[Relevant documents: Future Maritime Surveillance, Fifth Report of the Defence Committee, HC 110, and the Government Response, HC 827.]
We are an island. That makes what happens around our coasts of great importance to us. We are a member of the permanent five in the UN Security Council, of the Commonwealth, of the European Union, of NATO and of other organisations, which, added together, means that we are a world power, with global responsibilities and interests. That makes what happens in the seas of the world of great importance to us.
We are a trading nation. We are a nation that cannot, or at any rate does not, feed itself. We rely on food, as well as countless other goods, from abroad. Most of that comes by sea. That makes what happens at sea of great importance to us. We operate under the conditions of “just in time”. Those wonderful warehouses in London’s docklands have now been turned into rather chi-chi flats, and we no longer have the reserves to feed, fuel or supply the country for many weeks, let alone months. That makes us vulnerable.
It is because of all the crucial interests that I have outlined that the defence of our country is of such importance. Within that defence, maritime surveillance plays a central role. Therefore, the Defence Committee decided to conduct an inquiry into it. We called the inquiry “Future Maritime Surveillance”, because we wanted to focus not on the decision to cancel the Nimrod MRA4 programme, the successor to the MR2, in the strategic defence and security review, but on the future needs of the nation and how, given where we are now, we could address those needs. Obviously, however, the cancellation of Nimrod was a big matter, and I shall consider that first.
Let us be clear about Nimrod. It was late—very, very late. It was vastly over budget, at a time of deep financial stringency. It was an aeroplane that had serious aerodynamic problems. It was, in other words, a deeply troubled project—and no doubt one for which, in the usual way, I should take the blame as Minister for Defence Procurement between 1995 and 1997.
No, that was a joke—at least, I think it was. But the cancellation of the project was the one change that troubled the Ministry of Defence most in the SDSR. The Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff told the Defence Committee:
“It would be fair to say that among the Chiefs of Staff and in the military advice, it was one of the most difficult decisions to come to terms with, because it has multiple uses.”
In the Government’s answer to the concerns that the Defence Committee expressed in our report on the SDSR of August 2011, they said:
“Like the Committee we regret that we had to cancel the Nimrod MRA4 programme. It was a capability that we would, in an ideal world, have preferred to acquire…we reluctantly concluded that cancellation was the least bad option.”
The reason for that unhappiness was described to us by Professor Julian Lindley-French. He told us that
“the point is that of the seven military tasks in the SDSR, the MRA4 could have played a very important role in all of them. It was the loss of the enablers, because the single services were forced back to defend their own core competencies by the process, which for me was the biggest failing of the SDSR process. Forget all the strategic stuff: there was a haggle at that last weekend, which was utterly unacceptable in terms of the national strategic requirements.”
The report that the Defence Committee produced earlier this week on defence acquisition contains a bit of an echo of that statement.
In our report on the strategic defence and security review, we expressed concern about the resultant capability gaps of cancelling MRA4. In their response, the Government acknowledged that there is currently no single asset or collection of assets that could fully mitigate the resultant capability gap. That is enough about Nimrod; let us look at the other assets and look to the future.
The Government said in 2011 that they continued
“to maximise the use of…assets”—
other than Nimrod—
“such as Type 23 Frigates, Merlin Helicopters, Sentry and C-130 to contribute to Anti-Submarine Warfare, Search and Rescue and Maritime Counter-Terrorism where possible. In the longer term, if the Government were to conclude that it needed to close the gaps completely because”
threats emerged that could no longer be managed in the same way as today,
“some additional funding or reprioritisation would be required.”
In our report, “Future Maritime Surveillance”, we concentrated on the strategic requirements for maritime surveillance, identifying current capability gaps and the future requirements for maritime surveillance and how they might be met. Given the wide range of maritime surveillance tasks and the number of Departments and agencies that require access to maritime surveillance capabilities, we also looked at cross-Government co-operation. We published our report in September 2012 and the Government’s response in December 2012. We have also placed on our website the Minister’s response to some follow-up issues that we raised following the Government’s response. I am grateful to him for that.
I pay tribute to the Committee’s staff and military advisers, who provide us with invaluable support and advice. We are all grateful to them. I would like to thank personally the Committee members themselves. They work extremely hard to very good effect, which is one of the reasons why chairing it is the best job that I have ever had.
The hon. Gentleman might say that, but as a former Chief Whip, I couldn’t possibly comment.
The threats that require maritime surveillance are evolving and have become more non-military in nature. The Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 rather illustrate that, in that they were launched from the sea. Our report concluded that it was a weakness that there was not a single individual within the Ministry of Defence who should be responsible for maritime surveillance. The Government did not agree.
We acknowledged that the new joint forces command could have a role in delivering, co-ordinating and strengthening maritime surveillance. We are nevertheless disappointed that the Government do not think that there is a requirement for an individual within the MOD to take responsibility for maritime surveillance. We accept that it is not the JFC’s role, but we are concerned that the left hand of the MOD may not know what its right hand is doing, let alone be able to co-ordinate the interests of the MOD with all the other Departments and agencies that require maritime surveillance capabilities.
Here I begin a number of requests to the Minister for information, which I will be grateful if he responds to, if not in today’s debate, perhaps in writing later, with whatever degree of classification he considers necessary. It will be helpful if he first outlines how the co-ordination that we are concerned about is being taken forward, particularly as the MOD starts work on the 2015 SDSR. Our concerns were highlighted when we were told that there was an “informal group of Ministers” who were responsible for taking forward maritime surveillance issues.
Although decisions may ultimately be taken in Cabinet or the National Security Council, we thought there should be greater ministerial involvement. This contains an echo of our report, “Defence and Cyber-Security”, published in January this year and our report, “Developing Threats: Electro-Magnetic Pulses”, published in February last year: we worry that Ministers faced with a threat or a vulnerability that crosses departmental responsibilities have inadequate structures and insufficient practice in getting together to work out responses, which may be needed very quickly indeed.
Against that, we welcome the establishment of the maritime security oversight group and the National Maritime Information Centre. The Government told us that the risk assessment was expected to be completed in December 2012. Will the Minister update us on progress? What threats, including new ones, have been identified? Such strategic analysis is important. Future threats are increasingly likely to be identified through intelligence gathering.
Maritime ISTAR—forgive the acronym, which stands for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—of which maritime surveillance is a part, will be essential. Without effective surveillance, both maritime and elsewhere, the UK armed forces are operating at a much reduced effectiveness.
As the Chair knows, we are holding an inquiry into the consequences to the UK of an independent Scotland. How would Scotland becoming an independent state impact on future maritime surveillance for England, Wales and Northern Ireland?
Maritime surveillance is carried out at the moment in a nationwide fashion. To my mind, it is difficult to see how smaller units or entities could have a separate capability not backed up by MOD resources. We as a Committee have not reached that conclusion however, as my hon. Friend knows, because we have not yet concluded our inquiry into the defence consequences of an independent Scotland. When making their decision on independence, the Scottish people will need to take that issue very seriously into account. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important point.
The 2010 SDSR gave a commitment to enhancing ISTAR. In reply to the debate or later, will the Minister say what progress has been made in taking forward the development and strengthening of maritime ISTAR? What actual measures can he tell us about? What risk are the Government taking in delivering maritime ISTAR for the future?
Our report also looked at the future of maritime surveillance capabilities and what was required. We thought, frankly, that the MOD was sending out mixed messages. On the one hand, its studies identified a maritime patrol aircraft as the solution in the short to medium term, but on the other hand, a maritime patrol aircraft is not in the equipment programme. The MOD seems prepared to wait until the 2015 SDSR before making any decisions or assessing options. It seems to regard the risk as tolerable, on the basis that such equipment could be bought with unprecedented speed and efficiency. I have high hopes for the MOD’s acquisition process being reformed dramatically, but that might be the triumph of hope over experience.
Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that the report found that, though we had concerns over the situation in the short to medium term, the MOD has begun to explore options for future maritime surveillance in the much longer term, looking at unmanned systems and space technology in particular?
I do acknowledge that. My hon. Friend, whose membership of the Select Committee is extremely helpful, anticipates a point that I was about to come on to—as I would expect her to.
Situations change rapidly: we have been deployed in Libya, and we are now involved in Mali. The question is whether the Ministry of Defence could rapidly regenerate a maritime surveillance requirement. Will the Minister set out what general contingencies are in place to deal with the unexpected? The problem is that he probably cannot, because they are unexpected, but we nevertheless need to have a general ability to deal with contingencies.
We also highlighted the potential for further capability gaps to emerge in maritime surveillance. For example, the Sea King will be taken out of service in 2016, to be replaced by Project Crowsnest, operating from Merlin mark 2 helicopters. The Minister has now confirmed that there will be a capability gap, as Crowsnest is not coming into service until 2020 and existing assets will be required to cover the gap. Will he tell us why that gap has occurred, and why it was not better anticipated?
In the longer term, as my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) rightly points out, the Government have committed themselves to exploring all the alternatives for maritime surveillance provision, including unmanned aerial vehicles and hybrid air vehicles. We commend them on that approach and the work that they have already undertaken to facilitate it.
We are grateful to the Government for their commitment to keeping us updated on the issues and to including wider cross-Government issues in such updates. We look forward to the first update in summer 2013, and to the second in summer 2014. We expect the updates to be as full as possible and in a form that we can share as widely as possible. An important part of the work on future maritime surveillance will be specific work in the run-up to the next SDSR. Some might say that that will be the most important part of the next defence review.
I, too, welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate. As our Chairman, the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) said, a great deal of hard work went into the production of the report. I add my thanks to the Clerks and special advisers to the Committee. The report makes a very positive contribution to the debate on the future of maritime surveillance.
As the Chairman also said, the Committee has previously expressed serious concerns about the decision in the 2010 strategic defence and security review to cancel the Nimrod MRA4 programme. Despite all the associated problems that the Chairman rightly mentioned, its cancellation involved a vast waste of public money; even so, as he also said, the MOD described that as the least worst option—I dread to think what the other options would have been. The cancellation has been analysed and re-analysed by the Public Accounts Committee and others, and in any case it is a fait accompli, so instead of dwelling on that, it seemed logical for the Committee to concentrate on its consequences, and those of other decisions in the SDSR, for maritime surveillance now and in the future.
[Mr Graham Brady in the Chair]
Given that the protection of the nuclear deterrent would have been one of Nimrod’s primary roles, one main concern about the cancellation is the capability gap in deterrent protection that might arise. I for one—I may be the only one here—would like the nuclear deterrent to be cancelled altogether. However, the former Defence Secretary Lord Browne has called into question the like-for-like renewal of Trident, suggesting that people who support it
“want to pour limited national resources into an increasingly ineffective nuclear system while being unwilling either to call for higher defence spending to meet conventional shortfalls or to scale back the UK’s level of international ambition. They want a gold-standard nuclear deterrent while under-investing in everything else.”
We all know that many within the military share that perspective. At the very least, that is worth considering and, for example, it would free resources to fill the capability gap in maritime surveillance in relation to new threats.
We do not have the luxury of a crystal ball and must look at circumstances as they are. We know that it is almost universally accepted, including by the MOD, that a replacement maritime patrol aircraft programme would, along with other assets, afford the optimum capability for the next 20 years, but that will not be seriously considered until at least 2015. Will the Minister update us on that situation, because that seems an awful long time?
I want to concentrate on the capability gap as it affects the nuclear deterrent. To understand the implications of cancelling the Nimrod programme, it is useful to look at the wider assets that, historically, have been involved in the protection of the nuclear deterrent. For understandable reasons, the MOD is cautious about providing too much information about that. In 2007, the hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey) received an answer to his parliamentary question on the conventional forces that had either a committed or a contingent role in the protection of the nuclear deterrent which stated:
“In addition to the four Vanguard-class submarines, all of which are dedicated to Military Task 1.2—Nuclear Deterrence—the current planned force elements assigned to support nuclear deterrence are”—
in a primary role, one mine warfare vessel and one survey vessel and, as contingent, two attack submarines, one destroyer, three mine warfare vessels, one Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel, five Merlin helicopters and eight maritime reconnaissance aircraft. The broad order estimate of the costs was £25 million to £30 million for committed and about £250 million to £300 million for contingent for a range of tasks, including
“in support of the deterrent.”—[Official Report, 8 March 2007; Vol. 457, c. 2130-31W.]
In evidence to our Committee in November 2010, General Sir David Richards also made the point that maritime surveillance aircraft provide one of five layers of defence for the SSBN fleet, although he would not go into detail about those layers of activity, again for understandable reasons.
The fact remains that a gap in capability in the protection of the deterrent exists, and we need answers about what is to be done to fill the gap in the medium to long term. The Royal Navy SDSR question and answer document states:
“The NSC judge that there is a sufficient balance of capabilities within the SSBN, SSN, Frigate, RW”—
“and MCM fleets to maintain the required level of assurance for CASD”—
continuous at-sea deterrence, and that the—
“decision to delete MRA 4 was made after carefully considering the risks associated with this.”
In written evidence to the Committee in 2012, the MOD specifically flagged up the following assets as playing a role in the protection of the nuclear deterrent: the SSN fleet—Trafalgar and Astute class—although the MOD highlighted that the primary role of the SSN is anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, including protection of the deterrent; and the Merlin HM mark 1 helicopter, which, the MOD noted,
“has evolved organic Anti Submarine Surveillance to a Maritime Patrol Helicopter multirole capability deployed globally and in support of the strategic deterrent.”
The MOD also informed our Committee that several international agreements allow allies to contribute directly to UK surveillance tasks in support of deterrent protection.
Of the list of assets alluded to in the SDSR, the Merlin HM mark 1 is the only asset whose primary role involves maritime surveillance. There are 40 Merlin helicopters in service with the Fleet Air Arm, in both training and front-line squadrons. All four squadrons are based at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose in Cornwall. The helicopters have a range of 450 miles, and I understand that they are being upgraded to mark 2 and will enter service as such this year. Will the Minister confirm that?
With the indulgence of the House, Mr Brady, I will raise a local issue. The HMS Gannet search and rescue service at Prestwick airport will close in the next few years. It straddles my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe). The airport is extremely important to our local area, and indeed to Scotland. It is suffering at the moment as a result of a number of factors, including the air passenger duty, and it is up for sale.
It seems daft on the surface that the Merlin helicopters, which protect the deterrent, are based hundreds of miles away in Cornwall when there is a site available on Faslane’s doorstep that has been used by helicopters for years. I urge the Minister to consider that matter, which may be small-scale in the grand scheme of things, but it is important to us locally, and I do not think that any Member will fault me for raising it.
To get back to the capability gap, several commentators gave evidence to the Committee, outlining their concerns about the potential shortcomings of helicopter maritime surveillance as a replacement for maritime patrol aircraft. The Coastal Command and Maritime Air Association said:
“The absence of the MPA together with a shortage of Towed Array fitted escorts, and the possible re-tasking of SSNs to land-strike targets (Tomahawk), results in a much reduced ASW capability. The helicopter is an effective ASW platform when operating relatively close to their base or battleship, but inevitably it has limited range and acoustic processing capability as well as restricted weapon-carrying capacity. Modern underwater detection systems using arrays fixed to the ocean bed and towed arrays on surface vessels—if one of those relatively few assets is available—can produce impressive results, but bad weather and noisy environments, both in the open sea and particularly at choke points, can totally disable these systems.”
Air Vice-Marshal A. L. Roberts, who is retired, also commented that
“while helicopter surveillance, in lieu of that by MPA, in support of the deterrent is entirely practicable in the approaches to Faslane, the range of the helicopter, if it is to remain on station for long, is limited. Adequate cover for the deterrent therefore becomes more difficult further out along transit routes and may be impracticable in SSBN patrol areas. The amount of noise generated in the water by a helicopter, which can be counter detected by any opposing submarine, is also a significant operational limitation.”
In March 2011, an article in Defence Management said:
“Mitigating the lack of Nimrods when it comes to clearing a path for Trident will be very asset-intensive in terms of Merlin ASW and towed-array frigates. But it is manageable. Just don’t expect those helicopters or frigates to be doing every task around the world that they currently undertake”.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) raised the matter in a debate in the Chamber on 26 January 2012. She is not here today because she has a constituency engagement. I am sorry about that because she really concentrates on this issue and is something of an expert on it.
That is entirely true. In the debate in the main Chamber, my hon. Friend referred to a letter that the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) sent to the Prime Minister in which he said:
“Deletion of the Nimrod MR4 will limit our ability to deploy maritime forces rapidly into high-threat areas, increase the risk to the Deterrent, compromise maritime CT (counter terrorism), remove long range search and rescue, and delete one element of our Falklands reinforcement plan.”—[Official Report, 26 January 2012; Vol. 539, c. 466.]
Will the Minister tell us the state of play of these matters as they stand today?
My hon. Friend also referred to an article in The Scotsman, which said that a Type 42 destroyer had to be detached from Portsmouth when a Russian navy battle group appeared off the coast of Scotland. A number of Russian submarines have also made a similar appearance. Previously, we would have swiftly and discreetly despatched a Nimrod to keep an eye on the situation, but, on this occasion, we sent out a Type 42 destroyer. Clearly, that illustrates a problem; we do not know what is going on in such areas without a maritime patrol aircraft.
It is also the case that the north of Scotland, which is referred to as the “high north”—that is not something that I can identify with, as I refer to it as the highlands and islands—needs close attention as it is an area of strategic and economic importance in a fast-changing environment. I hope that the fast change does not include Scotland becoming a separate country from the UK as opposed to being the north of the UK, but I will not go down that road now. The Chairman of the Select Committee has already stated that we are in the throes of an inquiry into the defence implications of an independent Scotland.
I welcome the Minister’s input into these matters, which have been brought to the Committee’s attention by people who are astronomically more expert than I am, and I look forward to his response.
It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady, and I thank our Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), for pressing for this debate. While I am in this congratulatory mood, may I also thank the Clerks of the Defence Committee who, with the advisers, have really done all the work?
I classify maritime surveillance as the ability to see and understand what is happening above, on and below the sea, as well as along the coastline. We need to do that not just around the United Kingdom, but throughout the NATO area of responsibility. We also need to support our deployed operations when they are outside the NATO area. Maritime surveillance involves a combination of platforms and sensors to provide a 3-D picture of what is happening, and it uses the combined work of satellites, aircraft, helicopters, ships and submarines. Our maritime surveillance capability has been eroded gradually since the end of the cold war, and significantly reduced since the 2010 strategic defence and security review.
What capabilities have we lost? Most importantly, as we all know in the Defence Committee, we have lost the Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft programme. We all understand and accept the reasons for that, but it does not stop us worrying about it. The Nimrod would have been the lynchpin of our maritime surveillance capability if it had been brought into service. The Ministry of Defence says that the UK has a maritime surveillance capability gap; it acknowledges it a little grudgingly but accepts that that gap cannot be covered by the assets that we have in service at the moment. Getting a maritime patrol aircraft back in service is probably the key to solving the problem. A large maritime patrol aircraft fitted with modern sensors, weapons and systems is operationally very flexible. The old roles of the UK’s maritime patrol aircraft fleet included strategic tasks such as intelligence gathering and, as my friend the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) said, the protection of our continuous strategic nuclear deterrent at sea with the Royal Navy’s Trident submarines. What does that mean? It means that a maritime patrol aircraft would ensure that our one ballistic submarine at sea providing our deterrent was not tailed by an enemy submarine without its knowledge. The need for that has not diminished.
Our country is internationally responsible for search and rescue to about 1,200 nautical miles into the Atlantic. Right now, however, we can only really reach out to 240 nautical miles, which is the extreme range of the Sea King search and rescue helicopters. We are thus failing to meet our international Atlantic oversight obligations. Of course, the Ministry rightly maintains—I would say the same if I was in the Ministry of Defence—that we can turn to our allies, and the French, Portuguese and Spanish all have maritime patrol aircraft.
Close to shore, we rely on the excellent services provided by the our ageing military Sea King fleet, which will go out of service in 2016, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire said. Of course, we must not forget that the coastguards also have some search and rescue helicopters. In effect, short-range search and rescue operations—by short range, I mean out to 240 nautical miles—are conducted by a mix of military and contractor-operated helicopters, which do an excellent job. They are aided hugely by those incredible men and women of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, who regularly put their lives at risk when there is a need, regardless of the foul weather, to help people in distress. Everyone in the House will agree that they are fantastic.
Fixed-wing aircraft are just one part of the equation. Maritime patrol aircraft have historically been teamed with the Royal Navy’s frigates, destroyers and organic helicopters in a range of roles, including not just anti-submarine warfare, but search and rescue. Once again, the decisions in SDSR 2010 have had a cumulative impact.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as well as being able to take a more co-ordinated and strategic approach in the future, the maritime security and oversight group and the National Maritime Information Centre, which our Chairman mentioned, can help to mitigate some of the gaps my hon. Friend has correctly identified?
I thank my hon. Friend. I certainly do agree. It is good that we have those bodies, and I may speak about that a little at the end.
SDSR 2010 got rid of a number of frigates, including Type 22s and Type 23s, as well as their on-board helicopters. That has further reduced our maritime reach and capabilities. The good thing about such Royal Navy vessels is that they can travel great distances, remain at sea for considerable periods and, crucially, demonstrate intent and presence when that is needed, as part of a combined taskforce or individually.
Collectively, members of the Defence Committee are concerned about the loss of our sovereign long-range maritime surveillance capability. They are also concerned about the United Kingdom’s current dependency on its allies for operations out into the Atlantic and in terms of our wider military defence capability.
The Committee was advised that the anti-submarine warfare capability gap that resulted from the loss of the Nimrod MRA4 is covered by a mix of helicopters, ships at sea and support by our allies. I do not buy that argument. The external situation has not changed. Indeed, with a resurgent Russia and the proliferation of smaller submarines in many areas of the world, it has arguably got worse. To counter such threats, the UK has reduced its capability and capacity by removing maritime patrol aircraft completely, as well as by removing appropriate frigates and destroyers, including their organic helicopters.
As has been mentioned, the Ministry is considering a number of future options. In particular, a decision on maritime patrol aircraft may be considered as part of SDSR 2015. However, such a decision would result in delivery of the new operational capability closer to the 2020 time scale. I would prefer us not to wait until 2015 to make such a decision. I would like it to be considered as soon as possible.
I thank my other Chairman. The answer is that I was not, but I am glad that he has raised the matter. We also highlighted the difficulty of keeping these skills alive, and no one has mentioned it. Perhaps the Minister will tell us—you will, won’t you, Minister?
Good. The Minister will tell us how we are to keep those extremely specialised skills alive. I suspect it will be by using allies such as the Americans. I thank my other Chairman for raising what was an omission in my speech.
Of course, an effective and modern maritime patrol aircraft capability is available, without the need to wait to 2020. Even assuming that SDSR 2015 looks at it, however, there is no guarantee that a decision will be taken to return to this extremely vulnerable capability—[Interruption.] Goodness me. Forgive me, Mr Brady. That was probably the Prime Minister calling.
I very much welcome Ministry of Defence funding for investigative work on other potential options. We have had briefings about unmanned systems, lighter-than-air vehicles and space technology. Additionally, hybrid air vehicles, such as the AIRLANDER, which have long endurance and operating costs a fraction of those associated with aircraft, are being considered. Of course, all those options need to be studied, and when the results are analysed, we must ensure that delivery time scales and effectiveness are carefully assessed.
I endorse the establishment, which my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire has highlighted, of the maritime security oversight group and the National Maritime Information Centre. Those are superb moves. They are steps towards a more strategic and co-ordinated output and will help, as my right hon. Friend—I mean my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt); she will be right hon. in due course—has already highlighted, to mitigate some of our capability gaps, I hope, quickly.
We need a decent maritime surveillance capability for the United Kingdom as quickly and effectively as possible. We must of course consider a range of options, but a rejuvenated maritime patrol aircraft capability, with a truly multi-role capability, should probably remain a key element—if not the key element—of any proposed solution. I apologise for the Prime Minister interrupting my speech.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I commend the Committee for its excellent report; I too have had the pleasure of serving under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot). I would probably bow to no one in my respect for the knowledge that the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) has of ageing military capabilities. [Laughter.]
I look forward to being shepherded out safely by the Doorkeepers later.
If the decision about the carrier was the largest financial decision, the break-up of the Nimrod aircraft is probably the most visually impressive one to come out of the 2010 SDSR. I do not think that there is anyone who did not watch those images of JCBs tearing up a multi-billion pound project with incredulity. I shall touch briefly on the lessons that the MOD must learn and things that the Committee has discussed in our subsequent report on defence acquisition.
Quite a lot has been said about the Nimrod model and its role, but other capabilities were deleted as a result of the SDSR. The most notable for maritime surveillance was, of course, the Type 22 frigate, which the hon. Member for Beckenham also mentioned. The Type 22 was, as the report says, originally designed and constructed purely as an anti-submarine warfare vessel during the cold war. In its latter years, it took on a broader role, and the Committee was, I think, unconvinced by some of the MOD’s arguments that that capability had been fully covered. Perhaps the new Minister for the Armed Forces will say something about how that matter is being addressed. I should probably take this opportunity to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his promotion to his new role.
It feels like yesterday, I am sure, to many in the MOD. I had the pleasure of serving with the Minister in the Armed Forces Bill Committee when he was merely an Under-Secretary, and I thank him for the letter that he kindly sent me this morning on another matter; I am most grateful that we could resolve the issue. Obviously, he is not directly responsible for many of the decisions, or the comments made by the MOD on the report; but of course he believes in collective responsibility, and I am sure that he will be happy to respond in relation to his predecessor’s comments and to our observations. I have a huge amount of time for the Minister’s predecessor, who was very able and sound, which is probably why the Deputy Prime Minister got rid of him in the Liberal Democrat reshuffle.
Without a doubt, as we said on the acquisition report earlier this week, many decisions in the lead-up to the SDSR were rushed and not fully thought through. Thinking was not done for the long term. With a little charity towards the Government, I must say that the programme is probably the finest example of how not to procure. Four parties each bear some responsibility. First, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who played no part in the decision when he was at the Ministry of Defence, will accept that my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) and other colleagues over the years perhaps did not provide enough scrutiny of the acquisition process.
My hon. Friend must remember that the contract was procured under the previous Conservative Government. If I remember rightly, when I was on the Select Committee, we produced a report suggesting that it should have been cancelled back in the early 2000s. I think that I moved the amendment.
As I said, I know that my hon. Friend played no part in the decision to proceed. I cannot quite remember who was the Minister responsible for acquisition in the previous Conservative Government, but perhaps it will come back to me later in the debate.
Not just Ministers need to take some responsibility for mistakes; Ministry of Defence officials and the Royal Air Force need to take some, too. There was an 86% change in the aircraft specification from the time of commissioning under that previous Minister and October 2010. Mr Brady, you worked in industry prior to coming to the House. You know that making that amount of change to a project means that costs will go up and it will be delayed.
I am sure that a previous Minister with responsibility for defence acquisition would always be happy to take responsibility for all the decisions that he made, even if he was not always fully aware of that at the time.
As our report on acquisition makes clear, the MOD must learn the lessons of past acquisition decisions. I think that I speak for the whole Committee when I say that, although we welcome the Government’s progress on acquisition, we are not convinced that they have learned all the lessons yet. There is still more work to be done. Perhaps the Minister will say more about what improvements can be made, in the light of those lessons.
The third responsible party is BAE Systems. It should not sit around and blame the MOD, the RAF and the two Governments, and try to get by without accepting some responsibility for its decisions. The Minister nods, and I welcome the fact that there is acceptance on both sides of the Chamber that BAE was not an exemplar: in much the same way as I have been critical of Lockheed Martin’s approach to the strike fighter, I consider that BAE Systems bears some blame.
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is being entirely fair. The fault on the programme rests wholly and entirely with BAE Systems. It was the design authority on the aircraft and should have understood its technical capabilities. No two wing sets were the same. My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), the then Minister for Defence Procurement, was perfectly entitled to rely on the bid that was put in and on the advice of the civil servants. It is not fair to blame Ministers. I do not think that it is even fair to blame officials. I think that BAE Systems, as the design authority for that aircraft, is entirely responsible for what ended as a disaster.
I am always grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s thoughtful comments. I respectfully disagree, in this sense: I was having a private dinner with members of the defence community last night, and we were talking about lack of intellectual curiosity. There were examples that I shall not go into today, but I think that far too often there is a lack of the intellectual curiosity to challenge defence procurement decisions, among those in uniform, politicians—both in the Committee and perhaps in Departments—and civil servants. Too often, Governments have simply gone along with what they are told. But I absolutely accept the hon. Gentleman’s point that BAE Systems is a major villain in this play. Nevertheless, the current Government need to take some responsibility, and I will explain why shortly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne), who has had to step out briefly, talked about Nimrod and the deterrent. I was actually wondering at one point if I had wandered into a deterrent debate. She mentioned Lord Browne of Ladyton, who has been a friend of mine for more than 15 years. I typed up—I will not say that I wrote—his maiden speech for him, back in the days of 7 Millbank, Mr Brady, when you, too, first entered the House. You will remember—it is not so many years ago—Mr Browne, as he was then, as a new MP. I have a huge amount of respect for Lord Browne, but I respectfully disagree with his analysis yesterday in The Daily Telegraph. It was a thoughtful piece, but Lord Browne—who, as I say, I have known for many years and regard as a friend—has a habit of treating a conversation as a one- way talk, and I hope that what he has actually done is to help to stimulate a broader debate.
Much in the same way that the hon. Gentleman is a friend of mine, probably.
As I was saying, my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock made a thoughtful contribution this afternoon, but again I must respectfully say that her logic is back to front. We need to make a decision about the deterrent and then decide, in effect, the relatively minor costs of providing maritime surveillance; maritime surveillance needs to come second. We do not say whether or not we will have a maritime surveillance capability and therefore whether or not we will have the deterrent, but I suspect that we will have that debate on more than one occasion in the next two to three years.
I respectfully disagree with the hon. Gentleman. We do not just need maritime patrol aircraft for the deterrent; we need maritime patrol aircraft because of our international responsibilities of oversight out to 1,200 nautical miles, and we cannot do that properly at the moment.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I will come on to that very point shortly.
There has been some discussion already about the joint equipment programme and the whiteboard, and we have touched on the balanced budget. Without prejudging what the Minister might say in response to the debate, I suspect that that might be one of the arguments that he seeks to advance. He knows well my view—and, I think, that of the Defence Committee—and that is a healthy scepticism about the claims that have been made about the size of the so-called black hole and whether or not, in the space of eight months, it has been balanced.
One of the things that concerned us in producing our report was an issue that was touched on briefly by the hon. Member for Beckenham: the long-term replacement for the maritime surveillance capability is sitting on the whiteboard, without a funding line and without even a probable time line for moving off that whiteboard and into the joint equipment programme. I wonder whether the Minister, when he responds to the debate, will clarify for the House what the status is of the whiteboard. The Minister shakes his head. With the greatest of respect to him, it is difficult for the Defence Committee to believe that the Ministry of Defence has a fully funded JEP and a clear idea of what is on the whiteboard when they will not tell us what is on the whiteboard.
Until now, the hon. Gentleman has been making rather a lot of sense—it is unlike me to compliment him, as he knows—but the whole point of the whiteboard is that we look at things that we want to have and then we assess whether we can afford them, and if everything that we thought that we would like to have was revealed to everyone else, I am afraid that we probably would not be mentioning a whiteboard at all, because we would not want to have our internal thinking announced before we have got as far as making decisions. These are not decisions; these are things that we want to have.
I am very conscious that the title of this debate is “Maritime Surveillance” rather than “Acquisition”; I suspect that we may well seek a broader debate on acquisition. Let me just say to the Minister—again, I thank him for his career-helpful advice and praise—that maritime surveillance, as the Committee has so clearly identified, is not a “like” or a “nice to have”. It is absolutely essential.
I am intrigued by the Minister’s intervention on my hon. Friend. Is that not exactly what the Government did when they came into power in May 2010? They added up every piece of equipment in the future equipment programme, which covered 10 years and not one year, and somehow assumed that that is where we get to the figure of the black hole.
Well, I cannot possibly comment on the sums. However, that principle of not committing to a future increase in spending is exactly what this Government have done. We saw it again yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, when the Prime Minister, in response to what was not the most difficult question from the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire, the Chairman of the Defence Committee—
I will say two things. First, I have heard my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition speak on many occasions of his great appreciation for the role of our armed forces. Secondly, however, I am also fairly conscious that I am not sitting on the Opposition Front Bench—
It may not be happening any time soon after my earlier remarks, and I will perhaps leave it to other colleagues—including perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham, who is sitting on the Opposition Front Bench—to address the right hon. Gentleman’s point later in the debate.
The hon. Member for Beckenham made a point about seedcorn. On pages 41 and 42 of the Committee’s report, we very clearly tackled the point about seedcorn and future remuneration. We welcome seedcorn as a principle; we very much welcome the notion that we would use our international allies to provide training and personnel support. However, we are also very clear that we do not believe that that can continue beyond 2019, and we actually say that there is huge scepticism about it continuing until 2030. The more that we have examined the issue—again, the Minister can correct me if he wants to—the more that it looks as though 2030 is the realistic time line now, in light of both our inquiry and of course our recent correspondence with the Minister, before we will get back that full capability. I wonder whether the Minister has absolute confidence that our partners—particularly our Five Eye partners—will be able to continue to provide that support to us for effectively 17 years, or perhaps even longer?
On replacement platforms, I hope that one of the things that the Minister reflects on, particularly given the BAE Systems debacle, is that there are other ways to procure replacement platforms. Of course, he will be aware of the model of Saab aircraft. In effect, an existing, tried and proven airframe is taken and then the software is fitted on to that system. Obviously, that model needs to be considered in the light of our report on Tuesday about the need for a defence industrial strategy. Can the Minister confirm whether or not the MOD is actively considering that model as one of the options?
There has also been mention of what the MOD has now called remotely piloted aircraft, which we know as unmanned aerial vehicles, and their future role. Again, there was talk about joined-up government. When we had the debate before Christmas, with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), who is the Minister with responsibility for defence procurement, the point was made by a number of colleagues that, in relation to maritime surveillance and the role of RPAs, a number of Departments clearly have an interest in maritime surveillance. The Minister might be able to correct me if I miss any on the list, but my note would say that, as well as the MOD, other Departments that have an interest in maritime surveillance include the Department for Transport and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has lead responsibility for fishing and ensuring that Icelandic boats or, indeed, those of our European partners do not break the law. The Home Office has a role for maritime surveillance, as has the Foreign Office, with its responsibilities for overseas territories.
I hope that the Minister takes this as genuinely helpful advice: the Committee believes that we need a much more joined-up Government. Perhaps the Minister can clarify, in a way that the Minister with responsibility for defence procurement could not, what proactive steps the Department is taking to bring other Departments together to discuss whether we can have a shared acquisition policy for RPA, rather than having four Departments acting differently.
I think that, up to now, this has been a genuinely consensual debate, but the final issue I want to raise, which we touched on in the report, is slightly contentious with the Department. It is about the wide area maritime underwater search project. My colleagues know more about it than I do, so I will not go into any great detail. The Committee feels that WAMUS is an exercise that should have been carried out before or during the SDSR and not afterwards, while we were undertaking an inquiry. It was only after extensive questioning by the Chairman of the Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) that we discovered that the RAF and the Ministry of Defence had failed to tell us that the WAMUS project had not only started but had been completed while we were carrying out our SDSR inquiry. Air Vice-Marshal Green and the Minister’s predecessor both accepted that the information should have been shared with the Committee.
I am not suggesting that the RAF, the MOD and the Minister were malicious in withholding information, but I do suggest that there was either arrogance on the part of the Department—not the Minister—or incompetence. I think that it is fair to say that the Chairman of the Committee expressed his disappointment with both the Royal Air Force and the Minister. Mr Brady, I am sure that when the Chairman of the Committee was Chief Whip you never gave him the opportunity to express his disappointment in you. As one of the members of the Committee to whom that has occasionally happened, I can assure you that the Chairman’s disappointment is something that one does not seek to invoke. I hope that, in his response, the Minister will set out how the MOD has learnt the lesson of that mistake and how it is ensuring that the Committee is not let down by the Department again.
I commend the report to the House. This has been an excellent debate, and I look forward to hearing from colleagues.
I am delighted to take part in this extended Defence Committee discussion in Westminster Hall, which is, of course, open to a wide audience. As a former member of the Select Committee, I take this opportunity to pay tribute not just to the Chairman, who is my next-door neighbour in Hampshire, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot)—distinguished neighbour and Select Committee Chairman though he is—but to the entire Committee and its advisers for their detailed analysis of important policy and project considerations. In so doing, the Committee provides an immense service to not just the House of Commons, but the wider public and the Ministry of Defence and its officials.
I confess that I had not realised that the debate would be happening today, but as soon as I heard that it would be I decided that I would like to take part. This is the first time I have taken part in a detailed debate on defence matters since I ceased to be the Minister with responsibility for international security strategy at the Ministry of Defence, and I participate because I feel so passionately about the issue.
Maritime surveillance is of fantastic importance to this country and as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), it is not simply about the protection of the deterrent. I salute 201 Squadron and the other Nimrod squadrons that perform that fantastically important role. They provide a hugely important capability that is applicable all around the world; we face a much more dangerous and volatile world now than ever before. The capability also, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham pointed out, has a civil dimension. We have responsibilities under the international convention on maritime search and rescue. I think that is what it is called; I tried to establish the exact title, although I seem to remember from my days in the Department that it is called the Chicago convention. As my hon. Friend said, the United Kingdom has an obligation to provide search and rescue right out into the Atlantic, but currently we are not able to provide that capability. It is important to see this as part of a jigsaw. It is not just the United Kingdom providing support for the United Kingdom and the international waters for which we have responsibility, but part of an interlocking NATO capability.
A year ago, I had the great pleasure and privilege of visiting Norway, where the royal Norwegian air force was kind enough to entrust me with its P-3 Orion. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Minister need not worry; I came back safe and sound. I had the Norwegian Defence Minister as a passenger. It was an interesting experience because it enabled me to see not only what the maritime patrol capability delivers, but the role played by our allies. I pay tribute to the royal Norwegian air force for its part in policing the sea lanes between the Russian port of Murmansk and these islands. At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, when one is in complete darkness there, 1,000 feet over black, black water with no horizon and just endless water stretching to the Arctic, it is interesting to realise that without those people the sea lanes would not be patrolled. Mention has been made of the activity that the Russians undertake, and which their forebears in the Soviet Union undertook: sending their submarines around to the north-west coast of the United Kingdom, in particular to Scotland and the constituency of the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne), to observe what we are up to.
The deterrent is a key part of Britain’s defence capability. I will not go into any more detail than has already been given, because we are in danger of trespassing on classified territory, but mention has been made of the importance of the deterrent and the maritime patrol capability in delivering its protection. It is terribly important, therefore, to understand the significance of the capability, and to understand too that it is part of a jigsaw with our neighbours and our NATO allies, and a key element of the defence of the free world.
I must, of course, respond to the charge that I was a member of the Department when we made the decision, as was my right hon. Friend the Minister. We were both there at the time, and it is fair to point out that although the Ministry of Defence was a key part of the whole strategic defence and security review process, there were also other players, not least the National Security Council. I have to say that I think this was the most serious capability gap that we created, but I, at least, did not create it without understanding its significance. I asked the National Security Adviser, Sir Peter Ricketts, “Does the National Security Council understand the significance of the loss of the capability?” I was given the wonderful mandarin response, “Oh, I don’t think you need to worry, Minister; I think they’re fully aware.” Frankly, I do not believe that people in the Government have been fully aware of the significance of the loss.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for providing me with my cue. It says in the few brief notes that I scribbled down, “Reasons for cancellation”. The first reason for cancellation was indeed that BAE Systems had persistently failed to deliver.
BAE Systems is headquartered in my constituency, and there are people who think that I am in BAE’s pay. Lady Thatcher once said to me, “I hope BAE is still paying you.” BAE Systems has never paid me a penny piece in my life. I think that it is a great company, but on this project, as successive major project reports and National Audit Office reports showed, it failed to deliver. For those who do not understand what I mean when I say that BAE was the design authority—I speak as an aviator—the company is responsible for the design of every bit of the aeroplane. BAE did not even know that the wingsets were about 4 inches different, so it had to more or less hand-make whole new wingsets for each aircraft. That is why I believe the company to be culpable. Yes, I take the point that perhaps more diligence should have been shown by technical officials in the Department, but Ministers cannot be expected to understand all the details of aerodynamics.
I will not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, because I feel passionately about the issue, and I want to get my comments on the record and hear what my right hon. Friend and former esteemed ministerial colleague has to say.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire is right: the aircraft, which was already nine years late, had not been accepted into service by the Royal Air Force. I was told, for example, that it was porpoising through the air, and that BAE was going to deal with that by installing software to make the elevator go up and down. Forgive me, but that is metal against metal. I said to the then Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Glenn Torpy, “It’s going to wear out.” He said, “You don’t need to worry, Gerald,” but I do worry, and I did at the time. I was also told, although I do not know whether it is true, that at a certain high angle of attack, the air flow into the engine intakes was disrupted, which would lead the engine to stall. There were technical problems that were not overcome.
Secondly, as the report mentions, there was a question of finance. Again, I want to put this firmly on record. Leaving aside the £36 billion, £38 billion or whatever black hole it was, whatever chaos there was in the Department’s finances—there was chaos in the MOD’s accounts long before the last Government came into office—the fact is that this Government inherited a budget deficit of £156 billion, and we had to deal with that deficit.
I would not say this to my colleagues, but it might be true of other people listening to this debate: hands up, those who knew what the budget deficit was in 2010. I addressed a land warfare conference of 300 officers. Three put up their hands, and all three got it wrong. They were intelligent people. The country needs to understand. If people do not understand the magnitude of the deficit that we inherited—that £156 billion would have bought us three Type 45 destroyers every week of the year—nothing done in the Ministry of Defence can possibly make any sense whatever.
The deficit is down, but not far enough, because of the magnitude of the challenge that faced us. Instead of pointing at me, the hon. Gentleman should get up and apologise for what his ghastly, contemptible friend the then Prime Minister did to this country—
No, I will not withdraw it, but I will move on, because the issue is important and the hon. Gentleman and I often find common cause on it. It is important that the public understand, and that we remind them, what the challenges are. I am coming to a point that he will like.
The second reason why we had to cancel was financial exigency. We had to make some pretty difficult decisions in the Ministry of Defence. My argument is that extra funds should have been made available to ensure the continuation of a maritime patrol aircraft capability, even if it was not the Nimrod. I agree with all those who said that capability must be regenerated as soon as possible, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister will say something about what our friends and allies are doing to help us regenerate it in due course.
There are, of course, lots of options. Extreme Global Solutions has been to see me about an option involving the BAE 146, which could be done on a contractor-provided basis, and mention has been made of Hybrid Air Vehicles, which is doing a fantastic job and has won a $500 million order through Northrop Grumman in the United States. There are numerous options. We do not need to rely on the Nimrod, although I was one of those who could not watch aircraft being cut up on television. As an aviator, I find it hard to take, even though, as I said, the aircraft had not delivered what the company promised to deliver.
If we agree that it is a key capability that should be regenerated as soon as possible, and that there are various options that could deliver that regeneration, what stands in our way? What stands in our way—the whiteboard has been mentioned—is that there is currently no funding. I said to the Prime Minister on the day I was relieved of my responsibilities—he was kind enough to recommend that Her Majesty confer a knighthood on me, for which I am most grateful to him—that I had not met a Conservative in the country who believed that it was right to ring-fence overseas aid and cut defence.
I hope that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife can agree on this. I do not like disagreeing with him; I am just not a fan of his friend.
Yes, he did. I have been searching for something positive to say about the hon. Gentleman’s right hon. Friend, and I am happy to say that he was right about that.
I got the House of Commons Library to do some research for me last week. I pay tribute to the Library, which does a fantastic job for us. The Library found that this year, the overseas aid budget will increase by £2.65 billion. The Government are struggling to spend the money as it is. We have done our bit and shown an example to the rest of the world. It does not make sense for us to increase overseas aid when we lack such important capability.
Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister will go back to our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—I know that they are close friends—and say that this is what we should do. When I put to him the issue of ring-fencing overseas aid and not defence, the Prime Minister said, “I gave a commitment in 2009, as I did on the third runway.” I respect the Prime Minister for that principled view, but the world has changed. We have had the Arab spring and turmoil around the world. Our armed forces are one of this kingdom’s greatest assets, and our defence industry is one of the economy’s. There is a need, a requirement and an obligation, and we have a number of options to deliver that capability. I believe we should provide it now and that, quite legitimately, we should divert funds from overseas aid to provide a maritime patrol aircraft, which would contribute to stability around the world and greater prosperity among the countries we are trying to help.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire and his colleagues on the Defence Committee on their report and on bringing the matter before the House. They have done a great service to Parliament and the country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady.
I congratulate the Defence Committee on producing the report. I agree with the comments about the Committee. I was a member for seven and a half years, and it is a consensual Committee that does a lot of good work on a cross-party basis. I concur with the remarks about the Committee’s current Chairman, although I remember that, when I left the Committee to become a Minister, he said that my leaving was a bit like toothache—missed when it is gone.
The report covers an important issue that many Members have talked about today. As the Chairman and others have argued, the threats are wide. We are a maritime nation, and we depend on open sea lanes for trade and security. As a former Defence Minister, I am aware of the threats to our independent nuclear deterrent. The idea that, somehow, the end of the cold war means that Russia has gone away is incorrect. A maritime surveillance capability is vital to our defence needs, and not only because of the issues outlined by the Chairman of the Select Committee.
I have read Lord Browne’s articles with great interest. I consider him a friend, but the weakness of his argument in The Daily Telegraph is that he makes a point about alternatives without giving one.
A maritime surveillance capability, as the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said, is vital to ensuring that we know the location of threats to our independent nuclear deterrent. From personal experience, I know the importance that the Ministry of Defence places on ensuring that any threats to our independent nuclear deterrent and our nation are taken very seriously.
Having read the report, I do not think there is disagreement between the Committee and the Government. Uniquely, there is agreement between the Government, the Committee and the National Audit Office that the decision in the 2010 strategic defence and security review was wrong. In a minute I will address why I think the decision was taken, because the contribution from the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) is enlightening.
Yes, mistakes were made in the discussions on Nimrod. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman criticised BAE Systems because, as he said, he is referred to in many parlours as the “Member for BAE Systems.” On this occasion, he has been frank and clear in his criticism of the company.
The mistakes made in the early days were like trying to turn a 1962 Mini Cooper into today’s model with the same frame. That was highlighted by the reports on the project from when I was a member of the Defence Committee. Was there a time to pull out of the contract? Yes, I think there was. Our report from the early 2000s suggested that there should have been that option. When spending public money, we get to a point where people think, “A little bit more might get this done.” In hindsight, had there been some revision of the project in the early 2000s, Conservative Members would rightly have thrown criticism at us for wasting large amounts of public money. Making the decision earlier might have led to a capability being in place today.
There is no disagreement that there is a capability gap. The report states:
“The National Audit Office’s (NAO) Ministry of Defence Major Projects Report 2011 considered the capability gaps left by the…MRA4 decision. The NAO Report said that according to the MoD, the Nimrod contributed to eight out of the 15…priority risks set out in the National Security Strategy. It added that the Nimrod was uniquely able to rapidly search large maritime areas, a capability relevant to long range search and rescue, maritime counter-terrorism, gathering strategic intelligence and protecting the nuclear deterrent. The NAO Report further said that the MoD had carried out studies in the lead up to the SDSR to assess the capability gap from cancelling the Nimrod MRA4 and the MoD ‘assessed that cancelling Nimrod would have consequences for the military tasks that the aircraft was expected to undertake, some of them severe’. The Report also outlined the capability gaps”.
I was not involved in defence before the general election, but I understand that the MR2 was retired from service in March 2010, when the hon. Gentleman was a Minister. That is when the capability gap started, because there was no maritime reconnaissance aircraft from that day forwards. Is that correct?
The important point is that the earlier decision on the MRA4 should have been reviewed. We would then have avoided the capability gap.
I remember that at the time we were facing an Opposition who were calling not only for larger armies, more ships and more aircraft, but for an increased defence budget. I am sure that if we had decided to cancel some of the things that they have subsequently cancelled, they and their allies at the time on The Sun would have given us a harder ride than they have had in recent years.
The NAO report sets out that
“limited analysis was carried out on how specific military tasks could be covered”
by a combination of the various options. The report continues:
“However, the Department noted that there would be ‘significant shortfalls without significant investment, and the co-ordination of such assets at the right place and the right time’”.
There is no disagreement that the Government have created that major capability gap. Worse, there is no solution to fill that gap. I agree with the hon. Member for Aldershot that we are relying heavily on our allies. I pay tribute not only to the Norwegians but to the US and others that are helping us with that capability.
The next question is why was the decision taken? Again, I am interesting in what the hon. Gentleman said: the decision had to be taken because of the mythical £38 billion black hole. I notice Ministers sometimes use that figure, but sometimes they do not. We must recognise that those decisions had to be taken because of the 9% cut in the defence budget introduced by the SDSR. The decisions were not strategic; they were budgetary. Knowing the defence budget as I do, there are only two simple ways to take out in-year cash. The first is to take out capability, as happened here, and, for example, with the Harriers. The second is to sack people, which has happened over the past few years.
I have never figured out where the £38 billion figure came from, even though my parliamentary colleagues, the Public Accounts Committee, the Defence Committee and I have asked for explanations. We have been promised explanations that we have never received. I suspect the figure came from the 2009 NAO report, but that was on the equipment budget.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) said, it gets to £36 billion only if everything in the programme is included, flat cash, for 10 years. Adding the inflation rise meant £6 billion. As the hon. Member for Aldershot knows, as he has admitted this afternoon, there might be aspirations in the equipment programme, but that does not mean it will all be delivered. Some things come out and others go in.
The weakness of the current situation is that the Secretary of State claims to have balanced the budget but, so far as I can see, that refers only to the equipment budget, rather than the remaining 55%. If he has been so good at plugging a £38 billion black hole within months, he and his predecessor, who made the same claim, should not be in the Ministry of Defence, but in the Treasury. We need some honesty.
The hon. Gentleman is being slightly unfair. When I entered the Department, I said to the then Secretary of State that the first thing we had to do was regain the confidence of the Treasury. When the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues left, the Treasury had no confidence in the Ministry of Defence. By the time the current Secretary of State made a statement last July, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury was sitting next to him on the Front Bench, indicating that we had reached an accommodation with the Treasury. It is vital that the Ministry of Defence has that accommodation with the paymaster. The hon. Gentleman may not like, I may not like it, but it is a fact of life in this country.
I am not surprised at that. I have dealt with the Treasury myself when in the Ministry of Defence. The current Secretary of State is doing the Treasury’s bidding, no doubt. What I am about to say might sound strange: at least the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), the former Secretary of State, actually argued for defence and got into disagreements. To be fair to him, he tried his best on that decision. The whole problem with the SDSR was that it put the Treasury in the driving seat. My experience of dealing with Treasury officials about our budget when I was a Minister was that they had limited knowledge and understanding of how defence works in practice. That is one of the weaknesses: letting the lion into the room, with very little understanding of how defence works.
On the point of being Treasury-driven, we mentioned the deterrent several times. Is my hon. Friend as surprised as me that, in a written answer to me last year, the Treasury stated that, although leading the review of the deterrent, its representatives had not once set foot in the MOD building, and that not one single admiral or air marshal had gone across to the Cabinet Office to see them?
That does not surprise me at all. If we had more time, I could bore Members with some of the ludicrous ideas that were presented to me when I was a Minister by the Treasury, showing a lack of understanding.
The Ministry of Defence claims to have balanced the budget, even though we do not know what is on the whiteboard. The Minister said again this afternoon that he is not prepared to tell us what is on the whiteboard. Is the replacement on there, yes or no? Is, for example, Sentinel, another very important piece of kit, on the whiteboard? Even though it has been deployed to Mali, the Secretary of State indicated in Defence questions the other day that it will somehow be reprieved. If so, what is coming off the budget? Last week’s NAO report said that the £8 billion put aside in reserve may not be enough even to cover the risk in the existing programme. The hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) keeps asking at Defence questions for that whiteboard. Until we get to see that and what is actually in the equipment budget, there is no way of telling when the capability will be put forward.
When the hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey) came before the Committee, he was clear that there was no money or indication to replace this capability until 2015. There are unanswered questions. There is clearly a capability gap; the Government admit that. The Committee and the NAO report identified that. No solution has been put forward to resolve that.
I am surprised by the right hon. Gentleman. He is usually non-partisan in such matters. If we do not know what is on the whiteboard, what the budget is or the state of the remaining 55% of the budget, it is difficult to make that determination. The Government made claims last week when they got the figures mixed up and did not understand that the 1% applies only to the equipment budget, not the remaining 55%. Even the NAO report says that that might be swallowed up just by the risk in the existing programme. We need to know such things. Until we do, it is difficult to know what will be capable of replacing this piece of kit.
It has been a good debate, which shows the cross-party nature of the Defence Committee at its best. However, the Government, with the short-sighted decisions they took in the SDSR, among many others, have created a huge capability gap that I fear will have strategic implications for the nation for many years.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. Of course, the Conservative parliamentary party always serves under your chairmanship.
I begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) on the work he and his Committee have done in this area. Since we are all being nice to those who help us, I add my thanks to the huge number of serving personnel and civil servants who came to fill in one or two knowledge gaps in my portfolio. I have already made that point. They have come along to see whether they have repaired the gaps in my knowledge, and I think they did.
This is an important and wide-ranging subject and it is right to give it serious attention. As has already been pointed out, maritime security is vital to the defence of our nation and our interests around the world. The military and non-military dimensions of maritime surveillance are key elements. We highlighted our position as an open, outward-facing island nation in the national security strategy and placed an emphasis on surveillance and intelligence in the SDSR. Put simply, we cannot protect ourselves against existing and anticipated threats if we do not understand and cannot detect them. Doing so successfully requires a range of capable platforms and sensors, highly trained personnel and procedures to ensure effective action is taken on the information they provide.
The geography of the United Kingdom means that we are dependent on the sea for our economic prosperity. Maritime security and surveillance underpins our trade: the vast majority of our imports and exports are transported by sea. As much as 90% of world trade is carried by sea, so we not only need to secure our own territorial waters but to contribute to protecting key global sea lanes and our vital interests overseas.
I think everybody here would agree that we also wish to be able to project military power with our allies through the use of expeditionary forces. We rely again on maritime surveillance assets to protect those forces wherever they are deployed. Closer to home, the Government have responsibility to protect our people, our borders and our exclusive economic zone. I have always said that the first duty of Government is the defence of the realm. That requires that the different agencies charged with doing so—the police, borders, immigration, intelligence agencies, coastguard, Department for Transport, search and rescue providers and the armed forces—have the capabilities they need and work closely together.
None the less, hon. Members will be well aware that we did not start on firm financial ground in planning for the future. The parlous state of the defence budget inherited from the previous Government and the overheated and unrealistic equipment plan meant that hard decisions had to be taken. I am not going to engage again with the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who is in denial, yet he was a Minister in the previous Government and knew what the situation was. He remains in denial and we have had this conversation before.
I understand that the Secretary of State has written to the shadow Secretary of State detailing exactly what the situation was.
If he has not, I will come back to the hon. Gentleman and ensure he gets a response. It is also the case that the parlous state of the nation’s finances is visible for all to see. Yet, instead of having any guilt about it, he sits and smiles and says it is not true and that everything was going swimmingly, as the previous Government in a profligate manner distributed money everywhere and left us in this ghastly situation that none of us enjoys.
I have told the hon. Gentleman that I will not engage with him again, because we have done it before and he is in denial. One cannot have military or economic security based on unsustainable defence spending. The Soviet Union found that out. That is why we took a number of difficult decisions during the SDSR, including the decision not to bring the Nimrod MRA4 into service.
At the beginning of the debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire said that he did not wish to concentrate on Nimrod, but I am afraid that it has been largely about Nimrod, which I will therefore have to deal with in some detail. I asked the officials present—this huge number of serving personnel and civil servants—at what date the original Nimrod decision was taken, so I knew before his confession that it was, sadly, taken under the previous Conservative Government.
We should not forget the background to the decision to cancel Nimrod. There were no maritime reconnaissance aircraft flying in the RAF when we came into government. We did not create the capability gap—the capability did not exist. Owing to cost growth in the programme, the original plan to convert 21 airframes for the MRA4 had by 2010 been scaled back to only nine. The in-service date had been delayed from 2003 to 2012, costs had none the less risen from £2.8 billion to £3.6 billion, there were still outstanding technical problems which would have taken further large sums of money to solve and we knew that it would cost about £2 billion to operate over the next decade. While the capability’s role in support of anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, strategic intelligence gathering, and search and rescue remained important, in a financially constrained environment dominated by the operations in Afghanistan among other threats, it made the most military and financial sense to discontinue the programme, however unhappy that made us.
I was particularly interested in the comments of the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife. I joined the armed forces in 1970 and, during my time in the Army and in Parliament since, I have seen a long list of poor procurement projects—[Interruption.] That is the Leader of the Opposition ringing. Out of a litany of procurement disasters, as the hon. Gentleman said, this has been one of the worst. It was more than nine years late, each aircraft was to cost three times the original amount and we still had not finished. We did not where the programme was going, there was no end in sight and we were not asked to throw good money after bad. I am afraid that that decision, much as it is regretted, was the right one.
I apologise to the Minister and to other right hon. and hon. Members for coming late to the debate. I was serving on the Justice and Security Bill Committee, which has only just finished. Given that so much money was sunk into this project and that considerable technological advances were made for the equipment that was to be carried on the Nimrod, will we still get the benefit of that advanced technology development for possible use in future programmes?
My hon. Friend asks a good question, but I am afraid that I cannot answer at this moment. I will write to him and let him know but, certainly, technological advance does not go away—it has happened.
We have not been idle in dealing with the consequences of the decision. Revised plans and operating procedures are in place for other platforms to mitigate the absence of a maritime patrol aircraft capability. I will not go into too much detail, as some things are classified, but we can request support from allies and partners if necessary and we have established a seedcorn initiative to maintain the skills and knowledge necessary to operate maritime patrol aircraft in the future, should circumstances change. I was in New Zealand last year and saw some of our RAF personnel who were taking part in the seedcorn initiative. They said it was extremely valuable, and I thought it also sounded like a pretty good posting.
The Committee said that we support seedcorn, which was a sensible move by the Government, but we were specifically concerned that the capability could not be maintained beyond 2019. Given the ongoing delays, what reassurances can the Minister offer to the Committee that that issue has been met?
That is a perfectly good question. We are coming up to another SDSR in two years’ time, when we will consider how to take this forward. I was going to cover the subject subsequently, but we are stretched for time. Hot off the press, I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) that some of the equipment destined for the MRA4 is now destined for the Merlin Mark 2 from 2015. Living within our means will continue to guide our decisions. Hard-headed realism and rigour will determine what we buy.
I have many things that I want to put on the record, but the sitting ends at 4.30 pm, so I must be circumspect in what I say. I turn to submarines, which have been much discussed. Submarines use their stealth and global reach to collect information, indications and warnings of threatening activity; where appropriate, they operate in support of naval taskforces. Bringing in the Astute submarine is a major step forward; it is a quieter submarine and gives us greater capabilities. Also, internationally we are not operating alone. Not only the French and Norwegians, but the Americans and Canadians can provide support through maritime patrol aircraft. We have existing agreements with some of those countries and have recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Norway to co-operate on maritime air surveillance. We are also supporting a NATO smart defence initiative to look at long-term solutions to challenges, which could involve buying maritime patrol aircraft.
We are not complacent. There is a great deal of agreement in the Chamber that this is something we wish to have: greater ability for maritime surveillance. We are looking at ways to have that in future. In order to answer the questions, however, I will not go through the rest of my speech, except to comment on the helicopters. We are looking at the Merlin Mark 2 coming into service this year—two are already in service—and we have SKASaC or Sea King airborne surveillance and control, which will operate until 2016, although the airframe is quite aged, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said. We are not in any way suggesting that life is perfect at the moment.
When winding up, one should answer Members, so I will give some replies. My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire asked five questions. We see co-ordination of maritime surveillance as being done by the maritime security oversight group, up to the National Security Council. I agree that further development is needed, and I think that it will develop further. His second question was on the strategic analysis of maritime threats and the need for surveillance. I do not have a specific answer, because that is something we are doing the whole time. If he wants to ask a specific question later, I am happy to answer it. On progress on developing maritime ISTAR, some is classified, but optimisation study is going on as we speak. The air ISTAR optimisation study will consider the potential contribution to maritime surveillance of lighter-than-air vehicles, which were mentioned earlier; the initial report will appear in April this year, for consideration of options by April next year. His fourth question was the general ability to deal with contingency operations. Generally, contingency—a much overused word in the MOD—seems to rule everything at the moment. After Afghanistan, that is very much where we are looking. His fifth question was on updates, which we will continue to provide. If we do not, he can come back to me and ask for them, as I certainly will update him.
I did not entirely agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) on the deterrent, although I entirely agreed with her point about Scottish separation. We have layers of defence for the deterrent, so I echo the CDS, and I have just mentioned the Merlin upgrade to Mark 2, going into service this year. They regularly deploy to Prestwick to rehearse anti-submarine warfare in support of deterrence protection. Therefore, what she said is something we are using, although not permanently.
I do not think that I should; I have one minute left.
I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife that the procurement and acquisition process has been appalling in the past. I hope that he will have some confidence in the pronouncements by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and, indeed, by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), the Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology. We are trying extraordinarily hard, with the assistance of Bernard Gray, the Chief of Defence Matériel, to get this right. The Select Committee will come back to me or the Ministry of Defence if we do not get it right. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the black hole, but I do not want to go there again.
May I say how much we miss my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) at the MOD? He was absolutely right about money, but I am afraid to say—
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).