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Combat Air Strategy

Volume 645: debated on Tuesday 17 July 2018

On 21 February, I informed the House that the Ministry of Defence would produce a strategy for the combat air sector. Development of the strategy has drawn heavily on expertise from across defence, wider government, academia, think-tanks, industry, and international partners. Defence of the United Kingdom, protection of our people and our contribution to securing the rules-based international order requires us to deter adversaries by having the capability and the will to use decisive force to deliver our defence, foreign policy and economic objectives.

The threats we face are evolving and increasing ever more rapidly. World-class combat air capability allows us to maintain control of the air both at home and around the world. The United Kingdom’s combat air sector provides the capability to underpin our ability to keep Britain safe and act around the globe. It also makes a significant contribution to the United Kingdom’s economy and to our international influence. The UK is a global leader in combat air, with cutting-edge military capability underpinned by world-class industrial and technical know-how. That is why we are creating Tempest.

The UK combat air sector has an annual turnover of over £6 billion and directly supports over 18,000 highly skilled jobs across the UK. It supports over 100,000 jobs in the supply chain and more than 2,000 companies across the UK. The UK is the world’s second-largest exporter of defence equipment, with defence aerospace representing over 80% of the value of these exports. This is a position that I and, I am sure, the whole House wish to protect going forward.

We are at the heart of a number of key international programmes, including F-35—the largest defence programme in the world. Our position was secured through world-leading intellectual property, understanding, innovation and industrial capability. As we leave the European Union, we will continue to seek partnerships across Europe and beyond to deliver UK, European and global security. To do this, we must retain access to our proud industrial base. The UK’s combat air sector is therefore critical to the UK’s prosperity and to our ability to deliver the best capability to the frontline to deter and act against the threats that we face.

The future of the UK’s combat air sector, however, is not assured. There has been a gap between major combat air development programmes, and a clear indication of future UK military requirements is required to stimulate and deliver the research and development investment that is needed. The strategy defines a clear way ahead to preserve our national advantage and maintain choice in how it is delivered.

We will work with wider government, industry and international partners to deliver the strategy by taking the following steps. We will invest in upgrading Typhoon to maintain its world-class capabilities for the coming decades. The MOD will provide investment in key UK design and engineering skills as a means to generate UK intellectual property by the implementation of the future combat air system technology initiative. The initiative was established by the 2015 strategic defence and security review and builds on recent UK technology investment. We will work together to achieve a more open and sustainable industrial base that invests in its own future, partners internationally and breaks the cycle of increasing cost and length of time to introduce new fighter aircraft.

The UK will work quickly and openly with allies to build on or establish new partnerships to define future requirements and how they can be delivered in a mutually beneficial manner. By preserving our ability to maintain operational advantage and freedom of action, the strategy will ensure we have greater choice in how we deliver future capabilities and are able to maximise the economic and strategic benefits of future combat air acquisition programmes.

In the 100th year of the Royal Air Force, this strategy demonstrates that we can achieve anything. Britain is a world leader not only with our armed forces but in the fighting machines we can produce. The strategy demonstrates that Britain will retain its world leadership in this sector, by having the greatest fighter aircraft of any nation in the world. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of it. May I pay tribute to the former Defence Procurement Minister, the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), who was forced to resign last night for supporting the Prime Minister’s position on Brexit?

Our aerospace and defence sectors are truly world leading and are vital to our security and national prosperity. We welcome the publication of the combat air strategy, but might it not have been better to publish an overarching defence industrial strategy to give the wider industry the certainty it requires? If the Secretary of State’s Department will not do that, will it publish a land strategy sometime in the near future?

A key aspect of the combat air strategy is the creation of a project to consider how to deliver next-generation capability. I am not quite sure how the Government adopted the name “Team Tempest”, but it seems apt this week. The Secretary of State has been clear that the future approach hinges on international collaboration, so what discussion has he had with allies about this project? Has he considered the impact that partnering with non-NATO nations could have on our interoperability?

This strategy has been published at a time of great uncertainty in the aerospace industry about the impact of Brexit. Does the Secretary of State agree with the assessment of the industry, the trade body ADS and Members from across the House that the UK must be in a customs union to guarantee the industry’s future success?

The Secretary of State said that he wants to see the Tempest fly alongside the Typhoons and the F-35s. Will he confirm how many F-35s the Government plan to buy, in what timeframe and which variant they will be?

Rumours abound that the UK’s future airborne warning and control system capability will be gifted to a company without competition, just as the mechanised infantry vehicle was. Does the Secretary of State agree that that would be a hypocritical approach, when his defence industrial policy refresh emphasised the importance of competition? Can he confirm that there will be an open competition for the UK’s future AWACS capability?

Members from across the House, our industrial partners and our allies are all eagerly awaiting the publication of the modernising defence programme. We were told that we would get the headlines before last week’s NATO summit, and then we were told that it would be out before the summer recess. In the light of the Government’s proposed new parliamentary timetable, will it be tomorrow or Thursday?

I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), who served with great distinction as Defence Procurement Minister and was instrumental in securing the order of the future frigates programme from Australia, which benefits many people and adds to the prosperity of this nation.

The hon. Lady proposes a defence industrial strategy. We have looked at a national shipbuilding strategy and at combat air, and we will look at the concept of developing a land strategy. We want to ensure that whatever we do in defence adds to the prosperity of our nation. That is why we welcome the report by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), which highlights the importance of defence in creating jobs and economic growth.

We should look not just to Europe in forming partnerships with other nations. For far too long, we have been bound by the thought that we can look only to other European Union nations. Now is the time to look to the whole globe, see what other nations we can partner with and build strong new alliances. We have strong military links and deep connections with many nations. We are confident that, because of our world-leading position in combat air, many nations will want to work with us. I do not believe that we should be in the customs union, and that is the Government’s policy. I do not believe for one minute that being outside the customs union will in any way restrict our ability to deliver Tempest.

Finally, on the modernising defence programme, as I said just the other week, we intend to update the House before the recess.

The combat air strategy signals the Secretary of State’s commitment to the importance of conventional armed forces in the future. How is his combat ground strategy going in persuading the Treasury to pay for it?

There is always great value in heavy armour. In the combat air strategy, we highlight an exciting future. We highlight the fact that we are willing to embrace new technologies and fuse them with traditional jet fighters. We are ensuring we are able to bring new technologies such as drones and artificial intelligence on to platforms to make sure that the Royal Air Force has the cutting-edge capabilities it needs to keep Britain safe.

I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and pay tribute to the resigning hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb). The Scottish National party broadly welcomes the new strategy, but one overarching question is, where on earth is the money coming from? Surely the £20 billion funding gap in the procurement budget will drag many of the aspirations in the strategy to the ground.

May I ask the Secretary of State about spreading the economic benefit around the UK? What will the benefit be to Scotland? Admittedly, it has a small industrial sector in this area—shipbuilding is much bigger—but I certainly hope this is better than the national shipbuilding strategy.

Will the Secretary of State ensure that the currency projections are much better? As the National Audit Office pointed out, his Department has been getting them wrong by as much as 25% in some cases.

How will this strategy complement the modernising defence programme? Where on earth is that programme? The House may rise on Thursday, and I would not dream of robbing the Secretary of State of his moment in the sun at the Dispatch Box. Will he ensure it is not sneaked out in a written statement, so he does not avoid scrutiny?

I hope to avoid the many problems relating to currency projections by ensuring this new fighter is built in Britain. It is a great advantage to have the pound sterling. How do we bring the benefits to Scotland and every other part of the United Kingdom? Some 2,000 companies across the United Kingdom benefit from combat air. We are happy to have discussions with the devolved institutions about how to encourage them and work with them to build their industrial base for combat air.

This is a great opportunity for the whole of the UK. We are a world leader in this sector: other countries turn to us for leadership. That is what we are providing; that is what we will deliver, and we will provide the jobs and prosperity that come with it.

I very much welcome this statement, in which the Secretary of State mentioned the Typhoon. From memory, we are contracted to buy about 160 across three tranches. When the older tranche 1 aircraft retire, rather than sell them off, will he consider keeping them as a war reserve to provide mass for our Royal Air Force if we are ever involved in a peer-on-peer conflict?

My right hon. Friend actually makes a very valid point about our ability to maintain the mass of aircraft. I want to pay tribute to Sir Stephen Hillier, the Chief of the Air Staff, who has driven forward so much of the Tempest project, as well as driving forward the utility of the Typhoon aircraft. We will certainly be looking at that to make sure we maintain the utility and mass of the Typhoon force.

On 17 November 2017, we had a debate in the House about the need for a defence aerospace industrial strategy. This combat air strategy is one step forward, but it does not talk about sovereign skills in terms of the need for a training platform. May we have a serious conversation about what is going to happen at Brough?

We listened very carefully to the hon. Lady in calling for a combat air strategy, and we have answered by providing one. We are aiming to look at all the different aspects of how we actually provide all the different areas of combat air. On fighter jets, Tempest is obviously one of the most important and significant investments that we will be making, but we will look at all the different aspects, along with our industrial partners, BAE Systems.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the statement, and I thank him for choosing to make the announcement yesterday at the opening day of the Farnborough international air show. From what he has seen at Farnborough, does the Secretary of State agree with me that Farnborough is the beating heart of the British aerospace defence and aviation industry, and that it will surely play a leading role in turning the vision of a combat air strategy into a reality?

My hon. Friend very much represents the beating heart of the aviation industry. In the 110 years since the first manned flights took off from Farnborough and the 70 years since the creation of the Farnborough air show, Farnborough has really been at its heart. What has been so useful over the past few days has been engaging with international partners, and the fact is that they are so keen to work with the Royal Air Force and our industrial base to start making this project a reality.

I welcome the combat air strategy, but does the Secretary of State agree with my constituent Andrew Moxham, who wrote to me yesterday to ask how on earth the UK alone can afford this project? This can only be delivered as part of a collaboration—preferably a European collaboration, as with the Typhoon—and it will also require export orders. Britain alone cannot afford this project.

I remember that in one of the first questions I was asked as Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Gentleman demanded a combat air strategy and called for this type of investment and leadership, but when we actually deliver it, he starts saying that we need to be looking to others. We can lead: we have always led in this field, and we have the world’s greatest technology. To show such leaderships means that other nations will come and be part of the project, and that is part of the dialogue we are having.

May I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend for driving the combat air strategy through the Department, alongside Air Command? It is a very exciting moment to be at the outset of a new combat air programme, but will he elaborate on what he thinks it will do for the defence industrial landscape of this country for generations to come?

Had we not taken the decision to do this, as we have done, we would have been putting in jeopardy many tens of thousands of jobs not just in the north-west, but right across the country. That is why we have to make this investment and why we have to show world leadership. We must continue to invest in the technology, the science and the skills in order to keep that world leadership role and to continue to benefit from the exports and the wealth that this industry creates.

I welcome the statement and the combat air strategy, but I say to the Secretary of State that it is deeply worrying how often we have gone to America to buy our fighters. Will we be looking to British industry to provide the AWACS aircraft, because these advance warning aircraft should be British-made and British-built?

We always look at how we can do the very best for delivering for British industry, and at how to make sure that we have the capabilities that the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and the British Army need to do their job.

Havant-based Lockheed Martin has worked successfully with my right hon. Friend’s Department to deliver the new F-35 jet. Will he ensure that the new combat air strategy benefits the south coast, and will he come and join me in meeting those involved in the F-35 programme?

Over the past few days, I have had the privilege of having discussions with the chief executive of Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin is an important industrial partner for us, providing a great number of jobs and a great deal of investment in the United Kingdom. I would certainly be happy to join my hon. Friend on such a visit.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to Britain’s future air defence, but will he say a little about affordability? It is important that we have cutting-edge units, but it is equally important that we have sufficient room in the budget to buy enough of them.

Absolutely. We need to be able to build mass into our air force, as well as exquisite technology. One of the key changes we want is rapidly to reduce the amount of time it takes to develop the new airframe. With the F-35, we saw that go on for far too long, and we need to reduce that period. I would like to see Tempest flying in the first half of the next decade, and we should bring forward the technology and give this project the inspiration and the drive to make it a reality as quickly as possible.

France and Germany are already co-operating on a sixth-generation fighter, so although this strategy is welcome, we are playing catch-up. Will the Secretary of State set out whether this will be an allied, NATO, European or transatlantic project, and how will workshare benefit aerospace businesses, including those in Plymouth?

This is going to be a global project. One thing I would say is that Britain is a nation that actually has fifth-generation fighters and has the industrial expertise to develop new generation fighters. France or Germany do not have that expertise; we do, and we have that leadership role. We do not want to limit our sights just to European partners, but to open this up to the globe, working with partners with whom we have not worked in the past and bringing the benefits to our allies that are global allies.

Order. The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) was looking uncontrollably excited, to the extent that I was mildly worried about his circumstances, but we must hear from the fellow.

It is very good of you to think of my welfare, Mr Speaker.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement. Many of my constituents work in the defence aerospace sector. Will he say how this fits in with the Government’s industrial strategy, and what does it mean for skills and for securing the jobs that currently exist and for creating new jobs in our great defence sector?

This is about securing those jobs and those skills not just for the next decade, but for the decade from 2040 onwards. My hon. Friend makes an important point, because this is part of our wider industrial strategy. Defence leads: for every £1 that is invested in defence, £4 is generated. We spend 2% of our GDP on defence, yet it accounts for 8% of our economy. It is vital for the prosperity of Britain to continue to invest in defence.

The UK’s defence aerospace industry is vital for the future of our economy, providing higher-quality, high-skilled jobs up and down the country. What does it say about this Government’s ability to protect those jobs and that industry when one of the Secretary of State’s own Ministers resigns over the Government’s shambolic handling of Brexit negotiations? What are the implications of that shambolic handling not just for his Department and the industries it is supposed to champion, but for every other sector of our economy?

Britain has been a world leader in this sector, and we continue to be a world leader in this sector. We continue to deliver the jobs and prosperity that are absolutely vital and on which so many of our constituents depend. That is what Tempest is about, and that is what we are delivering. We are going to make sure that the Royal Air Force has the finest, the greatest and the most technologically advanced fighter jet to ensure Britain continues to remain safe.

I understand that directed energy weapons use concentrated bursts of microwave or particle beam energy to inflict damage. Does the Secretary of State agree that the intention to equip the Tempest with that sort of weaponry signals our intent to be at the forefront of aircraft technology for some considerable time?

What is absolutely critical is that we embrace these new technologies and we lead the world in using these technologies on the new platforms that we introduce for the RAF and the other services. By leading in terms of the defence of the UK, we end up leading the world, and that creates new opportunities for British industry to export. This is a massive vote of confidence in Britain, by industry—by Leonardo, BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and MBDA. They are saying that they want to invest in Britain, British skills and British technology because they believe in this country.

I have worked in the defence industry. In fact, I worked at Rolls-Royce and a lot of people there probably welcome this statement. So that we can all welcome the statement, will the Secretary of State tell us who will fund it, how it will be funded and who are these new partners he is thinking about outside of Europe? If he is thinking about the United States, I am sure that many people in the defence industry will tell him that we always come off second best when we are up against them.

We are looking at a range of different international partners. We see this as an opportunity to offer something that is different and alternative to the offerings that the United States has traditionally brought forward. We see this as an opportunity to collaborate with new nations that have not usually been involved in such collaborations before. The initial indications are exceptionally positive.

This is a very heartening announcement, especially given the recent centenary of our fantastic Royal Air Force. My right hon. Friend mentioned the potential for lucrative defence sales downstream from this announcement. When we leave the EU, what partners does he envisage us having as, in trading terms, we spread our wings?

My hon. Friend makes an important point: we do need to spread our wings. Before the recent order placed by Australia for future frigates— the new Hunter class Type 26 frigates—Opposition Members said that we would not be able to sell ships to any other nation, and we have proved them wrong. Naysayers on the Opposition Front Bench constantly want to talk down Britain: we want to talk up Britain. Industry, and not just British industry, wants to invest in our technology and our capabilities.

It would be churlish and mean-spirited not to acknowledge that there is much that is very good in the Secretary of State’s statement. However, does he agree that a no-deal Brexit would hamper his well-intentioned idea of working with European partners?

We are seeing a massive vote of confidence in British technology, in the Royal Air Force and in our leadership in the world. Four major companies—not just British companies—will invest in this technology and I have no doubt that it will, in the expression used by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), spread its wings and be a great success.