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Royal Navy — Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:35 am on 5th November 2015.

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Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour 11:35 am, 5th November 2015

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many committed tasks the Royal Navy has to fulfil and what is the maximum number of committed tasks involving a frigate or destroyer that the Royal Navy could undertake over a prolonged period.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, the committed force focuses primarily on providing nuclear deterrence, defence of the UK and its overseas territories, and supporting the civil emergency organisations in times of crisis. The Royal Navy makes a sustained contribution to the delivery of military tasks on which the committed force is principally focused with frigates, destroyers and other force elements.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

I thank the noble Earl for his Answer. In 1998, we decided to have only 30 destroyers and frigates. We realised more were needed, but we said we would take the risk. Since then, the world has become more chaotic, as the Prime Minister has recently said, and we now have 19 destroyers and frigates, which I am on record as saying I believe is a national disgrace for a great maritime nation. Of those 19, six are the Type 45 destroyer, a brilliant anti-air warfare ship with fantastic capability, but there is a major main propulsion problem with those ships, so in reality today we have 13 escorts to do all the tasks required for our nation. Do we have a method in place now to resolve this problem with the Type 45’s main propulsion? When will they all be available for full operation, or will we be looking after this nation with only 13 escorts?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, as the noble Lord is only too well aware with his enormous experience, the normal operational cycle of every ship involves them entering different readiness levels depending on their programmes and departmental planning requirements. He is right that the Type 45 has experienced some equipment reliability issues, including with the power and propulsion systems, but I am glad to tell him that most of them have now been remedied and work is continuing to resolve the remaining issues. Notwithstanding the issues that I have referred to, the Type 45 class remains operational and has certainly demonstrated its capability in the time that it has been in service.

Photo of Baroness Jolly Baroness Jolly Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence)

How many personnel are required on board these ships to fulfil those committed tasks? What gives the Minister confidence that there are enough skilled men and women to ensure that all ships and boats have their full complement?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

I am sure the noble Baroness will be aware that manning numbers are flexed according to whatever task the ship is assigned to fulfil. The bottom line is that no ship will ever go to sea unless it is fully manned for that particular task. For example, the Type 45 has a manning complement of 191, and for the Type 23 it is anything between 120 and 220. The manning situation in the Royal Navy is broadly in balance, although the noble Baroness will be aware of specific shortfalls that are most prevalent in surface and submarine engineer and warfare specialisations. There are a number of mitigating actions in place to address those issues.

Photo of Lord Touhig Lord Touhig Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

Keeping the seaways of the world open for trade and commerce is essential to the well-being of an island people like us, and means being able to protect our interests if they are threatened. I am sure the Minister and I agree on that. The head of the Russian navy has admitted increasing submarine patrols by 50% in the past two years and the chief of US naval operations has said that Russian warships are operating at a level not seen for two decades. He said that the Americans are debating whether to increase their naval presence in Europe. Are they doing that because they believe that Britain is no longer able to mount a response? Have they raised this matter with us? If we are asked to help, how many ships could we deploy?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I am sure the Russians are in no doubt of the capability that the Royal Navy can demonstrate. The Royal Navy has a robust range of measures in place for detecting and shadowing non-NATO naval units which may seek to enter our territorial waters without prior authority. We continue to develop new detection capabilities to maintain the operational advantage that we need. The strategic defence and security review currently under way will allow us to assess the full spectrum of submarine detection capability, including the utility of fixed-wing maritime patrol aircraft.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

My Lords, my noble friend has revealed how many operational ships there are in the Royal Navy. Will the Minister tell us how many admirals there are?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

As with manning numbers on ships, the number does vary. I will write to the noble Lord.

Photo of Lord Burnett Lord Burnett Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I wonder if the noble Earl would remind the SDSR team that there are many thousands of very high-calibre young men queuing up to join the Royal Marines, both as enlisted men and as officers—and that there should be no question of reducing the numbers in the Royal Marines, given the vital role they play in Britain’s defence.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, the noble Lord, with his experience of the Royal Marines, makes an extremely good point. No doubt that issue will be at the forefront of the planners’ minds at present.

Photo of Lord Spicer Lord Spicer Conservative

My Lords, is it not true that a Royal Navy ship shot down a missile yesterday? If so, should we not have more ships than admirals perhaps?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, my noble friend is referring to an exercise off the west coast of Scotland, which did indeed incorporate an anti-ballistic missile exercise—a very notable landmark in the capability of the Royal Navy.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

My Lords, does that mean that we are now embarking on ballistic missile defence in our warships as a future policy?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, it is one capability that we are looking at in the context of the SDSR.

Photo of Lord Stewartby Lord Stewartby Conservative

My Lords, when I first saw the wording of this Question, I wondered whether my noble friend was being asked to speculate about what the actual numbers might be. We heard some useful information this afternoon in that direction, but it is a long-running episode which requires attention from Defence Ministers all the time. I hoped that we could have a bit more precision. After all, the Question asks about,

“the maximum number of committed tasks involving a frigate or destroyer that the Royal Navy could undertake over a prolonged period”, which gives an open way to an answer. Perhaps my noble friend can elaborate on that.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

I think the central point to make is that the SDSR provides the Government with an opportunity to take a deep look at what the Armed Forces need to meet the challenges that are assessed to face our country. It will set out the defence planning assumptions and the military tasks—essentially, what the Government may ask the Armed Forces to undertake. I am afraid that my noble friend will have to wait until the publication of the SDSR in a few weeks’ time.