Royal Navy: Drone Attacks in the Red Sea - Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:58 pm on 5 February 2024.

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Photo of Lord Coaker Lord Coaker Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Opposition Whip (Lords) 2:58, 5 February 2024

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of HMS Diamond shooting down a suspected attack drone over the Red Sea on 16 December 2023.

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

Your Lordships will be aware that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence will shortly update the other place on recent events in the Red Sea. I will not pre-empt that Statement. While on patrol in the Red Sea on 16 December 2023, HMS “Diamond” shot down an uncrewed aerial vehicle which was targeting merchant shipping. This is the first surface-to-air engagement by a Royal Navy vessel since 1991. The Houthis have repeatedly carried out dangerous and destabilising attacks against shipping and continue to do so. Our aim remains to de-escalate tension, but we will not hesitate to defend lives and the free flow of commerce in the face of such continued threats.

Photo of Lord Coaker Lord Coaker Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, we look forward to the Statement on the Red Sea later, and I accept the Minister’s point about not pre-empting any questions on that. In paying tribute to the crew of HMS “Diamond” and all their work over the last few weeks and months, I will ask the Minister about press reports about concerns around HMS “Diamond” and other ships not having a land-attack capability. What assessment have the Government made on what they will do about the fact that so many other ships do not have the land-attack capability to attack the bases that are launching the drones in the first place?

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My Lords, I welcome the congratulations and commitment of the other Benches to the service of the individual men and women. As I understand it, no two warships are exactly the same; they have different capabilities that overlap, and they complement each other and the international force with which we are operating. There is no worry about the effectiveness of their capability.

Photo of Lord Stirrup Lord Stirrup Crossbench

My Lords, firing surface-to-air missiles at drones is a very expensive way of attacking relatively cheap and numerous targets. There have been reports of successful UK tests of much cheaper laser-based defensive systems. Can the Minister assure the House that research into such systems will be pursued vigorously, and, if successful, will be translated into both operationally and commercially effective solutions?

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I thank the noble and gallant Lord for his question; that is a very good point. When firing an expensive missile at a cheap drone, you are not protecting the missile; you are protecting half a billion pounds-worth of equipment behind you—that is certainly worth it. As your Lordships know, we have invested a large amount of money in drone and missile technologies, and we will incorporate that in all future designs.

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

My Lords, the Minister said that he does not want to comment on the Statement that is about to arrive, so I will take him in a slightly different direction. To what extent have His Majesty’s Government assessed the requirements for the Navy in the light of the drone strike on 16 December? Given the very worrying concerns raised by the report of the Defence Committee in the other place, Ready for War?, which points out the difficulties with the Type 26 delays and the power improvement project for the Type 45s, we were very fortunate that HMS “Diamond” is in the region and seaworthy. What assessment are His Majesty’s Government carrying out about making urgent reforms to the Navy to ensure that we are as protected as we need to be?

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My Lords, the First Sea Lord and his team are fully aware of the situation and are keeping as many ships at sea as we can at any one time. There is obviously a maintenance programme that must be adhered to and upgrading programmes that follow the latest technology. All the learnings from this latest situation in the Red Sea are being built in as rapidly as possible to all future plans.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Conservative

My Lords, bombing the launch sites in Yemen makes sense, particularly if they are using Iranian weapons and rockets, if they are advised by the Iranians, and if some Iranians themselves are even involved in the launch. That is getting near the right target. Will the Minister and his colleagues bear in mind that southern Yemen is not so dominated by the Houthis? There are very many people there, for example, who are very favourable to this country and have been for years. Therefore, we should take great care that the bombing aimed at the launch sites does not descend on people who are favourable to Britain and puzzled as to why they should be bombed at all.

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I thank my noble friend for his question. The accuracy of the bombing is very precise, very limited and specifically targeted at weapons that are being, or are about to be, prepared to be used. As far as we know, that has been successful, and there has been very limited collateral damage. We completely agree that there is a large part of Yemen which is favourable towards us. In fact, we provide quite a lot of aid—although not as much as we did, as noble Lords have raised before—to support the Government of Yemen.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

My Lords, being under constant air attack over a period time is, as I know from bitter experience, exhausting. What the people on HMS “Diamond” are doing is amazing, and I share the Minister’s statement that we should recognise how well they have done there. However, it is no good continually shooting down things that are being shot at you—which we are doing very successfully, and rather better than we did in the Falklands, because the systems are better; you have to go for the targets on shore. Therefore, I support the Government’s point that we must show that we cannot just sit there and take this damage. My question relates to tiredness. The people on-board will get very tired and they will need to be replaced. I am concerned about the number of ships we have to rotate through, should this go on for a long time. Does the Minister consider that we have enough ships to rotate through there, should things escalate, and to fulfil our commitments in other places in the world, such as in the Falklands, off Guyana, in the Gulf and elsewhere?

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

The noble Lord asks a good question about the total scope and scale of His Majesty’s Navy and how long this might go on for. Perhaps I might turn the question around. If we were to do nothing, and provide no support, we would weaken international security and damage the global economy, and it would suggest that any British vessel is fair game. That is just not acceptable. Ships are available as replacements and to be part of the international task force. It is precisely that; it is an international task force, and integrated, particularly with the Americans who are leading it. Between us, we will certainly have sufficient funds.

Photo of Lord Sandhurst Lord Sandhurst Conservative

My Lords, in view of the question of the noble Lord, Lord West, do we not need further assistance from our allies in Europe? In particular, what about the French, who have a fleet? Have they been asked for help and have they offered it?

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My noble friend makes a very good point. The French are extremely supportive, but of course it is each sovereign nation’s decision whether or not to become lethally involved.

Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Labour

My Lords, given the importance of Sea Viper—the missile that was used to shoot down these drones—to our operational capacity, what plans do we have to follow the example of the United States and prioritise work on a transportable rearming mechanism? This is a technological advance that would allow HMS “Diamond” and other vessels to reload vertical launch missiles at sea, rather than putting into port as they presently have to do.

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My Lords, that is a very good point. Sea Viper is extremely effective, and there is a new version, which I think is called Sea Viper Evolution. A very substantial amount of money—about £400 million— is being spent to upgrade that. Rearming at sea is something I am not particularly knowledgeable about, so I will find out and write to the noble Lord.

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Conservative

My Lords, given that there have been protests on our streets supporting the Yemeni attacks, and given that the Houthi’s slogans include “Death to America”, “Death to Israel” and “Victory to Islam”, why are the Houthis not designated as a terrorist group, given that these acts are clearly acts of terrorism? Are the Government not trying to proscribe the Houthis and their backers in Iran, the IRGC, to help stop these kinds of protests, which are supporting such terrorist actions?

Photo of The Earl of Minto The Earl of Minto The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My Lords, this question is raised fairly regularly, and of course it is something which is under constant consideration. These are difficult decisions to take. However, in the meantime, we will continue to take action that is necessary, limited, legal—it is very important that it is legal—and proportionate in terms of self-defence and freedom of navigation, and indeed protecting lives.