Carrier Strike Group Deployment - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:43 pm on 28 April 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence) 6:43, 28 April 2021

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?