RAF: Operational Conversion Unit - Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:36 pm on 8th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour 2:36 pm, 8th January 2019

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many F35B jets will make up the Operational Conversion Unit (OCU); and when the OCU will have its full complement of aircraft.

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

My Lords, the Lightning operational conversion unit is due to form as 207 Squadron and return to the UK in July 2019. Initially the squadron will comprise five aircraft. The squadron will expand to support continuing force growth into the next decade as more F35 Lightning become operational, including the formation of 809 Naval Air Squadron in 2023.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

I thank the noble Earl for his Answer. We have said in the past that there would be 12 aircraft in the OCU. I would like clarification: will these all be F35Bs? There is some muttering about getting F35As. Could I have an answer to my Written Question, which was: do we still consider that we need a strike group of 35 on board to fulfil the task for which the carrier was built, which is theatre entry to do a number of raids on IADS and other targets over a period of four days? That would seem to predicate a need for at least 70 aircraft afloat in a national emergency, plus, presumably, the OCU, and taking attrition rates into account.

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

My Lords, the first tranche of 48 aircraft will be the F35B, which is capable, as the noble Lord knows, of operating from land and the “Queen Elizabeth” class aircraft carriers. Decisions on subsequent tranches of Lightning will be taken at the appropriate time. Of course, the number of aircraft deployed will depend on the circumstances and the nature of the deployment. The minimum number to be deployed will be one squadron; that is, 12 aircraft. The plan is for full operating capability in 2023, with two squadrons, but of course there is scope for each carrier to have as many as 36 aircraft deployed on it.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, the noble Earl will be aware that the Defence Secretary, in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, made the rather surprising admission that it was his ambition to open some new military bases in the Far East and the Caribbean. Can we be satisfied that any decision of that kind will not undermine the original commitment to purchase 138 F35 aircraft, particularly given the fragile state of the equipment budget?

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

Yes, I can give the noble Lord that assurance. The potential opening of new bases in two particular parts of the world is certainly something we are looking at. But I assure the noble Lord that this will not impact on the procurement programme for the F35B.

Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour

Can the Minister elaborate on his second answer, when he referred to the appropriate time for future decisions? Can he give us some indication of what is meant by “appropriate time” and when that appropriate time might be?

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

I cannot be exact on that. We have either contracted for or have letters of intent for 48 aircraft, as I said earlier. Towards the end of that delivery schedule, clearly, we will need to look at the next tranche. That could be in four or five years’ time.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Chair, International Relations Committee

While we are speaking of combined air and naval power, has my noble friend noticed the reports that British shipbuilding of warships may now be resuming a world role, after many years of most warships being built in Japan, Korea and other places? If that comes about, is it not to be greatly applauded?

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

My noble friend is absolutely right, and we are encouraged by the response we have had to the publication of the National Shipbuilding Strategy, which should ensure the re-energising of our shipbuilding capability in the UK when it comes to Royal Navy warships.

Photo of Lord Hamilton of Epsom Lord Hamilton of Epsom Conservative

Was it not inevitable, when the noble Lord, Lord West, ordered two aircraft carriers and there was no money to pay for them, that enormous pressure would be put on the procurement budget, not least in terms of ordering the F35s, which cost £100 million apiece?

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

My Lords, while we recognise the considerable cost of the carriers, we should reflect also upon their utility and considerable benefit in enabling us to project power in a way we have never been able to before, bearing in mind the versatility and capability of the F35B, which takes us into a new realm of strike capability.

Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, the Minister said that the Government were contemplating opening new bases in two particular parts of the world. Which two parts of the world does the Ministry of Defence have in mind, and how on earth could additional bases, which are very far from the UK, be funded, given that there is already a massive black hole in the MoD equipment budget?

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

My Lords, there is not a black hole in the equipment budget, and that statement can be underlined when it comes to the F35B. It is too early for me to give the noble Lord a specific answer; we are looking at this matter in the round, and it is at a very early stage at the moment.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

My Lords, perhaps the Minister will consider reopening the base in Belize as part of the reconsideration? I declare an interest as president of the All-Party Group for Belize.

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

My Lords, we recognise the utility of Belize as a training area, and it is indeed one of the options we are looking at.

Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Minister (Transport)

While we recognise that we have had to live without aircraft carriers, and then with aircraft carriers but without aircraft, when will the carriers be optimally equipped? The Minister seemed to imply in an earlier answer that that would be when 24 aircraft could be embarked and fully crewed. When will that be, how does that compare with the original plan, and what is the critical path: fully trained pilots or aircraft deliveries?

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

With regard to whether the critical path is aircraft or indeed pilots, we clearly need both, and we are on track and within budget to deliver both in accordance with the planned rollout. For example, this will see initial operating capability for carrier strike—one squadron consisting of 12 frontline F35s and 18 pilots—in December 2020. Full operating capability, consisting of two squadrons, will be achieved in December 2023.

Photo of Lord Naseby Lord Naseby Conservative

Is it not to the great credit of Her Majesty’s Government that this project has been taken forward regularly and provides suitable armaments for Her Majesty’s Navy? However, are there safeguards in the contract for the subsequent purchase of the second tranche of aircraft to ensure that we are not held out to dry by the United States?

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

Obviously, before contracts are signed I cannot give an assurance about the safeguards that might be in those contracts. However, I can tell my noble friend some encouraging news, which is that the unit price for an F35B is currently $115.5 million, compared to $161 million for aircraft that were delivered in 2012. Therefore, while the final contract negotiations remain ongoing for the next tranche of aircraft that we wish to see delivered, we expect the downward cost journey to continue.