countries, she will return to the military business of helping to protect Britain and patrol the north Atlantic, the High North and the Mediterranean—our NATO area, where Russia poses the greatest threats to our vital national interests?

As the Secretary of State rightly says, the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales are the most powerful surface ships ever constructed in Britain. They will strengthen our maritime forces for decades to come. This maiden mission for the Queen Elizabeth is a great achievement for the Royal Navy and a proud moment for our country. We wish her well.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I echo what the right hon. Gentleman said about this being a proud moment for this nation: a British made carrier deploying overseas, protecting Britain’s interests and supporting our allies.

The right hon. Gentleman put a series of questions to me. On the steel, I am happy to write to him with details of each individual class of ship. As he knows, we are committed to building the Type 26 in the United Kingdom; it is under construction on the Clyde. In Rosyth, work is ongoing to build the facility needed to build the Type 31s and the subsequent Type 32s. He also knows that I recently recategorised the future Fleet Solid Support ship as a warship. I intend to make sure that, if not entirely, there is a considerable degree of UK build in that process, subject to tender. I have to be cautious about the contract, because the competition is to begin soon—very soon.[This section has been corrected on 29 April 2021, column 4MC — read correction]

It is important to recognise that throughout all our ships, we try to do our best by our sailors by providing the best equipment we can, and that is often a balance between what is on the shelf in the here and now and what we need to invest in for the future. That is why we have a record research and development budget in the recent defence settlement. It will allow us to invest for the future, so that when we place the orders for subsequent ships and the next generation of submarines, we have British skills and British technology ready to go. It is incredibly important that we give them the best.

I turn to the right hon. Gentleman’s questions about sovereign capability. It is perfectly possible; we have 18 F-35s and we could put all 18 now on the aircraft carrier—we could have just had a UK sort of 2 squadron—and deploy without other ships alongside if we wished to, but as I said at the beginning of this exercise, this is about the fact that our strength, compared with that of our adversaries, is that we have friends and alliances. To attack us is to attack NATO. To attack us is to attack our allies. That is our real strength globally—it is what the Australians would say, what the United States would say, and what all our European friends would say. When countries were ringing up saying, “We’d like to join you,” it would have been wrong to miss the opportunity. More countries offered than we took that wanted to sail with us and stand up for our common values.

I am pleased to say that Crowsnest is now being rolled out onboard Queen Elizabeth, and I look forward to reports of its use and deployment. It is important that we recognise that this has to be delivered. I have been clear with the manufacturers that it needs to be delivered to spec and operate well, because it is obviously important to the protection of our carrier group.

There are plenty of covid safeguards in place. We are all very mindful of the need to protect our sailors. All our sailors will be vaccinated and protected on the deployment. By the time they go into the Mediterranean, they will all be properly doubly vaccinated to make sure that we can give our friends and allies the assurance that the crew are protected. The Navy is almost one of the best organisations in terms of covid safeguards, because living with quarantine for onboard diseases is something naval personnel have had to do for hundreds of years.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the number of ships and the increase and decrease in the numbers. As I said at the time of the Command Paper, numbers are important, but availability is even more important. I have taken the decision that we will invest in some new classes of ship, so we have more ships. Yes, there will be a drop in hulls for a short period, but at the same time, because of the investment we are doing on availability, we will have more time at sea. That is equally important.

I went to Portsmouth today and stood on a brand-new carrier deck, looking at a number of Type 45s ready to accompany the group, but some of those other ships tied alongside were a sorry sight. People have lots of money to buy ships, but not a lot to maintain them. They were hollowed out year on year. The right hon. Gentleman will make his points about previous Conservative Governments, but the fact is that such hollowing out was common practice across the board under both the Labour and Conservative Governments I served under as a soldier. That is something that I hope this defence settlement will put to rest.

Finally, on NATO, absolutely it is our cornerstone. Our home beat, as I often call it, is the Atlantic. That is where our most aggressive adversary is active. Only recently, we saw it active at Christmas, December time, when nine or maybe more Russian ships in effect surrounded Britain. The Russians have been quite assertive, and that is why it is important that we are active and hold the flank of NATO, also using that convening ability to bring in the French, Germans and others who wish to patrol the seas alongside us.

This is an incredibly exciting opportunity. Where I can, I am happy to facilitate Members of this House visiting the carriers, whether the Queen Elizabeth or the Prince of Wales. They are something to behold. I was incredibly proud to stand on the deck of a ship that is made in Britain and is NATO’s first and only fifth generation aircraft carrier capability. To those people who say, “No one wants aircraft carriers anymore”, we should ask the question why the Chinese plan to build five.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee

I join the Defence Secretary in sending condolences to the Indonesians on the loss of their submarine crew. That shows what a dangerous environment all our navies operate in.

I welcome the carrier’s maiden deployment to help Britain re-establish a sense of purpose on the international stage. Tasking the carrier group to the South China sea but avoiding the Taiwan strait, however, is to set a precedent and to cede effective ownership of those international waters to China. If we are to uphold the rules-based order that my right hon. Friend has just spoken about, there should be no exceptions.

More widely, I pose this question directly to my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary: does he think that the world will be safer or more dangerous over the next five to 10 years? It is clearly the latter, and the Royal Navy is now tasked to tilt towards the Indo-Pacific, to conduct naval patrols in the Black sea and to do maritime duties in the Gulf and off east Africa, as well as to protect UK waters and overseas territories. Politely, I put it to him that our Royal Navy will soon be too small to meet our growing operational commitments and the increasingly diverse threat picture that we now face.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I thank my right hon. Friend for his points about sense of purpose, and I think that is right. The carrier is an amazing thing in that it convenes a lot of different levels—it convenes hard power, soft power, political will and intent. The mission for the Royal Navy, however, is like the mission for most of the armed forces, which is to strengthen our alliances. That is really important as we go forward.

I agree with my right hon. Friend, that the world is more anxious, more unstable, more insecure and less predictable. That is hard for all policy makers around the globe and for people who have lived by the international rules—for example, maritime law. It is a challenge for us all. The real issue is how to strengthen our alliances, because that is our unique and single point of strength against some very large adversaries.

On this deployment, therefore, we will meet US carrier groups and exercise together in the Pacific. There is no shortage of contested sea lanes in the Pacific. It is not just the strait of Taiwan; there are plenty of contested areas of sea. We will absolutely be making sure that we are confident in our sailing and that we stand up for our values, along the way making friends or strengthening our friendships with a whole range of partners, some traditional and some less traditional. We are here—a role that Britain has always played—to stand up for people who cannot stand up for themselves or to join with them to ensure that we stand strong. Do I think we will need more in the future? Our investment in our defence budget and in seeking to spend our money both on hard ships and power and on cyber and all sorts of other technology is a strong indication that this Government take seriously the rising threat. We will continue to keep it under review, but in the meantime we will go to the Pacific, demonstrate our capability, return, take our watch at NATO and continue on that cycle.

Photo of Stewart McDonald Stewart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence)

I thank the Defence Secretary for advance sight of his statement and I, too, pass on my condolences and those of my party to the Indonesian navy. We all watched what happened over the past few days with horror and they are very much in our thoughts.

Of course, I wish all of those involved in this new venture well. This will undoubtedly be an exciting time for them. The Defence Secretary rightly pays tribute to those involved in building HMS Queen Elizabeth and I join him in that, not least in paying tribute to those in Scotland who were part of that effort. He knows, because we have discussed it before, that my party and I are yet to be convinced of this whole Indo-Pacific tilt, especially as it is about chasing commerce rather than countering threats, and it sounds like there is a fair bit of that going on. The Defence Secretary has said to me in the past that there is no point chasing one threat only to leave oneself exposed to another closer to home. The shadow Secretary of State mentioned the threat we have here in our own backyard. The Defence Secretary knows that that is the kind of tilt that I and my party want to see. What assurances can he give us that we will not be left open closer to home?

May I press the Defence Secretary on the Black sea element of the trip, in particular? His statement mentions that the strike group will support NATO missions in the Black sea region. What exactly will the support look like while the strike group is there? As we know from Russia’s recent actions, that is something we should be focused on.

Lastly, on fleet solid support ships, can the Defence Secretary talk us a bit through the timeline we can expect for the competition? Like the shadow Secretary of State and many on the Defence Secretary’s own Benches, we want to see that announced soon and to ensure that it is the yards closer to home that benefit from it.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

First and foremost, we cannot separate trade from security. We need to secure our trade. The hon. Gentleman’s party’s whole economic basis used to be about exporting oil around the world. If a country cannot export its oil, it cannot run its economy, according to some of the Scottish National party’s previous manifestoes. It is really important that we secure our trade and do not let the values in the rules-based system be undermined far away until it is too late and it gets close to our shores. That is really important.

I am not ashamed at all that this deployment will also be linked to trade. I am proud of standing on British-made equipment, made by Scottish hands, and English, Welsh and Northern Irish hands, and I am proud that there is equipment on those ships that can be used for a whole range of things—humanitarian and non-military-method means, and all sorts of things. We should be really proud that we will be showing that off to the world.

We will not leave Britain undefended. We will still have our Type 23s, our Type 45s and our P-8s, which are based in Lossiemouth, as excellent maritime patrol vessels. We will still have a number of capabilities. Our submarines will be on watch based out of Faslane. I pay tribute to those submariners who will be departing from Faslane to join and escort the carrier group. They do an amazing job, and it is something special to understand what submariners do.

We have had long-scheduled deployments into the Black sea. This is not new. It is not an increase or decrease. We have taken a view that we should stick to our planned exercises and deployment. I think that is the right thing to do—to say that we will not be intimidated from it and that we will stick up for our friends in the Black sea—Romania, Turkey and all those other nations that we work alongside. We will be doing that, as we had planned long before the recent friction we saw up in Ukraine. I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises that we are not off to go around picking a fight; we are there to stand up for our values and I think the Royal Navy will do a great job.

Fundamentally, this comes back to the point that we rely on each other. The security of Europe is incredibly important to the United Kingdom and to the continent of Europe. Even last year, in December, when the Russians appeared with a number of ships, the French, the British and the Dutch all set about that issue. We will continue to do so. As I said, the greatest thing about our friends and allies is that we are all in a partnership with solidarity, and that is the best way to defeat or push back our adversaries.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

If we want the United States to help defend our interests in Europe, it is only right that we should help it defend common interests in the far east. Does the Secretary of State accept that having Americans intimately involved in this whole process adds to the deterrent effect of a carrier strike force? We do not want to get, in the digital age, into a situation where a surface ship, no matter how powerful, up against a peer enemy armed with hypersonic missiles, might find itself at a fatal disadvantage, but for the deterrent effect of our joint activity with our strategic allies.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I note my right hon. Friend’s final phrase, “strategic allies”. Not only are they allies, but they make a strategic difference, and they stand for the rule of law and the same values we do. Today, I met the US commander on the Queen Elizabeth. He said not only that it was an amazing ship, but that they look forward to working with us. As my right hon. Friend said, it is about partnership: “You attack us, you attack us all” is a strong message around the world. The number of people from different countries around the world who have got in touch wanting to be part of this deployment speaks volumes about what is going on in their neighbourhood and their backyard. Finally, as my right hon. Friend rightly says, the United States has always been a significant net contributor to the security of Europe; it is only right that we do the same when its interests are under threat.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I was delighted and actually very proud when HMS Queen Elizabeth visited Invergordon when she was undergoing her initial trials, but while she was tied up at Invergordon, someone managed to land a drone on her deck. Whoever it was commented later in the press that, should they have been of evil intent, they could have landed 2 lb of Semtex on the aircraft carrier and it could have taken out the radar. May I press the Secretary of State? What are our defences against something like that being repeated with ill intent to cause us damage?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Gentleman makes a really valid point about the varying types of threat, from Gatwick airport, as when I was Security Minister—we all remember that—all the way up to a fifth generation aircraft carrier. Small drones pose a real challenge. That is why the Government have taken forward reforms on that. I cannot reveal too many of the details of how we will protect the carrier—obviously, that would weaken it—but I can say that the ship and her escorts are bristling with sensors, which will all be on as she is deployed, and there will be lots of steps that can be taken to protect the carrier.

Photo of Richard Drax Richard Drax Conservative, South Dorset

May I, too, send my condolences to the families and friends of those lost on the Indonesian submarine?

Despite the negative coverage on the BBC’s “Today” programme this morning, I welcome this historic deployment by HMS Queen Elizabeth and the ships accompanying her, and I wish them well. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a fighting platform of this kind will prove an invaluable, independent operational base that will give us greater flexibility to cope with a wide variety of tasks in the future?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

Yes, and it is a long future. This is not a 10-year or 20-year project; these are 30, 40 or maybe 50-year platforms. Who knows what will be flying off those decks in 50 years’ time or 40 years’ time? They are flexible. They are designed to be flexible; they are designed to do a whole range of tasks. We should not forget that it will not always be about peer to peer; the aircraft carriers of the United States and, indeed, the French Charles de Gaulle have often been deployed on counter-terrorism duties and Afghan overflight duties. I think that HMS Queen Elizabeth will be a very busy ship, as will her sister ship, and all the time she will be flying the flag for Britain.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of visiting HMS Prince of Wales with the Defence Committee and saw the two carriers alongside each other in Portsmouth. I agree with the Secretary of State that it is an impressive sight. I wish her crew all the best on their deployment. In his statement, the Secretary of State said that eight F-35s from the UK and 10 from the US Marine Corps will be deployed on the carriers. I agree with him that this is an example of the good co-operation between the two nations, but I do not know whether he has yet had the chance to read the US Government Accountability Office’s report, published last week, on the F-35; there are persistent problems around the engines, which the office says will see a third of US F-35s being grounded by 2030, as well as ongoing problems with spare parts. Will he give us some assurance that the issues raised in that report will be addressed not only to ensure that we have the capability to support our allies, but to ensure that our F-35s keep on flying into the future?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I regret to inform the right hon. Member that I have not read the US report, but it is absolutely right that we keep an eye on all these issues. The supply chain for all our aircraft is really important. There is nothing more powerless than when we discover that somebody has switched off the supply chain and we are dependent on that model. We all often find that in our own homes—for example, when Microsoft stops updating something and suddenly we are stuck. That is why we are a tier 1 partner in the F-35 programme. A significant part of every single plane, including the US F-35s, is made in Samlesbury in Lancashire, in the constituency of Mr Deputy Speaker himself. I am proud that part of the US planes sitting on that deck is made in Lancashire as well—probably the best part of the plane, to be honest. The right hon. Member is right and I will definitely keep an eye on the matter.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

May I join my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in welcoming this very proud moment for the Royal Navy, for the crew and air crew who will be embarked on HMS Queen Elizabeth, and for the 10,000 people in the UK who were involved in construction of the vessels, as he has already referenced?

The construction contracts went through significant challenge in the early years as a result of changes in design, but from 2012 the design was stabilised and the Aircraft Carrier Alliance interests were aligned with those of the Government. Will my right hon. Friend take lessons from that final stage of the procurement process in his procurement of the fleet solid support vessels that will be designed to accompany the carrier strike group in future? Will he give some confirmation to the House of when he expects the first of those vessels to be able to take its place within the carrier strike group?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

First, on the carrier alliance, I think the bigger lesson to take is for our future combat air system—the future fighter programme. There are so many vested interests in it and it is such a big and broad programme; we should incorporate many of those lessons.

On the fleet solid support ships, I cannot reveal too much because it is so close to us publishing the competition. We would like it to happen as soon as possible. Forgive me for some of the delay; that is entirely my fault. When I took over office, I was keen to ensure that the fleet solid support ship, for which the previous competition had collapsed, was put in a healthy place. I hope we will see some innovative means by which we can get the best out of British and the best value for money for the taxpayer, as well as improve some of our skills base for our workforce, because it is really important that it is not feast or famine when we make our ships.

I give credit where credit is due; I remember sitting in Aberdeenshire listening to the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, announce this programme in the March 1998 Budget. It is a joint endeavour of the United Kingdom involving Governments who commissioned these aircraft and indeed this carrier. My right hon. Friend Philip Dunne makes the real point, which is that the risk—it is always a risk—is that we start on a 20-year endeavour and things change. Threats change, design changes and things become unavailable; I am afraid that that sometimes unavoidably increases the cost of these programmes. That is the simple reality. Very few countries are prepared to lean in and take that risk, but in the end I think the prize is worth it, as we will see when this carrier group sails at the end of May.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

I very much welcome the maiden deployment of the carrier strike group. The Secretary of State is right to say that it was envisaged and laid down under a Labour Government, and set sail under a Conservative Government. Built in shipyards in both England and Scotland, it is an example of why we are stronger in both our security and economic interests when we work closely together across the four nations. He is right to say it is important we work closely with our friends the United States and other countries, but it is also important that we have sovereign capability. Can he confirm whether we currently have the capability for both our aircraft carriers to go to sea at the same time with British support ships and aircraft if we were to choose to do that alone?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Gentleman asks a valid question. Strictly speaking we could, but we do not envisage such deployments unless we are in a time of war or significant stress. At the moment, yes, we could strictly speaking, but the way we are working up each aircraft carrier means that we will not be required to do that.

Photo of Thomas Tugendhat Thomas Tugendhat Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

May I pay huge tribute to Her Majesty’s Royal Navy for getting together and preparing this carrier for sea so effectively? Does the Secretary of State look forward as I do—indeed, as does a great friend of mine, Minister Kono Taro, the current Minister for Regulatory Reform in Japan but his former opposite number in Japan—to seeing Japanese F-35s flying off the deck of the Queen Elizabeth, shortly before he works with his opposite number today to see whether Japan could possibly even join the Five Eyes community?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I am not sure how long I will last in this job; no one ever does. I would love to be in Japan when she arrives and join my Japanese counterpart. The Japanese are in a rough neighbourhood sometimes. They stand for an open, liberal society and for free trade, and it is in our interests that we join together. The great thing about the carrier is that Italian and Japanese F-35Bs—all of them—will be able to operate from the carrier. I hope in future we have more and more nations operating from that deck. It is incredibly good news that we are going to go to Japan. It was one of the key directions I gave to the Navy. We are not going to go around in circles; we are going to see our ally. We are going from A to B and it is very important that Japan is the destination. I hope we will go from strength to strength with Japan. I think we have a lot to offer. I hear my hon. Friend’s suggestion and no doubt we will examine it at some stage.

Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Disabilities)

In his confirmation of this operation, the Secretary of State referred to the encompassing approach of the UK as set out in the integrated review. With respect to India, he drew attention to the UK’s research and development. Currently, our R&D spend is well below the OECD average. He also referred to aid spending, which has been cut in the face of the covid crisis facing countries abroad, including India. Given that, sadly, that will not be the last covid crisis abroad, what planning is being undertaken by the Government to apply that principle of a joined-up approach in the context of covid?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

One of the lessons from the pandemic is that joined-up working and burden sharing is the key, whether that is better integration internally with devolved Administrations and local authorities or internationally. The international lesson is that we have to be better at working together in our international organisations—the UN, the World Health Organisation, NATO—all of which are incredibly important. What we are seeing right now with India is an international response, with the United Kingdom and the United States sending oxygen compressors and ventilators. We will work together to deliver that response. That is the lesson: partnerships and solidarity win the day.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

May I point out that I am the chair of the British-Taiwanese all-party parliamentary group? To supplement what my right hon. and gallant Friend, and very good friend, Mr Ellwood mentioned in his question, I am really saddened that we are, in a way, capitulating to the neo-colonialism of China that is taking over islands in the South China sea, occupying them and militarising them against international law, and yet we seem not to be able to join our friends from Taiwan by letting their ships join this taskforce or, indeed, by visiting Taipei. I realise that it is probably a bit late, but I feel quite strongly that we may well have to revise how we tackle the matter of Chinese aggression in the South China sea.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I hear my right hon. Friend, and we are all concerned when the rules-based system is tested in the way that it is and when aggressive exercising or deployments happen, as we have also seen in Ukraine. That is no good for anybody and does not resolve any of the issues. The carrier group will be sailing in lots of parts of the Pacific that are contentious. We will be in the Philippine sea, the South China sea and, I think, the East China sea, and making sure that we are in parts of the world where there are currently contentious issues. I do not think that we can be everywhere, but we will be making the point—we will be exercising with US carriers—and we have been very clear in our relationship with China, whether that is dealing with Hong Kong or others, that we believe that respect for human rights and international law is incredibly important, and we will uphold it.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

My father served on the carrier HMS Victorious, hunting down the Bismarck, so I welcome the Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group, which will travel 26,000 nautical miles over 28 weeks to 40 countries. However, I ask the Secretary of State: what will the cost of this deployment be? What will the carbon footprint be? What message will it send in relation to COP26? And are there any plans for the Navy overall to try to reduce its carbon footprint and, indeed, the carbon footprint of our trade?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

On the carbon footprint and the environment, there are a number of initiatives right across Government—as shipbuilding tsar, I am part of steering that—to try to invest in alternative energy or alternative fuels. There is a real prize in shipping if we can help to lead the pack in that—Norway is active in this—because one of the big polluters around the world is shipping, and if we can change the fuel that ships use and so make a difference, we can really help British shipping to steal a march on some of its competitors and open up many of the skills.

I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman about the cost, because there are marginal and real costs, and all the different costs set out. Obviously, the carrier is paid for, deployed, fuelled and ready to go, but it would be anyhow, as are the salaries of all the sailors and Marines on board and everything else. I will write to him with what we estimate the additional cost to be. Of course, I give him one health warning that—as I was always taught as a soldier—no plan survives the very first contact, so who knows where we will be at the end of the year, if they are diverted and we do something else? But I will tell him the details as we get them.

Photo of Joy Morrissey Joy Morrissey Conservative, Beaconsfield

My right hon. Friend said that the carrier strike group will be NATO’s first fifth generation carrier strike capability. Does he agree that fifth generation technology is hugely significant for our modern-day armed forces?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

Yes, absolutely. One of the traits of the generation is situation awareness and its ability to process all that data and stealth, but, also, these generations do not stand still. We are already committed to a sixth generation. FCAS, the next fighter programme for the RAF, is absolutely about the sixth generation. One of the challenges is that we cannot sit still for very long before somebody is trying to get a strategic advantage, but I am confident that, at this moment in time, the carrier and her partnership with the F-35 will present a formidable capability around the world.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

As the wife of a submariner, may I join others in sending my condolences to the families of the Indonesian submariners who have been lost in this tragic accident?

For many years, we have been pushing on fleet solid support ships. In the integrated review, the Government committed to a fleet of three FSSs required for the carrier strike group. We have been pressing for all of them to be built entirely in UK yards, so will the Secretary of State finally confirm that the full contract will go to UK yards?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

As I have said in previous answers, we are on the cusp of issuing the full competition, and we have to be very careful; I do not want another competition to collapse or to be jeopardised by legal action. I have been pretty clear, and I have reclassified it as a warship. I have put some conditions in the contract, which will be seen by people hopefully to increase skills and the British shipbuilding industry. The details will be revealed when the tender is put out.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. May I, on behalf of the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker team, pass on our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those submariners who were tragically lost at sea? We grieve your loss. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] We will now suspend for two minutes.

Sitting suspended.