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Warship Construction Programme

Volume 490: debated on Monday 30 March 2009

4. What recent progress has been made on the warship construction programme; and if he will make a statement. (267178)

This is an historic and momentous programme, and it continues to make progress. It involves the new Type 45 destroyers, the Astute class submarine, the two new carriers and, following on from them, the future surface combatant. The result of the programme will be that in decades to come, the Royal Navy will continue to be one of the world’s most powerful maritime forces.

I am not sure what progress has been made, because the Government’s 1998 strategic defence review stated that the Royal Navy needed 32 frigates and destroyers to meet our national security objectives. Astonishingly, there are only 22. Will the Minister explain to the House what has happened to the overall objectives of that review? Have they been abandoned? If not, how will the Government meet them?

The answer lies partially in changes to the threat in the world, and partially in the increased capability of the ships that we are building. The Type 45 destroyer, for example, is vastly more capable than the Type 42 that she is replacing.

As that programme is clearly not wholly affordable, what steps does the hon. Gentleman intend to take to bring it into a more affordable position? In addition, none of the warships will be able to operate without a new fleet support operation. On what date will the new MARS—military afloat reach and sustainability fleet—concept come into full operation?

The programme is indeed affordable, and we recently confirmed that in the equipment examination that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced in a statement in this House in December. As for the MARS programme, we are focused on it and will make announcements in due course.

If this programme is so affordable, why have the Government been forced to extend the life of the Type 23 frigates, so that they will be the oldest frigates in service in the Royal Navy since the days of sail?

I do not know whether the latter point is correct, but I am quite convinced that the Type 23 frigates will continue to be able to meet their current out-of-service dates. They will be replaced, in due course, by the future surface combatant; it is my intention that they should begin being built in the yards as soon as the second carrier has been launched.

On 12 January, the Secretary of State said in an oral answer:

“As regards naval construction, we have the largest programme under way since the end of the first world war.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 16.]

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), said in a written answer on the same day:

“We are currently engaged in the most substantial peacetime naval shipbuilding programme since the first world war.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 71W.]

Given that over the past 11 years, the frigate and destroyer fleet has been cut from 35 to 23, or possibly 22, the attack submarine fleet from 12 to eight—it is heading for seven—and the new destroyer building programme from 12 to only six, and that the start date for the two carriers has been delayed, and whereas in the 11 years to 1939 we constructed six aircraft carriers, five battleships, 54 submarines—

Order. As a former metalworker, I am always happy to hear about the construction of ships, but the question is too long.

Then I will bring the question to its conclusion, if I may. Given the vast number of ships constructed over a similar period up to 1939, including 117 destroyers, how can the Minister justify the statements that were made on 12 January?

First, I think that the hon. Gentleman may have prepared his extremely long question before he heard the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) about the present programme. If I may respectfully say so, the question asked by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) also confuses the issue of current numbers and the issue of the current construction programme. I repeat that the current construction programme is the largest that we have engaged in, in terms of capability and tonnage; the 65,000-tonne carriers will be the largest ships ever built by the Royal Navy in her history. The hon. Gentleman would do well to reflect on that, and to consider the fact that that is a decision taken by this Government. I shudder to think what might happen under a future Conservative Government, if there were one, to our naval shipbuilding programme, or to our procurement programme, because the Conservatives still have not told us how they would finance the three new battalions.