Combat Air Strategy — [Graham Stringer in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 27th June 2019.

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Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts Conservative, Witney 1:30 pm, 27th June 2019

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 17 June, introducing the partnership of those countries with Spain and signing an agreement at the Paris airshow. There is no doubt that for the French and Germans, that is a national and European project in which they invest considerable prestige, and they will be determined to succeed and to claim for themselves, potentially, aerospace territory that has traditionally been the purview of the British, and they are deploying top-level politicians to achieve that.

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.