Carrier Strike Group Deployment - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:01 pm on 28 April 2021.

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Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour 7:01, 28 April 2021

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.