My Lords, on behalf of the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery of Alamein, and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.
My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Lance Corporal Liam Tasker from the Royal Army Veterinary Corps and Lance Corporal Steven McKee from the 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment, who were killed on operations in Afghanistan recently, and Private Daniel Prior from 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment, who died of wounds sustained in Afghanistan. My thoughts are also with the wounded and I pay tribute to the courage and fortitude with which they face their rehabilitation.
I am pleased to confirm that a commercial ice-breaker, to be named HMS "Protector", will provide the interim replacement ice patrol ship capability for at least the next three years while we consider the long-term future of HMS "Endurance". We anticipate a contract for the ship's lease and support being signed soon with the preferred bidder, GC Rieber Shipping. I will write to noble Lords who have an interest in this matter when the contract has been signed.
My Lords, in thanking my noble friend for his reply, perhaps I may say that I feel sure that the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, will be greatly cheered to hear of this progress. He has, after all, been raising the issue regularly since the flooding accident suffered by HMS "Endurance" in the South Atlantic in 2008. Is my noble friend able to elaborate further about the past history of the new ice patrol ship to which he referred? Can he tell us why the name "Protector" has been selected?
My Lords, the name "Protector" has a historic connection with Britain's Antarctic commitment. It was the name of the ship which preceded the former "Endurance" in the Atlantic role. "Protector" was the sixth ship to bear the name and completed 13 Antarctic deployments from 1955 to 1968. A seventh ship of the name saw service as a Falkland Islands patrol vessel from 1983 to 1987. This is the eighth time that the name has been used. The intention is to lease MV "Polarbjorn", a Norwegian ice patrol ship for an initial period of three years. She will arrive in Portsmouth in May where she will be fitted with specialist military equipment needed for her deployment. I have photographs of HMS "Protector", which I can show to any noble Lord who is interested.
My Lords, I should like to associate these Benches with the condolences offered to the family and friends of Lance Corporal Liam Tasker, Lance Corporal Steven McKee and Private Daniel Prior. I should also like to associate these Benches with the very thoughtful tribute that the Minister has paid to the wounded.
Such a satisfactory Answer raises serious problems when asking a further supplementary, but this has been a very sad affair. It is more than two years since "Endurance" was damaged beyond repair and it will not be replaced until May. I gather that in the mean time the task is being carried out by HMS "Scott". Does the Minister agree that that is not satisfactory since "Scott" is not an ice-breaker, does not carry helicopters and is not armed?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his kind words. As he said, HMS "Scott" is not an ice-breaker and she was only able to undertake operations in areas clear of significant ice risk. We have yet to determine whether the long-term solution for delivering the ice patrol ship capability will be better met through replacing or repairing HMS "Endurance".
Having just returned from Chile, I should like to know whether my noble friend is aware that there is considerable tension in South America, particularly in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, which recently refused to give naval bunkering? The news that there is a new ship to take on station is welcome so far as it goes, but will he confirm that HMS "Protector" will be armed equivalently to her predecessor in order to fulfil the particularly important function of looking after the Falklands and South Georgia?
My Lords, the deployment of the new ice patrol ship is a separate issue from that of the security of the Falkland Islands. The permanent maritime presence in the Falklands is provided HMS "Clyde", the Falkland Islands patrol vessel. The commander of British forces in the Falklands also has at his disposal either a frigate or a destroyer supported by a tanker.
My Lords, I have to take issue with the Minister on this. The "Endurance" plays a key part and, indeed, 29 years ago today, almost, we had a bunch of scrap metal dealers going on to some of the Antarctic territories. Therefore to think of it as not part of a cohesive package for the region is wrong. I am glad that the ship is being replaced. It is important that it has the right facilities, and it makes sense to look at the options for the future; I have no difficulty with that. I suppose my final statement is that the Minister referred to HMS "Protector", which was a net layer, as historic. Since I went on board that ship as a young officer, I find that rather difficult, but I understand the background.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his support regarding HMS "Protector". On the defence of the Falkland Islands, as the Secretary of State for Defence has said, the situation now is very far removed from that of the early 1980s. First, we maintain a far more robust and capable force in the Falklands to act as a deterrent and to secure our interests there, and that force is able to be reinforced as the need arises. Secondly, Argentina is no longer ruled by a military junta that is repressive at home and aggressive abroad, but of course we maintain robust contingency plans for times of crisis, and there is no questioning our resolve to defend the Falklands whenever required and from whatever quarter.