Combat Air Strategy — [Graham Stringer in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:21 pm on 27th June 2019.

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Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Defence Committee 2:21 pm, 27th June 2019

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.