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 Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence 6:43, 28 April 2021

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.