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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered carrier strike strategy and its contribution to UK defence.
It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. May I at the outset refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests?
I thank Ruth Smeeth and my hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who are co-sponsors of the debate. We will each deal with one of a trident of points, namely the strategy for operating large carriers, which I anticipate I will largely deal with; the foreign policy element; and a celebration of the industrial impact of the large defence procurement policy being rolled out by this country. My overall ask of the Minister is for an overarching national carrier strategy, to deal with every aspect of this afternoon’s discussion.
I will start by placing myself on the date spectrum, as it were. One of my earliest memories is of HMS Hermes returning from the Falklands war. I was very young at the time, but I remember very well that very large grey carrier nosing slowly into Portsmouth harbour, surrounded by many small ships welcoming it back. I was particularly struck by the fact that she was rusted and battered from having been at sea for months on end—battered but victorious at the end of that unique campaign. I well remember the white uniforms of the sailors lined up in perfect formation on the deck, and the noses of our little Sea Harriers, which in the freezing south Atlantic of 1982 had proved themselves to be an air defence system second to none.
HMS Hermes was laid down during world war two as HMS Elephant, the last of the Centaur-class of light fleet carriers. She entered service in 1957 as an angled-deck carrier before being converted into a commando helicopter carrier, and then being adapted again with a ski jump to operate the then new Sea Harrier, which was coming into service. We have not had large fleet carriers since the decommissioning of the Audacious-class HMS Eagle and HMS Ark Royal at the end of the 1970s, and the absence of the Royal Navy from the big carrier game has been sorely noted by the Navy and the nation.
The Sea Carrier was unquestionably a brilliant aircraft but was limited in its range and payload, while the RAF’s land-optimised Harrier was severely limited by the absence of an air-to-air radar, meaning that it was never an adequate fleet air arm aircraft. While that Harrier-Invincible class concept—the combination of those small carriers and the vertical take-off and landing jets—was a potent combination in the unique circumstances of the south Atlantic, or in the north Atlantic as part of NATO groups hunting Russian submarines, there is no doubt that the inability to operate conventional fast jets of the nature of the Phantoms and Buccaneers that we lost at the end of the 1970s has severely restricted the power that Britain can exercise. The country has mourned that loss ever since, resulting in Governments of all colours seeking to restore that capability.
The years have shown that although the end of empire has meant a smaller country, it has not meant a retreat from expeditionary warfare. Every 10 years at least, Britain has been involved in a capacity that has meant it has required expeditionary air power, often from sea. The country’s desire to express power and its values has not diminished at any stage over the course of the past 40 years. In 1966, the country took the decision to run down the fixed-wing carrier fleet, which was part of a series of extraordinarily inept defence decisions taken during that time. I am not making a party political point, as all Governments were involved. Within 10 years, that decision was regretted. In a curiously British fudge, to get around the politics of why we were not having aircraft carriers anymore—except we were—the three Invincible-class carriers were called through-deck cruisers. That always amuses me; it strikes me as the most absurdly daft political euphemism imaginable.
Although the ambition to return to the big carrier game is long standing, the political chicanery around re-establishing carrier capacity has meant that the philosophical, strategic concept of what big carriers are for, how they are to be used, who with, and under what circumstances, is lacking. To a large extent, that culture has been lost, and we need to re-establish it. I suggest that now is the time to do so, because so much of carrier design throughout history has been British, be it the first carriers such as HMS Furious during the first world war; the angled flight deck that came in with the advent of fast jets at the end of the second world war and in the 1950s; or the ski jump in the 1980s. British technology and British ideas were leading the world, with others having no alternative but to follow. The same is true now: we are not the only people using the F-35B, but we are the only country in the world using it in combination with aircraft carriers designed from the keel up in order to support that aircraft. We are not the only people using the F-35, but I can say with total confidence that the aircraft carriers we are using are better than anyone else’s.
The return of Britain to that big carrier game must also be accompanied by a strategic philosophy of what carriers are about and how they are to be used. For 20 years or so there has been a tacit, if not expressed, understanding that Britain will probably not act alone in another military conflict, or at least not a major one. We will act with allies, most likely with NATO, and hardly ever without the Americans offering support in one form or another. It is sadly inconceivable that we could undertake an operation such as the Falklands again. In 1982, we had approximately 60 destroyers and frigates. That taskforce comprised 127 ships, consisting of 43 royal naval vessels, 22 from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and 62 merchant ships. At the end of the 1980s, the Royal Navy had two aircraft carriers, seven amphibious ships, 13 destroyers and 35 frigates. After the 2010 strategic defence review, their combined number declined to approximately 19, and remains at roughly that level. In November 2018, there were 75 commissioned ships in the Royal Navy. Twenty of those are major surface combatants, including six guided missile destroyers—the Type 45s, which are primarily air defence destroyers—as well as 13 frigates and the new aircraft carrier.
Let us look at what a modern carrier group demands of a modern Navy, so that we can match what we are asking for with what we currently have available. We need to think innovatively about how to address what we need and what we have. No carrier strike group is a fixed body: its composition depends on the circumstances, what it is being asked to do, and the allies it is operating with.
If we look at the US Navy, we will see that a typical carrier strike group would include the supercarrier—of course, we would have a supercarrier—and the carrier air wing. The Americans would have one or two Aegis guided missile cruisers of the Ticonderoga class and a destroyer squadron with two or three guided missile destroyers of the Arleigh Burke class, which are roughly comparable—I stress the word “roughly”—to the Type 45s. That is a multi-mission surface combatant, used primarily for air defence, and it is air defence and under-surface defence with which I am particularly concerned. The Americans would have two attack submarines, which would be used to screen the carrier group against other submarines and surface combatants, and they would of course have support ships.
The Italians, who also have a carrier battle group, would have the carrier, two destroyers, two support ships and three amphibious support ships. However, they may have to accept that they would need to expand or to operate with allies if they were to go into a near-peer environment.
This is not a lament for lost naval power, although I make no secret of the fact that, as far as I am concerned, we do not spend enough on defence. Our armed forces are constantly being asked to do too much with too little, and I will not even start on the pastoral aspects of armed forces funding, the combination of pay and conditions and the overall offer, which is a serious issue for recruitment and retention. I do not have time this afternoon to start on that topic. I know that whatever the Minister can say publicly, he almost certainly agrees with me, and I accept that I should be making this plea not to him but to the Treasury. However, I ask the Ministry of Defence to give serious strategic thought to how the carriers are likely to be used and with whom, to ensure—putting it bluntly—that we have sufficient mass and capability to ensure that there is space to be able to sustain loss or damage, either during a conflict or in its immediate aftermath. If we do not do that, we will probably be unable to use those carriers at all.
The hon. Gentleman is making a superb case. There is a great need for the supply chain to be in place in order to repair and build again, and I would like the benefits of that supply chain to be spread across the whole of the United Kingdom. I know that rebuilding and repairing can take place only in specific places, but none the less there is a need for that supply chain to be representative of the four regions. Does the hon. Gentleman think that such a supply chain is in place and that all the regions are getting the benefit of it?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that excellent point. I will refer to in a little more detail shortly and I know that some of my hon. Friends will, too. I am keen to make the point that while the carriers are big grey ships that live in Portsmouth, they are not purely a Portsmouth matter. They have been built by constituents in all our areas and by companies across the whole United Kingdom. That has sustained the building of the carriers, but we need to ensure that they can be maintained and kept in service for decades to come. For that reason—it is exactly the point that the hon. Gentleman made—I am asking the Minister to consider a strategy.
We need a whole-Government approach. It is no good us just looking at this purely as a Ministry of Defence issue. I am conscious that I am asking the Minister to do more than is in his power, but it has to be a cross-Government approach. We have to look at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to see whether we have the industrial base to ensure that the supply chain that built the carriers remains in place to sustain and maintain them in the years ahead. The hon. Gentleman’s point is absolutely the point I wish to make.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He is making a brilliant speech. I am just thinking about the point he made earlier about the improbability or unlikeliness of us using the carrier fleet to act unilaterally. Although it might be difficult to imagine such circumstances, we cannot rule them out. There may be a time when we will have to act unilaterally, possibly on a smaller scale than the Falklands conflict. It is also not strictly easy to make a comparison between the carrier fleet today and what we sent to the Falklands. The capabilities are infinitely greater, even if it is smaller in size.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who must have read my speech in advance, because I will go on to make exactly that point. If he will forgive me, rather than respond directly to his intervention I will move on to the next part of my speech.
In the Falklands, as I have said, we had approximately 60 destroyers and frigates as escorts. Of those, eight destroyers and 15 frigates were part of the taskforce. In the course of that conflict, four of those were lost and many more were damaged, some very seriously. The initial concern is that a similar impact today would destroy about one third of the Royal Navy’s air defence fleet, which would be unsustainable. Of course, we need more than the minimum deployed in case such damage takes place. I appreciate, as my hon. Friend said, that history never repeats itself exactly, and I entirely accept that the Falklands was a one-off, probably unique event. We would need many more ships available if we were looking to support an invasion force, as we were then, particularly when operating at the other end of the world, a long way from supply chains. I entirely accept that, and the parallels are not precise.
I accept entirely that the Type 45s are vastly more capable than the Type 42s that they replaced. It is also true that they are the best in the world as air defence destroyers. Essentially, they combine the Ticonderoga and Arleigh Burke mission platform into one. They are better than each of them on a platform-to-platform basis, but it is not always the case that we can do the job with fewer. The Type 42s were the cutting-edge destroyers of their day, but as soon as the Falklands war started, we found their weaknesses ruthlessly exposed, particularly with regard to the survivability of damage. That was so horrifyingly exposed in the case of HMS Sheffield. I simply suggest that there comes a point where we need mass.
Although I want us to be able to act unilaterally—I do not disagree with my hon. Friend at all—we need to consider that in most cases we will not be doing that, so I simply ask the Government to consider a strategy for that. I am instinctively very reluctant to follow a line of argument that says that because a single platform is more capable than what it replaced, we can make do with less. I say that simply because all these high-tech platforms—this is true across the whole military capability—can turn out to be horribly vulnerable in ways we do not expect. I am thinking of the USS Cole incident with the speedboat packed with explosives. I am thinking of small drones, cheaply and easily available on the internet, that are packed full of explosives in a swarm capability, such that they overwhelm even the most potent defensive systems. I am thinking of the carrier killer missiles that we know are being developed by some potential adversaries. We can already see where the threats are. I simply say no more than this: while I accept that the parallels are not precise and the capability is streets ahead of what we saw when I was a child, there comes a point where we need mass, and we need to think about how we are going to provide that, given our finances.
The hon. Gentleman is making an outstanding contribution that I cannot stop listening to. I pay tribute to him. As well as capability, there is another basis for mass and numbers, which is that we have commitments spread around the globe, including commitments to our allies. It does not matter how good the platform is; to maintain those commitments, we also need numbers.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I could not agree more with him. If we look at the ratio of ships available in 1982 against the number deployed in the taskforce, we can see that the Navy was highly tasked as it was. There has been no downscaling in the amount of commitments that we have practically.
The Government are addressing that in many ways, and I entirely applaud the Type 31e concept, which would mean we can try to rebuild mass with a smaller, perhaps cheaper, modular type of ship that we can export. We can perhaps have some platforms so that a cutting-edge Type 45 is not needed to deal with anti-piracy operations, but instead a smaller corvette-type frigate could be used. I entirely agree with that. The hon. Gentleman’s essential point is right: there comes a point where mass is needed because no ship, however good it is, can be in more than one place at any one time. I could not agree more with him.
My point is that countermeasures are being developed for all the threats I have mentioned—drones, speedboats and so on—but as von Moltke said,
“no plan survives contact with the enemy”.
It is equally the case, as I have referred to in the case of the Type 42, that no platform’s wartime capability ever quite matches up to its paper peacetime capability, because no war ever takes place if the other guy does not think he also has a chance. As much as we think our platforms are great, others are looking at ways to undermine them. They only have to be right one time out of 100 and they will cause us damage. There is a time when mass is required.
I know the Government are thinking along those lines already, and I welcome the October announcement that the Royal Netherlands navy will send a warship to be part of the carrier battle group for the first operational tour. That is an important part of the strand of thinking that the warship will form part of a combined NATO battle group. However, I suggest that a broader strategy is required to involve other allies. It is easily foreseeable that allies may not wish to take part in all operations, such as when France—a very close ally—decided that it did not wish to be part of the action we undertook in 2003. That is perfectly understandable, but it should not mean that the UK’s carrier group is unable to put to sea because a certain ally does not wish to take part. The MOD has refused to be drawn thus far on exactly which vessels will deploy, but part of my ask for a strategy is for that thinking to be fleshed out to ensure we can go to sea in all circumstances in terms of numbers, capacity and national partners. We need to ensure we address all the different possibilities.
Those possibilities must also include potential operations. Because it is a fleet carrier and a return to the big carrier concept that we have lost in the past, I have tended to think in terms of fleet carrier and carrier strike operations, but I know the Government are thinking about the utilisation of the carrier in the littoral role. That will mean we have different troops and machines on board, and the support vessels required will be different, too. Coming back to the point made by hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), in 1982 we had sufficient mass that we could put together a taskforce over a weekend and go to sea. That is not likely to be possible anymore, because we simply do not have the mass or the numbers. We will have to think in advance about how we will do that for each potential likely scenario.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent and comprehensive speech. He will note that the carriers are being used in the littoral role, which they are not designed for. Does he lament the decommissioning without replacement of HMS Ocean, and note the excellent work that Intrepid and Fearless did in that role during the south Atlantic conflict?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. The Secretary of State recently made an announcement regarding ships that will take on at least some of the capabilities of HMS Ocean, with the commercial vessels refitted to take helicopters in the littoral role. Essentially, yes—I do mourn the loss of HMS Ocean, although I note that she required a heavy refit at the time, and there was an economic case surrounding that. I could not agree more that we should have a proper littoral capability with a platform designed for it, which was the essence of the hon. Gentleman’s point. Although the carriers will have a littoral role, it is not something that they are really designed for, and it strikes me that we will keep them as far out to sea as possible if we are in any kind of near-peer environment.
Without the strategic thought and overarching strategy that I urge, we risk being faced with a wonderful carrier capability that simply cannot be used without running an unacceptable risk to the carriers, or to the Royal Navy’s overall capability. I do not know whether many hon. Members have read General Shirreff’s novel “War With Russia”. It is worth reading. General Shirreff describes a British Prime Minister who, desperate to make a strong political gesture, sent the new Queen Elizabeth carrier to sea without an adequate escort, with the result that she was sent to the bottom by a ruthless Russian regime, which had been listening for months to the carrier’s precise acoustic signature, as we can guarantee all our potential adversaries in the world will be doing at this very moment. The book is meant as a warning; it is one that we should all take seriously.
I will try to speed up, as I know that others wish to speak. I am not talking just about royal naval ships; the biggest change in British maritime strength post-Falklands lies in the drastic reduction of merchant vessels sailing under the British flag. In 1982, approximately half the taskforce was requisitioned—the Royal Navy merchant reserve. These days, for such a capacity, the Government would have to look at chartering foreign vessels, with everything that that would mean—although I accept, as my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke said, that that may not fully reflect what we are doing. Again, it is part of the strategy, and something that we should look at.
I have spoken mostly about escort warships, and will now spend a little time talking about the aircraft. Each carrier can have up to 36 aircraft embarked, and we are expecting a first squadron of 12 for an initial operating capability to be ready shortly, with two by 2023. I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement on
However, as central as our relationship with the Americans is and always should be to our defence and to NATO, I suggest that we look further. Italy, Japan and Turkey, all of which are scheduled to operate the F-35B, are all potential partners—I know that the decision has not been made—for Team Tempest, the next generation replacement for the Typhoon. If we are looking to co-operate on one programme, it seems a good idea for us to consider operating, as part of an overarching strategy, with other international partners in terms of carrier air groups. Italy, as I noted, has one of its own.
I am delighted that the Crowsnest platform to provide airborne early warning is being brought forward. Ever since the lack of one in the Falklands, it has been clear that there simply must be a carrier-borne, organic, airborne early warning capability. However, let us think about stores and supplies. We have talked about the littoral role. I suspect that it is likely that carriers will be kept out at sea, simply to reduce their vulnerability. In that case, lift capability will be required by helicopters, which have limited range, payload, speed and load-carrying capability. Otherwise, we are looking at ship-to- ship transfers at sea. I would merely observe that the V-22 Osprey, which is used by the US marines and navy, is very expensive and has been built to hold an F-35 engine. What is more, it can do so with speed, lift and range. We currently do not have that capability. I note that Lord West in the other place has made the same suggestion. It is something that we should consider.
Since 2010, as a country we have turned our back on the need for close air support operating from and within a naval task group. That is being put right, which I wholeheartedly welcome, but we need to ensure that we do not replace that issue with a strong core operating capability that lacks the support in terms of ships and supplies to sustain it. Before I let others have their say, I will make two other brief comments. The first is about foreign policy, and the second is about industry, which Jim Shannon mentioned.
Recently, there has been much talk of global Britain. Personally, I do not see that as a reaction to Brexit, or an attempt to find a role, but simply a reassertion of a natural British desire to act globally. As an island nation, we have always had very broad horizons. Much of the brilliance in our island history has been down to the way in which we have explored, found new cultures, adapted, assimilated, exported the best of our values and adopted the best of that we have met elsewhere. The sacrifice of this country in defending freedom and democracy through two world wars needs no explanation here.
Britain has always been a global nation, and we should view the carriers within that tradition. We should consider the ability to project world-leading global air power around the world as an opportunity to act as a force for good—to defend democracy and human rights, and to defend the weak and downtrodden. Clearly, there is a major foreign policy aspect that should be considered in partnership with the defence agenda that I have laid out. I ask for that strategy to be adopted across the Government, in the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and BEIS.
I welcome the announcement that a deployment to the Pacific will be part of the first Queen Elizabeth deployment. A combined Defence and Foreign Office strategy should be worked up to address those circumstances—and I do not mean purely for warfare. Let us never forget the prestige of the Royal Navy. Its soft power, and by reflection that of Britain itself, is enormous. It demonstrates the very best of British skill and professionalism, and I am delighted to see from my time on the armed forces parliamentary scheme—I am on the Navy scheme this year—that the Royal Navy is once again utilising its enormous prestige to bring together parties abroad, who otherwise would not necessarily be able to come together, in a diplomatic capacity. How much more could be done with world-beating carrier capability as a showcase for British industrial and military prowess? Let us see a tie-up with the Foreign Office, DFID and the Department for International Trade.
My last few remarks will celebrate industry. As I have said, they are not just big grey ships that benefit the people of Portsmouth, although they unquestionably do. They also benefit the whole United Kingdom, because they have been built by our constituents in companies all across the country. UK industry is set to benefit from a 15% build share of the jets—£13 billion to British companies. UK shipbuilding employs 23,000 people and contributes £1.7 billion a year to the UK economy.
We are lucky to see coming into service the finest ships of their type anywhere in the world, crewed by the most professional Navy. They are bringing the glory of the Royal Navy’s history together with the technological, industrial prowess that is our hallmark for the future. The carriers can help us to unite new friends around the world in times of peace, and to defend freedom in times of war. They are the very best of our country, and I wholeheartedly celebrate them, as I hope we all can.
Moving on, may I alert the Chamber to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests? I am also a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces, and its lead on the Royal Navy—something that I am incredibly proud, as a woman, to be doing. You are going to get some grief today, my friend.
Let me briefly give my own perspective on some issues that have been already been addressed. The Queen Elizabeth class is exquisite: its ships are beautiful and will be a wonderful addition to our Royal Navy, as long as we ensure that we have enough crew to staff them—I will not say “man” them. The people who will serve on those platforms are incredibly important and we face challenges in recruiting them, but today I wish to speak about the wider military family, because the people who make the platforms are just as important for our national security.
Our capacity to continue to be a tier 1 military country depends on having a wider military-industrial complex to build our national security capabilities. Whenever I visit Rosyth shipyard or other defence establishments, I am always struck not only by people’s professionalism, but by their dedication. As the Minister knows, they build our ships because they know that their friends and family may well serve on them. It is important that they know that they are doing a perfect job to ensure that the best possible platforms are afforded to our service personnel—the best in the world for the Royal Navy.
The Queen Elizabeth class is an extraordinary feat of engineering. Some 11,000 people in six shipyards have touched the pieces of metal that were used to build its extraordinary capabilities. The platform represents £6.2 billion of capacity and equipment, not counting the F-35s that will be on it, or even the tableware that our service personnel will eat off; as MP for the Potteries, I am sure that the Minister will reassure me that the tableware will be purchased from my constituency. Please, Minister—give me a nod.
I want to consider the aircraft carrier in the widest possible context, because it demonstrates the challenges that we face in the sector, not only in procurement for the carrier itself, but in securing the carrier strike group over the longer term. It has been 12 years since 2007, when the then Secretary of State signed off the paperwork for the aircraft carrier and finally launched the programme to start the process of building it. Flight trials are happening this year. Even from the moment we agreed to build, it took us 12 years to get to this point, but prior to that there was a decade of debating, designing and determining the concept of our future aircraft carrier.
The project has challenged our shipyards. It has challenged us on whether we have the resources, the skillset and the domestic sovereign capability to build the platform. During the lifespan of the Queen Elizabeth class, we will have to replace the Astute programme and update and replace the Type 45. We will also have to replace the Type 23 with the Type 26, and then start talking about the Type 26’s replacement—all in the lifetime of this capability. By that point, we may even have seen one Type 31e.
Just ensuring strike group capability for the Queen Elizabeth class requires a long-term plan for procurement, so my urge, demand and request to the lovely Minister is that we look at the longer term. We need to consider the steady drumbeat of orders needed for our domestic industry to deliver the long-term capabilities that we require. We are still not sure how many fleet solid support ships we will actually get—we could probably do with three.
We should recognise how fabulous these platforms will be and what is required for their use, both from a military perspective and from one of diplomatic and soft power. We should also remember the people who made them: our constituents up and down the country. My constituency could not be more landlocked, but my constituents helped to contribute to the Astute class and the Dreadnought class. This is a national programme, with national consequences, making a national contribution to our GDP. I urge the Minister to give me my steady drumbeat of orders.
It is an honour to speak in this debate, and an enormous honour to follow Ruth Smeeth—a woman who deserves all our support and respect for her resilience and extraordinary tenacity in the face of personal challenges in her political life. She certainly has the support and respect of all hon. Members present.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. It is no hardship to commend the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North for her extraordinary resilience; all of us who believe in what this House stands for would do so. If every member of our armed forces were as resilient, tough and determined—not to mention charming—as she is, we would be able to take on the world without any trouble at all. However, let me return to the matter at hand and speak about a ship that I am particularly proud of.
The United Kingdom is a maritime nation and a coastal state. More than 90% of our trade in goods flows into and out of our ports on domestic and global sea lanes. Our trade flows remain entirely dependent on ensuring that home waters and international waters are kept open and safe for commercial sea traffic. This year is the 80th anniversary of the start of the battle of the Atlantic, the longest battle in the history of naval warfare. What was critical then remains true: our Royal Navy’s primary responsibility is to keep the high seas safe for the free flow of our trade in goods, energy and food. It can do so only if it has the best world-leading equipment and weaponry and the advantage over potential enemies.
As an island nation, the United Kingdom was highly dependent on imported goods, even in 1939. Britain required more than 1 million tonnes of imported material every week to survive, feed our population—albeit on rations—and fight. In essence, the battle of the Atlantic was a tonnage war, in which the allies struggled to supply Britain while the axis attempted to stem the flow of merchant shipping that enabled Britain to keep fighting. From 1942, the axis also sought to prevent the build-up of allied supplies and equipment in the British Isles in preparation for the invasion of occupied Europe. The outcome of the battle was a strategic victory for the allies—the German blockade failed—but it came at great cost.
The battle of the Atlantic has been called
“the longest, largest, and most complex naval battle in history”, but at its essence was a critical message, which perhaps we have become a little lazy about: we are an island. Unless we choose policies to make us entirely self-sufficient, which would limit our choices dramatically, we must always invest in our Royal Navy to keep our sea lanes open.
As Brexit approaches and our view of ourselves as a maritime nation comes to the fore once again, there could be no more timely moment to discuss, and call on the Government to implement, a clear whole-of-Government strategy for our aircraft carriers and the carrier strike group of ships that sail the seas and oceans of the globe to keep the flow of goods to and from the United Kingdom’s shores as certain as possible.
Of the two new aircraft carriers being introduced into Royal Navy service, the first, HMS Queen Elizabeth, is already working her way up to full service, while the second, HMS Prince of Wales, is following closely behind. If I may, I will tell hon. Members a little more about these two extraordinary feats of British industrial design, construction, skill and innovation. I have had the honour to watch them grow from boxes of steel made in shipyards across our country and put together in Rosyth, with engineering so sophisticated that the margin of error was millimetres only on these vast steel structures. The ships have grown into their present form under the watchful eye of highly skilled shipyard workers in Rosyth, with a unique partnering relationship of industry and the Ministry of Defence with the Royal Navy. The Aircraft Carrier Alliance was the first of its kind as a procurement project. The end user was genuinely involved throughout the process to maximise value for money for the taxpayer and to create the most user-friendly vessel for the Royal Navy to live and work aboard.
In HMS Queen Elizabeth, we now have the most sophisticated and comprehensive carrier capability in the world. Her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales will be coming into service close behind her. The increasing speed of build with the second vessel demonstrates so well why ship classes get better and more finely tuned as more are built.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the Treasury decided that two was enough, at £3 billion each and a crew requirement of 800 or more sailors. We are at an all-time low in manpower terms for the Royal Navy. All those factors are important. Mind you, £3 billion for a 50-year lifespan strikes me—even as the critical friend to MOD that I am, sitting on the Public Accounts Committee—as a pretty good investment return, considering the choices the carrier group can offer Governments and NATO.
It is to be hoped that in the months ahead, as the modernising defence review progresses and real changes in the business model take place within the Department, the imbalance in funding between the three services’ top-level budgets since the 2010 strategic defence and security review will be sorted out, so that the Royal Navy can meet its activity requirements—a point which my hon. Friend Robert Courts raised earlier—and be able to increase its output, after nine years of trying to meet requirements and the challenges of the continuous at-sea deterrent commitment without ever quite enough funding. We want to be able to maximise the outputs—in the Royal Navy, that is time at sea—so that our sailors and our ships are out there doing what we ask them to do.
Unlike the French, who only have the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, the beauty of having two of these great ships is that we can ensure that we have that at-sea capability 365 days a year. I hope the Minister will reassure the House today that rumours emanating from Treasury sources that it might be fine to mothball or sell Prince of Wales are unfounded. We need two ships to provide 365 days of output.
I could talk about the Queen Elizabeth class military capability in more detail, but I think it is safe to say that my colleagues are all over that already. However, I have had the privilege to visit these ships in construction and to watch Queen Elizabeth leave Rosyth on her maiden voyage. That was a real hold-your-breath moment, because she had to squeeze under the bridge with her hinged radar lowered to get out into open seas on the lowest tides in the summer of 2017.
I then had the even greater privilege of being aboard this mighty vessel on
Amid all the pomp and circumstance, and the real honour of hearing my monarch speak of her own naval life, in her words, as the daughter, wife and mother of her family, who had all served in the Royal Navy, I looked at the young sailors, some of whom looked very young indeed, though that may be a reflection on me. These young men and women standing to attention before their commander-in-chief. The young sailors were simply brimming with excitement and pride at their opportunity to be the first sailors to serve on a ship that will be in service for 50 years or more—a ship that will be the cornerstone of our UK defence and military posture for decades to come, both at home and across the globe; a ship whose last commanding officer has not yet been born.
Why do these state-of-the-art aircraft carriers make even the US Navy jealous? For anyone who knows my interests, they will know of my enduring respect for those in our silent service, who have for the past 50 years served on our continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent under the waves. Our submarine service has been deployed 24/7, 365 days a year since April 1969, with no pomp or circumstance—just the silent invisible defence of our citizens, NATO allies and our interests, bearing the unimaginable responsibility of holding our greatest weapon of peace, the Trident missile, at readiness in case it is ever needed.
The aircraft carrier is the surface equivalent. Our carriers will, between them, provide our surface at-sea conventional deterrent, if that makes sense. With their fighter jets aboard and the strike group of ships with them, they will provide the most effective defensive capability for the United Kingdom and our allies. Crucially, both in home waters and in maritime theatres of operation around the globe, HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales will also be able to operate offensive capability as determined by our Government, either alone but most likely in concert with NATO and other allies. As with the continuous at-sea deterrence—our nuclear deterrent carried on submarines—the carrier is a national asset whose deployment will be determined and informed by political and diplomatic priorities.
Some of the narratives that question our carriers and why we have bothered to invest in them raise issues such as vulnerability and purpose. If the carrier group is questioned, why is it that the Chinese are building aircraft carriers as quickly as they can? Why is it that the Americans are so keen to work with us and our carrier groups in the years ahead? It is quite simply because this is a powerful and effective tool. Critically, however, these are not ships to be mothballed and only put to sea when needed for naval warfare, as some of our illustrious naval ships of old were.
I love ships’ names and I think we should take a moment to consider those ships of old, and the men who served, and died, in them. Early aircraft carriers in the Royal Navy have included, in the first world war, HMS Furious, Argus and Hermes; in the 1920s, HMS Courageous and Glorious; in the 1930s, HMS Illustrious, Ark Royal, and Formidable; through the second world war, HMS Indefatigable, Indomitable, Unicorn, Colossus, Edgar, Audacious, Ocean, Vengeance, Mars, Venerable, Warrior, Theseus, Triumph, Majestic, Terrible and Magnificent. These are powerful names for powerful war fighting machines—floating airbases from which to command battle space since world war one and the creation of air power—but they are nothing like our latest carriers.
The 21st-century aircraft carrier is not only a warfighter—the only dedicated fifth generation platform in the world equipped and designed to deliver the F-35B fighter jet— but she can serve in any number of roles supporting and promoting our national interests.
As we leave the EU and seek to stand tall on the global stage once again as a sovereign nation, these platforms can provide a range of opportunities for diplomacy, intelligence gathering, trade, humanitarian support and disaster relief. That is really why we have called the debate today, because if we are to reach our stated aims of becoming once again a global-facing Britain, reaching out to old friends and new in trade and alliances, it is vital that we make full use of these extraordinary ships.
The carriers are diplomatic tools for our country—the royal yacht Britannia of the 21st century, perhaps—able to deliver a diplomatic message, hard or soft; to assist with trade delegations, as indeed HMS Queen Elizabeth has already done in New York last autumn; and to provide humanitarian relief on a scale never before seen by the UK, if needed, anywhere in the world.
The Government’s PR and official statements to date about these carriers of ours have been focused on size, tonnage and capability. All of those are impressive, but the important conversation that we need to have with the UK citizen needs to be about much more than those good stories of skills, jobs and next generation ships. As these great ships cruise our vast oceans, they will be a hub for intelligence collection and dissemination to assist all our allies in keeping our world as safe as possible. The platforms are the epitome of the vision created by our national security adviser, Sir Mark Sedwill, the fusion doctrine, which properly joins up all the strands of defensive, offensive and humanitarian activity, ordered and put into effect by Government. These great ships of ours are the epitome of fusion afloat.
The aircraft carrier in its carrier strike group, from whichever nation, is operated by navies, but is programmed by Prime Ministers and Presidents. The President of the United States receives a daily brief on the whereabouts of the US Navy carrier battle groups. The French President personally authorises the deployment intentions of the Charles de Gaulle personally. Leaders visit their carriers as part of their demonstration of national pride and, of course, power.
We have restored to our naval capabilities two great ships and the opportunity to create carrier strike groups with huge reach, for the next 50 years. They are the cornerstone of a naval taskforce to project UK power and influence in many ways in the decades ahead, in a way we have been unable to for several decades. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government are making progress, across departmental silos—everybody knows they drive me crackers—in building an effective and coherent strategy for our state-of-the-art carriers, the latest in a great historic line of British aircraft carriers. This is a great opportunity and I urge the Government to take full advantage of what a constantly at-sea carrier strike group can offer global security and British power projection.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate led by Robert Courts, who gave an excellent introduction. He set out the history of carrier strike capability in the UK with aplomb, and spoke highly of our capability and future opportunity, which was fantastic.
[Sir Graham Brady in the Chair]
I share the sentiments of my hon. Friend Ruth Smeeth, who raised issues about industrial capability. I speak with a degree of interest: I think I am the only Member who was actually involved in the design and construction of the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers in Glasgow. Let me mention one of the most striking aspects of being involved in the project. When I first started as a graduate at BAE Systems, the chief engineer gave us a briefing on the Queen Elizabeth class and talked about the complexity of the project. One thing he said really struck home; he put up an aerial photograph of RAF Lossiemouth and said, “You’re looking at 5.6 million square metres of real estate. We have to condense the same number of aircraft movements into 0.3% of the space. That’s how we deliver the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier.”
That shows just how complex the delivery of an aircraft carrier is; an airfield is being compacted into 0.3% of the usual space, and we are trying to deliver the same intensity of operations at sea in all weather conditions. That is why, in a nutshell, an aircraft carrier is such a complex project. It is probably among the top five most complex engineering projects ever undertaken by mankind. It is a great testament to British engineering that we have been able to achieve this capability, despite the challenges posed by the inconsistent construction runs and feast-and-famine orders that have plagued our shipbuilding industry for decades. I think that is what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North hinted at, as did the hon. Member for Witney. He talked about the bad decisions made in the 1960s. An example is the cancellation of the CVA-01 aircraft carrier project, which was intended to be called HMS Prince of Wales and Queen Elizabeth—we got there only 40 years later. The TSR2 strategic bomber was also cancelled at that time.
It seems that history has a habit of repeating itself. I lament the very poor decisions made in the 2010 strategic defence and security review, which destroyed the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft. That is now recognised as a failure of judgment, and we are trying to replicate what we had, but with the loss of British sovereign capability to build large fixed-wing aircraft like the Nimrod. Looking at the failure to adapt our shipbuilding capabilities for the long term, I fear that the national shipbuilding strategy has a series of flaws that we have to be aware of.
On the construction of the aircraft carrier, there was real difficulty getting match-fit again in order to deal with the scale of the project. That is largely what I was concerned about in Govan. I have a photograph of me standing in bay 1 of the ship block and outfit hall at Govan as lower block 4 was being transferred out of that hall and on to a barge in order be taken to Rosyth. The size and beam of the aircraft carrier was dictated by the fact that the shipyard was built by a Norwegian company to build gas tankers in the late 1980s and 1990s. The width of the aircraft carrier was determined by the size of the hall. We were building it in a shipyard that was never designed or constructed to build an aircraft carrier—the whole structure of the carrier was designed around our industrial limitations.
It feels like we have not learned from the mistakes made and the constraints imposed by industry in this project, which is why we have not really looked at how the national shipbuilding strategy is getting us to upper-quartile performance in world shipbuilding. That is a glaring omission from the document. I hope that the work of the all-parliamentary group on shipbuilding and ship repair, which is bringing forward a review of the national shipbuilding strategy in the next few weeks, will offer constructive and positive suggestions of how we can improve that strategy. It is critical that we get this right.
Looking at the threat to the shipbuilding industry, in Glasgow, 2,723 people are supported on a full-time-equivalent basis by the shipbuilding industry. It supports an additional 3,220 jobs in Scotland, which speaks to the scale of the aircraft carrier project. It supported 8,000 shipyard workers in—I make a slight correction here—eight shipyards. If Scotstoun and Govan are included as separate, distinct shipyards, there are eight. Never confuse Govan and Scotstoun as a single shipyard—that is a fatal error in Glasgow.
We must correct the Ministry of Defence; otherwise, some fairly indignant Glaswegians will be coming to bang on its door.
The issue goes back to the drumbeat of orders, and stability in the order book. I used to sit with colleagues in the shipyard and we would look at resource planning. We would plug in different projects and see the curve of labour demand over the next 10 to 15 years. We knew that redundancies or contractions would have to be made at some point, because the loading of the shipyard’s work programme was not smoothed; there was failure by the Ministry of Defence, the Treasury—in terms of financing projects—and the industry to co-ordinate properly to ensure as stable and smooth a curve as possible. That kind of curve would have delivered learning-curve benefits, industrial efficiency and the confidence to invest in world-class infrastructure and processes, and would create a virtuous cycle that delivers a world-class, competitive edge that would mean we could sell ships around the world at a competitive price, and deliver a sustainable and growing shipbuilding industry.
If we can optimise that equation, we will be in a good place, but I fear that the national shipbuilding strategy will not address that issue. One of the symptoms is the Type 31e. It is a laudable aspiration, but the reality is that we are committing the same mistake time and again. We are going to year zero and designing and building a new platform from scratch every time. That is a total failure to understand how industry works. The Americans have been building the same class for the last 30 years, with incremental improvements to the same platform. We need to work to that sort of concept. There is no reason why we cannot adapt the Type 45 and Type 26 hulls for a number of different uses. Building the ship as a raw steel box is only about 8% of the overall capital cost; it is how it is fitted out that drives the cost into the platform. If we can get a standardised, basic ship type for each type of ship needed for the Royal Navy, we can drive efficiency into the programmes, get more hulls into the water, and build a rigorous, carrier strike battle group around the Queen Elizabeth class, which would allow us to get the bulk back into the Royal Navy.
I have spoken to the Royal Navy, which says it has 19 escorts, but it needs 24 to meet all its planning needs. The Navy needs to bridge that gap, but how will we do it? There is no explanation of how that is happening. I would say that we need another 24 plus. We had 32 escorts as recently as 20 years ago. How do we get back to that situation? I do not think that Type 31s will solve that problem. How do we fix that issue? It is not just about looking at the aircraft carriers, which is a fantastic class of ship in isolation; it is about how we build that resilience into the carrier strike battle group. If we do not get a correct and efficient escort proposition, we will not meet that need. That goes back to getting our industrial capability correct—something that is not being addressed by the national shipbuilding strategy.
Another symptom of the problem is the fleet solid support ships competition. If you ask me, it is absolutely insane even to entertain the idea of an international competition for this, because it belies any understanding of how to drive value into the project. Looking at the fleet solid support ships, 6,700 jobs will be created or secured, including 1,800 shipyard jobs and 450 apprenticeships. Some £272 million will be recycled back into the UK economy through wages and supply of payments to the Treasury. Those figures must be weighted in the judgment for the UK bid on fleet solid support ships, and they must be weighted into the need to sustain the critical mass of industrial capability that the aircraft carrier left as a legacy at Rosyth.
In the next few years, we are potentially looking at over 1,000 job losses across the Babcock group, and at the closure of Appledore, which built the bulbous bows for the aircraft carrier. There are huge industrial capabilities at risk. Look at the Rugby site, which builds electric motors for the integrated electric propulsion system for the Type 45 and the aircraft carrier—one of the most fantastic industrial achievements of the UK. That is at risk again; General Electric proposes closing that strategically important site. These things need to be gripped by the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury, because we are losing a war of attrition on our industrial capability in the shipbuilding industry.
I want to touch on the capability that we are losing from General Electric. We have already lost one of the capabilities, which was in Kidsgrove in my constituency. We were given assurances that the capability would be sustainable long term after its redeployment to Rugby and Stafford, yet we are losing it. Industry is just not supporting us in the right way if that is not part of the sovereign skills capability and it knows there is a steady drumbeat of orders.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is critical that we look not just at the first-tier equipment manufacturers, such as BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, in which the Government have golden shares and can direct operational decision making to an extent, but at the second and third-tier supply chains. After all, 3,000 people involved in the aircraft carrier project were in the supply chains. We need to look at the industrial capabilities that are critical to maintaining sovereign capability. It is clear that General Electric has made an operational decision to move that capability to France. That is not in the British national interest, so we need to make it clear that we will not accept that. It is as simple as that. It is the Government’s duty to make that case and use whatever leverage is required to make General Electric change its mind. The Government are there to correct negative market decisions, and that is what needs to happen to sustain our industrial capability.
My vision is of a better national shipbuilding strategy that looks to the future and the capabilities that we need to sustain, and ensures that we have a long-term capital investment proposition with the Treasury that reflects the complexity and long-term nature of shipbuilding programmes, finances them properly on a multi-year, generational basis, and invests in the capital infrastructure that is required to get our shipyards match-fit. It is a great tragedy that the world-class shipbuilding capability on the Clyde has not been realised, and that we are still building Type 26s in the same old hall built by a Norwegian company for gas tankers in the 1980s. It has served us well, but when the business case was made for building that hall in the 1980s, we sure as hell did not think we would be building aircraft carriers and Type 26 frigates in it.
This is about not just the narrow business case of one programme and the investment for building Type 26s in the shipyard, but all the other ships that will follow in its wake. This is a 50 to 60-year capital investment programme. The industrial benefit of doing that is enormous, and the Ministry of Defence has not addressed it. I hope the Minister will address that point, because it is crucial that we start to think about this in those terms. The silo mentality about projects does not serve our defence industrial capability. We need a much broader view and much more integration to secure our skills base. We must infuse our ageing shipbuilding workforce with more apprentices. We need sustainable training programmes and a stable demand pipeline through programmes such as the fleet solid support ships, which should be plugged in to take up the slack that has come from the downscaling of the aircraft carrier programme.
Similarly, why are we not planning for a proper replacement for HMC Ocean, rather than retrofitting merchant vessels? That is a rather foolish and superficial way of doing it. Let us build a new helicopter landing platform, a replacement for the Albion class and a world-class shipyard that is able to deliver them. That is what we need to do to pull all this together and realise the industrial legacy of the Queen Elizabeth-class programme, which was an exemplar of British engineering. It was a truly world-class, world-leading programme. We talk about building the space shuttle and the international space station, but the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier is up there with the most complex engineering projects ever undertaken by the human race. We should have a great national celebration of that achievement. Let us make the most of the legacy.
I congratulate all four Members who have spoken so far. Only one of them is a member of the Defence Committee, which I have the honour to chair. Given their depth of knowledge and enormous enthusiasm, the Defence Committee will not be short of worthy members in the future. I encourage those who are not yet on it to redouble their efforts to be so at the first opportunity. The beneficiaries of their enthusiasm and breadth of knowledge will be the House and the country as a whole.
The previous speeches have not left me with as much to say as I might otherwise have said. That is an additional benefit to anybody watching the debate. I will pick and choose a few points here and there from what has been said already, and try to develop them into a theme of strategy and adversaries. When I talk about adversaries, I am really talking about one overwhelming adversary: the Treasury. We heard from my hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan that, after bringing in one of the two largest vessels ever built for the Royal Navy, the Treasury might be thinking of mothballing it. I suppose that is a little better than the proposal that I heard from one George Osborne in the run-up to the 2010 election, which was to scrap the project for building the carriers completely. It is amazing how many times we have almost lost the ability to project air power from the sea. In one case, we did lose it. We lost it when we lost the Invincible class of carriers.
My hon. Friend Robert Courts, in his magisterial opening speech, referred to the fact that those carriers were termed through-deck cruisers, and he was rather critical of that. This is the only minor point of correction I would make to his exemplary exposition. Those ships were from the outset aircraft carriers capable of enabling the Harrier still to offer fixed-wing coverage from the sea to the land. They were called through-deck cruisers to defeat the adversary—the Treasury. If they had been called carriers from the outset, they would never have been built. [Interruption.] I am glad to see that my hon. Friend accepts that. Once they were safely in commission, and after a respectable number of years, it became possible to reclassify them as aircraft carriers, which is what they were always intended to be.
Of course, we very nearly had no carriers for the Falklands conflict. We only had them, as I say, because of a bit of subterfuge on the part of the admiralty. When it came to the Libya conflict—a disastrously misconceived conflict, as it happens—we had no carrier capability at all. I recall that when the decision was taken to have a gap between the phasing out of the Invincible-class carriers and HMS Queen Elizabeth’s coming into service, we did not anticipate any role for a carrier for 10 years or so. I believe that the Libyan scenario arose after something like 10 months, rather than 10 years. Guess which warship our French allies in that conflict immediately moved to the theatre? It was their one and only aircraft carrier.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a very important point about euphemisms. Another favourite of mine is “capability holiday”, and “fitted for but not with” was a common theme on the Type 45 destroyer. Does he agree that the issue of capability holidays needs to be properly scrutinised? I do not think the Ministry of Defence has recognised the damage that the 2010 SDSR caused, in terms of the loss of maritime patrol capability and carrier capability.
The trouble with 2010 was that it was a funded defence review that was totally unstrategic. People say that the 1998 defence review was the reverse: it was very strategic, but almost totally unfunded. Our problem is that we are unable in times of peace to persuade the people in charge of the national purse strings that the best investment they can make in the long term is to have strong armed forces. If our armed forces are strong enough, we will not have to spend all that treasure, let alone all those lives, in fighting conflicts that arise as a result of our perceived weakness.
My right hon. Friend is making an absolutely outstanding point. Does he agree with this summary of it? We need to have a strategic look at what we want to achieve with our strategic defence goals and then fund them, as opposed to having the funding and then seeing what we can still manage to do.
I will go some way towards acknowledging that, with this one caveat: our strategic goals cannot be defined more tightly than the ability to have a full range of military capability to meet whatever threats may reasonably be regarded as likely to arise. I am afraid that all speeches that I make about defence policy and military strategy come back to the same three basic concepts: deterrence, containment and the unpredictability of future conflict. Libya and the Falklands were unpredictable.
The only thing we can predict is that the vast majority of conflicts in which we will be engaged in in the future, as in the vast majority of conflicts in the past, will arise with little or no warning significantly in advance, and that is why we have to have a comprehensive range of military capabilities. It is very difficult to persuade budget-conscious Treasury officials not to take a chance with the nation’s security. That is why the Defence Select Committee comes back time and again to the same point, which is that defence has fallen too far down our scale of national priorities. When we compare it with other high spending Departments we can see that because in the 1980s, at the stage when we faced an aggressive Soviet Union and a major terrorist threat in the form of Northern Ireland and the IRA insurgency, we spent approximately the same on defence as we spent on health and education. Now we spend four times on health and two and a half times on education as we spend on defence. We can get away with that as long as things do not go wrong, but if they do we live to regret it bitterly.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his indulgence in giving way. Although I do not think the decisions on spending are mutually exclusive—I think we have sufficient capacity in the state to fund all these things adequately—he makes an important point about thinking we can get away with not properly investing. I think of the predecessor of the new Prince of Wales, which was sunk by the Japanese in 1941 because there were fatal weaknesses in the battleship’s design. Its air defence systems had been scrapped because of cost-saving measures in the 1930s. Does he not agree that that is a lesson of history that we ought to probably learn if unpredictable conflicts are to emerge in future?
I wondered whether I should make a reference to that terrible event in December 1941 when the Prince of Wales and the Repulse were sunk by Japanese air power. One of the main problems was that they were sent out with inadequate protection and inadequate escorts, and, as I recall from my history books, no air cover whatever. Having said that, we can say that HMS Queen Elizabeth has already claimed one victory. Given that, as I said earlier, the Treasury can be regarded as the main adversary, I think the Treasury has probably sunk more ships in the Royal Navy than any other enemy we have faced. It was gratifying to see a bit of advance retaliation in that HMS Queen Elizabeth appears to have sunk the Chancellor’s visit to the Communist Chinese without even having embarked on its first operational voyage. [Laughter.] I hoped to get a laugh at that point, but behind that is a serious point that relates to what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney a moment ago in an intervention: the Government need to have an overall strategy. All too often they look both ways with regard to countries that do not mean us a lot of good.
Let us take the example of China. Before I come to the more recent issue of its behaviour in the South China sea, let us go back to 2013 when I served on the Intelligence and Security Committee, which devoted a great deal of time to a study of foreign penetration of British critical national infrastructure. That was the overall title of the report that we produced, but in reality it was all about Huawei and the way in which that giant Chinese Communist telecommunications firm had penetrated British telecom and been brought into the system without Ministers having even been alerted until it had happened. I remember being somewhat fazed when, within a matter of a few weeks of the publication of that report, with all its dire warnings about the need for it to never happen again, I saw a picture of the then Prime Minster David Cameron shaking hands with the chief executive of Huawei on the doorstep of No. 10 on the basis of some great new deal that was being proposed.
We need to understand that if there is something so sensitive about the idea that a ship of the Royal Navy could even dream of going into the Pacific ocean that a major trade trip from the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom to China has to be called off, there is something terribly wrong both with the attitude of the Communist Chinese in calling off the trip, as it were, and the attitude of the Treasury in wanting the Chancellor to undertake it. I will leave the point at that at the moment, unless I get some in-flight refuelling from the hon. Gentleman.
I think that is a very perceptive suggestion. When it comes to the issue of keeping the country safe from threats to our way of life, which now take on new forms that are much more difficult to recognise because they do not operate at a level that would automatically trigger the same sort of alarm bells as traditional military threats, the support that I find as chairman of the Defence Committee from Members of all four parties represented on it is absolutely outstanding. The House should acknowledge more than it does the high degree of consensus among defence-minded people in all the major parties, irrespective of occasional disagreements on specific aspects of defence now and again.
I want to bring my remarks to a conclusion by talking about the 1998 Labour Government strategic defence review, which I described as unfunded but highly strategic. It was a very good review. If the funds had been made available for it, it would have been an outstanding success. At that time in 1998 the threat from the Soviet Union had gone away and it was hoped that we would not have to consider a major confrontation in Europe. So the thinking behind that review went something like this: given that we do not anticipate our armed forces having to be engaged in the European theatre in future, it follows that if they are to be engaged on a significant scale anywhere, it will be at some considerable distance from Europe. Given that we no longer are a global imperial power with a network of strategic bases around the world from which to intervene, it follows that we need a concept that enables us to have a movable strategic base. At the heart of that strategic defence review of 1998 was the concept of the sea base, which had two central pillars. One was carrier strike and the other was the amphibious taskforce.
Carrier strike was to enable us to exert air power to the land from the sea, and the amphibious taskforce was to enable us to insert land forces on to territory likewise from the sea, taking the whole strategic concept into a way in which we could travel to the theatre where the need to intervene militarily applied.
Only a year ago we faced yet another major potential crisis. It was widely reported in January last year that the core ships—HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark of the amphibious taskforce—were going to be pensioned off 15 years before their due date. I can honestly say that the most influential report of the 27 so far produced by the Defence Committee since I have been chairing it was the one that we brought out in February 2018, which described the proposal to lose our ability to exert land power from the sea as militarily illiterate. I absolutely welcome the intervention of the Secretary of State for Defence, who could see the risk and what was going to happen. Some people have criticised the modernising defence programme for not being been quite as substantial as they expected. However, that is to miss the point, because although I welcome the concept of the fusion doctrine, which my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed referred to, there was a way in which it posed a risk to the future of our armed forces. The way in which the defence theory for the future was being amalgamated in the national security capability review with newer threats, such as those from cyberspace and disinformation, was conceptually sound but economically dangerous. I shall explain after taking an intervention from my hon. Friend.
On that point, the great challenge of the fusion doctrine, whose strategic vision is really intelligent, as my right hon. Friend says, is that, as ever—it is difficult to say out loud—the adversary in the Treasury and those who were in my view driving the policy forward saw it as an opportunity to take hold of the defence budget and bring it into a greater whole, without fully understanding the need for hard power to remain in our national picture.
I am delighted with that intervention, which has saved me at least the next two paragraphs of what I was going to say. That was precisely the danger. The defence budget was being wrapped up inside an overall defence and security budget and we were being told that that national security capability review would have to be fiscally neutral. So effectively, if £56 billion was going to be put together overall, and if more money was to be spent to meet the new sorts of threats we are constantly told about—threats in space or cyberspace, or threats of disinformation that are not really new but are moving into new dimensions—every £1 received for those threats would mean £1 less for the Army, the Royal Navy or the Royal Air Force. That is why there were leaks— clearly authoritative—about potential cuts in each service, including about the loss of HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, which would have happened if the Secretary of State for Defence had not fought and won the political battle to strip out the defence elements from the national security capability review and have a separate modernising defence programme. That meant that he was no longer caught in that fiscal or financial ambush.
Let us not be too complacent in congratulating ourselves on the advent of such marvellous vessels, because they very nearly did not happen, first because of the Treasury, back in 2009-10, and secondly because even as we brought in half the concept of the sea base—carrier strike—we were in danger, right up to a few months ago, of losing the other half of the concept. That was amphibious capability, without which we would not have a rounded overall capability to intervene strategically in whatever theatre of the world a threat might arise unpredictably. Believe me, when a threat arises in the future, it will be unpredictable and we will be lucky if we are sufficiently equipped to meet it. That luck depends on the advocacy of people such as those we have heard from this afternoon, in every party represented in the debate. I hope that my hon. Friend who speaks for the Scottish National Party, Martin Docherty-Hughes, will presently make a speech and keep up the tradition.
It is a pleasure to follow Dr Lewis, the Chair of the Defence Committee, which does such excellent work and produces such outstanding reports, helping to defend our country and the broader alliance to which we belong. I congratulate the hon. Members for Witney (Robert Courts) and for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) and my hon. Friend Ruth Smeeth on their contribution to bringing the debate about.
I, like the Select Committee Chair, have been struck by the unanimity of views expressed and the power of the comments made in the debate. I particularly wanted to take part because, as everyone knows, I am a big supporter of defence and of increased expenditure, but also because I have a sense of frustration, although not with the Ministry of Defence. I feel frustration with our country and with Government as a whole, given the number of debates I have taken part in where Members have said it is crucial that defence and foreign policy objectives, and international development objectives, should be married together. I want the Minister to take that point away; but this cannot be another of those debates where we say such things and, a year later, the right hon. Member for New Forest East gives another report, and the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed or, indeed, my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North and for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) make another outstanding speech explaining that foreign policy objectives must be linked to defence objectives. That is what happens. I am doing no more than expressing my opinion about what is happening, and that is the subject of my contribution.
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman, so may I draw his attention, as an example of what he is asking for, to the recently published Africa strategy? That is a cross-Government strategy drawing together strategies from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence. That is exactly what is happening.
I accept that that has been published, but I want to say something further to the point that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed made, about the UK citizen. My point—and this shows how much work has to be done—is that, as the Defence Committee Chair said, on
I have a broader point to make. It is not only about the need to win the debate and the argument in Government. The Chair of the Defence Committee has made the argument time and again, and so have the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North and Martin Docherty-Hughes, who speaks for the Scottish National party. Where on earth is the engagement with the UK public? My constituents would see massive spending on tackling the terrorist threat as something to pile money into. The debate about whether we should spend billions of pounds on aircraft carriers is a totally different concept for them: why should we be spending that money? I agree with spending it, but have we won that debate with the British public? I very much doubt it. I would say that there is a need, with respect to Russia and China. On the middle east, people might get it, although they could say “You can already bomb the middle east from Akrotiri if you want to, so why do we have them?” Hon. Members have articulated the argument.
Norway has been mentioned. I had the privilege of visiting the Falklands last week, with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Our defence of the self-determination of the Falkland Islands is absolutely something of which we can all be proud. We do so much more, but who talks about that? HMS Clyde is there as a projection of naval power—I did not much enjoy being on it myself, but they do a phenomenal job—but it is not there only in defence of the Falklands. It is also there to patrol the waters near the South Sandwich Islands and South Georgia, and to defend the Antarctic treaty, fishing rights and other things that some other nations exploit—or would if we were not there.
That is a role for naval power, but who articulates that in a practical way to UK citizens so that they understand? It is not just the Government who need to wake up to that, but the whole of Parliament as well, so the matter is addressed much more fully.
The hon. Gentleman rightly points out that through the continuous deployment of those ships across the globe, the Royal Navy is engaged in environmental protection. That is exactly what HMS Clyde is doing. That speaks to my son’s generation, who are passionate about the environment, ecology and looking after rare species to make sure that we leave our planet in a better state than we found it. Yet we seem unable to join up that up with the importance of what looks like hard power but which, most of the time, is not, thank goodness.
I agree. That supports my point that the use of the aircraft carriers is of course about hard power. I say to the Minister that we ought to put various scenarios to people and explain, “These are the sorts of situations where we might expect the aircraft carriers to be used when it comes to hard power.” Of course, as the hon. Lady says, there are so many other ways in which naval or military power of any sort could be used, including for the environment or to support human rights and freedoms, as we have seen so well displayed by our armed forces’ humanitarian efforts in the past few years.
In my view, however, we do not explain—or, if you like, exploit—that enough to win public support. That is the major point I wish to make. I repeat that my constituents understand why we spend money on tackling terrorism. Those who support a much broader defence profile, including the hon. Lady and others—and I count myself in this category—need to explain much more clearly to constituents why this country rightly invests in what it does and why we should perhaps invest more in our defence across the world.
The hon. Member for Witney made a powerful point about Britain as a global force for good, but what does that actually mean? We could explain that, but we need to unpick it so that people understand what it means across the world and how we will operate with our allies to achieve it. That is what I mean about joining up foreign policy, international development and defence.
The hon. Gentleman is very kind to give way again. On his point about reaching out to constituents, I visited Ellington Primary School in my constituency a couple of weeks ago. The children had read a book about landmines and their impact on communities after the war was over. They set me a challenge, as the Minister knows, to make landmines a thing of the past. That is quite a big ask for a single MP, but I hope others will assist.
It is fascinating that the children came across that story in a book. They must have been completely transfixed by it, because it had motivated those 10-year-olds’ political activity—their desire to do something better. The challenge that the Minister and I are working on is to see if we can find a member of the Army—perhaps even the Minister himself, who is an expert in bomb disposal—to go and talk to those children about what it is to be a military person, and the skill and bravery that will help change the world into the better place that they want to see.
I agree. The Minister, with his distinguished background, would be much more able than me to articulate that. That is the essence of what I am saying. Although we often talk about this in Parliament, we never seem to reach the point where we have a scheme to deliver that message more forcefully.
Rather than making broad strategic points, I want to mention a few specifics and it would be helpful if the Minister could address them. What does having two fully operational carriers mean? Does it mean having one fully operational taskforce at sea 24 hours a day, 365 days a year? If so, what is the other carrier doing? If not mothballed, is it tied up or ready to go? Do we have two because we assume that one will be in the dry dock? Can the Minister explain what we actually mean by “two fully operational carriers”?
Can the Minister confirm what the plan is for the number of aircraft on each of the aircraft carriers? He will correct me if I get my figures wrong, but we have ordered 48 F-35Bs. One presumes that those are all for the carriers, so if I have understood correctly, that means two squadrons of 12—one for each carrier—and that all 48 will be on the carriers. Is that right? What does that mean for the purchase of the additional 90 aircraft still to be ordered, and will they be As, Cs or more Bs? Can he say a bit more about how the aircraft strike group will work with NATO and in interaction with the different navies and air forces of NATO?
Can the Minister say a bit more about the aircraft carriers operating in littoral space and what that means? Some parliamentary answers have stated that we cannot do that because it might put some of the operational capabilities of the vessels at risk. I wonder whether Ministers sometimes retreat to that answer. How will the carriers operate with helicopters? What does the loss of HMS Ocean, which has been criticised, mean for our helicopter landing capabilities at sea, and should we expect that to happen on carriers? If so, how near would they have to be? Those are a few of my specific questions to the Minister.
I say all of that as a great supporter of the building of the carriers and the creation of a carrier strike group, and we all wish the defence programme well. The whole thrust of this debate is that the Government need to look at what more they can do to ensure that our foreign policy, defence and international development objectives are married in a much more effective way, and that that is explained to the citizens of the United Kingdom.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I congratulate my hon. Friend Robert Courts on securing the debate—I really enjoyed listening to his fascinating speech. His debate is on a topic of very strong interest to many people in my constituency—engineers, scientists and personnel from MOD Defence Equipment and Support, who have played a crucial part in realising the vision of new UK carrier strike capability.
We are fortunate in our country to have both a world-leading manufacturing defence sector and the best armed forces in the world. Many countries around the world use our forces as a reference for how theirs should train and operate. Our defence manufacturing industries ensure that the UK remains one of the top exporters of defence equipment and technical know-how in the world. That gives global Britain a strong platform as we seek to renew and enhance our trading and defence alliances around the world. I am particularly proud of the part that my constituency has played in bringing a new national carrier strike capability into being. Aircraft and the vessels have benefited, and will benefit, from the skill and creativeness of the men and women employed in and around Filton and in the broader south-west.
I will mention a few specific areas. Rolls-Royce’s involvement in carrier strike supports several hundred jobs at its Bristol site in my constituency. The Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier MT30 gas turbine, and the anti-air warfare Type 45 destroyer WR21 gas turbine, are supported by Bristol. It is also worth getting on the record that the anti-submarine Type 23 frigates, which are powered by Spey gas turbines, are supported out of the Filton plant, and that the STOVL derivative engines for the F35B, which will fly from the Queen Elizabeth, were designed there.
Thales, a founding member of the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, led the procurement of the glass flying control—FLYCO—position, fitted on to the rear island, which is the operational centre controlling all air operations. That links the ship’s operations room, navigation bridge, flight deck and hangar operations centre. Crucially, Thales provides the communications systems for both carriers. The systems, from wireless on board to satellite connectivity, allow personnel on the ships to talk to each other, the aircraft, the rest of the Navy and associated task groups, as well as allies, civilian vessels and air traffic, with complete security anywhere in the world.
BAE Systems has a networked visualisation suite at Filton, which allows the company to engage with the MOD and other customers in design reviews and approvals on an ongoing basis. I also pay particular tribute to the work done at MOD Abbey Wood in my constituency by more than 8,000 dedicated public servants, who will have been central to the acquisition of the ships, and the various sensors and systems on the ships and aircraft.
A national carrier strike capability is a clear outward sign of our intent to play an even bigger part on the world stage. We have heard much nonsense about Britain turning inward because of Brexit, but we have been a global maritime nation since the Elizabethan era, if not before. Our global connections might be underpinned by friendship and history, but such links are crucial and practically utilitarian. In a world where autocracies sometimes seem to have the upper hand, quiet diplomacy must always be backed by a credible capability. Our allies rightly look to us to come to their aid when they are threatened, or to act as a deterrent.
Many countries enjoy the opportunity to train with British service personnel. That helps to enhance and develop good relationships, which sustain a shared commitment to an open and inclusive world in which many might otherwise be tempted to appease or accommodate more powerful countries that do not necessarily have their best interests at heart, or share our values.
I, for one, was delighted when the Secretary of State announced the decision to deploy the Queen Elizabeth and a supporting group of escorts and auxiliaries in the far east in due course. That is a great reflection of our support for allies in the region, as well as a restatement of the freedom of navigation on the high seas, which is enjoyed by all. That is a tangible benefit that most people can understand of having carrier strike force capability. I am sure that the Minister agrees that if the carrier is going east of Suez and into the Asia-Pacific region, it would be great if it visited Singapore during the 60th anniversary of that country’s independence, which will be in 2025, to demonstrate the deep bonds between our two countries, and to emphasise our outlook being much more global.
We would do well to recall that we need to develop the carrier strike concept, and that by using F35s since the beginning, we have cross-trained with US personnel on an ongoing basis. That can only help our ability to operate and deploy with our key and closest NATO ally, the United States.
History shows us that we never seem to know where the next threat will come from. In a multi-polar world, we need to invest in capability that is agile and that will give policy and decision makers real, serious and tangible options. Carrier strike capability represents a sovereign capability, enabling our country to make choices that support our national interest. The challenges that we encountered during Operation Ellamy—the recent Libya campaign, when it was difficult for us to operate individually—demonstrated that the lack of proper carrier capability would inhibit our ability to act unilaterally in future, or even to act as well as we would like with some of our NATO allies. We now have an even greater opportunity to project the United Kingdom as a global presence, distinct from Europe, although we remain a firm European ally that will vigorously defend the continent’s freedom and security if necessary, through NATO.
The UK’s carrier strike capability will serve as a great way for our country to showcase some of the technology and innovation to which I have referred, specifically in my constituency. We need many more of the outstanding engineers and scientists who played such a central role in making the idea of new sovereign carrier strike capability a reality, so that we can enhance and increase our sovereign defence manufacturing capability well into the future. It brings together the best of British: great people, great ships, and great technical expertise and innovation.
However, we must always remember the purpose of our armed forces: to protect the national interest, our freedom and our way of life, and the security and protection of our people, using lethal force if necessary. I cannot think of a better way of doing that than with our carrier strike, and I cannot think of a better way than our carrier strike of enhancing our global position, being ambassadors to the world and tying together, as others have said, the three Departments of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence. That is something that we need to talk about a lot more.
I commend Robert Courts on an impassioned opening speech. I also associate myself fully with the words of Anne-Marie Trevelyan about my colleague on the Defence Committee, Ruth Smeeth, because what she and many of her colleagues face is an affront to parliamentary democracy. They should have the full support of the entire House.
I agree with a lot of what has been said in the debate. We on the Defence Committee often find that we agree on quite a lot—apart from one glaring, obvious thing. Mr Sweeney pointed out some of the issues faced in Govan to do with the structure of the yard, which was formerly Norwegian owned and was built specifically for oil rigs. That legacy has impacted the shipping industry across the whole of these islands; I will go into that at some point, as the son of a shipyard worker outside the city of Glasgow. I also agreed with the hon. Gentleman about incremental changes to structures. That links to affordability and capability. Capability is worth nothing if we cannot afford it in the long term.
Dr Lewis, the Chair of the Defence Committee, is eloquent on the political dimensions. I might say more about that. His chairmanship of the Select Committee is second to none, and he is welcoming to all Members, no matter if we have slight disagreements on the odd occasion. Vernon Coaker talked about support. I could not agree with him more. Another element of that support, apart from the construction of vessels of any type, is the naval personnel. I am sure that he recognises, as Committee members do, some of the profound challenges we face in recruitment, not just to the Army but to the entire armed forces. Jack Lopresti mentioned the connection between local industry and the industrial complex. He will find no disagreement here. He is correct that those are essential elements to consider.
A few anniversaries were mentioned at the beginning of speeches; it would be remiss of me as a Bankie not to mention that today is the anniversary of the launching of the Duke of York from the John Brown shipbuilding company, the greatest shipyard that ever existed on the Clyde, in the burgh of Clydebank, West Dunbartonshire. My grandfather worked as a riveter in the yard. The shipyard also gave birth to the mighty Hood and to aircraft carriers, the Nairana class—strike force of some sort—and HMS Indefatigable, which was launched in December 1942. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who is just leaving the Chamber, also mentioned the Britannia. The sad thing about the Britannia’s retirement was that she ended up on the east coast of Scotland, rather than where she should be, back in the burgh of Clydebank. My father worked on that ship as well.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good speech about Clydebank’s shipbuilding pedigree. He might also want to note, for the record, that the world’s first aircraft carrier, HMS Argus—a converted ocean liner—was built just downstream at Beardmore’s in Dalmuir. That gave birth to the whole concept of the modern through-deck aircraft carrier, and it is a great tribute to the pedigree of Clyde shipbuilding. I would perhaps dispute his claim that Clydebank is the greatest shipyard on the Clyde; Fairfield has a good claim to that title, too.
No Glaswegian is ever going to win that argument with me. On Beardmore’s, the hon. Gentleman steals my thunder and my speech—perhaps he saw it earlier. Beardmore’s was one of the greatest shipyards. It ran from Dalmuir, where I am from, all the way into the borough itself. Its demise was the result of bad planning and ineffectual ministerial planning of the budget between the two great wars—but enough of the history. Well, perhaps I will mention one more thing. As the son of an 85-year-old coppersmith who still has his equipment in the garden hut, I fundamentally recognise the blood, sweat and tears of those who build the carrier force, even in the 21st century. They are to be commended for their sterling work, which they are committed to in Rosyth.
I am sure the Minister recognises that there are three members of the Defence Committee here. The role of the carrier force is well understood, not just by the Committee but in the House, and I hope he recognises some of the concerns that have been highlighted to us as the carriers head into service. A former Chief of the Defence Staff said of the carriers:
“The navy says that in a ‘high-threat environment’ they will be protected by two destroyers, two anti-submarine frigates, a submarine, a tanker and a supply ship. That is a huge commitment for a navy that has just 19 destroyers and frigates and six available subs.”
I hope the Minister takes that on board and considers how we will rectify a situation in which we think we are unable to deliver that for two carriers. In addition, Professor Peter Roberts of the Royal United Services Institute stated:
“it’s clear that the decision to pursue two carriers at the expense of everything else in defence has weakened the defence posture of the UK as a whole.”
How do we reconcile that with the contribution of those two carriers to the UK’s defence?
Following on from what the Chair of the Select Committee and the hon. Member for Gedling said, will the Minister say more about the impact on post-Brexit trade talks with the People’s Republic of China of the Secretary of State’s first foray—I suppose in some technical manner—into the carrier strike strategy with his recent statement about using “lethal force” in the South China sea? Indeed, the Chancellor said that the UK’s relationship with China
“has not been made simpler” by that. Can the Minister tell us whether that first foray was a success?
The hon. Member for Witney correctly mentioned some of the Government decisions made. Since 1997, we have seen an overall decrease of around 39% in the number of ships in the Royal Navy, with a 46% decrease in the number of destroyers and frigates.
The Chair of the Select Committee and I fundamentally agree about the north Atlantic. I think some of our colleagues are getting a bit sick of me banging the drum about the north Atlantic, but I think he appreciates it. There is growing concern that, given the Russian Federation’s refresh of the bastion theory, we must fundamentally shift our approach to defence of the north Atlantic to maintain sea lines of communication, which the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed mentioned, and—we never talk about this—the transatlantic cable network between Canada and the United States, and the UK and the rest of the European continent. Will the Minister advise us how the strategy will enhance capability in the north Atlantic and the High North?
On capability, the Select Committee has consistently raised concerns about issues with the F-35 programme and the impact of expenditure, including about our ability to deliver on the expected expenditure in the equipment plan, given that the Public Accounts Committee stated in January that the Department
“lacks the capability to accurately cost programmes within its Equipment Plan”.
I recognise what other Members said about the F-35s from the United States. That is a great commitment by the United States, but there are concerns about our ability to follow up on it.
On foreign policy, the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed reminded us that we are an island. It is a pity that that was missed out of the 2015 strategic defence and security review. The Secretary of State, although he was not in that role at the time, was questioned about that by the Select Committee and said he would ensure that it was corrected. The hon. Lady mentioned the battle for the north Atlantic, which is a stark reminder of the strategic importance of the north Atlantic. As I keep saying, it is in the name—NATO is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The Chair of the Select Committee mentioned the issues with the Prince of Wales, which perhaps should have been called the Duke of Rothesay. I hope the MOD can provide real clarification about its future. If it is sold, will that money be spent on a fleet and continued investment in the north Atlantic?
Essential elements of this discussion are sometimes hindered by short-term political planning. Will the Minister advise us on whether there have been any discussions in the Department about approaching our Scandinavian allies? I have raised that in the Select Committee. From my party’s perspective, adopting the Scandinavian model of having SDSRs that cover whole Parliaments would be an appropriate way to approach the planning of defence policy. Although there may not be consensus across the House on one or two elements of defence, I think we could coalesce around the vast majority of defence issues and gain support for them for a whole five-year Parliament. That would give consistency to those working in the field in industry, to the Department, and, essentially, to those in the armed forces who we ask to go on to the frontline. Finally, will the Minister commit to Rosyth being the long-term refitting home of the carrier force?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I congratulate Robert Courts on securing the debate and allowing us an opportunity to consider this very important capability. May I also take the opportunity to express my agreement with the hon. Members for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) and for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), and to express my absolute solidarity and support for my hon. Friend Ruth Smeeth and other colleagues?
In his passionate speech, the hon. Member for Witney summarised the role of aircraft carriers in the Royal Navy’s recent history and called for a national carrier strategy and innovation as we look to the future. We also heard from a range of other Members, who spoke with passion about our armed forces, highlighting the support across the House for those who serve Queen and country and for the platforms they work from.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North mentioned the exquisite ships she visited and made the point that we need the crews to staff them. I will return to that. She also mentioned the need to secure employment opportunities across the UK, the need for a long-term plan and the need to consider the steady drumbeat of orders. I hope the Minister responds to that point.
The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed gave an overview of our maritime tradition and of the new carriers and their capabilities, and spoke of her pride in watching them develop. She also mentioned the need for a clear strategy for carriers into the future.
My hon. Friend Mr Sweeney mentioned his very interesting personal experience in the shipbuilding industry, and the complexities and constraints of the shipyards. He also talked about the need to secure employment weighted in the support and supply chain across the UK, which is a key point to bear in mind as we move forward.
Dr Lewis, who is Chair of the Select Committee on Defence, gave a plea for new members of that Committee and raised his concerns about the 1998 SDSR, which was unfunded, and the 2010 SDSR, which was unstrategic. He raised the need to have a strategic goal and long-term investment in our armed forces, a point that he has raised persistently and will continue to raise in the future, I am sure.
My hon. Friend Vernon Coaker talked about his sense of frustration, as well as the need for foreign policy that is linked to defence policy and for better co-ordination. He raised the growing need to engage with the British public better, to win hearts and minds, which is something that was raised a number of times.
As my hon. Friend Ruth Smeeth highlighted, in order to have an effective carrier strike capability, there has to be the necessary personnel. This is the first defence debate since the publication of the latest personnel statistics, which showed yet another fall in the number of Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel. Can I ask the Minister for his response to those statistics? In 2010 the total trained strength of the Navy and the marines was 35,500, but that has now fallen to just 29,100. That is almost 5% short of the Government’s own target of 30,450 for 2020. Can the Minister confirm whether the 2020 targets for all services, but particularly for the Navy and the marines, still stand and how he hopes to achieve them?
Rear-Admiral Jerry Kyd, the first commanding officer of HMS Queen Elizabeth, who is to soon be promoted to vice-admiral and fleet commander—I extend my congratulations to him—has described recruitment to the Royal Navy as a “constant battle”. Based on the latest statistics, it is a battle that the Government are losing. The announcement by the Secretary of State of two new littoral strike ships will no doubt put further pressure on an already overstretched Navy. Can the Minister confirm what efforts are being undertaken to buck those recruitment trends and to ensure that our carriers, our Navy and all our services have the necessary personnel to meet their objectives, namely to defend our country, its values and interests?
The F-35B fighter aircraft will be an essential part of the carrier strike. However, recent reports suggest that a full F-35 carrier strike capability will only be delivered by 2025-26, some four years after the expected first deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling mentioned, can the Minister set out how that gap will be filled? Can he confirm that the Government remain committed to procuring all 138 F-35B fighter aircraft?
The Government’s national security adviser, Sir Mark Sedwill, has previously said that the aircraft carriers would
“inevitably be used in the context of allied operations of some kind if used in a contested environment”.
The hon. Member for Witney made this point. Can the Minister set out how he will work to ensure interoperability with our allies, as the carrier strike capability develops?
Finally, there is the issue of affordability. The National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have repeatedly warned Ministers of huge funding gaps in their defence equipment plan, of between £7 billion and £15 billion. At the same time, the Secretary of State has already proposed sending our carriers to the Pacific and has even talked about building military bases in the Caribbean and south-east Asia, among many other commitments. Ministers can no longer delay making decisions on those important issues, so will the Minister agree to the recommendations of the Public Accounts Committee and come forward with
“a coherent plan to maintain the UK-based capability to develop and deliver the equipment required in the future” by July of this year? I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I congratulate my hon. Friend Robert Courts on securing this important and timely debate. It has been a good-natured and collegial debate. We can certainly agree on two things: we are all delighted that the age of carrier strike has returned and that the Treasury is the enemy.
A number of colleagues have made thoughtful and intelligent contributions. It has been one of the best debates I have been in as a Minister for some time, which is why I stand in slight trepidation as I make my own contribution. There have been a number of detailed questions. I will do my best to answer them, but I have no doubt that I will not be able to answer all of them, in which case I will write in detail to hon. Members. Many of the subjects that have come out during the debate are worthy of debates in their own right, be that recruiting or the national shipbuilding strategy. I cannot begin to do those subjects justice, but hopefully I will touch some wave tops—no pun intended—as I respond.
We are a proud maritime nation, dependent upon global access to the sea to build our prosperity and project our influence. For centuries, the Royal Navy has been a vital instrument of sea power, ensuring our unrestricted access to trade routes and protecting our vital interests around the globe. Over the past 100 years, the aircraft carrier has increasingly come to epitomise the strength and ambition of leading naval powers. It is a statement of intent and a manifest example that a state is a player on the global stage, which is able to reach out and exploit the attributes of maritime manoeuvre, organic sustainability, and the speed and flexibility of air power to coerce or reassure. As such, the rebuilding of a world-class carrier strike capability offers a step change in our ability to globally project military power and constitutes a new strategic conventional deterrence.
The United Kingdom’s carrier strike capability has three component parts. The first two are the state-of-the-art Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers and the cutting-edge fifth generation F-35B Lightning combat aircraft, which the aircraft carriers have been specifically designed and built from the hull up to operate and accommodate, as highlighted by several hon. Members. The third element is the Crowsnest airborne early-warning surveillance and control system, which will provide the eyes and ears of the carrier strike task group, and enable command and control to the Lightning aircraft.
Where are we on this journey? Last year we saw HMS Queen Elizabeth complete successful first of class flying trials off the east coast of the United States, which followed the declaration of initial operating capabilities in secondary roles earlier in the year. I will come back to the questions about that raised by hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) in a moment. HMS Queen Elizabeth is now in Portsmouth undergoing a capability insertion period prior to deploying to the east coast to conduct an operational test, which will be the first time we will operate frontline F-35Bs with the ship.
Meanwhile, HMS Prince of Wales is on track to be accepted by the Royal Navy at the end of the year. Last summer we saw 617 Squadron stand up in the UK with the Lightning force, subsequently declaring initial operating capability from land in December. They are now developing their understanding of operating the aircraft prior to deploying with the ship to the east coast. Crowsnest is working to a challenging timeline to marry up the other two components to enable declaration of initial operating capability for carrier strike in December 2020, prior to the inaugural operational deployment in 2021, which will be the start of a 50-year life.
The formidable F-35B Lightning will be at the centre of this. Jointly manned by the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, it will be able to conduct strategic attacks, support our troops and be able to work in threat environments hitherto unimagined by previous commanders. This is timely given the sophistication and proliferation of air defence systems in recent years, but the Lightning can do more and possesses an impressive ability to collect intelligence on enemy formations and threat systems. Just as importantly, it is then able to relay that information to other friendly forces working within and around the carrier strike task group, providing unparalleled situational awareness and so contribute to information superiority.
On the questions specifically regarding the F-35, as hon. Members know, to date 17 jets have been delivered and we have approvals to purchase the first 48, of which we have formally ordered 35. Ultimately, we are committed to buying 138. Our 18th is due to be delivered in the summer of 2019 and I am pleased to say that the programme remains firmly on schedule. Our first frontline squadron, the 617, which I have already mentioned, has already arrived in the UK and the operational conversion unit—those that have been working in the US—will arrive next summer. A second squadron, 809 Naval Air Squadron, will join 617 and 207 at RAF Marham in due course.
When it comes to ordering future aircraft, and the question of what type they should be—B, A or other variants—that is a decision we do not yet have to make. It is important to note that we are starting a journey. I will come back to this point when we talk about the strategy. Up to now, as I have described, we have been consolidating the three elements for carrier strike, and now we begin the operational phase. This is a new piece of work and, as that operational phase continues, we will see how effectively these squadrons work together and whether we need more Bs or whether in future we will buy As. That is not a decision we have to make right now, and in many ways it would be wrong to make it right now, before we have experience of operating this platform. It will be made in due course.
In relation to our future purchasing of more jets, are the Government at all considering purchasing Cs rather than As, which clearly have a more bespoke outlook to them? We would then be able to fly the Cs off American aircraft carriers as well.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about interoperability. Of course, that is the whole point of the first deployment, when we will have US marine corps jets on our platform. We have an eye to ensuring that we have that interoperability, which is precisely why we keep our options open on what we will buy next. Narrowing our options right now on what future jets we will buy would be premature.
These attributes, together with other forms of attack from the task group, such as long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles, constitute a powerful ability to reach inland—all this in a mobile force able to range 500 miles a day and at immediate readiness, without the need to seek the permission of other nations for the land-basing of our fighter aircraft. Once our Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, including HMS Prince of Wales when accepted at the end of the year, become fully operational—we have already highlighted that timeframe—the United Kingdom will maintain a carrier ready to deploy at very high readiness, that is, within five days.
That goes back to the question that the hon. Member for Gedling asked about how the two carriers will work together. Like any platform, the physical side of the ship will go through a natural cycle. Having been built —or, in future, having been through a long period of maintenance—it will enter the force generation period, when manpower and jets are married with the ship. We will go through a training period. We always think about the platforms, but we do not always think about the people. They will go through their careers; new pilots and junior sailors come in, and we must ensure that they are trained in the appropriate way. Then the ship goes on deployment. When it comes back, it goes into a period of maintenance—and the cycle continues.
The point of having two ships and effectively offsetting that process is that at any one point we will always have one at very high readiness. There may be times when we potentially have two carriers available; they would not both be at very high readiness, but a second carrier could, for example, go off and do a secondary task. As we said in the SDSR, who knows what is around the corner? Who predicted Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean last year? We were able to send a vessel to deal with that situation. By having two vessels—especially new vessels—and offsetting that cycle, we can maintain the flexibility to ensure we have those vessels available to do a number of different tasks.
While delivery of carrier strike is absolutely main effort—the primary role—the inherent flexibility of the carrier enables a range of secondary roles to be undertaken, if that is what the situation dictates, as I have just tried to describe. Those roles range from supporting our Royal Marines in undertaking amphibious operations, to providing discrete support to our special forces and, as we saw, humanitarian and disaster relief.
The new capability will enable the UK to make an unparalleled European contribution to NATO, the cornerstone of our defence policy. Indeed, carrier strike is “international by design”, with the convening power of the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers already evident. Other European nations have already expressed a clear interest in exercising with, and more importantly deploying as part of, the carrier strike task group. Thus, carrier strike provides not only a potent additional capability to NATO, but also a means of coalescing European naval effort. It will, of course, also be able to operate with our partners’ aircraft, a point that my hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan made.
That is especially so with our closest ally, the United States, which will be embarking United States marine corps F-35B Lightning jets alongside our own on board HMS Queen Elizabeth for her inaugural operational deployment in 2021. That level of close co-operation has been reached through extensive work over the past decade between our two nations, requiring levels of information sharing and trust that are only evident between the closest of allies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Witney talked in his opening comments, which were excellent—I have not heard a better opening to a debate for some time—about a “loss of culture” of carrier strike. I will gently say that that was anticipated, which is why over the past 10 years we have had many Royal Naval personnel and pilots operating on US carriers, so that we have not completely lost that skill set. Personally, I was delighted and honoured to go on board the George H.W. Bush the summer before last, when it was operating in the North sea.
I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that. To clarify what I meant, I did not intend any criticism from 2010 onwards; I fully appreciate that we have had people embedded with the US navy. I meant operating big carriers, as opposed to the smaller carriers we have had since the Invincible days, and the change in culture from the late 1970s, when we had the Audacious class.
I think my comments demonstrate that we are well placed to renew this capability in the Royal Navy and, crucially, how well placed we are—a point made by several hon. Members—to ensure that we have interoperability with our closest allies.
Carrier strike not only offers political and military advantage to Her Majesty’s Government and our allies, but provides significant benefit to the UK industry. Before I get on to the industry element, I will touch on strategy, because the point was raised by several hon. Members. I gave one example to the hon. Member for Gedling of how the Government are genuinely trying to bring a cross-Whitehall approach to formulating strategies in this area. That is something we have already been doing with carrier; as I have already said, the past five years have been getting us to this point. We now have a cross-Whitehall strategy being formed about how exactly we should use this asset.
Of course, that all cascades down from the formation of the National Security Council in 2010, which brought together for the first time the different strands of Government to try to make the very decisions that hon. Members have rightly said we should be considering. The framework is in place and, of course, as we move forward through operations and gain experience, it will be refined.
With regard to industry, the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers have been built over six locations, involving over 10,000 people, in addition to 800 apprentices and 700 businesses and suppliers. This includes 7,000 to 8,000 jobs at the tier 1 shipyards around the UK, plus a further 2,000 to 3,000 people across the UK supply chain. UK industry also provides approximately 15% by value of each of the 3,000 Lightning aircraft scheduled to be built over the life of the programme. That will potentially create a £35 billion net contribution to the UK economy and up to 25,000 jobs in the UK.
In addition, the UK’s role as a key partner in the global F-35 programme was reaffirmed earlier this month, with the announcement of a major boost to the F-35 avionic and aircraft component repair hub, which was awarded a second major assignment of work, worth some £500 million, by the US Department of Defence. This is an excellent outcome and will support hundreds of additional F-35 jobs in the UK, many of them at the MOD’s Defence and Electronics Components Agency at MOD Sealand in North Wales, where the majority of the work will be carried out. It will involve crucial maintenance, repair, overhaul and upgrade services for an even wider range of F-35 avionic, electronic and electrical systems for hundreds of F-35 aircraft based globally.
Mr Sweeney talked at length and with great, detailed knowledge about the impact and the tempo, if you like, of not losing skillsets, and about the relationship between Government and industry. I accept that he does not support many of the recommendations of the national shipbuilding strategy. Owing to the scope of the debate, I will not get into the procurement of fleet solid support ships, or that relationship. However, as he probably spotted in February, Sir John Parker announced that he will undertake a review of that strategy, which is due to report later this year. I hope that that demonstrates to the hon. Gentleman that, while I support the strategy, we are not dogmatic in our approach to it, and that we are prepared to review the strategy one year on to see how it is bedding in. He made some important points.
On fleet solid support ships, we on the Defence Committee are a little bit worried that it is being presented to us and to the country that the Government have no choice but to run a competition. However, other countries, such as France, have built such ships without running competitions, and have classed them as warships. We worry about what, for example, Rosyth dockyard will do between the completion of the Prince of Wales and the first refit of the Queen Elizabeth. Building such ships would be a perfect way of maintaining that capability. We hope these wider considerations are being taken into account.
In that case, without going through the letter, I assure my right hon. Friend that it answers his questions, so far as I am concerned.
My hon. Friend the Member for Witney made several interesting points, not least in highlighting the historical necessity of carriers and—to my mind, as a Defence Minister—about historical SDSRs, with some being strategic and some effectively being written to budget. Rarely do those two factors meet. Getting that right in the future is absolutely key.
Carrier strike provides a new conventional strategic deterrent for the nation, and is a powerful manifestation of Britain’s desire to reach out to the world as a nation that remains a global player. It provides Her Majesty’s Government choice in exercising influence through coercive power, as well as being an effective tool to reassure our allies around the world. We must continue to innovate with the world-class capabilities of the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers, the F-35B Lightning and Crowsnest to ensure our competitive advantage, and to increase their interoperability with our partners’ capabilities. Doing so will ensure that this 50-year capability remains potent into the second half of the 21st century. I am conscious that there were a few detailed questions that I have not addressed. I will look at the record of Hansard and endeavour to write to hon. Members.
I will canter through some of the points that struck me in the debate, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and from which I have learned a great deal. It really was an example of our all coming together with various kinds of expertise and being able to make progress in an area. I am grateful to all hon. Members for that.
I entirely associate myself with the comments of others about the fortitude of Ruth Smeeth. Never mind the aircraft; I very much look forward to the carriers being stocked with crockery from her constituency, off which the men and women sailing on the aircraft carrier will eat. I thank her for her contribution. My hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan made many excellent points, including on the battleground of the great sea war. Nothing much has changed regarding the importance of the sea. She was quite right to draw attention to the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, a particularly successful, innovative endeavour.
I really enjoyed the detailed knowledge that Mr Sweeney brought to the debate, and two of his points in particular: first, the point that a carrier covers the equivalent of 0.3% of an airfield—I have never thought about it in quite that way before, but he is absolutely right—and secondly, his point about the industrial legacy of the space shuttle. Again, I have never thought about a carrier in that way, but he is quite right that we must make use of carriers in the way the Americans did with the space shuttle.
I feel terribly impertinent saying anything about defence in any room in which my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis stands, because of his expertise. He is absolutely right about the predictability of unpredictability, and I loved his point that the Treasury has sunk more ships than our enemies ever have. I could not agree more with Vernon Coaker on linking foreign policy with defence, and on engaging with the UK public—something that I hope we have started to do today, at least in a small way. My hon. Friend Jack Lopresti made a similar point on the need for links between DFID, the FCO and the MOD, and I entirely agree with him on that.
I thank both Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople, the hon. Members for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) and for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), for their contributions. Both seemed a bit startled by the extent to which we all agreed in the debate. It happens occasionally, and maybe we should all celebrate it when it does.
I thank the Minister for all his detailed answers. My final request to him, which I think every Member here made, in different ways, is for an overarching carrier strategy that brings together all Departments and everything we have discussed in one document that we can then debate and take forward. That is the central ask of the debate. I look forward to working with him and with every colleague in doing battle with, if not foreign countries, at least the Treasury.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered carrier strike strategy and its contribution to UK defence.