My Lords, although HMS "Invincible" will be placed into very low readiness later this year, she will remain available to the Royal Navy until she is withdrawn from service in 2010. This measure has long been planned and in no way jeopardises the Navy's current operational commitments.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. In the light of his Answer, what is the monetary value that will be released by the government plans for this fine ship, and when will those resources be available to fund other defence purposes?
My Lords, the resources that will be released by putting "Invincible" into a state of very low readiness are already part of the overall plan we are using to focus logistics support on ships that are undertaking high-priority tasks. This is already happening. These are tasks where we require ships at high readiness, and we need to make sure that these ships that we are most likely to need are available. It is also in the context of the very significant investment which we are making into new warship building, which is going on at present. A very substantial number of ships—eight ships—are currently being built.
My Lords, the untimely decommissioning of "Invincible", together with the lower levels of readiness in the Fleet institutionalised by the MoD some months ago because of lack of in-year cash, makes the Navy even less able to play its part in delivering the Government's ever more hollow-sounding mantra "force for good". Will the Minister say which Royal Navy directed "force for good" tasks being done prior to April 2004 are not now being done as a result of last year's unwise slashing of six perfectly capable and modern destroyer frigates from the front line?
My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord raises the issue of the changes that need to take place in the application of the Royal Navy to the operations that we face today. As we announced, the reduction that we have made to the destroyer and frigate fleet maintains the Royal Navy's ability to respond to a wide range of contingencies including war fighting. What we are doing in shifting these resources is to make sure that the Navy, like our other Armed Forces, is able to meet the changing nature of the threat which this country faces, and the demands on this country in terms of its involvement in both humanitarian and nation-building tasks. We are going through a process of very important change and reform. We should congratulate the Armed Forces on the way in which they are rising to this challenge and on the way in which this process is being managed. The effect is clear that the Navy is able to respond to the task it will be asked to do.
My Lords, how will we meet one specific commitment under the Helsinki headline goal, where we declared with a fanfare of trumpets that we would have a carrier available at 60 days' readiness? What length is the Minister's extended low readiness—is it 60 days? I suggest that it is probably rather longer than that.
My Lords, the noble Lord is correct. Very low readiness means that the ship, HMS "Invincible", will be placed into reserve. Bringing the ship out of this state of very low readiness will take approximately 18 months.
However, my Lords, the principle under which this is done is based on the identification of the needs which the Royal Navy will be tasked to undertake in the future. Those operational tasks require the ability to respond in a Carrier Strike capability—basically an aircraft carrier which has fast jets—or in support of an amphibious landing which can be addressed by a landing-platform helicopter ship, such as HMS "Ocean", or a carrier with helicopters on board.
This plan allows us to meet that requirement. The way in which we are going through the process of refitting our aircraft carriers through to the time when we will have the new carriers available is one which has been planned to take into account the operational requirements which we envisage.
My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord raises an important point relating to the Sea Harrier. We recognise that the withdrawal of the Sea Harrier will leave a temporary degradation in the outer layer of air maritime defence for task groups between the withdrawal of the Sea Harrier in 2006 and the arrival of the joint combat aircraft. But the task groups have the layers of defence which we regard as being sufficient to reduce the operational risk. The nature of the expeditionary operations which we envisage the Royal Navy needs to undertake in the future means that the provision of aircraft carriers, such as "Invincible", or landing-platform helicopter carriers, such as "Ocean", is vital. The reason why we need the new carriers coming forward, which is a very significant investment, is to follow the existing "Invincible" class carriers going out of service.
My Lords, while declaring an interest as the Minister responsible for the Navy when the decision was made to go ahead with "Invincible", I ask whether it would not be appropriate to conclude this exchange with an unqualified tribute to all those who have served on "Invincible" in some of the extremely exacting missions that she has undertaken.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for making that point, and reiterate it. I am sure that the whole House will join him in stating the deep appreciation that the nation has for everyone who has served on that great ship.