Combat Air Strategy — [Graham Stringer in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 1:59 pm on 27th June 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Ruth Smeeth Ruth Smeeth Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North 1:59 pm, 27th June 2019

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.