Combat Air Strategy — [Graham Stringer in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:55 pm on 27th June 2019.

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Photo of Fabian Hamilton Fabian Hamilton Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Minister (Defence) 2:55 pm, 27th June 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone; I notice there has just been a change of Chair, and I thank your predecessor for the good work he did for us as well.

I congratulate Robert Courts on tabling and introducing this timely and important debate. Of course, he has a strong constituency interest—but, as he pointed out, so do we all. He mentioned at the start of his contribution the loss of the two German Eurofighters and of the pilot. The Opposition share his concern for the loss of that pilot and for the suffering that has been caused. As he rightly pointed out, it is a very sad moment indeed, and Germany is an important ally and NATO partner.

I also agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point about Tempest—it is a good name for the new aircraft, for all the reasons that he pointed out. I think we all agree that we should call it Tempest from now on, rather than a combination of initials or different terms. Tempest is a very good way of describing it.

The SNP spokesperson, Carol Monaghan, reminded us of what the hon. Member for Witney said: that the contribution of defence aerospace to our economy is much bigger than any contribution that the taxpayer makes towards its development. We are all aware of its multiplier effect. The hon. Gentleman pointed out that we need to develop, sponsor and bring on the technology not only for military applications, but—this was very important—for much broader applications. That is something that the Opposition certainly believe in, and I know that others across the House do too. Technologies with military applications might be initiated with start-up investment using taxpayers’ money, but they can be vastly echoed in the civilian sector, to benefit us all. That is really important; there are many examples of it, and we want to support fully it. As the hon. Gentleman said, military equipment is not a drain on our resource but an important part of our economy. I think we would all agree that the real enemy is the Treasury, which often does not see the value of defence expenditure, which it should, as it is vital to us.

My hon. Friend Ruth Smeeth pointed out that Unite representatives from Brough are here today—the skilled men and women who are so important to the manufacturing of the Hawk aircraft. I recognise some of the faces, having visited the factory myself. It is not far from my own constituency in Leeds. I certainly echo what she said: without those skills, without those men and women and their dedication, without the teamwork, we would not have the products at all.

I was privileged to see, and indeed sit in, the advanced Hawk, and I would like to see a lot more work going into that—not just a representative version of it, but developing it for full use and full capability, not just for the Red Arrows, but to be sold abroad too. It is a remarkable piece of equipment.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan talked about protecting, projecting and promoting, which is part of the document on the combat air strategy, and she is absolutely right. She also told us about the importance of the supply chain and pointed to the example of the part of the Typhoon wing made in her constituency, in Alnwick. She said that we are all connected to the defence industry, which is absolutely true.

The Chair of the Defence Committee, Dr Lewis, said that we need to be united and need to spend more. The Opposition certainly agree with that. He said we need the adequate financial base for defence expenditure, and we would always try to support that.

We also heard from Mark Menzies, who talked about the 100% Britishness of the Hawk aircraft. We are all very proud of it. Why can the Red Arrows not replace their current Hawks with new models, which would help to create the work that is so badly needed in the Brough order book? We want to see that continuity while we look for further orders, so I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made that point. We should not buy these products off the shelf; we should develop them 100% in the United Kingdom. Our sovereign capability is vital.

Our aerospace and defence sectors are truly world leading, and they are vital to our security and national prosperity—every hon. and right hon. Member who has spoken in the debate has agreed with that. The Opposition welcomed the publication of the combat air strategy last year, but we raised some concerns at the time that it might have been better to publish an overarching defence industrial strategy—some hon. and right hon. Members have referred to that—to give the wider industry the certainty that it requires. That is indeed one of the problems, is it not? We need that certainty and continuity, otherwise we might stand to lose the vital skills on which we depend.

The Opposition expected to see some development on the combat air strategy in the modernising defence programme report, but that turned out to be rather underwhelming at best, with many pages filled by photographs and material that summarises the current and past activities of the armed forces. This remains pertinent, because the Ministry of Defence recently entered into a $2 billion single-source agreement with Boeing for its E-7 Wedgetail, which we understand will replace the airborne warning and control system aircraft. The Government effectively excluded any alternatives from the outset, which we think is a real shame. I am sure the Minister will want to comment on that in his winding-up speech.

The new Secretary of State has used recent speeches at the Royal United Services Institute to talk up the possibility of buying British and has referred to the importance of defence to the broader prosperity agenda, which is something we have all reflected this afternoon. We hope to see concrete proposals that will put prosperity, as well as sovereign capability, at the heart of our procurement policy. I hope the Minister can update us on the Secretary of State’s agenda on that.

I welcome this week’s announcement that the F-35 aircraft have joined the fight against Daesh in their first operational missions, making use of their superior reconnaissance capabilities. We are currently in the process of obtaining 48 F-35Bs, some of which have already arrived, and they are all expected to be delivered by 2025. The Ministry of Defence has previously committed to purchasing 138 F-35 aircraft, but it has been rather tight-lipped about the 90 that it has not yet ordered. Can the Minister confirm that the UK will order all 138 F-35s? If that is the case, can he confirm the timelines for their delivery? Can he also confirm whether other variants of the F-35 are being considered, particularly given the reports suggesting that the RAF is quite keen on having some F-35As, which have a longer range than the B variant and which seem to be the preferred option for many of our allies?

Chapter 3 of the combat air strategy document is entitled “International by Design”. The strategy formally announced the Team Tempest project, which is looking at developing our next-generation combat air systems. Sweden has shown an interest in collaborating on this project. Meanwhile France, Germany and now Spain are developing their own joint initiative. Given our close links with those European allies through NATO, the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force and Common Security and Defence Policy missions, what assessment has the Minister made of the separation of these two projects on our interoperability with our European allies?

Finally, an effective combat air strategy must ensure that the RAF is properly staffed. The strategic defence and security review target for full-time trained strength RAF personnel for 2020 is 31,750. The recent quarterly personnel statistics released in April demonstrate that we are currently more than 5% below that target. The figure is virtually the same as the one in January, so will the Minister concede that it is now highly unlikely that that commitment will be met by next year? Will he confirm how the Ministry of Defence is undertaking to improve recruitment in the RAF, and indeed across all services?