Combat Air Strategy — [Graham Stringer in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:34 pm on 27th June 2019.

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Photo of Mark Menzies Mark Menzies Conservative, Fylde 2:34 pm, 27th June 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I almost said “under your premiership”, and there is indeed a leadership contest under way—but even the Conservative party has not stretched our opportunity to get involved that far. I apologise to the Chamber for my lack of voice; I have rapidly sucked two throat lozenges and drunk a bottle of water in the hope that that will make my vocal cords relaxed enough to contribute. I am just about there.

It is a huge pleasure to lend my support to my hon. Friend Robert Courts in this debate, which he secured. The combat air strategy matters to my constituents at BAE Systems in Warton, to the many who work at Samlesbury and to the colleagues who work over at Brough and build the Hawk, whose final assembly takes place at Warton. It also matters to the RAF, which I have the great pleasure of serving as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme.

Above all, the combat air strategy matters to the nation. As has been said by some previous speakers, it is not only about building a platform for defence, but about having the means of sovereign capability where we can invest our research and development across a whole spectrum of areas—everything from avionics to the actual platforms themselves, through to new materials and in-flight systems and IT development. In many of those areas, the United Kingdom is without question a world leader.

Indeed, some of the technologies that have come out of previous air platforms, particularly the Harrier, have been rolled in to future programmes, such as the F-35. The nature of the beast that we are dealing with is one that gives us great longevity and considerable return on investment in almost every aspect. I am sorry that John Spellar is not with us at the moment: the point he made about Treasury models and business cases is incredibly important. When looking at the cost of and investment in combat aircraft, we have to consider the amount of revenue generated throughout the whole supply chain and the new technologies that emerge and can be rolled in, even into non-military applications. The value to the nation is much greater than the Treasury ever gives it credit for.

With that in mind, I was thrilled when last year at Farnborough, the Prime Minister—I had the privilege of being there with her—announced the Government’s intention to pursue the combat air strategy. It is good for the Government and the industry that the £2 billion investment has been forthcoming, but considerably more resources will have to flow through.

Before I talk about Tempest, I want to mirror the words of Ruth Smeeth about the importance of Hawk. It is beloved by the nation because it is a symbol of the Red Arrows, but it is also unique because it is the one aerospace platform that is truly British. From design to final assembly, Hawk is not part of a large multinational pan-European consortium, but is 100% British. We need to ensure not only that we retain the true sovereign capability demonstrated in Hawk, but that we think about what the future of Hawk looks like and what its successor aircraft will be.

Hawk fills an incredibly important role. Not only is it a trainer aircraft, which every modern air force across the world requires—Hawk is the platform of choice in training for the Typhoon, the F-35 and similar types of aircraft—but it has other uses as light tactical support and, in many air forces around the world, as a display aircraft, which is a great way to represent a country’s air force. However, that will be the case only if we are now serious about investing in and developing a successor platform.

Hawk has had many life extensions—I think we are on to its fourth or fifth mark. That is wonderful, but at some point we will need to look at investing in and developing a new platform. My request to the Minister is that that becomes a priority for the very clever people who work in Main Building, and that we start to identify what that looks like. It would be not a crying shame but criminal if the replacement for Hawk were something that we bought off the shelf, even if from our closest allies. We can, and must, do better than that.

My big ask to the Minister is that, as part of a combat air strategy, we think of that trainer solution. In pounds, shillings and pence—without reverting to old money—let us also think about the export value that that kind of platform can generate. As I mentioned, every air force around the world requires that capability—not just as a trainer but, in countries with less advanced defence requirements, as light tactical support. If the Minister could take that away as a challenge, I would be truly grateful.

Typhoon, which is the current defence mainstay of the Royal Air Force, is final-assembled in Walton. I have always been incredibly proud to represent the men and women who build and final-assemble that magnificent aircraft. It is very important that, as part of any combat air strategy, the aircraft remains current, which we can achieve by ensuring that we anticipate future mission requirements and invest in that capability.

I thank the Minister and the Government for a number of announcements in the last couple of years that will enable Typhoon to remain current, but we need to ensure that that remains the case throughout the life of the aircraft. The aircraft can then not only adopt current weapon systems but ensure, as I think my hon. Friend the Member for Witney mentioned, that it incorporates upgrades that will be the prelude to what we will see in sixth-generation aircraft.

Finally, anyone who was at Farnborough last year and saw the mock-up of Tempest could not fail to be impressed. It was an incredible-looking platform, but truly impressive was its capability to be in effect the mother craft, supporting a range of unmanned aerial combat vehicles, to gather data and intelligence and to work in an autonomous way, keeping the pilot safe but still delivering the critical aspects of the mission. A lot of that technology comes out of the Taranis programme, which was also operated out of BAE Systems at Walton.

In a combat strategy, all the programmes feed into each other; nothing really operates in isolation. I congratulate the Minister and the Government on developing such a strategy. Without it, I am afraid that down the road would be very costly or unacceptable decisions, such as buying off the shelf from countries overseas. Sovereign capability is everything. We must have the ability to design, build and operate in isolation if required, and to invest in jobs, apprenticeships and new technologies. The combat air strategy allows us to do that.

I encourage the Minister to stay on the path that the Government are on, and to fight for that additional slice of the Government expenditure cake. I am far more ambitious than 2.5%—I think it should be much closer to 3%. As the world becomes a more dangerous place, as the stretch on our armed forces becomes all the more obvious, as challenges such as cyber become even greater, and as new theatres such as space begin to emerge, it is important that the United Kingdom is prepared. We can be prepared only if we plan, invest and do the right thing. I know that the Minister will do that.