Carrier Strike Group Deployment - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 6:23 pm on 28th April 2021.

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The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 26 April.

“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 counterterrorism 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 task force while 8,000 miles away from home. The career of our last carrier, HMS ‘Illustrious’, 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 provide 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 task force 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.”

Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Minister (Transport) 6:43 pm, 28th April 2021

My Lords, we welcome this first major deployment of the “Queen Elizabeth”. 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, and this maiden mission for the “Queen Elizabeth” is a great achievement for the Royal Navy and a proud moment for our country. Britain has not had a carrier strike force since 2010, when the defence review scrapped all three of our aircraft carriers. This deployment fills a big gap in Britain’s military capability over the past decade. I hope the Minister can confirm that the “Queen Elizabeth” is fully crewed and that the carrier strike group is fully combat ready.

The successful design and build of our two new aircraft carriers is a tribute to the UK’s shipbuilding industry and our UK steelmakers. Can 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?

The new Defence and Security Industrial Strategy states that the Government will publish an updated shipbuilding strategy which

“will set out how the government intends to create the conditions for success for all parts of the enterprise, from shipyards building warships”.

Can the Minister update the House on when the new strategy will be published and how we will be able to monitor its success? This is a big opportunity to back British industry and jobs. 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 HMS “Queen Elizabeth” sails with allies, but it is not good if she can sail only with allies. When, if ever, will there be enough British warships to sail with our own British carriers?

This deployment comes on the back of the integrated review, which rightly said that Russia remains

“the most acute threat to our security”.

Can the Minister confirm that the return of HMS “Queen Elizabeth” to military business will involve patrolling the north Atlantic, the high north and the Mediterranean, our NATO area, where Russia poses the greatest threats to our vital national interests?

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, I welcome the fact that HMS “Queen Elizabeth” is now ready to lead the carrier strike group. Clearly, we are in a new phase of British maritime history. We are obviously in a phase in which the Government are seeking to “go global”, as the Prime Minister has put it on so many occasions, and to do so with a ship that is extraordinary in many ways. The Secretary of State, in his Statement, pointed out that it was truly a step change in capability and that to appreciate the enormity of the vessel, you must stand on its vast deck.

I have not stood on the HMS “Queen Elizabeth” but I did have the opportunity to visit HMS “Prince of Wales” in dock when it was under construction. It is a most incredible ship. However, when the ships were being announced, Russia was very scathing about the size and visibility of the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. I am sure that the Minister will be very quick to say that this is nonsense and that the ships are very well defended, but can she give us some indication of the way in which HMS “Queen Elizabeth” is being supported? It is very clear that this carrier strike group, as laid out in the Secretary of State’s Statement, has, as is suggested, a ring of capability. Most of the ships—the destroyers and the anti-submarine frigates—are British vessels, but how far into the future have the Government thought and planned about the support that can be given?

There is a great deal of emphasis on the work with the Dutch and the Americans. To what extent do the Government see this carrier strike group as being a way of having more multilateral deployments, or is HMS “Queen Elizabeth” intended to be part of a solely British force in future? It is obviously important that bilateral training is going on. Can the Minister tell the House a little more about what is envisaged with our European allies? There is a very clear statement that the carrier strike group will demonstrate our enduring commitment to NATO, but a little more about the links with Europe would be very welcome.

The Statement talks about this being sovereign territory. Clearly it is important in terms of many of our international commitments that the Queen Elizabeth class carriers are indeed able to travel to the Pacific. We have recently seen issues of navigability, with the problems in Suez, and we know that shipping is so vital to trade. It is clearly welcome that HMS “Queen Elizabeth” is leading this carrier strike group, but can the Minister tell us a little bit more about its aims? The Secretary of State talked about being a projector of hard and soft power. Many people listening from outside the Chamber—who maybe do not have any defence experience—might wonder how on earth the Queen Elizabeth class carriers can project soft power. I suspect I know the answer but it would be interesting to hear the Government’s perspective on that.

This is an interesting deployment, but it is notable how important the UK says it is that we do not allow countries to breach international law. We note then that the carrier is going close to China but not seeking to be provocative. What signals do the Government wish to send to China with this deployment?

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My Lords, first, I genuinely thank the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, for their positive comments about the carrier and the carrier strike group. It is a moment for reflection and pride that we have been able to assemble such an impressive demonstration of our commitment to our global reach and global responsibilities. I can confirm to the noble Lord and the noble Baroness that the extent of the interest from across the globe has been very significant; this is clearly proving an exciting proposition to our friends and allies.

To deal with some of the specific points raised, the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, particularly asked about the crewing of the “Queen Elizabeth”. In December 2020, the carrier strike group declared that it had reached initial operating capability. It is about to embark on its final training in UK waters next month and exercise Strike Warrior will test the strike group through a range of operational scenarios. At the end of this period the operational commander, the chief of joint operations, will be presented with a declaration that the carrier strike group is ready to deploy on operations.

The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked about the use of UK-produced steel. That is an important issue and was raised in the other place. I reassure the noble Lord that we recognise the importance of the United Kingdom steel industry and, in fact, British steel has accounted for almost half of the steel by value in the build of the Type 26. As to the more detailed information he seeks, I should like to try to procure that and I propose that I write to the noble Lord. I hope that he will permit me to do that.

Among other issues, the noble Lord also raised the shipbuilding strategy, which the Government have pledged to publish. We are working at pace to refresh the national shipbuilding strategy and it will contain details of how we intend to monitor the success of the strategy. My understanding is that we hope to be able to provide further information on this in early summer.

The noble Lord also raised the issue of the sovereign core of the carrier group and whether there will be enough British warships to sail with our own British carriers. The sovereign core of the group are the Royal Navy frigates and destroyers, helicopters and submarine that will routinely deploy with the carrier. The United Kingdom has 18 F-35s, and we could now put all 18 on the aircraft carrier. We could deploy the aircraft carrier group alone or with allies.

This deployment is in fact about our strength compared with that of our adversaries. We have friends and alliances, and that is vital, because it means that, if there is any attack on us, it is an attack on NATO—to attack us is to attack our allies. That is our real strength globally so, as I said, we have a huge expression of interest from countries wanting to sail with us and stand up for our common values.

The noble Lord raised the issue of what happens when the “Queen Elizabeth” returns to military business. I think he was particularly interested in knowing whether it would involve patrolling the North Atlantic, the high north and the Mediterranean. NATO is obviously our cornerstone; our home beat is the Atlantic and that is where our most aggressive adversary is active. Only recently we saw it active in December when nine Russian ships were operating in the waters around the UK; the Russians have been assertive. That is why it is important that we are active and hold the Atlantic flank of NATO as well as using our convening ability to bring in the French, Germans and others who wish to patrol the seas alongside us. While the noble Lord will understand that I cannot comment on specific operational deployment, the carrier strike group is intended to have a holistic role in our defence activity.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, whom I thank for her positive comments, raised a number of important points. She asked particularly about the threat of Russia and the comments that it has made in relation to the carrier presence, asserting that it is vulnerable. I reassure her that our UK Armed Forces play a leading role in NATO’s enhanced forward presence in the Baltic states to enhance Euro-Atlantic security. In response to the comments about the carrier itself, we keep all threats under constant review, and we are confident that our new aircraft carrier is well protected thanks to defensive systems that we have invested in as part of our £178 billion equipment plan. The carrier will be robustly protected by air and sea assets against threats known and unknown.

The noble Baroness made an important point about our European allies. Again, we are very conscious that the security of Europe is pivotal to the security of the UK and vice versa. In the European context, we are one of the leading powers in NATO; we are the largest spender of the NATO European members and we have strong bilateral relationships with various European countries. Those are relationships that we value hugely, and our desire is to maintain a constructive and engaged dialogue with our friends in Europe. There is an awareness of the mutual interest and benefit to us all in doing that.

The noble Baroness commented on soft power. That is a very important aspect of the approach. The carrier strike group is in fact a manifestation of the objective of the integrated review, which was to look at defence, security, trade and diplomacy and to recognise that these are all interconnected and do not exist alone in silos. That is one reason why the carrier strike group not only has defence security significance but has the flexibility to afford the promotion of relationships with friends and allies in different parts of the world and particularly to facilitate discussions in relation, for example, to trade. A trade conference has been proposed that would be on board CSG21 units. The strike group will play an important role in relation to these issues.

The noble Baroness also raised the role of China. It is important to be clear about the objective of the strike group. The strike group is to represent the support and positive relationships with our friends and allies in the Indo-Pacific area. It is not intended to be confrontational and the group will obviously be visiting parts of the South China Seas. We have enduring interest in the region and are committed to maintaining regional security. Wherever the Royal Navy operates, it does so in full compliance with international laws and norms. That is why we are clear that this deployment is not to be regarded as provocative or confrontational. That is not why we are engaging on this important exercise; it is because we want to show to our friends and allies in the region that the area matters to us. Strategically, it is important because of trade and potential trade links. It is also important in relation to our existing defence relationships that we have in that area. We are therefore positive about the reasons for this exercise. From the reaction we are getting, our friends and allies in the area are positive about us coming.

I scribbled down something that the noble Baroness asked me and I am ashamed to say that I cannot remember what it was about. I wrote down “international” but cannot recall the context of her question. I apologise. I will look at Hansard and undertake to write to her.

Photo of Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Deputy Chairman of Committees

I understand that the Chief Whip wishes to speak now. Is that correct? I have been told that the noble Lord wanted to interrupt. I thank him. We will now proceed to the 20 minutes for the Back-Benchers.

Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Conservative 7:01 pm, 28th April 2021

My Lords, I applaud this deployment and it is excellent to see this extremely expensive carrier being put to good use. I wish the deployment of the strike force well and godspeed in these dangerous times. Does my noble friend think that it is sensible in such times to be reducing the number of ships in the Royal Navy and the number of aircraft in the Royal Air force, and slashing the size of the British Army? What signal does she think that that may send to our allies and potential adversaries?

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I should say to my noble friend that I do not share his somewhat pessimistic perspective. He will be aware that the defence budget is at unprecedented levels, which includes a healthy shipbuilding investment that will double over the life of this Parliament, rising to over £1.7 billion a year. We are also committed to exciting developments on our aerial front, including the RAF with the FCAS and our proposed investment in the F-35s. I should say to him in relation to the Army that we are moving into a completely new age of defence. That has been acknowledged, not just in the integrated review but in the defence Command Paper and the Defence and Security Industrial Strategy. He will understand that our intentions for the Army are to have a highly trained, skilled professional Army with expertise and which benefits from new technologies. Quite simply, that makes it possible for the Army to work with fewer people and achieve greater effect than was possible in the past. That is the point we have got to focus on. I should also say to my noble friend that we do not propose redundancies, but we will be looking at ways in which to achieve the diminutions with those who seek to retire.

Photo of Lord Boyce Lord Boyce Crossbench

My Lords, as a submariner I echo the opening part of the Statement and its sentiments regarding condolences to the Indonesian navy and the families of the ship’s company of the submarine KRI Nanggala following its loss. I am sure your Lordships share these sentiments. Considerable fundraising efforts are well under way within the UK submarine community, aimed at supporting the bereaved families of the 53 fellow submariners lost.

Regarding the main part of the Statement, I welcome the very good lay down of what a carrier strike group can provide strategically, operationally and tactically. In the context of the strike group’s deployment to the Indo-Pacific, it is good to see recognition of the need to exert our legal right to freedom of navigation, especially in the South China Sea, and the opportunity that will be taken to re-energise our partnerships and alliances in the region, particularly with the FPDA.

The Statement very wisely does not give the carrier strike group’s detailed itinerary, thus rightly preserving the sovereign choice of options provided by a maritime force through its ability to poise on the high seas and come and go at a time of its choosing, and its range and flexibility of manoeuvre and capabilities, hard and soft. However, does the Minister agree that it would be sensible to look for an opportunity to establish a maritime relationship with the United States, India, Japan and Australia through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Quad?

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I thank the noble and gallant Lord for his condolences regarding the tragic situation of the Indonesian submarine where so many lives were lost. I share these condolences, and I am sure they are shared by everyone in the Chamber. I was very encouraged to hear what he said about our own submariner community showing support; we are very proud of it for doing that.

The noble and gallant Lord raises the important issue of the implications and impact of the carrier strike group, particularly in the Indo-Pacific area. As he rightly identifies, there are strategic, geopolitical and trade interests there and, of course, the important alliances and partnerships I referred to earlier. He is absolutely correct that the countries he has described are important to the United Kingdom. We already enjoy very strong relationships with these countries through a variety of means, and I am sure we are always willing to explore how these relationships can be advanced and progressed. He raises an interesting point, and that is no doubt something that will give rise to further discussion.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on generating this powerful force and agreeing to deploy it into regions of the world that are so important for our nation and for global security. They are also regions of the world where we are the largest European investor, and we need them for our balance of payments.

Twenty-five years ago in January, I was the battle group commander for a battle group of 19 ships which: deployed from the UK and went out through the Mediterranean; worked in the Gulf; flew the first operations in the Iraqi no-fly zone—only our fighters were able to do it, from the carrier; operated in the Indian Ocean; went to Singapore for a five-power defence arrangement; carried out an amphibious assault of over 2,000 men in Brunei; went through the South China Sea, Japan, Korea and numerous other countries; was there for the Hong Kong withdrawal; visited Australia; and returned home.

What came over to me then was that the Foreign Office was so desperately pleased with everything that was done in diplomatic terms and what it meant for UK Ltd. I signed £2.5 billion-worth of defence and other deals—not just defence contracts—and we were able to do humanitarian things in various parts of the world. The ability of a group to do these things is absolutely there. Just on the intelligence side of life, it was clear to us that the Chinese were very worried when they saw the capabilities of this group that we could deploy 8,000 miles away and carry out an amphibious assault. It makes their islands look a bit dodgy and they have to think about it. When I operated with 22 ships in the North Atlantic the year before, it showed the flexibility; these ships can get everywhere, and the Russians were very worried because they could never find us.

This is a very powerful and useful group, and well done to the Government for doing it. But I also say beware, because when I sailed from the UK in January it was a Conservative Government; when I returned in August it was a Labour Government, and my noble friend Lord Robertson of Port Ellen was the Minister of Defence, who was so taken by the capability of this force that in his very good strategic defence review he decided we needed big carriers. I am delighted we got them, because now we have them today doing this.

My question may be only a petty one. There is no doubt that this shipbuilding strategy sounds very good, but I am scarred by being told I am going to get ships but never standing on their quarterdeck. In each of the big deployments I did as a carrier battle group commander, I had two solid support ships with me. I notice that only one is going out to the Far East, and it is over 40 years old—RFAFort Victoria”. I ask the Minister: when will we actually put in the order for the three fleet solid support ships we need, and will they be built in this country? It is no good these things being put off. It is like with the Type 26s: we need the orders, and we need to start building.

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

First, I say to the noble Lord that his youthful demeanour belies that he was commanding this impressive operation—I think it was Ocean Wave—in 1997. I am grateful to him for powerfully encapsulating the potential that a carrier strike group has. He made the point extremely well.

As the noble Lord is aware, we have a shipbuilding programme in place; he and I have exchanged views on that in the Chamber. I think it is a healthy programme; I detected from a meeting this morning that it has excited Navy Command and people there feel a sense of purpose and anticipation. I am delighted about that, because, as the noble Lord would agree, morale within our Armed Forces is very important. So I am pleased to confirm that.

On the fleet solid support ships, the noble Lord will probably be aware this is at a critical stage of contract progress, where consideration will be given to the award of a contract. I am constricted in what I can say about that, but he will know that the Secretary of State has been clear about his desire to proceed with augmenting the solid support ship fleet, and I anticipate we may be able to disclose more on that front in the not too distant future.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I am a little worried by the air of nostalgia in several paragraphs of this Statement, with references to our

“proud history … legendary Second World War vessels”, and so on.

Does the Minister recall the speeches our then Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, made in his visits to the Middle East in December 2016 and early 2017, in which he talked about Britain returning east of Suez, having major bases in the Gulf and Diego Garcia and stationing vessels permanently out there—and, perhaps, marines and troops? Does she worry that this may lead us to overextension? Does she also recall that part of the justification for the withdrawal from east of Suez in the mid-1960s was that in order to sustain a ship on station in Singapore or east Singapore, it was estimated that four other vessels were needed—going out, coming back, working up and under refit? If that is what we are committed to, I strongly support the noble Lord, Lord West, in that we need an awful lot more frigates and aircraft carriers than we have.

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I was just trying to race through the potted history of all this. As the noble Lord, Lord West, carefully and eloquently outlined, we all have an understanding of what this is about, and we all regard it as being positive. The key to this is that we recognise we are living in a world where we work more strongly with alliances and partnerships.

As the carrier strike group heads off in May, it will be the start of a series of important messages and an indication of a more persistent presence in the Indo-Pacific area. There are plans for how we achieve that, and there will be flexibility in how we take that forward.

The noble Lord may think some of the language is tub-thumping and perhaps Victorian in character. I think this is facing up to the realities of what 21st-century global opportunity is. There are opportunities, and that is one of the reasons for the carrier strike group deploying. It is also a realistic assessment of the new order of things in the Indo-Pacific area and a desire to work with our allies and partners in recognising and addressing that.

Photo of Lord Sarfraz Lord Sarfraz Conservative

My Lords, growing up, one of my fondest memories was visiting naval ships on good-will tours. Our carrier strike group will be visiting 40 countries. Due to Covid, I imagine we will have restrictions on visitor open days, but will my noble friend the Minister tell us whether we have thought of alternative, maybe even virtual, means to show the flag during this tour?

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My noble friend makes an important point. This entire deployment has been planned with a sharp eye on the possible implications of the pandemic. I reassure both my noble friend and the Chamber that we are deploying the carrier strike group mindful of the risks of Covid-19. We are working hard within the strike group itself and alongside nations that we hope to engage with during the deployment to ensure that we implement and understand the current safety measures and requirements, and can plan activity accordingly. But he makes a good point: what is plan B if, for any reason, the pandemic intervenes in an unwelcome fashion? We will look to ensure that we maximise engagement, as far as possible. We will be creative and innovative and, yes, use virtual means where appropriate.

Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench

My Lords, I ask the Minister: how many small ships are left to protect the United Kingdom’s coastline, when those required to accompany the carrier strike group are taken away?

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I reassure the noble Lord that we are satisfied that we will have sufficient maritime capability to deal with all the obligations that fall on us to keep the country safe and discharge our defence responsibilities.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I frame my question in the context of the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, which places supporting human rights, the rule of law and the COP climate process at the centre of our approach to security.

The Statement is glowing about our Five Power Defence Arrangements with Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, which is described as being based on

“common shared values of tolerance, justice and the rules-based order.”

I ask the Minister how that squares with the failure to make progress on the rule of law and democracy in Malaysia, including its use of the Communications and Multimedia Act to target human rights offenders, activists and cartoonists; the delivery of a death penalty sentence for drugs offences by Zoom, in Singapore last year, and the pursuit of political bloggers with swingeing defamation suits there; and the disastrous record of Australia on climate action and biodiversity destruction, plus the damning judgment of the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples on its treatment of indigenous people.

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

The noble Baroness encapsulates the relevance, significance and purpose of the carrier strike group. The difficulties to which she refers can be unilaterally addressed by the United Kingdom on the diplomatic front. We engage with Malaysia, and we articulate concerns when we feel that matters need to be brought to the attention of any Government. I underline that the carrier strike group is about standing up for the values that we all cherish within the United Kingdom—values we know are shared by our friends and allies, not least in the Indo-Pacific area. One of the best manifestations and indications of support that we can give is to get the carrier strike group out there, with the momentum it will generate and its capacity to excite, encourage and make our friends and allies realise that, together, there is so much that we can do that is positive and can assist. The common difficulties to which she refers are part of that, and will have a better chance of being resolved if we all work as a team to address them.

Photo of Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Deputy Chairman of Committees

That completes noble Lords’ questions on the Statement.