Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Lancaster.)
It is a pleasure to work under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I am delighted to have secured a debate on future ships for the Royal Navy. That may seem an odd subject, considering that the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers will not be operational until 2020 and that the Type 26 global combat ship, for which advance plans are in place, is not expected to enter service until June 2022.
The development times for such vessels are long, and although the plans to replace the Invincible-class carriers with the QE-class carriers were made in 1997—16 years ago—and the green light to replace the Type 23s with the global combat ship was given 15 years ago, the first sheet of metal has yet to be cut. If we combine that lengthy development period with, first, Britain’s ever-evolving place and role in the world; secondly, the changing threats and challenges that we face away from traditional deep-blue-water engagements; and, finally, the seismic changes in war-fighting technology, it makes perfect sense to ask what role the Royal Navy should play in the future and how it should be equipped to perform that role.
Let me take each of those points in turn. The previous strategic defence and security review made it clear that, as a maritime nation, we will retain significant global interests, with our prosperity, stability and security largely dependent on access to the sea and the maintenance of uninterrupted free trade. Having served in the armed forces, I would be the first to support a large permanent military capability, but history shows that that is a luxury that the nation cannot always afford. For hundreds of years, the size of our armed forces has concertinaed, and this decade will be no different. With defence spending falling from about 4% of GDP in the cold war to 2% today, it is right that we consider what the default size of our armed forces should be to allow us to meet our national and international security obligations and to respond, with or without our allies, to sizeable short-term commitments.
Although we cannot predict the future, we can say with some certainty that our forces will be deployed. Thanks to modern, 24-hour news coverage, which allows the nation to take a more proactive and vocal interest in the type of interventionist engagements that we participate in—as reflected in the recent vote on punitive intervention in Syria—and to the fact that there is no appetite for repeating the intervention challenges of Iraq and Afghanistan, we are likely to be more selective about the engagements that our forces are committed to. Future operations are likely to be multinational, light-footprint, manageable and easy to extract—essentially, low-risk entanglements—especially when mass is not immediately available or politically desirable. That bodes well for the greater utility of the ship—if it is built with the flexibility to modularise for the task.
Let me turn now to the changing threats and challenges that we may face. I draw Members’ attention to the latest book by respected author, strategist and counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen, in which he speaks of
“the dangers of marginalised slums and complex security threats of the world’s coastal cities, where almost 75% of the world’s population will be living by midcentury.”
“a future of feral cities, urban systems under stress, and increasing overlaps between crime and war, internal and external threats, and the real and virtual worlds.”
Of course, not everyone will agree with his rather grim predictions, but it cannot be denied that an increasingly interdependent world will be characterised by intense globalisation and competition, favouring many people, but alienating others.
With 80% of the world’s population living within 100 miles of the sea and most human maritime activity, such as shipping, fishing and hydrocarbon exploration, taking place 100 miles out to sea, most of the world’s economic activity will be conducted in a narrow strip of land and sea—the so-called littoral. It is there that we will find the poorly governed or the ungoverned space that leads to future conflicts—whether prompted by natural or man-made disasters—and that provides the breeding grounds for trouble. That, in turn, will threaten Britain’s interests. That is where future tensions and conflict will occur, as the world shifts towards a multipolar construct. Britain must adapt to that new landscape if it is to continue to play an active and engaged role in shaping global change. That means developing more flexible, mobile and defendable military capabilities, and the Royal Navy has a key role to play in that.
Given the platforms that are about to come online, it could be argued that almost all the kinetic operations that we have carried out recently could have been achieved from the relative safety of the sea. By way of illustration, I should point out that 35% of US air operations over Afghanistan were conducted from carriers based in the Indian ocean, while 40% of all allied sorties in the Libya campaign came from a single carrier—the Charles de Gaulle—before it had to retire for maintenance.
That is a powerful argument, if ever there was one, for commissioning both QE- class carriers, not just one. I will not comment too much on those carriers, because I made my views clear in my Royal United Services Institute report, but they will be game changing for British military capability. Two carriers would allow us to develop not only carrier strike, but a permanent expeditionary capability, unlike the use of Apaches on Ocean, which was a temporary move.
That leads me to the advances in war-fighting technology. The current revolution in technology is changing the conduct of warfare—arguably, to a far greater extent than the arrival of the longbow at Agincourt, the Gatling gun in the US civil war or the tank at the battle of Cambrai. Such so-called force multipliers give the user greater war-fighting effect at an ever greater distance from the target. Each new development moves the conduct of war into a new chapter.
The same applies in the maritime environment. The development and application of new technology—in essence, tactics—over hundreds of years, and, possibly, a local rule that allowed the spoils of war to be shared by the crew, allowed the Royal Navy to dominate the high seas for a long time, charged by Parliament with protecting and growing British trade routes and interests. We have seen the development of full-rigged ships; cannons, which replaced the need to board enemy ships; and the dreadnoughts, which had fewer but larger guns. In the last century, we saw the introduction of submarines, aircraft carriers and torpedoes. With the technology coming online today, tomorrow’s battles—wherever they are—will be fought not just by those in the theatre of war, but, arguably, by a similar number of operators hundreds of miles from the battlefield, as unmanned warfare becomes the norm.
The advanced systems coming online will transform the ability of all three services to collect intelligence; to deter, or efficiently and clinically to defeat, the enemy at range; and to blur the lines of responsibility between the services. Operationally, we are only beginning to appreciate that, as reflected in the Libya campaign, where HMS Ocean, with a combat range of 8,000 miles, carried Apache helicopters, with a combat range of 300 miles and armed with Hellfire missiles, which have a range of 8 km. A stand-alone system was temporarily placed on a platform, crossing service boundaries no less, to assist with an objective. The question I therefore pose today is: could there be more of that ability to modularise systems to meet the variety of tasks that we now require of our fleet? That means challenging the Royal Navy’s desire for all its ships to be permanently capable of high-end warfare tasks.
The Type 45 destroyer, for example, is a formidable ship, arguably the top of its class in defending the skies at sea and attacking other ships. It is, however, so high-spec that it cannot hit things on land, as traditionally that has been the domain of the RAF and, latterly, the sub-surface fleet. It is built for high-end and deep-blue warfare, yet it spends 50% of its time conducting SDSR taskings, such as counter-piracy and counter-drugs operations, and humanitarian operations, such as those that we have recently seen in the Philippines.
I have no doubt that we need high-end capability, but that kinetic capability must be able to harness the full spectrum of complex weapons technology and take on future technologies by being more modular and systems-based. I therefore very much welcome the fact that the lines between the frigate and the destroyer are being blurred in the design of the Type 26 global combat ship. I understand that it should be able to fire Tomahawk missiles from the Sylver vertical launch system A70 pods and that there is space on board for two Wildcat helicopters and a number of rigid inflatables, as well as 40 Royal Marine commandos. One does not need to be an able sea dog to recognise how much more versatile the design will be. It will certainly be more proficient in expeditionary warfare in the littoral environment.
With the detailed ship design yet to be agreed, will the Minister consider increasing the size of the mission bay and deck to offer greater space beyond that for the planned two helicopters? I stress the point: whether manned or unmanned, the airborne capability extends the versatility of a vessel, from the high-end to the soft power influence, giving the ship vastly increased expeditionary capability. We are now seeing unmanned aerial systems, or drones, to use common language: the ScanEagle, the Fire Scout and Boeing’s Hummingbird. They will be the norm in the skies; they will be a permanent part of war.
I will not go into the details about selected precision effects at range, but I would encourage increased synergies in the complex weapons systems employed by all three services. Is there any reason why Storm Shadow cannot be fired from a ship or, indeed, Brimstone from a Wildcat? Another example is the Mistral MBDA surface-to-air launch system, which can be fired from helicopters or ships and is also man-portable. That is a bit of kit that is versatile across all three services—a great example of one system being shared across the board.
I ask the Minister to recognise the convergence of interest in the battle space and the challenges of the continued siloed approach to procurement. I will cite one British example. The Fire Shadow, procured by the British Army, is a surface-launched precision loitering missile with a range of around 100 km. It is transported by trailer behind the back of a 4-tonne lorry. There is no reason why such a cheap but accurate bit of kit could not be modularised and placed, when required, on board a ship. Heaven forbid, it could even be run by the Royal Artillery, although perhaps that is a step too far. I believe that that is the mindset that should dominate future joint effect—modular systems covering all four phases of war that can be brought together.
As the design for the Type 26 is consolidated, I offer two options: option 1, do we need all 13 of them to be of such high specifications, or could, say, five of the eight have a more simplified design, where tailored assets are assigned depending on the task at hand? On option 2, if we commissioned just eight Type 26s, we could use the additional funds to procure 10 cheaper, larger modular ships with the deck and mission space for a minimum of four rotor systems to effectively conduct counter-piracy and counter-narcotics operations and defend home waters and to excel at upstream engagement, stabilisation and humanitarian tasks.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that it is important that we also have ships that will protect our aircraft carriers? After all, the key thing that Nelson always talked about was the need for frigates to support the rest of the flagships and other such things.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I commend him for his work in supporting what goes on in Devonport. He is absolutely right that ships can and often do work individually, but they might be required to be part of a larger flotilla or part of a taskforce, which might include defending an aircraft carrier. Clearly, with a limited number of platforms, that would be harder to do, so an increased number of ships would make the job easier.
The types of role that the Type 26s could be engaged in—upstream engagement, stabilisation and humanitarian tasks—are the very things the SDSR is saying that we should be doing more of, to promote Britain’s interests. I believe that such a design might even allow the provision for an Army company strength to be based on board. Essentially, the ship could be a small moving location—a sea-based platform for operations to be conducted on land. In essence, it could act as a safe lily pad from which land and sea-based assets could be safely deployed without the need for any boots to be permanently on the ground. Such a ship would then free the high-end ships for NATO, middle east, south Atlantic and nuclear deterrent duties. Indeed, as my hon. Friend has just said, they would be free to form part of a flotilla to protect our aircraft carriers.
The Minister will be aware that the surface fleet is coping—but only just—with meeting its maritime obligations with 19 destroyers and frigates, when 23 ships is the defence strategic direction mandated standard. We are therefore taking an operational risk, and that is managed, but option 2 would mitigate that risk. I urge the Minister to gain some inspiration by looking at the United States littoral combat ship, or the USS Freedom, a catamaran-style ship. The US is exploring exactly the same more modular-based approach. The MOD wrote a joint concept report colourfully entitled “Future ‘Black Swan’ Class Sloop-of-War”, published in May last year, which talks exactly about the concept of a far cheaper ship, with the money invested instead in the systems that go on it.
As we slowly approach the next SDSR, will the Minister look at one further system that I believe would be game changing in the maritime environment? The V-22 Osprey is a US multi-mission military tiltrotor aircraft. It is an example of the large utility helicopters of the future. It already operates on the US Wasp-class carrier and can fly higher, faster and further, and it can of course land on the deck of any frigate or destroyer. It would be able refuel our F-35s. Such a system would have an enormous impact in the maritime environment. I believe that leasing six from the United States, similar to what we did with the C-17s, would make logical sense.
In conclusion, it has been said time and again that, no matter how advanced, ships can only be in one place at a time. We have impressive naval ships, but they remain very specific in their remit and too siloed in harnessing systems from all services—and, of course, there are only 19 of them. Our ships are conducting a number of international duties that they were not built to achieve. Looking ahead, Britain must excel at influencing activities in the littoral environment. I believe that that aim is best served by simpler and cheaper platforms, where the sophistication and investment is focused on the modular systems on board, rather than on the ship. I hope that I speak for both sides of the House in paying tribute to all those who serve in the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. I offer my thoughts today in the spirit of ensuring that the House considers how we can best equip the Royal Navy in future in the lead-up to the next SDSR.
Several hon. Members rose—
I pay tribute to the hon. and gallant Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who has a long track record and experience in defence matters. I congratulate him on securing the debate and on outlining many thoughtful points, in particular relating to the littoral dimension, global strategic challenges, and interoperability and joint effect.
When considering future and current vessels, one must consider future and current maritime roles and taskings as an important starting point. I think that Members from across the House agree that naval forces are there to protect and patrol, to secure freedom of movement, to enforce the boundaries of territorial waters, to control exclusive economic zones, and to secure the environment—a significant consideration—renewables and critical infrastructure. That is particularly important when one bears in mind what is likely to happen in the decades ahead with offshore wind, tidal and wave power and the development of super-grid systems, which are likely to connect Iceland, the Faroe islands, Scotland, Norway and the rest of Europe. Other dimensions include subsea infrastructure and, of course, the trafficking of drugs and people. I had a quick look at the Royal Navy’s website before the debate and noted the five key current areas of maritime security, which were counter-piracy, counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, keeping sea lanes open and “around the UK”.
I join the hon. Member for Bournemouth East not only in praising UK personnel and those of other countries for their life-saving roles far from home—including, most recently, in reacting to the humanitarian catastrophe in the Philippines—but in acknowledging the importance of anti-piracy operations, and the maintenance of free-trade routes through measures such as Operation Ocean Shield, which is ably commanded from a Norwegian vessel, the Fridtjof Nansen.
It is the fifth and surely most important task in the Royal Navy’s list that I want to address in the context of future and current conventional naval vessels, capabilities and tasking: maritime domain awareness, or MDA, to use the Navy’s terminology, which we should understand. It is the effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact on security, safety, the economy or the environment. I want to examine the issue in terms of recent developments close to home.
There is no better place to start than with an incident that happened two years ago and has close connection to my part of the world. The 65,000-tonne Admiral Kuznetsov anchored on the edge of UK waters off my constituency. Other Russian ships that also sought shelter in the Moray firth included the anti-submarine warfare ship Admiral Chabanenko, and the escort ship Yaroslav Mudryy. The vessels did not warn domestic authorities that they were going to come so close to the coast, and are believed to have blamed bad weather for making that approach. It was the first time the Kuznetsov, or a vessel of its size, had deployed near UK waters, and it was the closest in 20 years that a Russian naval task group had deployed to Scotland or anywhere else in the UK.
In previous years, Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft would have been loitering and would have been aware of the presence of a Russian deployment of that size. Of course, by 2011, the UK had no such aircraft; it is the only northern European military without them. Nevertheless, the Russians were there without any UK escort. At that stage, the Ministry of Defence was relying on Scottish fishing vessels to report developments, including fly-tipping by the visitors. When the MOD became aware of the Russians’ presence, a 30-year-old Type 42 frigate, the HMS York, was scrambled from Portsmouth, around 1,000 miles away. That distance, at 20 to 24 knots, takes more than 24 hours to travel. The responsibility that the HMS York was fulfilling was that of fleet ready escort, which means being the deployable and capable vessel in UK waters ready to perform emergency response tasks. The Kuznetsov case raises serious questions relating to current and future naval vessels, and I would be grateful if the Minister could address them. I know that he is well advised today, so I am sure that he will have time to respond to my points.
Is the availability of a fleet ready escort a mandated task of the Royal Navy? Will the Minister confirm that, owing to the unavailability of vessels, the fleet ready escort provision has been repeatedly gapped? Will he confirm that Ministers need to be informed by the Royal Navy every time such a gap exists? Will he confirm how many times over the last five years and for how long the fleet ready escort has been gapped? Will he confirm that offshore patrol and mine countermeasures vessels have been assigned for fleet ready escort duty during gapped periods? When considering future ships, it is important to understand the current state of play and what one might want to ensure does not happen in future.
Staying with recent experience, in May 2007, Tornado F3 jets from RAF Leuchars in Fife were sent to intercept two Russian aircraft spotted observing a Royal Navy exercise off northern Scotland. The jets were scrambled after the foreign planes were detected by radar in the skies over the western isles. They were identified as Russian Bear Foxtrot planes, commonly seen by RAF pilots during the cold war. In this case, they were intercepted and their return was escorted.
Although there have been recent developments, I do not want to explore in any detail in this forum the interest shown by some countries in subsea infrastructure, but I am sure that both the Government and Opposition Front-Bench representatives will understand its importance and the importance of its integrity. The examples that I have given underline that, with regard to the maritime domain awareness of future and current vessels, there are important tasks close to the UK that must be properly managed as a priority.
I want to raise the question of tasking in our immediate wider maritime region and, in particular, the contribution towards joint allied responsibilities and training. NATO has, as part of its immediate reaction force, standing NATO maritime group 1, which primarily operates in the eastern Atlantic. Similarly, standing NATO mine countermeasures group 1 operates in northern waters. They are relevant for future and current naval vessel provision, as they are standing operational commitments for allied nations, which provide destroyers, frigates and mine countermeasure vessels. It is notable that the UK has not provided vessels to either of the groups for several years.
Similarly, on joint training, there is a real issue of properly committing current and, hopefully, future vessels. Last month saw the largest NATO training exercise in northern Europe in nearly a decade. Some 6,000 troops from 20 allied and partner nations took part in Steadfast Jazz, which involved land, air, and sea elements. Of the 6,000 participants in the exercise, the UK contributed precisely 52 personnel aboard a single mine hunter. It followed a large-scale exercise with maritime dimensions in Norway, where the UK provided just one aircraft, which is more than has ever been provided to the NATO air policing commitments in Iceland.
When it comes to our immediate maritime backyard, the UK is sadly posted missing too often and is not taking its responsibilities seriously. The absence of any mention of the high north and Arctic in the most recent strategic defence and security review eloquently underlines my point.
This is all especially relevant to Scotland when it comes to current and future conventional vessels. Scotland is a maritime nation with a sea area five times larger than its land area. Our coastline is over 11,000 km long, and is longer than that of the People’s Republic of China and that of India. It constitutes 61% of the entire UK coastline, and there are more than 800 islands. Remarkably, however, there is not a single major, ocean-going, UK conventional vessel based in Scotland to perform the key tasks that I have outlined; no frigates or offshore patrol vessels are based in Scotland. That can and will change after a yes vote in next year’s independence referendum in Scotland. Last week, the Scottish Government published their White Paper, “Scotland’s Future”, which included plans for naval forces. I commend the White Paper to Members of all parties, although I understand that the print run has already been fully exhausted.
This issue is close to my heart, and I would be happy to debate at great length the Scottish public’s overwhelming opposition to nuclear weapons being based in Scotland—something ignored, sadly, by the hon. Gentleman’s party and by the official Opposition in Westminster—but I am looking closely at the clock. In the White Paper, however, which I commend to him, the plans for Faslane are for a vibrant conventional naval base, and I am sure that most people would welcome that. I am delighted at the strong commitment in the White Paper to maritime capabilities, including frigates, OPVs, patrol boats, auxiliary ships and, crucially, newly procured maritime patrol aircraft.
UK assets and liabilities are key, and they must be a consideration for the Ministry of Defence, now and after a yes vote. Future vessels are very relevant. The referendum will have a significant bearing on issues relating to current and future vessels, but as yet we have had no indication from the Government as to their preferences on defence assets. According to the most recent UK asset register, published in 2007, MOD assets totalled more than £92 billion in value; on a population share basis, Scotland would be entitled to £7.7 billion in defence estate, equipment and vessels, or a financial offset. With regard to future vessels, that is important, because the UK Government have to date given no indication of the effect of a yes vote on their planning assumptions or procurement plans.
The MOD has projected the need for £160 billion of spending on defence equipment and support over the next 10 years; £13 billion of that spending is predicated on continuing guaranteed Scottish taxpayer support. With independence, Whitehall will need to work with the Scottish Government on joint procurement even to come close to those commitments. It is in the interests of both Governments to work together. The Scottish Government’s White Paper included the following commitment:
“This Scottish Government will take forward the procurement of four new frigates, to be built on the Clyde, preferably through joint procurement with the rest of the UK.”
That presents a good chance for massive procurement gain, with the potential to extend the production run of the Type 26 frigate. Unless the Government were to signal a further reduction in demand for frigate numbers, we could see more ships built rather than fewer, which is good news for the Clyde, good news for taxpayers across these islands, and good news for defence with appropriate conventional capabilities.
In conclusion, current and future naval vessels have essential tasks at home and further afield. I have stressed the importance of providing for necessary maritime territorial and regional defence, which is the core business of defence responsibility. Sadly, the UK Government have taken their eye off the ball, so I look forward to a sovereign Scotland taking those responsibilities seriously, and having the vessels and capabilities to do so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) on securing this important debate and on his compelling and persuasive opening speech about the importance of our future fleet and its capabilities. I apologise in advance that I cannot stay for the duration of the debate, which saddens me. I desperately wanted to take part, but I have a previous engagement that I have to skip off to before the end, so I will be checking Hansard avidly for the Minister’s answers to my questions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East made some compelling arguments about the technical specifications of warships but I am not in a position to do that. I want to talk about the human impact of decisions about future naval ships—their construction and where they are based—and the effect on local communities. I should declare an interest: members of my family work and have worked for generations in the business of building, maintaining and taking care of Royal Navy ships. After all, I was born in Portsmouth and represent Gosport, and people would be hard pressed to find a single person in that region who is not affected in some way by the Royal Navy or the care, maintenance and construction of its ships. That is why the community was devastated by the recent news that shipbuilding in Portsmouth is to cease.
In Portsmouth, we do not have a sentimental view of shipbuilding. We understand that it is something that has always fluctuated. My grandfather worked in the dockyard for 45 years, including on the building of HMS Andromeda, which in the late 1960s—around 1967—was the last Royal Navy ship to be built entirely in Portsmouth dockyard. There was a huge gap in shipbuilding at the dockyard after that, so we understand that naval shipbuilding fluctuates. Furthermore, we always understood that the Queen Elizabeth class, which has been partly constructed in Portsmouth, would come to an end eventually. It is a once-in-a-generation shipbuilding project, which created many jobs, but they were never going to last for ever, because of the scale of the ship—only one 20th of it filled an enormous BAE hangar in Portsmouth dockyard.
We used to feel a little better about the lack of shipbuilding jobs when other jobs could be taken on the maintenance and care of the fleet—the ship support services. In recent years, however, that work has deteriorated as well. I remember as a little girl, we had the Queen’s jubilee fleet review of 1977—the Spithead review—which was a glorious spectacle. The ships went as far as the eye could see; we had a magnificent fleet. There was a fleet review in 2005, to commemorate the battle of Trafalgar, and I also went to that. We managed to collect a bunch of different naval ships from various international navies. Her Majesty did inspect them, but she was probably still home in time to watch “EastEnders”, because there was nothing like the level of ships that we used to have.
That is important. I suppose the problem started with the construction of the Type 45, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East pointed out. By anyone’s standards, it is a super-impressive piece of kit. Naval folklore, which is particularly prevalent in my part of the world, has the ships taking part in an international military exercise in the Atlantic, but being asked to leave by other navies, because the Type 45 ships were so technically brilliant that they were beating everyone else before they could start. Apparently, they have the radar shadow of a small fishing boat—they are whizzy pieces of kit. The trouble with the Type 45 ships, however, is the cost—they were £1 billion a pop, which is very pricey—and we got six of them and not 12. I am not normally keen on quoting Joseph Stalin, but he said that quantity has a quality of its own.
As other Members have pointed out, our Navy is different from other wings of the armed forces: even when we are not involved in any combat operations, the Navy is almost fully deployed protecting our trade routes, on anti-piracy missions, deploying mine counter-measures, on fishery protection, in the Falklands, taking part in drugs operations in the Caribbean and on disaster and humanitarian relief, as we have seen recently. We therefore need a quantity of ships. No matter how incredibly advanced our warships are, one has not yet been invented with the ability to be in more than one place at the same time; that is the issue.
My first question to the Minister is, will he guarantee that for the future global combat ship we will learn the lessons of the Type 45, and have a ship that is flexible and adaptable but affordable and exportable, so that we have something that other countries want to buy? They do not want the £1-billion-a-pop Type 45s because they cannot afford them.
Another important matter is the basing of the future fleet. It is no secret that people in Portsmouth were devastated by the news that the Type 23s will now be maintained and repaired in Plymouth. Where shipbuilding jobs are disappearing, the hope is that those jobs would be back-filled by ship support work and fleet maintenance. But there is a massive strategic gap: when work finishes for the last Type 23 that will be repaired in Portsmouth, the HMS Westminster, there will be a gap of around a year before the first Type 45, HMS Daring, comes back for its first refit. We had hoped that some of the shipbuilding jobs would go into ship support, but we are not even 100% sure that all the ship support jobs will be in Portsmouth because of that year-long strategic gap. Will the Minister tell us what he is doing to mitigate that? The area cannot support any further job losses.
I welcome the news that the QE class will be based in Portsmouth harbour and that the Government are going to spend £100 million on improving the dockyard. That news is welcome, but Portsmouth is holding its breath to see what happens to the second QE-class carrier. We would like to know what the future holds for that ship, because it would be fantastic if it could be used in some way rather than mothballed.
We must not underestimate the importance of this issue to the local economy. Gosport, my constituency, is on the other side of Portsmouth harbour to Portsmouth itself. Around 35% of the people who work in the Portsmouth naval base and dockyard come from my constituency: it is an area whose fortunes have been completely wrapped up in those of the Navy and that has supported the Royal Navy for hundreds and hundreds of years. Its economic fortunes have dived in line with Navy cuts. We now have a victualling yard that no longer supplies victuals to the Royal Navy, an oil fuel depot that currently does not deliver oil, a submarine escape tank with no submariners in it and a royal naval hospital—the last in the UK, which was shut down by the previous Government—with no patients. Twenty-one per cent of Gosport’s surface area is still in the hands of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, so the land is not even being released to commercial companies that could do something with it. That is incredibly painful, because commercial companies would like to come in and do something to restore the fortunes of our great town, and are being prevented from doing so not because the DIO is saying no, but because the DIO is simply not engaging in the conversation. Will the Minister help out with that situation?
Gosport has less than half a job per working adult, and we do not have a culture of entrepreneurship, because generation after generation has been employed by the Royal Navy. The Minister will say that the Ministry of Defence is not an employment agency or in the business of creating work, but I read a small statistic recently: Cardiff university did a poll on the national competitiveness of UK towns, and Gosport is second from bottom of the English towns in that poll, having dropped a staggering 94 places in the past three years. That is how much the fortunes of our town are tied to the fortunes of the military and the Navy.
It is of course important that decisions about future naval ships are made on the basis of affordability and practicality, but we also have to bear in mind the huge debt of gratitude we owe to communities that have served the Royal Navy for hundreds of years. Those communities have built up around serving the defence industry and we must ensure that we consider them in our plans.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) on securing the debate. As he knows, he and I have been talking about the future of the Royal Navy for the past three years, since I was elected. I am very aware of how important the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines are in my own constituency of Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport. I will be arguing a strong case for the Royal Navy during my contribution.
I should say, however, that the Government have had a difficult time. They have found themselves with enormously problematic public finances and have therefore had to make significant cuts in the delivery of public services. I am sorry that they should find themselves in that position. We should most certainly control the public expenditure envelope, but my view is that politics is about delivering priorities as well, and I believe that our chief priority should be the defence of our country.
This is an opportune time to have this debate, as the Government will not only consider the next round of the strategic defence and security review in a couple of years’ time but decide the amount of money that will be spent. As others have said, when the “Options for Change” review took place in the 1990s, about 4% or 5% of the country’s GDP was being spent on defence; that is now down to around 2%. It is important that, over the next few years, we look at the amount of money that we are investing in defence. I hope that this debate will send out that message. If the Minister would be willing to work with me, I am very willing to work with him on trying to argue our case to the Government and to the Treasury.
Representing Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport as I do, I pay tribute to the Government for deciding that they will continue to make sure that Plymouth has the licence for refuelling and refitting nuclear submarines. I recognise that the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) would prefer not to end up with nuclear submarines in Scotland. Bluntly, we are quite willing to end up with them in Plymouth if we possibly can. We would welcome it. We recognise that it is the stake in the ground, as far as Devonport is concerned. There has to be work going into Devonport. About 38% of people working in the city depend on the public sector. Another incredibly important point is that we have a low skills base. The one thing that Devonport and Plymouth have going for them is their global reputation for marine science and engineering research. The Royal Navy is a significant player in that sector, along with Plymouth university, and I hope that we can continue to build on that.
The Navy is so important because we are an island—a maritime nation that depends upon using sea routes to bring our food and imports into the country. The Ministry of Defence should have two priorities: it should make sure that we have not only a strong Royal Navy but a strong RAF as well. We must protect our sea routes and air routes so that we can get bits of kit and imports into the country. Could we imagine Christmas without oranges or the kinds of fruits that we depend upon being able to import? Looking at the events of the first and second world wars, we can see how close we came to finding ourselves starved to death by our aggressors.
Aircraft carriers are important: they provide a launch pad for aircraft to cover and dominate the air when we are landing troops—I hope, our Royal Marines—on beaches. We should not forget that. However, this matter is not simply about having aircraft carriers. Nelson, who is the great hero of the Royal Navy and, I would argue, Britain, said that we must ensure that we have plenty of ships, including frigates and other vessels that can protect our other activities on the sea. They are utterly vital, and investment in them is important.
Plymouth has the licence for refitting and refurbishing our nuclear submarines, and it is key that we retain our nuclear deterrent. I have been very supportive of ensuring that we have four submarines, so that we have a continuous sea deterrent. I would like confirmation that the Conservative party will remain committed to that and that it will not be subject to any discussions with other political parties after the general election if we unfortunately find ourselves in a coalition again. We must have a strong Navy, which will mean a strong Devonport and a strong Plymouth. I am very keen to ensure that.
The issue is not just the seaborne deterrent, but how we can use our Royal Navy to deliver soft power. We all know that, if we end up putting a ship into port, everybody is interested in knowing what is happening and what the ship is going to do. They also thoroughly enjoy the idea of occasionally having a drink on board. I assure the Chamber that we have done much work in that regard. I understand that people in Sierra Leone are still talking about a Royal Navy frigate or aircraft carrier being just over the horizon and about how, if they do not behave themselves, the Royal Navy will be turning up immediately on their beaches. Therefore, soft power is very important.
We must ensure that, in the next SDSR and in the next spending round, the Navy is recognised and has the Government’s full and utter support.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) has long been an articulate commentator on Army issues; more recently he has taken up the cudgels on behalf of the Royal Navy. If I were in charge of the Royal Air Force, I would look to my laurels, because I am sure that it is next on his agenda. To give the Minister maximum time to consider my questions, I will ask them at the beginning of my contribution rather than at the end, so he will be at liberty to ignore anything I say afterwards.
First, when the main gate contracts are signed some time next year after the Scottish referendum, will a minimum of 13 frigates be ordered? Secondly, does the Minister accept that the unit cost of new frigates will be much cheaper if all 13 are ordered at the outset? Thirdly, eight of the 13 frigates will specialise in anti-submarine warfare. Was that figure derived from doctrinal consideration, and if so, what is it? My concern is that if we are to have seven frigates available for that purpose, we would need 10, not eight. I think doctrine requires at least seven to be available. Fourthly, how many of the new frigates would be necessary to escort a taskforce, whether that is an amphibious or carrier taskforce? Finally, what consideration will be given to adoption of the plug-and-play method of warship development that my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East referred to, and the importance of getting hulls in the water first and then building up capacity over the lifetime of the vessel?
In the time available, I hope to speak about strategy, numbers and design concept. You have drawn the short straw, Mr Hood, in chairing this debate, because when I made my maiden speech on defence in the Queen’s Speech debate in 1997, you spoke after me, and were kind enough to predict that the House would be hearing a lot more from me on defence in the years to come. You were absolutely right, and I have been banging on about it ever since, although I had not expected to be making the same sort of repetitious points and representations to a Conservative-led Government as I did to the Labour Government during the more than six years in which I was my party’s spokesman on the Royal Navy, but there you are. Politics is a strange profession.
The distinction that I achieved cannot be overemphasised: I advanced from probationer ordinary seaman to full ordinary seaman. I was very proud to be one, because even in those days—it was from 1979 to 1982, or thereabouts—I was too old to be an officer cadet. I feel the bus pass jingling in my pocket.
Yesterday, I took the day off and had the great pleasure of travelling to Southampton university at the invitation of Commander Chris Ling, commanding officer of Thunderer Squadron, which is the defence technical undergraduate scheme at the university, and Lieutenant Amie Jackson. She—I emphasise “she”—is the commanding officer of the warship HMS Blazer, which is attached to the university’s Royal Navy unit. It was wonderful to celebrate with them the opening of their new joint headquarters at the National Oceanography Centre. Looking at the fine young people who are coming through the system and having a first-class maritime education there, I could not help wondering how many opportunities they would have, and how many naval vessels would be available for them to serve in, in the years ahead, when they go on, as so many of them do, to professional careers in the Royal Navy.
I said that I would talk a bit about strategy. I have always acknowledged on a cross-party basis that the concepts of Labour’s 1998 strategic defence review were very sound. They recognised that we were no longer facing as our primary concern the cold war threat on the continent, and that if our forces were engaged, it would be in more far-flung theatres. As we were no longer an empire and no longer had a string of bases all over the world, it would be necessary to have a portable, movable sea base that we could use to take our joint forces to the theatre in which they were engaged. That seemed sound then, and it is sound today. That concept required two sorts of taskforce: one to allow air power to be projected from the sea, hence the aircraft carriers; and the other to enable military power to be landed from the sea, hence the amphibious taskforce. Broadly speaking, we have the central elements of those taskforces.
We know that the aircraft carriers are moving steadily forward, whatever financial peaks and troughs they have had in their chequered history, and that they will come to fruition. I would like to predict that the Government will bring both carriers into service, because it would be sheer madness to build one of the largest ships that the Royal Navy has ever seen and not deploy it.
The Albion, the Bulwark, and our Bay-class ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service form the core of the amphibious taskforce, and again, it would be interesting to know—although I do not expect an answer today—what plans there are to think about the next generation of assault ships to follow the Albion and the Bulwark. However, the point about the two taskforces, and the relevance to today’s debate, is that they will have to be protected against air threats, surface threats and submarine threats. As I said before, if we need a certain number of frigates—let us say as many as four to protect a taskforce, if it were in a serious regional conflict—given the roles that the frigates will have to perform in other areas, including ongoing and standing tasks, I find myself querying how the idea that we will generate a minimum of seven available anti-submarine warfare frigates from only eight out of the 13 will work.
I shall say a brief word about numbers. I start from the standpoint that we are simply not spending enough on defence. I know all the economic arguments about that, but the fact is that as a proportion of gross domestic product, defence spending has declined too far down our list of priorities. Spending was between 4% and 5% during the cold war years. When Labour came into office in 1997, it went from 2.9% to 2.6%, then to 2.8%. Then, in successive years, it was 2.7%, 2.7% again, 2.5%, 2.5% again, and so on. That looked fairly consistent, but the problem was that during that period, we were engaged in fighting two large regional conflicts, and the Treasury was not prepared to stump up the extra money to fund those conflicts in full. As a result, we found the core military budget being eaten away by the financing of current conflicts, and since then, under the present Government, the situation has not improved. I believe that we are down to something like 2.1% of GDP at present, and I feel that that is the root of the problem.
At the time of the strategic defence review that set out those concepts, the Labour Government proposed reducing the combined number of frigates and destroyers from 35 to 32. The admirals gritted their teeth and accepted that, but it quickly emerged that 32 had actually gone down to 31, and the then Secretary of State, Geoff Hoon, formulated what I later dubbed the “Hoon excuse”, which was, “It doesn’t really matter that we have lost an extra frigate, because they are more powerful than they used to be, so 31 ships can do what 32 used to do.” That, I am afraid, was the start of a very slippery slope.
The next bite taken out of the total by the Labour Government took the number down from 31 to 25. I remember standing up in the House of Commons at the beginning of 2007 waxing eloquent about persistent rumours that the Government intended to mothball, if not permanently dispose of, another half a dozen frigates to take the total down to 19. In the end, that gradually slipped away, but a couple of Type 23 frigates were paid off, and effectively the total went down to 23 from 25. It took the Conservative-led coalition coming in before we went down to 19 in the 2010 SDSR, yet the concept set out in 1998 remained basically sound: we needed to be able to fulfil certain standing tasks, to protect a mobile base, and to escort an amphibious taskforce or an aircraft carrier taskforce. I do not see what doctrinal developments since then justify such a radical reduction in the numbers.
That leads to me to my final point, about the design concept, which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bournemouth East mentioned. It is about whether it might be worth looking at the other five more general-purpose hulls that are proposed to bring the total number of frigates up to 13, and whether it might be worth considering doing something simpler to get more hulls in the water from which we can regenerate the surface fleet. Back in February 2005, in putting forward that concept, I was unwise enough to say that, really, the replacement general-purpose frigates ought to be “as cheap as chips”, which is not the sort of phrase that a proud Navy wants to hear. However, the point is based on an important development that I referred to in my opening questions—the idea of plug and play.
When the Type 45s were designed and put into service, they had a very large gymnasium. Why? Because they were designed in such a way that at a future stage in their life cycle, when we could afford it, we would be able to plug into that large space a module of land attack cruise missiles, which would hugely increase the ships’ power, even though we felt that we could not afford to do so at the beginning. It is perfectly possible to design ships that are relatively simple, but that have that capacity; I am extremely glad to see the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) nodding in agreement. We are very capable of upgrading those ships in their lifetime, and adding to their capacity. Perhaps it is too late now—I do not know—but we could at least try to keep the number of hulls a bit larger and lessen the complexity a bit; we would then have the basis for upgrading the quality of the vessels during their lifetime.
It is very much one of the examples that I have in mind. Those vessels are extremely economical, but they are out there in good numbers, and as was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), who had to leave, they are exportable.
I think that the Chamber has heard more than enough from me on these matters. I very much look forward to hearing the wind-ups and, in particular, answers to some of the questions I posed. If I cannot have them all just now, perhaps I can have some of them in writing.
I commend the hon. and gallant Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for securing the debate and for highlighting a series of pertinent issues and the questions that follow from them. I wholly support his tribute not only to those who serve in the Royal Navy, but to the communities that support them. His article for the Royal United Service Institute, “Leveraging UK Carrier Capability”, has rightly received a lot of attention. It raises some issues and points that I will come back to later.
The hon. Gentleman described the changing world in which we live and set out the argument for a strong Navy to support activity in the littoral environment. That argument was reinforced by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile). The hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), with his usual passion for defence issues, put a series of questions to the Minister—I hope that he will be able to answer them—but also, with his great background knowledge, set out the historical challenges faced by successive Governments.
Last week, I was privileged to be at the celebration in Devonport of the centenary of HMS Warspite. Built in and launched from Plymouth, she was the most decorated ship in the Royal Navy. There were people present who had served on her. “From Jutland Hero to Cold War Warrior” was the description given by Iain Ballantyne of Warships magazine. She was one in a long line of ships, cruisers, destroyers, frigates and aircraft carriers built in British shipyards.
Sadly, in the last few weeks, we have had the announcement that shipbuilding in Portsmouth will cease, but around the UK, at smaller shipyards such as Appledore, and on the Clyde, we have centres of excellence where there are skills that we need to protect if we are to be able to continue to build ships, with sovereign capability. We should acknowledge the expertise of all those involved, from the designers to fitters and systems engineers. They are global leaders.
Shipbuilding has historically been an industry that has times of feast and times of famine. As the Government are often the only customer for some of these vessels—that issue was raised in relation to exportability, and I will mention that—there needs to be a more clearly defined defence industrial strategy in this sector as we go forward. Therein lie some of the problems. We are demanding ships that have greater longevity and need less servicing—in the same way as we do for our cars—but we also want value for money. That does leave gaps in the maintenance drumbeat. That was highlighted by the hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) and will pose some problems for this Government and future Governments.
We are also looking for vessels to be designed that are slightly more generic, as the hon. Member for New Forest East pointed out, and more exportable. In a sense, it is quite difficult for us to compete in some of these markets when countries such as South Korea are very well able to do some of that. The most recent contract awarded by the Government, which was for the MARS—the military afloat reach and sustainability—project, went to South Korea; it did not go to a British shipyard.
Where do we go next? We have the Type 42 or Sheffield-class destroyers, which are now at the end of their heroic service. The Type 42 is being replaced by a stunning vessel, the Type 45. It has been designed to avoid some of the issues with its predecessors. As has been pointed out, it is top-end, gold-plated, all-singing, all-dancing and much admired by other nations, but they are unlikely to want to buy it and we are unlikely to want to sell it, I suspect, to be honest. We are also looking beyond the Type 23s to the global combat ship, the Type 26, so there are quite exciting times ahead in terms of ship design.
We are looking at a new configuration of our Navy based on fewer ships. I heard what the hon. Member for Bournemouth East said about the design and numbers of Type 26s. I will come back to that later in my speech, if I may.
Does the hon. Lady recognise that the number of ships is also important in relation to the career structures of the Royal Navy? There need to be the command postings to ensure that there is that experience. My concern is that that is perhaps being capped. We do need that experience to continue at the top echelons of the Royal Navy.
The hon. Gentleman raises a different point, which almost requires a different debate, but it is perfectly valid. It is about how people progress and how we keep that expertise and the interest of people coming in at the lower ranks—how do they go through the system? However, I will say to him that last week I was with the First Sea Lord in Plymouth when he gave a very robust defence of the Navy’s future configuration, with the QE class sitting at its centre. He was very careful, as we would expect, not to specify the number of carriers with which his successors will be working. Given that we are approaching a further SDSR, I feel that he was correct not to make assumptions. We need to understand what our defence and foreign policies need to deliver and what we want them to deliver, and clearly we also need to ensure within that that our shores are fully and properly protected.
However, the First Sea Lord was genuinely excited about the capability that the new carriers—I use the plural with some care, for reasons that I have alluded to—will bring. There is no doubt that their ability to deploy the full spectrum of diplomatic, political and military options, to stand off and deliver hard and soft power, will be a major addition to the fleet and our ability to defend our realm should we need to do so.
The global combat ship adds a further part to the picture. It will be very interesting to watch the design as it develops. It needs to be able to fulfil many roles—it needs to be flexible, to facilitate a full range of operations, to allow deployment of uninhabited or unmanned surface and subsea vessels, towed sonar arrays and inflatables, as well as to have the capacity to take something as large potentially as a Chinook and to be used with unmanned aerial vehicles doing airborne surveillance; it will give them additional range. The new ships will not just be single task-specific but must be designed with flexible capability, and that is what I understand is happening with the Type 26s.
The hon. Member for Bournemouth East was also right to highlight the benefits of modularisation. I am sure that the Minister heard his comments about additional helicopter bays in the new design. The hon. Member for Bournemouth East also suggested a downgrade in design for a proportion of the new Type 26s and was challenged by my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, about the ability of a limited number of full-strength Type 26s, with full capability, to protect carriers if the numbers were reduced. That was a perfectly sensible question, and it will be interesting to see what the Minister says in response.
The hon. Gentleman is prescient beyond belief, because my next paragraph says that there of course needs to be a discussion about where the Type 26s are base-ported. Sadly, the hon. Member for Gosport has been called away and is not in her place. That decision needs to be taken on strategic grounds. We need to consider how we protect our skills base and we need to ensure that we do not have all our eggs in one basket. I listened with interest to the hon. Lady, who made a plea for base-porting—all base-porting in effect—to be in Portsmouth. As I have said, that, in my view, is a sentimental, not a strategic, view. We need to protect skills across all our bases. Clearly, I have a strong view about Plymouth and ensuring that we have a drumbeat that works for our work force as well.
Of course, the new vessel will be designed with stealth and unobservability in mind and will need to be acoustically quiet. It will be interesting to see whether she resembles in any way the futuristically designed Sea Shadow or USS Zumwalt. The latter has an outline that is not too dissimilar from the very early iron-clad battleships, so this is quite an exciting time in ship design. I am sure that those involved are extremely stimulated by the challenge that the Type 26 offers.
Equally, the launch of the new QE class will be a milestone in naval history. That programme has been through the wringer in terms of procurement, under the last Government and certainly under this one. We do need to know, as the hon. Member for Bournemouth East pointed out, whether there is an intention to mothball the second boat and perhaps keep HMS Ocean going for longer. What is Ocean’s future? Plymouthians will certainly have a view about that and would welcome an answer.
On procurement, we do need to do much better. I put my hands up, in terms of some of the problems that we had under the last Government, on this. We need to be clearer through the SDSR about our future needs—the type of wars we need and want to fight, as well as how those demands play into our industrial strategy and industrial base. That said, we also have to have a vehicle that can deliver our new ships on time and on budget. Two weeks ago, we saw the collapse of one of the two remaining consortiums bidding for the GoCo model for future procurement, which was bad news for the Government. It is difficult to see how the Government can continue to pursue that option when their own report stated that the competition would still be possible with two bidders, but that a further withdrawal should initiate a formal reconsideration of whether a GoCo was viable.
The Minister needs to make his mind up, and fast, ideally before the Defence Reform Bill is considered in the other place. What is it to be? Will it be new ships and weapons systems procured through a GoCo, or will it be a DE&S-plus model that oversees the delivery of the Type 26 and the successor programme?
I am grateful to have been given fractionally less than 10 minutes to wind up the debate. As a result, I will unfortunately not be able to address all the points that hon. Members have raised, because to do so would consume my entire time. I will endeavour to write to hon. Members whose questions I do not address in my response.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) on securing the debate. As has been mentioned, he has become an expert not only in land matters but increasingly in maritime affairs. Other hon. Members have already referred to his paper for RUSI, which is a masterclass on how to pursue Ministers for answers to parliamentary questions and turn them into an authoritative document. I am pleased to have been able to contribute in some way to that process.
A number of colleagues have referred to the second aircraft carrier, and I would like to start by pointing out that our surface fleet is in the process of regeneration and renewal. As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) indicated, this is an exciting time for the Royal Navy, as we transition from a legacy fleet into a new high-tech, latest-capability fleet. Aircraft carriers will be the next vessels to form part of that fleet. It is not appropriate to indicate at this point what will happen to the second carrier, so I am unable to give an answer to that question. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has indicated in the House, however, a decision is expected to be made as part of the strategic defence and security review in 2015.
It is important to emphasise that we see the carrier strike capability as offering a step change in power projection, giving the UK the ability to project decisive political intent and military will at reach. The carrier has been designed as a multi-role platform in addition to carrier strike. In its littoral manoeuvre role, it will be able to land Royal Marines or special forces, evacuate non-combatants and deliver humanitarian aid, disaster relief or international defence diplomacy and engagement. The programme is on track to deliver an operational capability for carrier strike in 2020.
On the next platform upgrade—the Type 26 global combat ship—I have to be a little cautious in what I say, because the main gate investment decision will not be taken until the end of next year. I have been pressed by colleagues to advance investment decisions before the design is fully mature, but the Government have been clear that that was one of the reasons why we believe the previous Government got into some difficulty in major platform procurements. I was grateful to hear the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View acknowledge for, I believe, the first time in the Chamber that the previous Administration encountered some problems with procurement. I do not intend to place us in a similar situation by pre-announcing decisions before the designs are mature. We are making good progress with the design. Some 70% of the equipment systems have been selected or are being selected by the design authority, BAE Systems, and we have increasing confidence in the maturity of the design. It is being designed with modularity in mind, and I hope to cover that point before I conclude.
I would like to tackle head-on the claim that we heard yet again today about the impact on shipyards in Scotland of a yes vote in the Scottish referendum. Last week, the Scottish Government claimed in their White Paper that they would support the procurement of defence equipment and services in an independent Scotland, as we heard again today, claiming that to do so would protect the future of Scotland’s shipyards. However, the White Paper completely failed to acknowledge that, as part of the UK, companies in Scotland already benefit greatly from the billions of pounds of work that is placed with them to equip and support the UK armed forces. Thousands of people are employed in the defence sector in Scotland. The defence industry offers some of the best high-tech engineering jobs and opportunities in Scotland, and it contributes substantially to local economies across Scotland.
Orders for complex warships such as destroyers and the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, on which some 4,000 people are currently employed in Scottish yards, were won only on the basis that the UK can choose to place or hold competition for such contracts domestically for national security reasons under an exemption from EU law. The UK has not placed an order for a complex warship outside its own borders in modern times. If Scotland were not part of the UK, it would not benefit from that national security exemption. The question of how defence jobs in Scotland would be sustained in an independent Scottish state remains wholly unanswered. The thousands of skilled defence jobs in Scotland are safer and more secure if the country remains part of the UK.
I will try to address the questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East, who made a thoughtful speech. He asked about modularity of systems and whether we can construct vessels that are capable of plug and play. A number of weapon systems and command systems that we seek to introduce in our vessels will be portable. Perhaps the most obvious recent example is the Sea Ceptor air defence missile, which we have recently contracted to introduce to the Type 23, with a view to transitioning it to the Type 26. As he mentioned, the system has many features in common with a version that is capable of being launched on land. That is the approach that we are taking to a number of defence assets. We are rationalising our helicopter fleets to allow greater interoperability between services. The Wildcat, which will be capable of being carried on our frigates and destroyers, will also be used by the Army Air Corps. Modularity and interoperability are features of the systems that we seek to introduce.
The flexibility of the Type 26 is provided by the mission bay, which is a much larger hangar space than that of the Type 23. It can carry a payload of 10 20-foot containers, a medical centre or a command and control centre. It can contain four landing craft for rapid response by Royal Marines. The vessel has been designed to have a smaller crew than that of the Type 23, but it can accommodate some 100 Royal Marines or other personnel for protracted engagements, or a much larger number of individuals for a short time, when the vessel performs an evacuation role. It will be the most flexible vessel of its kind and the most modern frigate design available in the world, so we believe that it will have some export potential—a point made by several hon. Members.
In the less than half a minute remaining to me, I will unfortunately not be able to address many of the questions that have been asked, but I would like to deal with numbers and commissioning. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) gave me due notice of his questions. We intend to place an order towards the end of next year, once the design is mature, which we expect to be for eight vessels initially—