Combat Air Strategy — [Graham Stringer in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:09 pm on 27th June 2019.

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Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Conservative, Berwick-upon-Tweed 2:09 pm, 27th June 2019

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.