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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered Combat Air Strategy progress and next steps.
It is an honour and a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
As we consider what aircraft will replace the Typhoon, it is appropriate for us to remember those who operate that aircraft now. I am particularly mindful that only a couple of days ago we heard the tragic news about the loss of two German Eurofighters and a pilot in a crash. The German air force remains a key ally, as it was during the cold war, and it is one of the best equipped in the world. Germany is one of our closest friends, as well as being a key NATO ally. I am sure that we are all mindful of the loss of that German pilot. We cannot know the reason for the crash at this stage, and we ought not to speculate, but it may be that we touch on issues such as training or serviceability as part of the debate. Whatever the reasons, it is a sad moment for all friends of Germany and of aviators. I would like us to remember them all at this time.
It is good to see so many Members here as we consider the combat air strategy, particularly given that so many were also present in November 2017 when Ruth Smeeth and I sponsored the original debate calling for a combat air strategy—in fact, it was for a defence aerospace-industrial strategy; I will refer to that terminology, which is not just semantics, in a moment or two. Progress has certainly been made: the combat air strategy was published in July 2018, while Team Tempest—including the Royal Air Force, the Ministry of Defence, BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Leonardo UK and MBDA UK—and the mock-up of the Tempest aircraft were unveiled at the Royal International Air Tattoo last year.
However, there is much more to do. It is appropriate for us all to take stock at this stage, not least because other competitors in the field are forging ahead. This is the right moment to have this debate, given that only last week at the Paris air show the Franco-German team unveiled what has been referred to as their “squashed Raptor” design; anyone who does not know what I mean should take a picture of the F-22 Raptor and then look the Franco-German model, then they will see it exactly. The Turkish fighter concept was unveiled at the same time. In some ways, they are a year or so behind Team Tempest’s efforts, but in some ways they are more developed. They seem to have dates for first flight outlined, which I think I am correct in saying we do not yet have. In any event, there is clearly no room for complacency.
I make one perhaps basic point, although it is not the most important: perhaps we could just call the aircraft that we are discussing “Tempest”. The name has historic resonance—the Hawker Tempest replaced the Hawker Typhoon, as this Tempest should replace our Typhoon. It also provides a logical progression, from Tornado to Typhoon to Tempest. I appreciate that this is not the most important point that we will discuss, but it might make it easier for everyone if we do not have to wrestle with baffling military acronyms or phrases such as “combat air” or “FCAS”—future combat air system. I would rather that we did not have a minor international incident, as with Typhoon, by debating at the end of the programme what the aircraft will be called. In any event, I suggest that we call this aircraft Tempest, and I will refer to it as Tempest today.
Before we get into the details, we should look at why it is so important that we have a combat air strategy. Defence aerospace has accounted for about 87% of defence exports over the last 10 years, and the UK combat air sector has an approximate annual turnover of more than £6 billion. The F-35 programme directly employs around 2,200 people, with Hawk at 1,500 and Typhoon around 5,000. Hawk is estimated—through the 1,000 or so aircraft built or on order—to bring in £15.8 billion over its lifetime to the UK Government, for an outlay of around £900 million. Typhoon will have brought in £28.2 billion, against an outlay of £15.2 billion, showing a clear economic benefit, entirely leaving aside the geopolitical desirability of British sovereign capability. Those figures are before we consider the recent Qatar deal or any future sales over which discussions are ongoing.
However, the issue is not all about money: it is also about finding a way to develop, sponsor and bring on the technology that then has a spin-off in other areas of everyday life, as it has throughout history; the combat air strategy rightly points out that the software used in the Tornado, the Typhoon and the C-130J now provides the rail timetabling system for the London Underground. However, the battle that we often seem to fight in the House is over funding for these projects, in the face of the short-sighted argument that military equipment is simply a financial drain. Of course it costs money, but it brings in money, as well as maintaining vital national independence.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for introducing the debate so well. He particularly highlights the contribution of the hardware side. Is it not also important that we maintain the military side, because of the impact right the way through the supply chain on many specialist subcontractors—often at tiers 3 and 4 —that are also a vital part of civil aerospace, Formula 1 and the motor industry? Those are all areas in which we are internationally competitive and which help us to pay our way in the world.
I agree entirely. We often do not realise the impact of the defence industry on each of our constituencies. Many of us will have in our constituencies sometimes quite small companies that make something as part of the supply chain for a much bigger machine. That is absolutely right, and we must work hard to protect that. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly identifies, it goes to the wider impact of technology on the rest of our lives.
I would like each and every one of us, as individual MPs, to consider making arguments to the Treasury about how defence is accounted for. We have to start fighting the battle to turn the tide against the perception that defence and the defence industry simply cost money. I am very encouraged by the Secretary of State for Defence’s comments in the current edition of The House magazine; I hope you will not mind if I quote her, Mr Stringer. She says:
“I think that the Treasury has been missing a trick. It has not really understood the full value of defence to the nation. The methodology that it uses is flawed. So, in advance of the spending review I will be setting out why I think it should change its methodology towards its assessment of the return to the UK of investing in defence. I think there’s much more we can do to reap the benefits that defence brings to the UK prosperity agenda.”
I entirely agree. However, I do not think it is a matter for only the Defence Secretary to deal with. It is a matter for each of us—whether we have military or the defence industry in our constituencies, or both—to keep making the case for what the defence industry and our armed forces bring to UK plc.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. What he describes requires a really significant change in mindset in the civil service, and particularly in the Treasury, regarding procurement guidelines: they relentlessly refuse to take into account the impact on the prosperity agenda, which they talk about, or even how much they will get in as revenue from the taxes of people working in this country, rather than working in other countries. That goes across the board. Is not it time for a fundamental rethink, in line with how every one of our major international industrial competitors operates?
We are very much asking for a fundamental rethink of the way the Treasury accounts for the contribution of defence. It is probably time for me to make the old joke that we often make when having these debates. I am mindful of the words of my grandfather, who was in Bomber Command during the war. He used to say that the opposition, the opposing armed forces, were not the enemy; they were just people who were playing the same game but at the other end of the pitch. The opposition are just the opposition; the real enemy is the Treasury.
As I said, we often make that old joke in these debates, but it is true. We all find ourselves constantly having to ask the Treasury for more money, but also begging the Treasury, as we have done on both sides of the House, to see the value that defence brings to the economy—it is not just the cost—when programmes have to be invested in. It was a slightly flippant point, but this is the ongoing battle that we have to fight every time any of us stands up to speak about the defence industry or investing in the equipment that our armed forces will need for the future.
That understanding is vital. Although I am addressing my remarks to the Minister responsible for defence procurement, the ramifications of what I am saying go far beyond this Minister and his Secretary of State. They extend also to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, because we need people to have the skills required to build the systems that we are talking about. We need to look also to the Department for International Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, because of the diplomacy required to assemble the multinational team who are likely to be required to build the aircraft. Of course, the Treasury will always sit in the middle, because it is the one that holds the money, but this work will require top-level political direction to ensure that it takes place. We will want to see the next Prime Minister direct and ensure the cross-Government co-ordination required for this project to be a success.
We ought to look at the form of the project. The Franco-German team who announced their project last week have made it clear that it will involve the next generation fighter, as it is called, but also remote carriers—they are sometimes called loyal wingmen; essentially they are unmanned aerial vehicles that feed off and support the main manned aircraft—and that that will encompass an air combat cloud, the manned aircraft accompanied by UAVs as a swarm concept. Although we are likely to look to do the same, the form of the project is not yet entirely clear, but it does have significant ramifications in terms of work share, intellectual property protection and, consequently, who the national partners are or can be.
I would like to talk first about national partners. We will all welcome the British drive and British lead, but it probably is not a wild stab in the dark to suggest that we will probably not design and produce a sixth-generation aircraft all on our own, only to equip the Royal Air Force, because sales and production of aircraft are inextricably linked to work share and to the ultimate sales partner. We are aware that conversations are taking place. The Swedish, the Italians and the Japanese are perhaps the obvious partners with whom we are considering working, but there is a real need for urgency.
In November 2018, the Spanish announced that they were considering options for replacement of their F/A-18 Hornet fleet and they were in discussions with the Dassault and Airbus team, who are a Franco-German operation, as well as Team Tempest. They stated that the key factor was the level of industrial participation that was offered. Of course, last week, they signed up with the Franco-German operation at the Paris airshow. I have no way of knowing—the Minister may—whether that was as a result of a deliberate British decision. It may be that the level of expertise or financial input offered was unattractive to us, or it may be that it was a result of a Spanish decision to go elsewhere, but at the very least we can say that it is clear that there is competition between the rival British and Franco-German blocs, either to become the more established and advanced programme and to persuade the other to join in, but on their terms, or to ensure the success of their programme because national participation naturally brings orders.
The Franco-German operation is naturally looking at the same potential partners as we are, so it is essential that we have top-level political engagement, repeating Mrs Thatcher’s work in the early stages of the Eurofighter programme in the 1980s. I will turn to the issue of political engagement for a moment now. The Minister will have to forgive me. I know how deeply engaged he is, but this is something that goes beyond his hard work and his Secretary of State as well. It goes up all the way up to full Cabinet support and the support of the Prime Minister.
We can see the approach taken by France. President Macron launched the Franco- German project on
The downside of the Franco-German approach is that they will want to be the architects of the project, shaping the capability and design of the aircraft. They may allow others to make the metaphorical bricks, but they will not allow them to sculpt the resulting edifice. We therefore have a golden opportunity to involve those who have outstanding aerospace sectors that either are under-appreciated—such as, perhaps, the Italians—or have not achieved the cut-through that they deserve, which may be the case with Sweden. However, as I have said, that will require political engagement at the very highest level to bring them together.
Just as the Franco-German project is a symbol of those countries’ increasing integration in political as well as military terms, so it is vital that the Tempest project is, for us, a symbol of an outward-looking, co-operative, internationally minded UK post Brexit, a practical illustration of the frequently uttered words that although we are leaving the European Union, we are not leaving Europe, and proof that European co-operation and a European identity exist and thrive outside the political union of the EU.
The current terms of the combat air strategy suggest that it would not be possible for Britain to join the Franco-German project, for reasons such as retaining UK IP—I will return to that point in a minute—but the very last thing that the country or industry needs is lukewarm political commitment leading to a British folding into a rival project, with all that that would mean for our national industry. I am wary of warm words. We are heading in the right direction, and the document that we have seen is very valuable, but history has shown that what I am warning about has happened all too often in the past. There is no avoiding the fact that top-level political commitment is needed not only now, but in the months and years ahead.
We have the biggest airshow in the world at the Royal International Air Tattoo in July, as well as the Defence and Security Equipment International exhibition, which international leaders will be visiting, but I would like to see our national leaders going abroad to visit other countries to seek and gain their support. When that is got right—as it has been with Australia for frigates and Wedgetail—we can see the benefits, in terms of not just capability but international influence, as we are a country that does not just work within the Five Eyes intelligence network but provides top-class capability. We stand to gain skills and prosperity as well as international influence if we can manufacture and support aircraft. Hawk shows us how successfully that can be done.
The ambition to secure international influence is shown on page 25 of the combat air strategy, as part of the colourfully illustrated national value framework. I am glad to have that in front of me, and I know the Minister does as well. I am pleased to see it, but currently these are just words; they need to be supported by the top-level political leadership of which I have spoken. I would like to dwell for a moment on the wording of paragraph 38 at the top of page 25, which reads:
“The framework allows the Ministry of Defence to compare the relative benefits of a range of options from procuring ‘off-the-shelf’ to partnering with allies. When placed alongside detailed cost analysis it will enable us to determine relative value for money of the options and consider trade-offs.”
That seems to me to be very broadly drafted and to encompass about five possible options. The Minister might tell me that there are others.
First, that could encompass life extensions to Typhoon. Although that would be welcome for the purpose of bringing on new technology, it is not something that we should be looking at long term. Secondly, it could mean no aircraft—a re-heated Sandys report. I think that was wrong then and remains wrong now. Thirdly, that wording could simply mean buying off the shelf. In fact, the phrase “off-the-shelf” is used. There has always been a good argument, on the face of it, that we can buy good kit cheaply from the Americans. That is true, so far as it goes, but it would leave us without a domestic industry or the ability to make our own combat aircraft, and would remove the international influence that I have spoken of, which is the main advantage of a combat air strategy. I suggest that that option ought to be no more than a last resort.
Fourthly, partnering with allies might mean being a junior partner, as is the case with F-35. That is fine. We might have the advantage of large workshare, but be unable to shape the aircraft for our needs, obtain international influence or protect our leading high-tech capability, which we all want to protect. Fifthly, there is the option of being a leading partner, which is what Team Tempest seems to be aiming for. I would favour that option.
The wording leaves a lot of room for manoeuvre. Perhaps—heaven forbid!—it was deliberately drafted like that. I am pushing for the fifth option, where the UK is a lead partner. Other hon. Members and I are pushing for political leadership to that end. We do not want a strategy that sounds good in practice but ends up leaving sufficient space for a far less ambitious position, which does not provide the Royal Air Force with the capability it needs or protect the sovereign industry, about which hon. Members in all parts of the Chamber have spoken so powerfully. We have seen that in the past.
Any hon. Members who have been in debates with me before will remember my aviation history lessons—I will not give them another. [Interruption.] I am sorry to hear that that is regretted. Perhaps I will do so another time; I have spoken for long enough already. The whole point of the combat air strategy, which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North and I pushed for way back in November 2017, was precisely to avoid that happening again. Can the Minister confirm that the Government are determined to pursue the lead partner option and whether any of the options that I have posited have been ruled out?
We will need to consider whether the offer of an airframe alone will be enough to make a success of this strategy, or whether it will need further expansion. I suggest that we ought to be looking at a system, rather than an airframe, so that we can include other capability and diplomacy. We can look at the Qatari Typhoon sale as an example. As part of that multibillion pound contract to supply Qatar with Typhoon and Hawk, No. 12 Squadron is integrating Qatari personnel, including pilots and ground crew at RAF Coningsby, before moving to Qatar.
That is a package of training and co-operation with UK counterparts that has not been seen since the second world war, when the RAF last formed a squadron with another nation. Perhaps we need to be a little careful and assess the success of that project, to ensure that it is working for the RAF as well as for industry. However, we have seen from that sale that the need for training—particularly the desire for training associated with the world-class quality mark of the Royal Air Force—may be a major part of any deal in the future, whether regarding aircraft alone or as a package. We ought to consider that sort of thing as part of the combat air strategy as well.
Saab has added GlobalEye airborne early warning and control aircraft to its offer of Gripens for the Finnish air force, which Typhoon is already also competing in. If we are to offer Tempest to other nations in due course, will it include, for example, an air combat cloud, and if so, who will we be able to share that IP technology with? Would we want to offer, for example, tanker or ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance—transport assets as part of the package? Would we want to offer training packages or training aircraft?
That last point is important, and it is why I return to the title of the debate. I am not simply focusing on semantics here. The debate held in November 2017 called for a defence aerospace industrial strategy. That encompasses more than just combat air, which is what this strategy principally deals with. This deals with the airframe that will become Tempest, but I suggest that an overall strategy ought to consider what will replace, among other things, Hawk. I ask the Minister to approach that issue again.
The point of having a defence aerospace industrial strategy is to understand what air power we will need as a nation in the future. That includes not just the frontline fast jet aircraft, but the training aircraft and the training regime that will be needed to accompany it.
I would like to talk about the industrial base and the skill base before I conclude—I am conscious that other hon. Members want to speak. I welcome the Eurofighter Typhoon development plan that was launched last week, with the NATO Eurofighter and Tornado Management Agency. We need to ensure that Typhoon has ongoing investment in the years ahead. It might seem counter- intuitive, but everyone here will realise that, to an extent, the airframe is simply a framework into which other things are put. That is not entirely true, because there is technology around low observability, engine nozzles, stores carriage, and optimisation for air-to-air or air-to-ground; but to some extent it is true.
Much of the technology we will see on Tempest will not really be brand new, but will have been debuted on Typhoon, so it is essential that the Typhoon and Future Combat Air System teams are in constant contact with each other, rather than being in separate silos, to ensure that the capability is rolled out as it becomes available, so that it is bedded in and matures on Typhoon, which therefore not only benefits from the upgrades, but leads us to a seamless transition from Typhoon to Tempest in about 20 years’ time—it is extraordinary to say that.
The political engagement that I have spoken of also needs to be deployed in order to continue to see Typhoon exports, and to produce and continue to protect the industrial skills base that will be needed for Tempest. That brings me to the importance of engagement with science, technology, engineering and maths in education. Students throughout the UK should realise that this is their aircraft. It is something that they can work on and perhaps even fly. We cannot wait until people are in their teens or 20s before trying to get them interested in defence aerospace.
I am grateful to Royal Air Force Brize Norton for engaging enthusiastically with Carterton Community College to design a STEM programme, which was so successful that it has been mentioned in the report from Chief of the Air Staff to Her Majesty the Queen. I appreciate that that is not possible everywhere, but where there is a local asset, whether in the defence industry or a military asset, let us try to link up local schools and enthuse young people about the possibilities of the exciting national project that Tempest will be.
That will also require a Government assessment of the skills that we will need and consideration of how we will keep them. We cannot consider what skills we will need until we have decided whether to build radar, airframes, pilot support, or mission control systems and so on. That must all start now, which is the reason for my gentle prodding today.
I have four asks of the Minister, beyond the more detailed Team Tempest updates that he will remember having promised when we discussed military manufacturing in May, in particular on the outline business case that the report said would be produced by the end of last year. I hope that the Minister will relay to the Department that top-level political support and re-engagement are needed to require international partners to come on board. We need improved cross-departmental working, with the Treasury seeing the benefits to British industry as a project of national value, rather than seeing the defence industry simply as a cash drain. We also need next-stage funding; the £2 million that Team Tempest has had is only seedcorn money, and more will be needed to move to the next stage. Finally, the wider requirements of the defence aerospace industrial strategy should be considered alongside the Tempest combat air strategy.
We are on the cusp of a very exciting national project. I look forward to the Minister’s comments and to driving this forward with colleagues in all parts of the House.
As ever, Mr Stringer, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. It is an honour to have worked with Robert Courts on this issue for what is now a significant period of time. As an Opposition Back Bencher, there are very few opportunities to make a real difference or change Government policy. One of my most confusing moments as a Member of Parliament was when the former Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, gave me credit for the change in policy—so I will now be taking credit for everything that everybody is doing on the issue.
I alert the House to my registered interests; I have the great honour to be the GMB lead in manufacturing. I must also apologise for the fact that, since business is quite interesting in this place at the moment, I have managed to get into the bizarre position of co-sponsoring debates in this Chamber and the main Chamber at exactly the same time. You have kindly given me permission, Mr Stringer, to go between the two debates as the afternoon progresses, so I will be going from combat air strategy to child food poverty in an easy step from one room to the next.
I welcome those who are watching from the Gallery—not least the Unite reps from Brough, who have travelled quite far to hear about the future of their sector, about what we care about and about what we are doing to fight for them. It is a great thing for us all to meet skilled men and women who deliver day in, day out, contributing in different ways to our national security—it is something I love to do. I have had the pleasure of visiting the team at Brough and other BAE sites to see how it works.
We asked for a defence aerospace industrial strategy at the beginning because it has several different components for Members from all parties, ranging from our national security to our sovereign skills and the wider defence family. We can forget that the reason for our sovereign skills capability in the sector is our own national security. It is about the men and women who come together at times of national crisis to develop the capabilities that our armed service personnel need to protect us. It is never, ever just about the platforms; it must always be about the people who design them, make them and use them to keep British citizens safe. We need to look at our defence industrial strategy in the round, so we should be talking about our defence family, not just our military family or the defence manufacturers.
What have we achieved so far? What have I achieved so far? Some 1,000 people are currently working on Tempest. We must not underestimate the fact that none of them was doing this two years ago. We came to this House and said that a new fast jet takes 30 years from conception to build. This Government did a wonderful thing in appreciating that as soon as we have commissioned and bought one platform, we need to consider the next.
I am loth to interrupt the hon. Lady when she is making such an eloquent speech, but the annunciator seems to think that she is somebody else—it may be confused by her being in two places at once. Perhaps whoever is operating it could amend that.
I am not sure that my hon. Friend Rachel Reeves has ever spoken on defence industrial strategy—well, she has now—but it would be very helpful if I had a clone so that I could be in both Chambers at once today. I thank Carol Monaghan for highlighting that point.
Tempest has 1,000 people and £2 billion already invested and committed, both from the sector and from the Government. Moving forward, that will lead to potentially 22,000 jobs in the wider supply chain. When we talk about sovereign skills and investing in UK plc, that is exactly what we mean.
As the hon. Member for Witney highlighted, we asked for a strategy, not a platform. We asked how the Government would look at our combat air strategy in the round, and what the defence aerospace plan was for the next 30 years. I am delighted with what we have—but, as ever, Minister, it is not enough. We have seen recently how difficult it is to train new pilots and how long the waiting times are. In no small part, that is because of the delay in replacing the Hawk training platform.
The Hawk has done our country a huge service for many years and is still flown by the Red Arrows—although I think they could do with an upgrade, too. However, the Hawk is probably coming to the end of its natural life, and there are competitors that have positioned themselves, even to provide training for the F-35. We need to talk about what replacement aircraft we will need for the F-35 and what Tempest will finally look like. We need to talk about all this in the round, not just for a single platform.
The very talented men and women at Brough need some guarantees about their future. They need to know—as does the whole wider supply chain, not just BAE Systems—what we are talking about for the sector’s future, so I have specific questions for the Minister about plans for a training platform. What conversations is he having with the wider industry about what we will do to develop a new platform? If we are not going to do that, are we really talking about buying something off the shelf? That will be no good for sovereign skills as we seek to leave the European Union.
My other question to the Minister is about Brexit—sorry, I mean Tempest, although I have many questions about Brexit. There are currently four significant players involved in the design process. We have a huge opportunity with Tempest that we have not had before, because it is a blank piece of paper. Our weapons systems can be built into the platform, not added to it; the way the ejector seats operate can be included at the beginning, rather than the end; and the way we refuel can also be included at the development of the new platform. As we saw with the Rafale, not only does adding an in-air refuelling system make the product ugly, but—not that I am partisan—it adds challenges to stealth capability and the ability to be located on radar. We have an opportunity to do this all at the beginning, so we should be talking not just about the four companies, but about how we work with our small and medium-sized enterprises and the extraordinary companies driving change, and how they can access the programme with the four main partners.
With the Select Committee on Defence—our Chair, Dr Lewis is in his place—I had the privilege of visiting the Paris air show last week, as did the Minister. We saw the opportunities available for UK plc, and we also saw where our international allies are looking to fill gaps in areas that we are not ready to participate in. Can the Minister share with us what conversations he is having with our international allies about working collaboratively?
We are leaving the European Union, I hope, at the end of the year, but that does not mean that we are leaving the continent of Europe. Continuing to work with our allies to develop a platform over which we can be in more control than we have been with the F-35 gives us the opportunity to build our security and financial relationships with allies by which we are currently challenged. Will the Minister inform us what we are doing?
It is a great thing to be able to talk about defence, work on a cross-party basis with so many colleagues, and continue to work with the hon. Member for Witney on the issue. We are grateful for what has happened so far—we just want more.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate after my great friend Ruth Smeeth, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Robert Courts on securing it. It could be described as a continuity debate, because it gives us the chance to review progress on the combat air strategy, for which the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend both pushed the Ministry of Defence so successfully two years ago.
The strategy document published last year sets out a clear industry relationship proposition. It even committed funding for development—always an exciting thing to see in the military space—and committed to trying to keep sovereign capability in the UK as far as possible. This is clearly important and part of the MOD’s commitment to the UK prosperity agenda. The strategic defence and security review clearly sets out clearly that we have three key objectives: to protect, to project and to promote. Our armed forces personnel do all three in all that we ask of them, and the reach of UK military plc through the soft power of global industry leadership from UK defence businesses is without question.
The combat air strategy’s focus on the issue of industry sustainability, through the commitment to British defence companies and the opportunities for export and economic outputs from technological developments, is to be welcomed. Following on from the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney, I will share most proudly the story of the production of a very small but critical part of the Typhoon wing, which is made in a small business in Alnwick. It has always made fishing rods, but it has a particular turning machine that makes this very fine and critical piece of the Typhoon wing. Across the UK we are all connected, in ways that may be unexpected for many colleagues, to the extraordinary defence industry that we are so proud of.
The combat air strategy is an important part of the sustainability discussion, and the MOD has begun to adopt a more focused and joined-up approach. We saw that first with the shipbuilding strategy, which was published by Sir John Parker at the end of 2016. As one of the members of the all-party parliamentary group on shipbuilding and ship repair—I am the only woman and the only Conservative in that group, of which I am proud to be a part—I am pleased that the MOD has welcomed our review of that strategy. Much of our focus was on the question of sustainability for industry, since new classes of ship only come along every 30 years, but they have such high capabilities that we now only build a few of them. For far too long we have failed to consider export markets for those models or similar ones to ensure that the yards remain open, expert shipbuilding skills are maintained and new generations of shipbuilders are brought on.
The current feast-or-famine nature of military demand threatens our ability to maintain the sovereign capability to produce warships, and the national shipbuilding strategy significantly reduces the scope of ships that the UK is qualified to build. That could threaten the long-term viability of those fragile shipyards. The very shape of today’s UK shipbuilding industry is the result of rationalisation, following a period of policies that urged shipbuilders to compete with each other, with the result that some yards went bust.
Furthermore, the Government’s inability to provide certainty for industry through a secure timeline of contracts endangers the UK’s position as a world leader in shipbuilding. When it comes to future orders, driving the industrial drumbeat would enable private sector shipbuilders and the wider supply chain—always a critical part of the industry—to invest in infrastructure, facilities and emerging naval technologies, and renew the UK’s competitive advantage.
The secondary economic impact and tax returns to the Exchequer would provide further benefit to the UK as a whole. I reiterate what my hon. Friend the Member for Witney said earlier: to get the best value and the most effective outcomes, the Treasury models absolutely need to adapt and change to ensure that there is understanding across the whole of Government. I know that the Minister is at one with the Secretary of State, who is trying to pitch that battle in a new way.
The argument goes so much further, because one could confront the combat air industry with the same challenges. A new aircraft carrier costs £3 billion—there are two of them—but each F-35 that will travel in her costs around £100 million; the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North regularly picks fights with me about this, but the cost is around £100 million. Those jets are only such good value because we buy them from the USA, from a programme that produces thousands of them, in order to get some benefit in relation to the enormous development cost of the F-35.
The combat air strategy already asserts that sovereign capability for a sixth-generation combat aircraft just is not going to be realistic as a UK-only proposition, and that we will end up working in partnership with our allies to develop and build such a plane. I reiterate my hon. Friend’s comment about wanting to make sure that we are a lead partner in that development. Although we see a level of work sharing on the F-35, there are risks to creating a big gap in our capability and production by buying in from the USA. In so doing, are we all working to the same basic principles and seeking similar freedom of action? That is the really challenging part of the military question. Will we all be working together in NATO against a common enemy, or should we be considering that the question of being able to fight alone must never be ignored? The eye-watering costs of such technologically extraordinary planes means that we need to consider honestly the sort of warfare we could conduct if needed.
In the maritime space, the Royal Navy is looking once again at the question of quantity, as well as technological quality and advantage. For some challenges, high-end war-fighting kit is not the necessary weapon. Of course, the simpler and cheaper warship also has value as an export commodity for smaller countries whose defence budgets will never reach those of the top 10 spending nations.
What is the answer to that question in the combat air space? Eurofighter Typhoons, which came into operational service in 2003, are now expected, with a bit of a stretch, to stay in service until 2040. The F-35s are coming on stream as the Tornado is retired, and I imagine that we can expect them to have a life span of at least 30 years. However, with this strategy we are simply considering a sixth-generation replacement for Typhoon in 20 years’ time. Typhoon’s gestation to service has taken longer than that, thanks to the vagaries of multinational partnership.
If historical timelines are anything to go by, we are certainly cutting it fine, and the nature of international co-operation also risks slowing progress. However, my central concern is that technology and the nature of warfare are changing so fast; and the nature of airspace, its congestion, and the rapidly improving reach and resilience of unmanned drones make me wonder whether a manned sixth-generation fighter jet is where we should invest all our thinking and cash.
If the Navy cover on and below the sea, and the Army cover all that is land, the Royal Air Force must cover air and space. There is an excellent nascent and growing team of people in the space division within the RAF, but space does not seem to feature in the strategic thinking at all. Perhaps the Minister will reassure me that a space strategy will come to us soon, but even if he does so, it would somewhat miss the point. For me, “combat air” means combat activities above ground and sea. That will, without doubt, be more than 33,000 feet up in the decades ahead.
My hon. Friend the Member for Witney and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North first called for a defence aerospace strategy, and that is what we need. The threats to UK plc, to our economy and to the direct safety of our citizens are as likely to come from those Russian bears trundling over the horizon and into Scottish airspace—our quick reaction alert pilots at RAF Lossiemouth are ready to go and politely escort them away—as from attacks on our satellite systems or long-range targeted disruption using the space above us, in ways that mean that a manned fighter jet is simply not the answer.
If the roles of air power are to incorporate intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance—or ISR, which is so much easier to say—and control of the air and up into space with cyber-technologies that we have not yet dreamed up, we must consider how we invest UK taxpayers’ cash into an industrial base that can be flexible, creative and adaptable at pace, and that can be sustainable for our sovereign capability needs.
Back in 1940, my great-grandfather—a mathematician, a vicar and a schoolmaster—was asked to expand his wartime role as an RAF padre to set up and run a training school to provide maths lessons for the young men who needed to understand and be able to use trigonometry in order to navigate a Spitfire. They were sent to the school before reporting to their squadrons. This training was not a particularly high-tech activity, but it was vital to enable those young airmen to fly their planes safely and use the tools at their disposal effectively against the enemy. I set the Department the challenge of telling us how it proposes to empower the RAF to plan for, maintain and build up skillsets—as yet, they are unknown—in the men and women who will be flying or controlling future combat air technology.
The strategy document has nothing at all on training, maintenance and development of present-day pilot skills. In the House in recent weeks, we have discussed with Ministers the lack of trainers for our pilots, who have to use private training facilities and displace private training programmes, thereby stunting wider civilian flying training business models.
Surely the Minister agrees that if we are to prepare for the unexpected—the as-yet unthought-of—we must ensure that we are planning flexible training programmes for this generation of our serving RAF personnel and for the generations to come. They may well not be pilots, as we consider that word now—the strutting pilot walking confidently to his or her cockpit to take to the skies to battle an enemy, or to use firepower to provide air cover for ground or maritime forces—because that role may be in its last throes. Unmanned equipment and war-fighting far from battle zones may become the norm.
My concern with all these strategies—do not get me wrong; they are a great step forward—is that they do not address the changing nature of war and persistent conflict, or the question of what tools, weapons and skills we need to plan for in order to maintain our operational advantage over enemies unknown and as yet unidentifiable. We are really talking about a weapons system and how we plan to get to its birth, rather than wider strategic questions.
The textbook consideration of strategy challenges us to consider the ends, ways and means of our plans. It seems that in our strategic documents, we are discussing the means of fulfilling a strategic intent, with some discussion about the ways in which we will do so. However, we are fundamentally ignoring part of that equation—I do not doubt that it is the most difficult—in our discussions. Surely, a strategic document from the Ministry of Defence, which is one of the world’s leading defence organisations and has the best service personnel in the world working for it, ought to be setting out in a broad-brush manner, at least, what ends we should be considering. That is not just a new, faster, whizzier, cleverer and more tech-filled piece of kit—designed in the UK, I hope, and made or at least built in part here—but the big questions of what our intent and reach will be.
I ask the Minister to come back to the House with the next phase of the combat air strategy—perhaps, as he keeps being reminded, with its new title. That strategy should help parliamentarians to gain confidence that there is clear thinking and planning about more than just the next generation of a fighter jet to replace Typhoon, since that may not be the sort of warfare we need in 20 years’ time, and that the Department is not acting in a piecemeal way on technology or its commitment to the UK defence industry, but is thinking in the coherent, long-term way that, for too many decades, we have not had. It should build into the strategic statements for land, sea and air—they are most welcome—a clearer indication that the Department is working to draw together and support our strategic thinking. We look forward to the full aerospace strategy in due course.
It is a pleasure to make a brief contribution to this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. All three previous speakers have shown absolute mastery of the detail, which I cannot hope to match in this context, so I intend to draw out some of the broader issues and seize a particular current opportunity: the forthcoming election of a new leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister.
Occasionally in politics, a window of opportunity opens, usually when aspiring leaders of the nation wish to generate support from those whom they presume to lead. We on the Select Committee on Defence met on Tuesday and decided that we would write to both of the final candidates in the leadership election. I have in front of me the text of the similar letters sent to each, picking up on the Foreign Secretary’s bid for the support of defence-minded MPs. In those letters, we spell out the fact that the Defence Committee, whose members represent four different parties, has for several years been absolutely united about the fact that we need to be spending more on defence.
In particular, the Committee believes that we ought to have as our target figure not the bare 2% of GDP that we currently just about manage to spend, but a figure approaching 3% of GDP, the proportion of gross domestic product that used to be spent by the United Kingdom—not during the cold war, when that figure was 4.5% to 5%, but as late as the mid-1990s, several years after the cold war had come to an end.
The complexity of weapons systems in any of the dimensions that we might care to identify—land, sea, air, cyber-space, or space itself—is increasing. If we do not have an adequate financial base for defence, it is difficult to see how any of those projects can hope to be brought to fruition. That applies as much to what from this moment onwards I will call “the Tempest strategy” as it does to every other system.
In a few moments, I will come back to the terms of the letter that I sent. However. I want to emphasise what my hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan has just said by noting that as these advanced weapons systems get more complex, their numbers get fewer, and they have to be planned longer and longer in advance. Needless to say, they also cost a great deal more. I am a little more familiar with the cycle involving warships than I am with aircraft, but we can see the same pattern. For example, there are two types of submarines: nuclear-powered attack submarines and ballistic missile submarines. No sooner have we completed the construction of a class of one of those vessels than we have to construct a class of the other.
Order. I do not wish to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, who is making some interesting points, but the question is “That this House has considered Combat Air Strategy progress and next steps.” I hope the right hon. Gentleman will focus his remarks on the objective of the debate.
All will become clear very soon, Mr Stringer; you have my assurance.
Just as we must not interrupt that cycle, whether it be for a nuclear-powered submarine that is an attack submarine or a nuclear-armed submarine that is a ballistic missile submarine, we must not interrupt it for frigate or destroyer construction. We face exactly the same problem with aircraft strategies: we have gone from the Typhoon to the F-35, and even as we are introducing the F-35—the fifth-generation aircraft—we must already be planning for the sixth. That is despite the fact that, as has been pointed out, one of the existing aircraft still has at least 20 years to go in its lifespan, and the other has only just begun a period in service with the Royal Air Force lasting probably twice that. The question that arises, therefore, is how the new generation of aircraft can be financed.
With that, we come back to the issue of what we are being promised. Whenever Prime Ministers or Defence Secretaries are in place, we are told constantly that all is fine and everything in the garden is rosy and flourishing, yet when Defence Secretaries leave their position, they immediately call for increases. Recently, one brave Defence Minister even said at the Dispatch Box that we are not spending enough on defence. Now, we find that the Foreign Secretary is saying that within the next five years we ought to increase defence spending by a quarter, and he even made a speech at Mansion House suggesting that over 10 years, the rate of increase should be that much greater.
Looking at the Tempest strategy, we have to ask ourselves how an aircraft of that degree of complexity, requiring so long to be designed and brought into service and demanding so much in the way of our resources, will be financed. The sole issue that I wish colleagues to consider today is that, if it takes 30 years to conceive and build the sixth generation of our air power, we will have to invest a great deal of money in it. We on the Defence Committee have worked across party lines to try to change the terms of the debate on funding aircraft, land systems and naval systems, as well as dealing with the issues that arise from what are commonly called the 21st-century threats in space and cyber-space.
It is a matter of concern that there have been indications that the permanent part of defence and security machinery has been advocating that we move away from our traditional profile and stance: of investing in such systems as those aircraft to a greater degree than the rest of our NATO European allies. Normally, as we know, the overall burden of NATO’s expenditure has been borne by the US superpower; the continental allies have put forth something below the minimum guideline and we have been somewhere in between.
It has been disturbing to see arguments being put behind the scenes that we should come to terms with the fact that we should not in future seek to outdo our continental European allies and should lower our expenditure to the level they invest. Personally, I feel that would be a disastrous mistake—it would mean that we would no longer be able to rely on retaining an industrial base that could produce and develop weapons systems of a complexity to keep us at the cutting edge of air power, sea power and land power, let alone protect ourselves in space and cyber-space.
In this debate, we have spoken about sovereign capability, the industrial base, the agenda for jobs and apprenticeships and the economy. In his position as Chair of the Defence Committee, would my right hon. Friend say that we should always be seeking the capability to conduct unilateral operations? On that basis, is it not crucial, in terms of sharing intellectual property and technology with our partners in building the new generation of aircraft, to have the most reliable strategic partners who will enhance our capability to conduct unilateral operations?
That is a critical point, because the argument to which I have obliquely referred—I was tempted to refer to it more explicitly, but I decided not to, bearing in mind your stricture, Mr Stringer—and which is being put forward by civil service mandarins is not only that we should spend less, but that we should recognise the fact that we will only ever be involved in major conflicts along with allies and so we do not need the full spectrum of capability on land, at sea or in the air.
The problem with that approach is that it assumes that if we were to go into a conflict alongside allies at the beginning, those allies will remain available throughout—right until the end. What happens, however, if one of those allies is overrun and occupied, as has frequently happened in major conflicts in the past? If we are relying for the sake of our air power, for example, on a particular injection of expertise and capital from a particular ally who is no longer available, our defence capability could be fatally undermined.
I will conclude with this point. We are trying, as always, to construct a system for the air, as in the other dimensions, that is the most advanced the world has ever seen. That means that we have to be prepared not only to pay for it, but to recognise that we cannot expect to anticipate the context and circumstances under which the crisis will arise where the system will be put into action. We cannot anticipate that, so equally we cannot anticipate whether our allies who might be available in one type of conflict will be available in another and, even if they are available in that other context, whether they will remain available until the fight is brought to a close.
As we get involved in more complex and expensive systems—systems that take longer to design, develop and produce—we also must recognise the limitations on our scenario prediction ability. That is why we must invest enough and recognise that a full spectrum of military capability is essential, including, of course, in relation to the Tempest aircraft strategy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I almost said “under your premiership”, and there is indeed a leadership contest under way—but even the Conservative party has not stretched our opportunity to get involved that far. I apologise to the Chamber for my lack of voice; I have rapidly sucked two throat lozenges and drunk a bottle of water in the hope that that will make my vocal cords relaxed enough to contribute. I am just about there.
It is a huge pleasure to lend my support to my hon. Friend Robert Courts in this debate, which he secured. The combat air strategy matters to my constituents at BAE Systems in Warton, to the many who work at Samlesbury and to the colleagues who work over at Brough and build the Hawk, whose final assembly takes place at Warton. It also matters to the RAF, which I have the great pleasure of serving as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme.
Above all, the combat air strategy matters to the nation. As has been said by some previous speakers, it is not only about building a platform for defence, but about having the means of sovereign capability where we can invest our research and development across a whole spectrum of areas—everything from avionics to the actual platforms themselves, through to new materials and in-flight systems and IT development. In many of those areas, the United Kingdom is without question a world leader.
Indeed, some of the technologies that have come out of previous air platforms, particularly the Harrier, have been rolled in to future programmes, such as the F-35. The nature of the beast that we are dealing with is one that gives us great longevity and considerable return on investment in almost every aspect. I am sorry that John Spellar is not with us at the moment: the point he made about Treasury models and business cases is incredibly important. When looking at the cost of and investment in combat aircraft, we have to consider the amount of revenue generated throughout the whole supply chain and the new technologies that emerge and can be rolled in, even into non-military applications. The value to the nation is much greater than the Treasury ever gives it credit for.
With that in mind, I was thrilled when last year at Farnborough, the Prime Minister—I had the privilege of being there with her—announced the Government’s intention to pursue the combat air strategy. It is good for the Government and the industry that the £2 billion investment has been forthcoming, but considerably more resources will have to flow through.
Before I talk about Tempest, I want to mirror the words of Ruth Smeeth about the importance of Hawk. It is beloved by the nation because it is a symbol of the Red Arrows, but it is also unique because it is the one aerospace platform that is truly British. From design to final assembly, Hawk is not part of a large multinational pan-European consortium, but is 100% British. We need to ensure not only that we retain the true sovereign capability demonstrated in Hawk, but that we think about what the future of Hawk looks like and what its successor aircraft will be.
Hawk fills an incredibly important role. Not only is it a trainer aircraft, which every modern air force across the world requires—Hawk is the platform of choice in training for the Typhoon, the F-35 and similar types of aircraft—but it has other uses as light tactical support and, in many air forces around the world, as a display aircraft, which is a great way to represent a country’s air force. However, that will be the case only if we are now serious about investing in and developing a successor platform.
Hawk has had many life extensions—I think we are on to its fourth or fifth mark. That is wonderful, but at some point we will need to look at investing in and developing a new platform. My request to the Minister is that that becomes a priority for the very clever people who work in Main Building, and that we start to identify what that looks like. It would be not a crying shame but criminal if the replacement for Hawk were something that we bought off the shelf, even if from our closest allies. We can, and must, do better than that.
My big ask to the Minister is that, as part of a combat air strategy, we think of that trainer solution. In pounds, shillings and pence—without reverting to old money—let us also think about the export value that that kind of platform can generate. As I mentioned, every air force around the world requires that capability—not just as a trainer but, in countries with less advanced defence requirements, as light tactical support. If the Minister could take that away as a challenge, I would be truly grateful.
Typhoon, which is the current defence mainstay of the Royal Air Force, is final-assembled in Walton. I have always been incredibly proud to represent the men and women who build and final-assemble that magnificent aircraft. It is very important that, as part of any combat air strategy, the aircraft remains current, which we can achieve by ensuring that we anticipate future mission requirements and invest in that capability.
I thank the Minister and the Government for a number of announcements in the last couple of years that will enable Typhoon to remain current, but we need to ensure that that remains the case throughout the life of the aircraft. The aircraft can then not only adopt current weapon systems but ensure, as I think my hon. Friend the Member for Witney mentioned, that it incorporates upgrades that will be the prelude to what we will see in sixth-generation aircraft.
Finally, anyone who was at Farnborough last year and saw the mock-up of Tempest could not fail to be impressed. It was an incredible-looking platform, but truly impressive was its capability to be in effect the mother craft, supporting a range of unmanned aerial combat vehicles, to gather data and intelligence and to work in an autonomous way, keeping the pilot safe but still delivering the critical aspects of the mission. A lot of that technology comes out of the Taranis programme, which was also operated out of BAE Systems at Walton.
In a combat strategy, all the programmes feed into each other; nothing really operates in isolation. I congratulate the Minister and the Government on developing such a strategy. Without it, I am afraid that down the road would be very costly or unacceptable decisions, such as buying off the shelf from countries overseas. Sovereign capability is everything. We must have the ability to design, build and operate in isolation if required, and to invest in jobs, apprenticeships and new technologies. The combat air strategy allows us to do that.
I encourage the Minister to stay on the path that the Government are on, and to fight for that additional slice of the Government expenditure cake. I am far more ambitious than 2.5%—I think it should be much closer to 3%. As the world becomes a more dangerous place, as the stretch on our armed forces becomes all the more obvious, as challenges such as cyber become even greater, and as new theatres such as space begin to emerge, it is important that the United Kingdom is prepared. We can be prepared only if we plan, invest and do the right thing. I know that the Minister will do that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Members for Witney (Robert Courts) and for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), who has had to leave us, on introducing the debate and being tireless campaigners on the issue for a number of years. It is appropriate that we are having the debate in Armed Forces Week, in which we are getting many opportunities to talk about the impact of our military.
The hon. Member for Witney highlighted in great detail the importance of the combat air strategy. As he stressed, the benefits of the aerospace sector to our economy cannot be overstated, and he gave us some important figures that are worth repeating. He said that the sector has accounted for 87% of defence exports over the past 10 years and that the UK combat air sector has an annual turnover of more than £6 billion. That supports 18,000 jobs directly, and there is of course a multiplier effect in the local economy and tax revenues. All recent combat air programmes in the UK have delivered significant returns on Government investment.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North highlighted the number of people already working on Tempest and the number that we expect to see working on that programme over the next few years. It was great news when, as part of the combat air strategy, the former Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced the launch of Tempest last year, along with £2 billion of funding to develop the technologies necessary for the UK to lead the development of a next-generation combat air system. I hope to see a positive outcome for those plans in the comprehensive spending review this year, and subsequently in the first major programme approval gate at the end of 2020.
There are issues surrounding funding. Anne-Marie Trevelyan talked about the feast or famine approach to spending, and Dr Lewis talked about how, as soon as we start one programme, we should consider the next. That drumbeat of planning and procurement is so important. We should not be scrabbling about for money when funding our defence. We need to commit to a much longer funding stream, to ensure proper planning of the spending within the Department.
Frankly, we are seeing too much of a siloed approach to spending, not just in Defence but in many Government Departments. I will briefly highlight the fleet solid supply ships, which we are talking about building outwith the UK. Given the economic impact of building in our own shipyards, it is ludicrous to consider countries such as South Korea, with its state funding of bids. It will fund those bids because it understands the tax revenues and economic multipliers. We need a far less siloed approach.
It should also remain a priority that any exports take into account where the equipment will be used. I am looking for some clarity on that, especially in the light of the recent Court of Appeal ruling, which found that the Government
“made no concluded assessments of whether the Saudi-led coalition had committed violations of international humanitarian law in the past, during the Yemen conflict, and made no attempt to do so”.
There is no justification for exporting arms to countries that repeatedly and flagrantly violate international humanitarian law.
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
The partnerships and collaborations involved in the combat air strategy will play an essential part in determining the UK’s place on the international stage in the immediate future. It is therefore essential that our defence policy remains in step with our European allies and our closest neighbours. I was pleased that a number of hon. Members made reference to that this afternoon.
The combat air strategy recognises the UK’s
“unique network of capability collaborations” and pledges to
“work quickly and openly with allies to build on or establish new partnerships to deliver future requirements.”
It is important that the Government make good on those intentions and follow through on the proposals for the combat air acquisition programme as an international collaborative programme with the UK as a prime partner.
Our interests must remain aligned with our European partners—our closest neighbours—even after Brexit. That is not just because of defence interests. It is also because, through building such collaborations and alliances, our research is far richer and far better. Being able to draw upon skills from across Europe means that we end up with a product that is far better than it would be if we were simply working on our own.
The hon. Member for Witney talked about the skills required for the Tempest programme and the importance of involving schools. As a former teacher, I agree 100%. We need to be in schools, and not just at secondary level. We need to be in primary schools. We need to be working with young people to make them aware of the sector and to help them to see the opportunities that the sector offers. In particular, we need to be trying to tap into a resource that we are not using enough: the females. We need to be targeting girls so that the aerospace sector has a far more balanced workforce. That is not important just because we want to see diversity and people getting on. It is important because different types of people bring different types of ideas and will look at things in different ways. We must do that.
The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed mentioned space. I had not actually considered the space implications, but she is quite right. As our understanding of space and our development of space vehicles increases, we need to consider how that is going to play out. I was very pleased when last year the Government committed £2 million to the development of a space port on the A’ Mhòine peninsula in Sutherland. There are real opportunities, not just in terms of our forays into space but also in terms of building up a skills hub around that.
Of course, any strategy will succeed only if it receives the full backing of those expected to carry it out. The strength of our armed forces absolutely relies upon the strength of our personnel. Frankly, as I said yesterday—I think the Minister was there for that debate—we need to do more to improve the welfare and treatment of our personnel, not just in the RAF but across all the armed forces. The Minister will know that the SNP has been pushing for an armed forces representative body that would allow them a proper say in how personnel are treated and their welfare, and would feed into Government policy. It would not allow for strike action—we can have a federation that does not allow that—but would allow us to consult and bring on board the personnel.
Our defence capability and longevity must be strengthened by proper investment and proper ambition. It was great to see the combat air strategy launched, but it should not need the hon. Members for Witney and for Stoke-on-Trent North to be pushing in order to move it forward. It should already be part of the Government’s programmes. There is a strong overlap in defence when we look at our European Union allies and the UK. Whatever happens in the coming months, we must ensure that nothing is done that would put that collaboration in jeopardy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone; I notice there has just been a change of Chair, and I thank your predecessor for the good work he did for us as well.
I congratulate Robert Courts on tabling and introducing this timely and important debate. Of course, he has a strong constituency interest—but, as he pointed out, so do we all. He mentioned at the start of his contribution the loss of the two German Eurofighters and of the pilot. The Opposition share his concern for the loss of that pilot and for the suffering that has been caused. As he rightly pointed out, it is a very sad moment indeed, and Germany is an important ally and NATO partner.
I also agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point about Tempest—it is a good name for the new aircraft, for all the reasons that he pointed out. I think we all agree that we should call it Tempest from now on, rather than a combination of initials or different terms. Tempest is a very good way of describing it.
The SNP spokesperson, Carol Monaghan, reminded us of what the hon. Member for Witney said: that the contribution of defence aerospace to our economy is much bigger than any contribution that the taxpayer makes towards its development. We are all aware of its multiplier effect. The hon. Gentleman pointed out that we need to develop, sponsor and bring on the technology not only for military applications, but—this was very important—for much broader applications. That is something that the Opposition certainly believe in, and I know that others across the House do too. Technologies with military applications might be initiated with start-up investment using taxpayers’ money, but they can be vastly echoed in the civilian sector, to benefit us all. That is really important; there are many examples of it, and we want to support fully it. As the hon. Gentleman said, military equipment is not a drain on our resource but an important part of our economy. I think we would all agree that the real enemy is the Treasury, which often does not see the value of defence expenditure, which it should, as it is vital to us.
My hon. Friend Ruth Smeeth pointed out that Unite representatives from Brough are here today—the skilled men and women who are so important to the manufacturing of the Hawk aircraft. I recognise some of the faces, having visited the factory myself. It is not far from my own constituency in Leeds. I certainly echo what she said: without those skills, without those men and women and their dedication, without the teamwork, we would not have the products at all.
I was privileged to see, and indeed sit in, the advanced Hawk, and I would like to see a lot more work going into that—not just a representative version of it, but developing it for full use and full capability, not just for the Red Arrows, but to be sold abroad too. It is a remarkable piece of equipment.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan talked about protecting, projecting and promoting, which is part of the document on the combat air strategy, and she is absolutely right. She also told us about the importance of the supply chain and pointed to the example of the part of the Typhoon wing made in her constituency, in Alnwick. She said that we are all connected to the defence industry, which is absolutely true.
The Chair of the Defence Committee, Dr Lewis, said that we need to be united and need to spend more. The Opposition certainly agree with that. He said we need the adequate financial base for defence expenditure, and we would always try to support that.
We also heard from Mark Menzies, who talked about the 100% Britishness of the Hawk aircraft. We are all very proud of it. Why can the Red Arrows not replace their current Hawks with new models, which would help to create the work that is so badly needed in the Brough order book? We want to see that continuity while we look for further orders, so I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made that point. We should not buy these products off the shelf; we should develop them 100% in the United Kingdom. Our sovereign capability is vital.
Our aerospace and defence sectors are truly world leading, and they are vital to our security and national prosperity—every hon. and right hon. Member who has spoken in the debate has agreed with that. The Opposition welcomed the publication of the combat air strategy last year, but we raised some concerns at the time that it might have been better to publish an overarching defence industrial strategy—some hon. and right hon. Members have referred to that—to give the wider industry the certainty that it requires. That is indeed one of the problems, is it not? We need that certainty and continuity, otherwise we might stand to lose the vital skills on which we depend.
The Opposition expected to see some development on the combat air strategy in the modernising defence programme report, but that turned out to be rather underwhelming at best, with many pages filled by photographs and material that summarises the current and past activities of the armed forces. This remains pertinent, because the Ministry of Defence recently entered into a $2 billion single-source agreement with Boeing for its E-7 Wedgetail, which we understand will replace the airborne warning and control system aircraft. The Government effectively excluded any alternatives from the outset, which we think is a real shame. I am sure the Minister will want to comment on that in his winding-up speech.
The new Secretary of State has used recent speeches at the Royal United Services Institute to talk up the possibility of buying British and has referred to the importance of defence to the broader prosperity agenda, which is something we have all reflected this afternoon. We hope to see concrete proposals that will put prosperity, as well as sovereign capability, at the heart of our procurement policy. I hope the Minister can update us on the Secretary of State’s agenda on that.
I welcome this week’s announcement that the F-35 aircraft have joined the fight against Daesh in their first operational missions, making use of their superior reconnaissance capabilities. We are currently in the process of obtaining 48 F-35Bs, some of which have already arrived, and they are all expected to be delivered by 2025. The Ministry of Defence has previously committed to purchasing 138 F-35 aircraft, but it has been rather tight-lipped about the 90 that it has not yet ordered. Can the Minister confirm that the UK will order all 138 F-35s? If that is the case, can he confirm the timelines for their delivery? Can he also confirm whether other variants of the F-35 are being considered, particularly given the reports suggesting that the RAF is quite keen on having some F-35As, which have a longer range than the B variant and which seem to be the preferred option for many of our allies?
Chapter 3 of the combat air strategy document is entitled “International by Design”. The strategy formally announced the Team Tempest project, which is looking at developing our next-generation combat air systems. Sweden has shown an interest in collaborating on this project. Meanwhile France, Germany and now Spain are developing their own joint initiative. Given our close links with those European allies through NATO, the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force and Common Security and Defence Policy missions, what assessment has the Minister made of the separation of these two projects on our interoperability with our European allies?
Finally, an effective combat air strategy must ensure that the RAF is properly staffed. The strategic defence and security review target for full-time trained strength RAF personnel for 2020 is 31,750. The recent quarterly personnel statistics released in April demonstrate that we are currently more than 5% below that target. The figure is virtually the same as the one in January, so will the Minister concede that it is now highly unlikely that that commitment will be met by next year? Will he confirm how the Ministry of Defence is undertaking to improve recruitment in the RAF, and indeed across all services?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I offer my thanks and congratulations to my hon. Friend Robert Courts for introducing this debate. I echo his opening comments about the recent crash of the German Eurofighter, and the sad loss of life. Our thoughts go out not only to the German air force and the German people, but to the pilot’s family, at what must be an incredibly difficult time. We will take close notice of the reports that come out of that incident; my hon. Friend was absolutely right to say that we should not speculate at this stage, but we will seek to understand the issues that caused the crash and learn from them for the safety of our pilots.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate, because he has shown a tremendous amount of personal enthusiasm and dedication on this issue. I know that because he writes to me quite regularly and asks to meet, and he rightly challenges us about it. He does that not only from a personal interest, but because he clearly cares passionately about the benefits it will bring for his own constituency, which I know he works incredibly hard to support. I hope I can assure him that the Government share that ambition and the commitment to ensuring that we continue to have a world-leading combat air sector.
We want to build on our the United Kingdom’s excellent reputation, and on its excellence and innovation. That reputation has been underpinned by more than a century of significant investment by both the Government and the industry, but by 2018 it was clear that some important decisions were needed if the UK were to retain its position as a world leader in combat air, while retaining sovereign choice in how we deliver the future capabilities that the Royal Air Force will need.
At the heart of the Government’s response is the combat air strategy, which, as many hon. and right hon. Members have already said, was officially launched at the Farnborough International Air Show last year. It sets out an ambitious vision for the sector, with plans for driving a comprehensive approach across Government and our industrial base, together with international partnering in the future.
The strategy provides a clear roadmap for the future, aligning national programmes and investment decisions to sustain a sector that is profoundly important to the UK’s economy—as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, it accounts for around 85% of our defence exports over the past decade and directly supports 180,000 British jobs. At the heart of the strategy is the launch of the next-generation combat air acquisition programme, which will define and deliver the capabilities required when the Typhoon fighter leaves service.
The strategy also reaffirms the Government’s commitment to the future combat air system technology initiative, under which £1.9 billion was invested in demonstrator projects using the latest technology. More generally, the strategy highlights the clear need for profound transformational change in the way the Government and the industry jointly approach the combat air enterprise.
I will move on to some of the points that hon. and right hon. Members raised during the debate. I note what my hon. Friend said in his speech about the Franco-German project; I absolutely accept that there is no room for complacency, and I can personally reassure him that I am not complacent about it. I always wish our friends and allies the very best of success, and we will see how the move from fourth generation to sixth generation goes. We will always continue to work with allies on a host of different projects.
My hon. Friend was right to make the point, which I accept, that we should look at a better model for understanding the contribution that the defence industry makes to the United Kingdom. He described how the UK economy benefits from our investment in defence, and he mentioned some big figures. I gently encourage all Members to continue to have conversations, as I am sure they do already, with my colleagues in the Treasury about the difficulties that we sometimes find in the Treasury Green Book. I will leave that there for now.
I will come on to skills a little later, because I want to address some interesting points made by my hon. Friend. I took no offence whatever when he said that the importance of our future combat air strategy cannot be promoted only at my level. It absolutely has to be a national endeavour, and it has to be at the highest level of Government. I can assure him that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has raised the issue at meetings with her counterparts from other countries, and it is incumbent on the new Prime Minister to do exactly the same. The Chair of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis, rightly said that it presents us with an opportunity to really push the issue and see this as a national endeavour, with senior cross-Government figures pushing the project forward and encouraging more international partners.
My hon. Friend the Member for Witney talked about paragraph 38 in the strategy. I reassure him that the national value framework not only describes options, but assesses which ones reach the right balance between prosperity, capability, affordability and, of course, international influence. I assure him that I will continue to put forward the message that this is an opportunity for us to keep UK skills and industry at the heart of the initiative.
My hon. Friend talked about STEM issues. Several right hon. and hon. Members have said that we need to attract younger people into the subjects that they will need to take part in projects such as this. As I go round industry, I get a sense that industry has woken up to that. A lot of industries are now determinedly engaging with primary schools and running competitions to get it into the minds of young people that this is an exciting opportunity for their future. When I was at BAE Systems in Lancashire it was interesting to see the training centre right next door. It benefits not only BAE Systems, but other industries across the north-west, and I hope we will see more of that sort of thing.
For many years, we have had engagement events in which industry goes to schools, does some sort of bells-and-whistles project activity and goes again, but the impact has not been great. The kids love taking part, but there has not really been any knock-on effect. The outcomes are far better when relationships are built up over time. It is important for engagement to be not just about going in and back out, but about getting to know the young people over an extended period of time.
I take that point completely, but I think the hon. Lady has a pessimistic view of what is happening. In the industries that I have visited I have seen a lot of new apprentices, and it has been encouraging to see female apprentices taking up the opportunities. I accept that we have a long way to go, but I get a sense that there is more of a commitment to work with schools through the years to encourage young people to take up such posts. When I visit factories, the most enjoyable part is meeting the apprentices, because they are full of enthusiasm and they recognise that they are taking part in a national endeavour to secure our nation’s future.
My hon. Friend the Minister visits my constituency a lot, but he does not have to keep writing to me before he comes. May I suggest that the next time he visits, he drops into Aerospace Bristol, an £18 million STEM learning centre that houses the last Concorde that flew? It has been heavily supported by local industry and local government, and it is really worth a look. It pays tribute to the past, but, crucially, it also inspires the next generation of engineers and scientists.
I am always happy to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency. I will certainly try to make room for that, as I said in the debate yesterday, if I am still here in a few weeks.
I thank the Minister for allowing me to intervene once again. What he is talking about is indeed happening and we are starting to see things change. However, when I visit industries they often introduce me to the female engineer. If we are talking about “the female engineer”, we have problems. A female engineer should be so commonplace that there is no reason to introduce visiting dignitaries or MPs to such people.
I completely take that point, but, as I say, I have seen a greater number of females in the industry. There are not enough, and I accept that there is more to be done, but I do get a sense that things are going in the right direction. However, we should never be complacent, and the hon. Lady makes a valid point. It is something I continue to press with industry.
Ruth Smeeth is not here, but I was quite amused by the fact that she was mistaken for Rachel Reeves. When I was first elected to this House, I was constantly mistaken for my hon. Friend Andrew Stephenson. In fact, he sent me a text message once to say, “Thank you for doing such a brilliant speech for me on HS2 yesterday”, because he got the credit for it. So I know that such mistakes can happen.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North pointed out that we have representatives from Brough here today, who have been brilliant advocates of the work that they do in the factories there. I am acutely aware of the issues that they face and the uncertainty for the people who work there. I hope that I have demonstrated my commitment to try to get the exports to Kuwait. I have been there on a couple of occasions and have met them here. I constantly meet BAE Systems to talk about the programme and will continue to do so because the matter is of great concern to them.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North also pointed out that the issue is not only about platforms and that we should also talk about the skills, designers and engineers that we need and can really help us. She talked about the four national players currently in the Tempest and what the SME involvement is. Again, I am absolutely passionate that the SME involvement needs to be extensive. I was pleased to open a conference where about 150 SMEs came along to learn about the opportunities and what we are looking for. Since then, the conversations with at least 100 of the SMEs has continued.
Just this week, I chaired a meeting with the four national players and MOD representatives; I pushed the point that we need to make sure that we get the very best out of those SMEs. From what I can see, that is where a lot of the exciting technology and development is happening, and they can sometimes be more responsive in delivering the technology that we need for the platform. I assure her that I will continue to make that point in any meeting that I have.
My hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan talked about the national shipbuilding strategy and how we learn lessons from that. There has been some controversy about it and I have had some challenging debates and sessions in front of the Select Committee, but I also had a good meeting with the representatives of the all-party parliamentary group for shipbuilding and ship repair. There is a lot in its report that we can examine and transfer into the strategy.
My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East rightly talked about the leadership election and the opportunities it presents. I welcome the debate on defence spending. Even before I was in this position, I believed that defence spending needed to increase and be appropriate to the risk that we face. At the end of the day, the first duty of any Government of this country is to protect the nation and our people. I will certainly encourage both candidates to increase the funding. I want to see that.
I was concerned to hear my right hon. Friend mention that some say that we should lower our expenditure and expectations; he will be glad to know that I have not heard that in the Department. If I did, I suppose I would coin the phrase, “No, no, no.”
My hon. Friend Mark Menzies secured a debate not long ago on a similar topic and I know how important it is to his constituents—that was one of the first visits I did in this position. He rightly talked about the Treasury models and I look forward to him lobbying Treasury Ministers. He also said, as did other hon. Members, that the strategy is not just about a new platform in Tempest, but about keeping Typhoon current and upgrading and modernising it throughout its life, so there is an easy transition into Tempest, or whatever that may be. That is at the heart of the strategy to ensure that we are maximising those opportunities.
Carol Monaghan was absolutely right that the comprehensive spending review will be significant. The Department is already preparing for that to make the point that we need the funding that we have been talking about. She also talked about European partners and concern about what leaving the European Union might mean. I gently point out that a lot of our collaboration with our European neighbours happens bilaterally or through NATO. I see no reason why our leaving the European Union would bring an end to that collaboration. We will continue to do it through NATO and bilaterally, and we will look to partner nations across the globe to ensure that we continue to maximise it.
Fabian Hamilton is indeed my constituent and I am happy to represent him in this House—I am sure he is not so happy about that.
Yes, I know.
I heard the hon. Gentleman’s point about the replacement for the Red Arrows, but that is not a priority; there are a lot of pressures on our budget and we have to ensure that we continue some of the projects that we already have, of which he mentioned several. That said, we are not giving up on the export opportunities for Hawk and we are working closely and regularly with BAE Systems to make that happen, as I said.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned Wedgetail, about which there has been a lot of debate. We did not shut out competitors because, frankly, there were none. There was no other proven capability that could provide the same level that we need and that Wedgetail provides. We could have done a longer competition, but that would have delayed the acquisition of that critical platform. The old platform has been letting us down for a long time. The one that we have is used by the Australians and has a proven capability that meets our needs. That is why we decided to go for it directly.
The hon. Gentleman rightly talked about prosperity. My right hon. Friend Mr Dunne produced that wonderful report. We are already working to many of his recommendations and we will continue to explore some of his other points. A key thing that we are doing is working closely with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy through the defence growth partnership and looking to create the joint economic hub, which will get the information we need as to the true value of defence to the UK economy.
The hon. Member for Leeds North East also asked about the F-35s. I confirm that we will stick to the figure of 138. I cannot indicate at this stage which variants; we will make that assessment nearer the time. I hope that answers his point.
I will return to our progress in implementing the strategy since its launch with regard to the four areas I have already touched on. We are looking at the long-term replacement of Typhoon. We delivered the strategic outline case at the end of last year and we are working hard to complete the outline business case by the end of 2020.
As all hon. Members know, £2 billion of future investment has been approved. Importantly, since the announcement 1,000 people have taken up new jobs to look at that area, and that figure will be 1,800 by the end of the year. Among the industry partners that we are directly in contact with, that includes 400 jobs at BAE Systems and 260 jobs at Leonardo all over the country. As well as securing those jobs, we are trying to demonstrate the significant technological advances that have been made, including Rolls-Royce’s demonstration of an advanced embedded electrical starter-generator in a military engine, which allows the engine to be started through electrical power rather than high-pressure air. That could allow the removal of several mechanical components in next-generation engines and could equally apply to civil aero engines, as hon. Members said.
As I said, we continue to work with the SME community and we are looking at skills. I am pleased to say that this year, Leonardo will recruit a record 104 graduates and 62 apprentices. The majority of those will be involved in the Team Tempest project and activities. Similarly, BAE Systems is training a record 3,000 young people around the UK; this year, it is planning for about 700 apprentices and 300 graduates. Again, that can be only good news.
I will not dwell on the matter much further because I am conscious that I have spoken for some time, but I hope that the launch of the combat air strategy demonstrates the Government’s commitment to looking at the future and ensuring that we keep that seamless skillset in our country. We will continue to update the House regularly as we make more progress. I confirm that detailed updates will be provided on the opening day of the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford on
I conclude on a positive note: the strength of our combat air sector is confirmed by our recent export successes, including the sale of £6 billion-worth of Typhoons and Hawks to Qatar, and the £500 million contract that we were awarded for the avionic and aircraft component repair work for the UK’s F-35 hub in north Wales—again, creating a centre of excellence.
We have had a useful and wide-ranging debate, and I am glad to have been able to show our commitment and inform the House of the progress that has been made. The Government firmly believe that the strategy will ensure not only that the RAF retains its world-leading capability into the middle of the 21st century and beyond, but that our military aerospace sector retains its rightful position at the cutting edge of technology development across the globe.
I thank the Minister for his full and comprehensive answer. One of the things I love about debates such as this is that no matter how much I rack my brain to try to cover every point, I never do. Every hon. Member brings to the table something new and interesting that I have not managed to cover, and I always learn something. I am very grateful to all hon. Members who have taken part, and to the Minister for his response.
I echo the words of Ruth Smeeth, who said that the Government have done a wonderful thing. The spirt of our remarks is of celebration and—I hope the Minister will forgive me—gently pushing for a bit more. That is where the enthusiasm takes over. The Government did a wonderful thing in listening to a debate secured by Back Benchers from both sides of the House, responding to it and producing a detailed plan, which, as the Minister said, has led to the employment of 1,000 people in new jobs, rising to 1,800 by the end of the year. It has created something from nothing, and that is a great example of the Government listening to Parliament. I thank the Minister, the Department and everybody who has worked very hard on it for all their work.
That does not mean that we will not keep pushing for more; I make no such promise. I ask that the Minister consider some of the broader issues that we have mentioned today, particularly those relating to the broader defence industrial strategy. We are talking about a platform, vital though it is. The Minister is right about the vision that it gives us for the future, but perhaps it should be wider.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North for emphasising that SMEs must be deeply embedded in the strategy, and to my hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan for rightly mentioning the historical context. We must consider whether we will be fighting as part of a NATO alliance with allies, or whether we will be fighting alone. We always hope that we will be fighting with allies in a NATO context but the Falklands is the obvious example of a time when we were not, for a reason we could not foresee. If history teaches us one thing, it is that whatever comes around the corner probably will not be the thing that we are expecting. My hon. Friend was right to point that out.
My hon. Friend was also right to talk about space, which we have not dealt with, but with which the Royal Air Force and the Ministry of Defence are increasingly engaged. It is of increasing importance.
I am also grateful to my hon. Friend for rightly raising the issue of whether we should have a manned platform or not. My personal view is that we are not quite there yet, for a number of reasons. For issues of morality and accountably, people are probably not quite ready for us to take men and women out of platforms altogether. There are also questions about technology: who we work with and whether we can afford to allow that high level of technology out of the country. We are not quite there yet, but she is quite right that that will be more and more important. I think she said that we should not put all our effort into that. I think the Minister will agree that Tempest includes an unmanned element—it is an airframe that can be flown manned or unmanned—and I believe that the Minister and the combat air strategy are correct in taking that approach.
I am always humbled to speak in the presence of the Chair of the Defence Committee. He is right to argue, as he always does, for the financial base. I think his target is 2.5%—
Sorry, it is 3%—that is even better. We all agree about that. My hon. Friend’s overarching point is that we cannot expect the industrial base to be there in the way that it has been in the past. In the past, the Government have been able to allow the industry to create the incredible machines that the Air Force has used and exported, but because of the extraordinary complexity and cost, the Government now have a greater role in identifying what we will need and why. He is right that more Government input will be required.
My hon. Friend Mark Menzies echoed the point about increased funding—I quite agree. I am also grateful to him for emphasising that the Hawk is the last all-British aircraft. Perhaps it will not be the last; let us hope not. It is a flying British ambassador that does wonders for our international influence and our standing as a country every time it is seen at an air show.
I am grateful to Carol Monaghan for emphasising both the multiplier effect of jobs in the supply chain, and primary school involvement. She is absolutely right that the younger that people get interested, the better. In her intervention on the Minister, she put her finger on something: in the past, industry or the military went into the school and everyone had a great day, enjoyed themselves and remembered it, but the next week they moved on to something else. I am conscious that it is no longer like that—not at Carterton Community College, which has a partnership with Brize Norton. Perhaps one of my letters will follow to the Minister, who might like to come and see the interplay between the base, the industry on the base and the local school, where they are starting to build almost a supply chain of engaged, technically aware pupils. That is very much what we aim to do at Carterton, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for putting her finger on that.
I am grateful to Fabian Hamilton for mentioning the F-35 model point. I did not go into detail on that because it is slightly away from the topic, but he has given me an idea. I might apply for something on that issue in the near future.
That brings me to the Minister, and again I am grateful to him for everything he said. He gave me another idea: I might apply for a similar debate, but I will work with the House authorities to see if I can get a Treasury Minister to answer instead of him. That would be valuable. I have issued an invitation to him to come and see Carterton, which I know he would enjoy. I am grateful to him for agreeing in principle that more money should be spent on defence. I emphasise that, and I make that plea again. We have gone as low as we can, given the world we face and the complexity of our armed forces’ requirements. We need more money in defence, but—this is not aimed at the Minister—we must reassess the way in which its contribution to the entire country is measured. I thank you, Mr Bone, and everyone who took part in the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered Combat Air Strategy progress and next steps.