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Libya (Aircraft Carrier Capability)

Volume 535: debated on Monday 14 November 2011

2. What assessment he has made of the potential effects on operations in Libya of the unavailability of an aircraft carrier. (80069)

8. What assessment he has made of the potential effects on operations in Libya of the unavailability of an aircraft carrier. (80076)

Thanks to our overseas basing rights, the unavailability of a UK aircraft carrier had no significant effect on the UK’s participation in military operations over Libya. That was clearly demonstrated by the outstanding performance of our armed forces over and off the coast of Libya, and by the civilian and military staffs that supported them.

Difficult decisions had to be made by my predecessor, the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), to whom I pay tribute, in order to deal with the black hole that we inherited from the previous Government. The decisions made in relation to carrier capability were painful, but they were the right ones in Britain’s long-term interests.

On my visits to RAF bases as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, air service personnel have raised concerns about the lack of availability of an aircraft carrier. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the British contribution to the no-fly zone in Libya has demonstrated that we can still project air power effectively, despite having to accept a break in our carrier strike capability?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The performance of British forces in Operation Ellamy precisely demonstrated that we retain such a capability and, indeed, that the aircraft deployed were capable of carrying weapons such as Storm Shadow and the dual-mode Brimstone, which allowed us to deliver a precision response in Libya. That greatly reduced collateral damage and civilian casualties.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that carrier strike force is a fundamental capability that we must regenerate as it will provide future Governments with both a powerful deterrent and the flexibility to respond to any situation in the most efficient and effective way?

As my hon. Friend suggests, the decision to regenerate the carrier capability at the end of the decade will give the United Kingdom a formidable capability in addition to the other capabilities it currently has to project force in areas of the world where basing and overflight rights may not be available. That will be a very welcome and important addition to our overall capability.

The Secretary of State will know that Rosyth in my constituency does the refitting for the current carriers and that it is expected to do the refitting for future carriers that may be used in Libya-style operations. Will he confirm that, if there was a separate Scotland, the Ministry of Defence would have to look again at the long-term refitting options for our aircraft carriers?

I was not quite sure where that was going. The hon. Gentleman is of course right: it is unlikely Her Majesty’s forces would wish to use facilities in a fully independent Scotland in the way they would wish to use them within a United Kingdom.

Military action in Libya was, of course, supported in a non-partisan manner right across the House, but there will have been concern about the fact that, over the weekend, there were reports of military incidents in Libya. Will the Secretary of State give us an indication of the scale and extent of those incidents?

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a detailed report on the weekend’s news stories, but I can say that having provided the cover that allowed the Libyan people to liberate themselves from a brutal dictatorship that has tyrannised them for the best part of four decades, it is very much in our interests and it is our moral responsibility to help them to make the best of the opportunity they have created. We will be watching very carefully as the situation develops. I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be keeping a very close eye on the situation, with a view to assisting in any way we can to ensure a satisfactory long-term outcome for the people of Libya.

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate the difference—the important distinction—between mounting a no-fly zone and mounting long-range bombing raids in active intervention in a civil war? The latter is what we did in the Libya campaign, and no one would have doubted we could do that from land bases. However, does he not appreciate that a no-fly zone, which involves lengthy routine patrols and the suppression of air defences over a long period, would have been far better mounted from aircraft carriers? It is very important that we do not draw the wrong conclusions from the slightly triumphalist tone that both he and the Prime Minister have adopted in this matter.

I hesitate to disagree with my hon. Friend because I know he is very knowledgeable about these matters and I am still a fair way down a steep learning curve. However, I have to say to him that, in the early phases of the Libya campaign, Typhoon operations were mounted in support of the no-fly zone with a view to potentially having to engage in air-to-air operations. From the briefing I have had, my understanding is that it is perfectly possible to mount such an operation from a base that is the distance that Gioia del Colle was from Libyan airspace. Clearly, my hon. Friend is right: if we were seeking to mount an air exclusion operation in a location that was much further away from friendly bases, there would be greater difficulties.

As we have a base in Gibraltar, the use of a NATO base in southern Italy, and Cyprus, of course we can handle Libya from fixed bases. If we have a crisis anywhere else, such as a new Sierra Leone or a new Indonesia, where Royal Navy aircraft carriers went down to protect British forces, we would not be able to do that. Will the Secretary of State simply say that for the next 10 years we are no longer a maritime power in terms of air projection?

The right hon. Gentleman is overstating the case. The Government have been very clear that taking the tough decisions that have had to be taken to clear up the fantasy defence procurement programme we were left will leave us with some limitations in capability in the short to medium term. That is to be regretted, but it was necessary to put our defences on a stable and secure basis in the long term.