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

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.