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Amphibious/Littoral Military Capability

Volume 488: debated on Monday 23 February 2009

Amphibious and littoral capability continue to be key elements of our force structure, as reflected in our major investment in amphibious shipping in recent years and by the contribution of our brave Royal Marine Commandos to operations in Afghanistan.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. He will be aware that last week the amphibious task group Taurus 09 set sail for the far east, led by the Plymouth-based ships HMS Bulwark and HMS Ocean. Does he agree that that kind of shipping, coupled with our highly trained marines, for whom we have such high regard, is at the centre of defence capability for meeting the challenges of an uncertain future? Could he tell me what the prospects are for Devonport being involved in the support of such capability?

The Taurus 09 exercise gives our forces an opportunity to practise in the amphibious arena in challenging environments in various parts of the world. It is an important exercise, and I think that HMS Bulwark sailed from Plymouth last Wednesday to participate in it. Devonport will be the centre of excellence for amphibious operations, as well as conducting the depth maintenance that is needed on the submarine fleet and on the surface fleet, so Plymouth will continue to provide the support that it has provided to our forces historically.

The defence of our coastline has never been more important, particularly in the light of the recent attacks in Mumbai, yet in recent evidence to the Defence Committee, the noble Lord West, referring to those defence arrangements, said:

“It is not what I would call, ultimately, satisfactory”.

Can the Minister reassure me that Lord West’s concerns are ill-founded, and that much more is being done to protect our coastline?

I do not know in exactly what circumstances the phrase “ultimately, satisfactory” was used, but plans are in place to provide the necessary capability to counteract a terrorist attack in our country. We believe that they are perfectly adequate, although they obviously have to be kept under review. In the light of circumstances such as those in Mumbai, that is vital, as every Member of the House can see.

An important part of any amphibious or littoral force is the capability supplied by the aircraft carriers. There was great concern in West Fife recently when the decision was made to delay the aircraft carriers, but there was little talk about the impact of that decision on the Navy’s aircraft capability in the longer term. What will happen to the Navy’s aircraft capability between now and when the aircraft carriers come into service? What will be the impact of the decision on the costs, not only of construction but of any elongation of the aircraft carriers’ service?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have our current aircraft carriers, but we also have the real capability provided by HMS Ocean. There will be no gap in capability. The new carriers will come into force as soon as possible. Yes, there has been some delay to the original in-service dates, but that will be adequately filled by our current force.