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Royal Air Force (ISTAR)

Volume 570: debated on Monday 4 November 2013

5. What recent assessment he has made of the future Royal Air Force requirement for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance systems; and if he will make a statement. (900857)

Joint Forces Command is leading an air intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—ISTAR—optimisation study looking at all Defence requirements, not just the RAF’s, and capabilities in air-based ISTAR.

A system such as Sentinel R1 is surely absolutely crucial to the proportionate and precise use of armed force in the future, so can the Minister reassure me that he is working to ensure that the armed forces rise above their usual rivalry to enable these systems both to be taken forward and developed deeply in the interests of our country and our forces?

I have heard it suggested that occasionally down through the centuries there has been a tad of friendly rivalry among the different armed services, and as my hon. Friend is a former RAF officer, he may well be aware of that. We are well aware of the capabilities that are provided by the Sentinel platform. We value those capabilities and we are examining how we might be able to use them further in the future.

How were the important RAF intelligence and surveillance services operating from RAF Gibraltar affected by the serious incident when a Guardia Civil vessel connected with an escorted royal naval vessel during which the vessels’ guns were pointed at each other?

Last week’s actions by the Guardia Civil were completely unacceptable. They were both unlawful and irresponsible, placing themselves and others in unnecessary danger. I can tell the House that we have made a formal protest to the Spanish Government, and ministerial colleagues in the Foreign Office will be raising this matter with their Spanish counterparts at the first opportunity.

Given that we are a maritime nation, does my right hon. Friend agree that in the next defence and security review a maritime patrol aircraft should receive high priority?

That will, indeed, be one of the issues we look at in some detail in the context of the next SDSR. As my right hon. Friend is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, he will be well aware that there were serious problems with the previous programme, because it was way over budget and, unfortunately, technically did not ultimately work. Perhaps I may remind the House who was in government for most of the time that that programme was running; it was not us.

To reinforce the point made by the Chairman of the Defence Committee, the UK’s armed forces are unique among those in northern Europe in having not a single fixed-wing maritime patrol aircraft. Given the time scale that the Minister has talked about for this review, what is the earliest date by which the UK may have maritime patrol aircraft?

As I have explained to the House, we will be looking at this in the context of the next strategic defence and security review. The hon. Gentleman asks me for early dates, so perhaps he can share with the House the earliest date by which the Scottish nationalists will tell us how they will afford the defence programme that they envisage. We are all dead keen to know.

May I support what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, as the loss of the maritime patrol aircraft capability is the most serious loss we face at the moment? May I urge the Minister not just to push this out to the SDSR of 2015 but to reassure the House that work is being undertaken by the Ministry of Defence today to find ways to remedy that serious capability loss?

As my hon. Friend—again, a former RAF officer—will be aware, we already work with allies in a number of ways to fill that gap, but I assure him that we will look at the issue seriously in the wider context of ISTAR and of the SDSR.