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House of Commons Hansard
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Defence: Rotary Strategy
29 January 2020
Volume 670

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered UK defence rotary strategy.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh, and to return to a favourite topic of mine. Many hon. Members present have joined me on this topic before, which is future flying capability for the UK armed forces. At the outset, in the usual way, I refer the House to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

In November 2018, in a debate on the RAF’s centenary, I pressed the Secretary of State for Defence to start thinking about helicopters. I warmly welcome the new Minister to his place, because I know that his experience and enthusiasm for the topic will be a great asset to the Department. If I may, I suggest that this might be one of the first things in his in-tray.

I will give some brief background, although I am conscious that a number of other Members wish to speak. The UK helicopter fleet is unusually diverse. The days when our three flying services, the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and the Army Air Corps, could boast a glittering kaleidoscope of different aircraft types—large, small, generalised, specialised—are long gone and, realistically, will not return. However, although capability in other spheres—fast jet most obviously—has seen a contraction of platform types and a concentration on one or two multi-mission types, the rotary fleet and indeed the transport fleet more generally have tended to buck that trend. There are good capability reasons for that, which we will probably touch on, mainly concerning capability and lift.

I will briefly lay out the position as it is today, because it and the background bear thinking about. There are 322 rotary-wing aircraft in the UK armed forces, across the three services. The Army Air Corps operates the Apache attack helicopter, a battlefield close air support aircraft, which will probably fall largely into a different category from those that we will debate today. It is a highly specialised strike platform that does not have the capability for any significant lift, and certainly not for carrying troops.

The Army operates one variant of the Wildcat, primarily for reconnaissance and command, with a limited air transport capability. The Royal Navy operates a naval variant of the Wildcat, as well as two variants of the Merlin: the Commando Merlin—the ex-Royal Air Force Merlin—and the naval variant, as well as some ex-Danish examples used for training only.

The Royal Air Force operates the Chinook—the heavy-lift delivery truck of the skies—and the Puma. There are a number of other types used for training or transport to a lesser or greater degree: the Gazelle, the Bell 212, the Leonardo AW109 and the Juno and Jupiter training aircraft used by the defence helicopter flying school at RAF Shawbury. That makes a relatively large number of platform types, which will present an increasing headache as they all move towards their retirement date, subject to upgrades, and need to be replaced.

I applaud the recent approach by the Ministry of Defence to many aspects of procurement policy. I have spoken about that in the House, particularly back in 2017 when calling for the combat air strategy, in conjunction with colleagues on both sides of the House. I have spoken of the dreadful historical spectacle of outstanding British defence products that have either been cancelled or have not reached their full potential, because of an historical lack of political will or long-term procurement thinking.

In 2017, we welcomed the national shipbuilding strategy, which set out an aspiration for an holistic plan to build the Royal Navy’s Type 31e frigates and support ships, and the industry backing to make them happen. Later that year, we led a call for a combat air strategy to begin considering the aircraft that will, in due course, replace the Typhoon. Because of the development period, for all those systems it is necessary to start developing replacements sometimes decades in advance. I asked the then Secretary of State in November 2018 to start thinking about helicopters, and I return to that theme today, because a similar approach would bear fruit when we start to consider the UK’s future rotary capability and where it will come from.

Let me take a quick canter across the types. The Chinook, as I mentioned, is essentially a giant delivery truck, with a lift capability of 10 to 11 tonnes. That is expected to continue in service until approximately the 2040s under the Chinook heavy lift sustainment programme. Similarly, the Apache, as upgraded and replaced with the final delivery of the second type bought but expected only in 2024, is intended to go out of service in 2040. Those two types are probably the least urgent platform types to be considered.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He always makes knowledgeable and interesting remarks.

He alluded to the Chinook being the delivery truck of our armed forces. I draw his attention to the role it played in operational theatres, picking up casualties and operating a pretty much mobile operating theatre to make sure we got casualties back to Camp Bastion as quickly as possible, to give them the best possible chance of surviving what were quite often terrible injuries. Will he join me in congratulating Boeing and the RAF on operating that aircraft or 40 years? As he says, that will have a continuing service until probably the 2060s.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right; the Chinook is an extraordinarily capable aircraft. I referred to it as a delivery truck of the skies simply in reference to its extraordinary lift capability, but he is quite right that that lift capability means that it is able to take a great deal of medical facilities. Many people owe their lives to that aircraft; I pay tribute to everybody who has flown it and kept it flying over the course of many years. He is quite right to draw attention to the aircraft’s capability.

The Apache and the Chinook may need upgrades to avionics, cockpits and perhaps engines as time progresses, probably because of their expected longevity, as my hon. Friend said. It would be good to consider, as part of the strategy that I am calling for, whether any of those roles could be absorbed by other fleets as we look at upgrading or replacing capability. I suggest that the case is more pressing with medium-lift types. The difficulty with Chinook is its sheer size. While it is able to operate happily from aircraft carrier decks, it is far more challenged in urban environments, as is the Merlin—although in theory a medium-lift and smaller airframe, it actually covers much the same footprint size.

The Puma is critically important. That fleet of approximately 23 is based at RAF Benson in Henley, which borders my own constituency. I understand that it is due to go out of service in about 2025, although some service updates may keep it in service longer. In any event, we are looking at an out-of-service date for that aircraft of 2025-30—about five to 10 years away. That will have an impact on all the other types of helicopters in service.

In theory, the Merlin, which is operated by the Royal Navy, supplements that capability as another medium-lift type, but is primarily designed to operate at sea level as a naval helicopter. That means it is not ideal for some of the environments we have asked it to operate in, such as the hot and high environment of Afghanistan. Its lift capability is closer to four tonnes, meaning that while very capable, it approaches the size and weight of the Chinook but without anything like as much lift capability. Crucially, as the Minister will probably refer to in due course, some of those air frames are earmarked—approximately 10, I think—for use in the Crowsnest role, which will limit their capability for other purposes.

The impending retirement of Puma in five to 10 years’ time leaves a potential shortfall among that medium-lift capability. That is particularly the case because any incoming platform does not come up to full operating capability immediately, but has to be operated alongside the type it is replacing for a period of time. The obvious example of that in the fast-jet world is the way that Tornado and Typhoon operated alongside each other until Typhoon was able to take over all or most of the capabilities of Tornado, under the Centurion programme. The teething problems that have to be worked out—as we saw with the Hercules and the A400M—may mean a period of running in parallel, which would bring the decision point closer, bringing forward the date on which replacement would need to be considered.

The type of aircraft system or systems that we might need is very much dependent on what we envisage the need to be. Let me make a general foreign policy point, which I think many hon. Members will agree with: foreign policy goals ought to be decided first, with the military capability developed to match those goals, and then appropriate funding. It has often been the case in the past that defence capability is trimmed piecemeal in order to fit the available budget, leaving our forces ever more stretched as they try to fulfil a full-spectrum capability, from peacekeeping to expeditionary warfare, but with fewer platforms to do the work. The Minister will tell me that there is a review ongoing, and critical it is, too.

Equally serious, although perhaps a matter for another debate, is the fact that budgetary pressure on procurement of kit means that the men and women operating it do so under deteriorating service conditions, as more of the defence budget is required to deal with platform renewal. That leads to an increasing concern, as we have all spoken about many times, with retention of those men and women who fight and run our armed services.

Let me take the two aircraft carriers as an example of a microcosm of how this works. I refer to the relatively recent debate on a carrier strategy. The nation has to decide how and in what circumstances it is to use this new capability. The obvious deployment is for power projection: carrier strike, using the F35s that we are buying. If that is the case, those carriers are likely to be kept as far offshore as possible, to keep them safe from land-based threats. If so, would there be a need for organic carrier-based air-to-air refuelling capability, to maximise range or to sustain combat air patrols? What about the resupply of weapons or engine changes? Our American allies have a different approach; they have the speed and lift of something like the V-22 Osprey to resupply their smaller carriers, but I fully anticipate that the complexity and cost of a machine such as that may not be realistic for us to consider. On board our carriers, the absence of cats and traps means that a fixed-wing-capability delivery truck such as the Grumman Greyhound equally is not possible for us to have. There is the lift capability of the Chinook, as I said, but that severely limits range. That would also be available for any littoral role, which of course presents another set of challenges, particularly with regard to land-based threats. In any event, it is clear that those carriers and carrier battle groups will require a huge amount of protection. I referred to the Merlin force and Crowsnest, although of course other platforms will be required for anti-submarine capacity, which is now highly defensive rather than primarily offensive, as submarine capability was in the past.

One new factor that will have to go into the strategy is how much of the current rotary output could be conducted by unmanned aircraft. That is why I call for a strategy rather than just talking about helicopters per se. The advent of unmanned aircraft and artificial intelligence brings a whole new dimension to this picture.

Looking first at the naval picture, the role of naval surveillance aircraft is to loiter and search—to spend time looking for submarines or hostile small craft. Some of that could be done by unmanned aerial vehicles based on warships, either alongside or to a certain extent replacing—supplementing—piloted helicopters. That would have benefits in terms of cost and survivability, and it would free up manned assets for use where they are truly needed, such as for troop transport. In short, UAVs could be used for dull, dirty, dangerous tasks such as stand-off surveillance, search and reconnaissance, and long-term anti-submarine operations, but they would be a real game changer in terms of their size on a warship, payload, and persistence.

Having considered the maritime domain, it is easy to see that many of the same benefits could apply across the land domain as we look at some of the smaller helicopters used by the Army Air Corps. This technology is only emerging, and it is vital that we put a strategy in place to ensure that we are leading in the digital world—the artificial intelligence world—particularly so we do not end up having to rely on technology developed by others, who may not have our best interests at heart.

Let me say a few words before I conclude about sovereign capability and other nations. There has been a trend across defence recently towards foreign military sales and purchases, for various reasons. I do not want to critique the rights and wrongs of any of those decisions, but whereas an off-the-shelf purchase can provide a proven, established, matured capability and speed of procurement, it means we lose British sovereign capability and experience all the impacts of that in terms of defence security, investment, tax revenues and, of course, jobs.

As with combat air, I suggest that anything we do in the future is likely to be in concert with other nations, with Britain likely to add value in the high-tech sphere rather than in airframes. As with combat air, it will take time to explore the options, but we need to consider what we would want to contribute to any such future programme and what the industrial base would be. In so doing, we will ensure that we do not either miss out on making the most of everything British industry could add to that or, by failing to think about the issue in advance, failing to plan and failing to have a strategy—frustratingly, this has so often been the case in the past—have to buy off the shelf because there is an urgent procurement requirement for an operational reason.

We ought to consider who our partners might be, whether we could expand bilateral relationships and what that might mean for foreign policy. For example, France’s largest helicopter is the Super Puma, our medium-lift aircraft, so our Royal Air Force has been assisting the French in Mali and they are considering a heavy-lift acquisition of their own. One option might be to consider some sort of NATO helicopter force along the lines of the Heavy Airlift Wing, which provides three C-17s to 12 participating nations including the United States, either to provide a heavy-lift joint helicopter capability or to address the requirement for medium-lift capability that France is likely to have at about the same time as the United Kingdom.

There are other bilateral arrangements that could build on the Lancaster House principles, and all sorts of issues would need to be worked out. We would need to consider what would happen in a war-fighting rather than a peacekeeping situation, and what would happen if only one country were operating and wished to use part of the fleet. At this stage, I do nothing more than to ask for those things to be considered, because it takes time to work them through. I am conscious that I am asking not so much for a rotary strategy as for a defence/foreign policy/industrial rotary strategy. What I ask for is multi-pronged and multi-departmental—perhaps we could call it a global rotary strategy to fit with global Britain—and it will take time.

I thank hon. Members for listening. I am conscious that I raised more questions than solutions, but my aim really was just to provoke debate. I have no preference for any particular outcome, but I would like gently to press the Department to consider what the rotary fleet is likely to look like in around 10 years’ time, what it is the country wants or needs—I accept that is a foreign policy consideration as much as anything—when it will need it by, what it will cost, and the technological and industrial requirements of that. Then we will have a rotary fleet fit for the future.

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Order. Can I just advise Members that if they make a reference to their interests, they need to be slightly more specific than just referring to the register? I apologise for the fact that I came in at the end to say that. I call Marcus Fysh.

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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) for securing the debate. He gave a thoughtful outline of some of the high-level strategic issues we need to consider. I welcome the Minister to his place. It is a great honour to have a Somerset colleague performing such an important role for the country at this time.

I absolutely agree that we need a helicopter strategy, or a rotary-wing strategy. I have been championing the issue with the Department for some time. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney made some of the arguments for that very eloquently. In my constituency, we have probably the biggest centre of helicopter manufacturing operations in the UK. It is the only end-to-end design and manufacturing aerospace capability left in the UK. It is really important for the community and, I think, the country that we preserve those design skills, for some of the reasons that my hon. Friend mentioned.

It is massively important that we have the capability to make the most of the advances that are coming with autonomous vehicles in the aerial space. Unless we preserve some of those skills and invest in them for the future, it is difficult to see how we will play a full part in the development of new technologies. As my hon. Friend also said, if we want to be global Britain, have more of an industrial footprint in the world and have more influence with our NATO allies and others, it is massively important that we have a contribution to make in the technology sphere. I welcome the Government’s focus on more spending on R&D, skills and infrastructure, and their focus on investing in regional areas such as Somerset in order to level up and take advantage of some of the installed base we have.

I thank the Ministry of Defence for its support for the helicopter industry in the UK. It does a lot of work on export promotion and on helping to demonstrate the current capabilities that we build in Yeovil. My hon. Friend mentioned some of the platforms produced there, including the Merlin, which is a heavy-lift helicopter, and the Wildcat, which is a much smaller helicopter but is very well regarded around the world. I know how much the company appreciates the MOD’s help in demonstrating what a great aircraft that is to some of its export opportunities around the world. The company currently estimates that there is potential for £11 billion of export sales. This is a real opportunity to utilise what we do well in Yeovil to advance the nation’s export interests.

It is fair to say that the Wildcat is integrated in the Navy’s defence systems. The Navy has been more inventive and creative in thinking about how that platform can be integrated in its systems, and there are opportunities for the Army to use the Wildcat creatively. If it can get a missile, it would be brilliant to have it working in tandem with the Apaches to increase frontline capability. It is worth looking at that properly.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the potential for thinking about what replaces the Puma. Leonardo has a civil helicopter platform in Italy, the AW189, which it would like to militarise, and it has suggested that it might use Yeovil for its global centre for military excellence should sufficient orders come through for the AW149—the AW189’s militarised variant. It would be worth the MOD conducting a capability review to see whether that helicopter might form part of the solution.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend that we need to look at all these things in the round, and a formal helicopter strategy would be an ideal way of conducting that. The defence industrial policy was welcome, but we must focus on rotary wing. We have heard about some of the possibilities with using autonomous vehicles on our aircraft carriers. We welcome the MOD’s collaboration with Leonardo on unmanned aerial vehicles to investigate capabilities and potential solutions to needs in that area. That, however, is a long-term programme, and unless we invest now, we cannot expect the UK’s industries to be leaders. I therefore welcome that collaboration.

We should look more at how we procure, because, as my hon. Friend said, when procurement is done reactively, there is a need to look only at headline price, which does not necessarily take into account the gross value added to an economy by long-term programme development. Leonardo, for example, has nearly 3,000 employees at its Yeovil site, but there are about 10,000 people in the supply chain, and for every £1 of headline direct value added, 2.4 times that is added through consequential impacts on the rest of the economy.

This is a really important industry. The capability it provides for our forces is important, and we really need that sovereign capability. We also need to get better at innovation. It is therefore worth looking at how we certify, because some of the certification processes take so long. In other industries in the modern world we see shortening product development cycles, so we need to ensure that certification burdens and bureaucracy do not interfere with the swift development of our military capabilities. The ability to commercialise products depends on that. Often, a defence industry skunkworks—that is the technical term for a little company trying to do something unusual—will not know whether a product may be regarded as a dual-use product until five or six years into the development cycle, by which time it may have had to spend up to £10 million getting a working prototype up and running. That is a huge risk to take before knowing what its marketability will be. There are ways in which we could change the procurement process to make the system more innovative and easy to commercialise.

On foreign military sales, we should think about whether the UK should have its own sales programme. We hear a lot about what the US does in that regard, and it is quite attractive, but the US should not be the only country able to deal Government to Government. It might be worth thinking about whether the UK should offer similar deals to friendly allies, whether France or others, and how such a scheme could work.

I absolutely agree that we must make the most of our opportunities. I support the call for a formal helicopter strategy to complement the combat air strategy, as it would help enormously our long-term decision-making processes and justifications. On that basis, I absolutely welcome the debate and thank my hon. Friend for bringing it about.

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It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on raising these issues, particularly how we plan—or do not properly plan—our defence strategy. It is interesting to see today many of the same faces we saw pre-election for a defence debate.

I have a particular interest in this issue, having been rescued by a Sea King helicopter on the Cobbler, on the hills of Argyll, when I was a teenager. I was hill walking with two friends, and unfortunately one of my friends dislocated her knee; the other one ran to alert mountain rescue. We were airlifted off the Cobbler by a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter. While my poor friend spent the journey in the back of the helicopter, I was taken into the cockpit and got a wonderful ride down Loch Lomond to the hospital in Alexandria. For me, what started off as a not terribly great experience ended up as a particularly memorable one. The Sea King was retired in 2018, of course, and it is right to discuss how we will replace different types of aircraft that are important to our armed forces.

In July 2016 the MOD signed a 10-year partnering agreement with Leonardo, which envisages the MOD spending about £3 billion with the company in the next decade on the upgrade and support of its helicopter fleets. Although the arrangement commits both sides to working together to achieve improvements in cost-effectiveness and innovation, the agreement is not a legally binding contract with a definite financial value attached, but an indication of support. We have hit this issue before in defence debates, because defence procurement requires long-term assurance. The UK Government should commit to long-term funding to ensure a steady drumbeat of orders, not just for rotary-wing aircraft but for different areas of our defence landscape.

The hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) mentioned that we should bring in new technology while old technology is still in use, and the importance of working in parallel. That has not always worked in the past. With the Nimrod, we know there was a gap when capability was reduced while we were waiting for P8 to come online. That is now starting, but there has been a vulnerability for several years, particularly in the north Atlantic. That should not happen. We should see where the threats and potential issues are before they strike us.

Our defence policy must also remain in step with our European allies and closest neighbours, even after we leave the European Union. The combat air strategy states:

“The UK has a unique network of capability collaborations and will work quickly and openly with allies to build on or establish new partnerships to deliver future requirements.”

There is a strong overlap between the defence interests of the UK and those of the EU. UK Government policy must take that into account despite the fact that we will leave the EU in just a few days’ time.

The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) mentioned skills and the skills gap, which is an issue that is close to my heart. I believe that we are starting to see some progress on that. We see companies taking active positions in order to attract a more diverse workforce into different areas, but it is not enough; more has to be done. I have spoken many times about the lack of female representation across the STEM subjects—science, technology, maths and, in particular, engineering. We still do not see enough female role models or companies doing enough to go out and attract them. The importance of that is that if we are missing out on 50% of the population, we are missing out on 50% of the skills. The hon. Gentleman also talked about the importance of research and development, and spin-out products that could come as a result. As a scientist, I am never going to complain about more money being spent on R&D, so I was pleased to hear that.

The strength of our armed forces’ defences depends as much on the strength of personnel as it does on equipment. We must ensure that any steps take into account the needs and requirements of the men and women who serve in the armed forces. We have mentioned before in this place the need for some sort of representative body that can consult current and former personnel to ensure that issues pertinent to them are at the forefront of defence planning.

The hon. Member for Witney talked about strategy, which is the nub of this debate. What do we actually need? He talked about unmanned aerial vehicles and cyber aircraft. We have to be careful that we do not think that what is required in 2020 is the same as what will be required in 2025 or 2030. We must always be planning our defence capability by looking to the future. It would be naive to think that we will still need the same sort of defence in 50 or 100 years’ time as we do today, so it is important that any decision about defence planning or procurement is taken with an eye to the future.

The hon. Member for Witney talked about the possibility of a NATO helicopter force, which was an interesting idea. We do not always need to have everything here in the UK. Where can we provide specialisms? Where are our areas of pure expertise? What can we contribute to a NATO taskforce? As we look at defence procurement in the future and as budgets become increasing tight, can we look at where capability is needed and how we can contribute to that force without trying to do everything? In trying to do everything, we spread ourselves thin and inevitably some things are not done as well as others. Where is our expertise and our excellence, and what do we need in terms of rotary capability?

Finally, I again thank the hon. Member for Witney. He has a knack of securing Westminster Hall debates—I may have a word with him after this to find out the secret of his success. Hopefully he can get similar success with his rotary strategy.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McDonagh. I thank the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) for securing this important debate. I have observed his commitment to our armed forces through the armed forces parliamentary scheme—I think we have both been fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel in a Merlin, a Chinook and a Wildcat, seeing at first hand what our armed forces do.

I also thank the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh), who made an important point about the value of industry and the need for skills to meet the challenges that our nation faces, and the Scottish National party spokeswoman, the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan). I certainly value the contribution that she made about continued collaboration as Britain leaves the EU.

From troop and equipment transportation to search and observation work and submarine protection, the 332 rotary-wing aircrafts in the UK armed forces play a crucial role in defending national security. I have always been clear that the Government have no higher duty than the protection of our citizens, and the maintenance of national security. Alongside that responsibility, the Government must strive for operational advantage. Key to that is maintaining sovereign capability. A national strategy for naval shipbuilding and combat aircraft has paved the way for an ambitious vision for the future in those sectors. As the hon. Member for Witney said, it is now time to talk about helicopters as part of a wider defence industrial strategy.

If the Government fail to provide a clear strategy for the protection of our sovereign capability to design and manufacture helicopters, it could jeopardise investment, jobs and the security of our nation. We have heard the case for a comprehensive, joined-up and integrated wider approach. It will allow a conversation to take place about defining a clear way ahead to preserve our national advantage. It will ensure that our highly skilled workforce continue to deliver innovation, and are at the heart of discussion, and it will bring to the forefront arguments for building British, securing us as world leaders.

For that reason, I reiterate the calls on the Government to look urgently at a wider defence industrial strategy, with rotary-wing aircrafts playing a key role. That must be part of a strategic defence and security review, and it must encompass expenditure, policy and operations across the full spectrum of defence, security and foreign affairs. Therefore, when does the Minister expect the formal process for the SDSR to get underway? In that review, when can he confirm that rotary-wing aircrafts will receive consideration tantamount to the contribution they make to the UK armed forces?

We know that future air warfare will be increasingly complex, with significant technological advancements over the lifetime of a single rotary-wing aircraft. As threats evolve, we must evolve with them. Without a comprehensive strategic defence and security review, that will be deeply challenging. I vow to continue applying scrutiny and pressure to the Government on this issue, and will continue to work alongside all Members present to ensure that rotary-wing aircrafts are given the priority that they deserve.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh, on my maiden voyage as a Minister. I am slightly nervous of inadvertently spending loads of money and getting told off when I get back to the Department, but it gives me great pleasure to respond to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on securing it. Last Thursday, he and I had the opportunity of visiting RAF Brize Norton in his constituency. He is an eloquent and passionate supporter of the Royal Air Force and of its importance to the community that surrounds the base. It is fantastic to see today that his interest extends beyond the parochial to a wider interest in defence matters.

I should add that in my previous career I had some first-hand experience of the fantastic work of those who serve in our joint helicopter command. They have flown me in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan, on occasion with things travelling very fast to try to hit us. The courage that our helicopter pilots show while flying in combat zones and the amazing ingenuity of the engineers who keep them flying, often in challenging environments, is not to be underestimated. So, at the start of my first opportunity to speak as a Minister, I put on record my admiration for those who fly and support our helicopters on operations.

Defence already supports 115,000 jobs across the UK—one in every 220—through £18 billion of annual spending with industry. There is an opportunity for that to translate positively into the Government’s levelling-up agenda. This year, as we go through the integrated defence, security and foreign policy review, we will seek to understand the opportunity to participate in that levelling-up agenda, and to see how we can spend that defence budget to have effect in the regions of the UK where there is opportunity to invest in defence.

I am pleased to say that I have personal experience of that, having seen it with the rotary sector in Somerset. This year will see the opening of the iAero Centre in Yeovil, for which my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) campaigned vigorously. That facility will drive innovation in local aerospace and promote its ongoing competitiveness in the UK and the world. It has been made possible by Defence’s long-term investment in Leonardo helicopters and the financial commitment of Somerset County Council and the local enterprise partnership.

The centre will deliver a real opportunity for our region, but also for industry and academia to collaborate on innovation. It will be an accelerator for our region’s goals of looking at how clean tech can be employed in manufacturing and focusing on future developments in autonomy, artificial intelligence, hybrid and electric power, as well as other sustainable technology in advanced manufacturing and engineering.

Our investment in rotary will act as a catalyst for wider innovation, which is hugely exciting. Having seen how that opportunity might work in Somerset, and having recently visited other defence companies that are investing in skills and innovation in the communities in which they operate, I am clear that there is a real opportunity to exploit that further. It is a very exciting proposition and one that I am looking to make an important part of my work in this brief over the years ahead.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) made an excellent point about people in the defence industry. She is right to note that, too often, when we walk into a boardroom in a defence company, it is very male indeed, and that quite a large part of the senior workforce in those places is very male indeed.

I have noticed an interesting discrepancy between the graduate entry into defence companies, which is still very male, and the apprenticeship-level entry coming directly in at 16, which is much more balanced. That is a very interesting issue for us to explore. Why is it that male and female students look at an apprenticeship in the defence industry with equal enthusiasm, yet when we come to recruiting people out of universities into engineering roles in defence, we have less success?

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Some of these companies have told me that they will actively go out and recruit a certain number of girls and a certain number of boys. That does not seem to be happening to the same extent at graduate level—maybe the women simply are not there at graduate level—but I would agree that at apprenticeship level we are seeing some improvements.

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I thank the hon. Lady for her interest. The best way to accelerate the pursuit of equality in defence companies’ recruitment is for those of us in ministerial office or shadow roles—and, indeed, those with a wider interest in defence—to put pressure on them to do that. There is clearly a workforce challenge when it comes to high-end engineering. The fact that we are not good enough collectively at attracting half the population into defence roles is clearly an area for significant improvement within the industry.

Moving on to equipment, I should say that over the next decade we are spending more than £180 billion on equipment and support. That includes £9.6 billion specifically on rotary wing. However, our financial commitment to rotary is much greater, at nearly £24 billion over the next decade, including infrastructure, personnel and training, all of which will have a positive impact on local economies.

Our armed forces are obviously the biggest customer of the UK helicopter industry. I will summarise some of the investments the Government have made to date, which include more than £1 billion to develop and manufacture 62 Wildcat helicopters, £900 million on delivering 30 Merlin Mk 2 into service, about £300 million on upgrading the Merlin Mk 4 across a 25-aircraft fleet and £271 million on Wildcat support. My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil made a point about arming the land variants of Wildcat; the maritime version will already have a missile, and I am certain that the Chief of the General Staff will have noted his suggestion that the land variant might have one too. We have also put £269 million into CROWSNEST. Finally, this year, the first of the new Apache AH-64e models will arrive in the UK and provide a step change in capability for our land forces. Through that continued investment, our rotary capability is growing.

Those developments have been made possible by our relationship with the rotary-wing industry. Airbus continues to support the Puma fleet and provide our training helicopters, which are modified in Oxford. In Yeovil, Leonardo continues to be the only UK-based company with an end-to-end design, build and support capability. It is seen as world leading in advanced rotor systems, transmissions and blade technology.

Our long-term commitment to Leonardo through the 10-year strategic partnering arrangement has allowed it to have the confidence to invest in its skilled Somerset workforce, technology and supply base. It has 2,795 highly skilled jobs, with many more in the supply chain; 114 apprentices and 33 graduates, with a further 65 joining this year; and £340 million invested in UK R&D over the past five years and around £400 million per year with over 800 UK suppliers, including 105 small and medium-sized enterprises.

We have also bought highly capable rotary platforms from Boeing and, through our partnering initiative, have secured Boeing investment in advanced manufacturing in Sheffield. Boeing, in turn, has committed to increasing UK jobs and supply chain opportunities, including UK companies’ providing 5% by value of the entire Apache AH-64e fleet.

A key part of the Government’s rotary strategy and defence industrial policy is a collaborative approach to exports. Exports will continue to be fundamental to delivering affordable equipment to our armed forces and greater value to the UK. With the support of the UK Government, industry won export orders worth £14 billion in 2018.

Rotary is an important part of that export success. We supported the export of £12.3 billion of sales of Merlin, Wildcat and Lynx, and have enabled around £8 billion of associated support business. That has allowed Leonardo to invest in skills and generate new products in the UK. Most recently, that included the export of the AW101 Merlin helicopters to Norway and Poland and sale of the AW159 Wildcat helicopters to the Republic of Korea.

I move on to the rotary strategy, which is the crux of the debate. We all know that we now operate in a more uncertain, more complex and more dynamic environment. As we develop our future operating concept for our modernised force and consider what that means for our rotary-wing strategy, we must be mindful of certain technological improvements.

This afternoon, I had the opportunity to sit down with the former director of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration and the Ministry of Defence’s former and current chief scientific adviser, to have exactly that discussion about how, with an exponential technological curve, we make the right decisions about future capability to avoid fielding capability that is already near obsolete. This is a timely discussion about what that looks like specifically in the rotary space.

We believe that manned rotary capability will continue to be a vital requirement in all environments, but it will increasingly be teamed with small unmanned systems and may in some areas be replaced entirely by large autonomous systems by the 2040s. We are innovating with industry to test these unmanned air systems and ensure that our UK armed forces can access what they need. These unmanned systems range from small vertical take-off and landing systems to very large-scale, 2 or 3-tonne unmanned air systems, which our Royal Navy sees as critical to the future maritime environment.

The Navy’s discovery, assessment and rapid exploitation team is partnering with innovative UK companies to develop small rotary or vertical take-off and landing unmanned aircraft systems technology. This includes £250,000 investment with Malloy Aeronautics to develop a tethered rotary drone. The MOD has already invested with Leonardo helicopters on rotary-wing unmanned concepts, and we continue to discuss how we might develop a UK large rotary unmanned air system that could support rotary assets in the future.

As I have explained, the environment we operate in will continue to change. This is an ideal opportunity to review our approach to rotary-wing capability ahead of big decisions on future capability. This debate has also highlighted that it is not just about equipment. The 2009 rotary-wing strategy recognised the need to change how we operate our rotary-wing capability. Since then we have rationalised our core fleet to only five platforms, providing efficiencies in how we operate, man and support these platforms, to be an effective fighting force.

Our aim is to ensure that we can mobilise, modernise and transform the way we develop and operate rotary capability across Defence. This is not just about platforms, personnel training, infrastructure and in-service support, all of which will be vital in delivering our aims; we must ensure that the enterprise is as efficient as it can be, so that we can deliver more military capability to the frontline.

Our thinking is also informed by our international partners, some of which have been discussed in the debate today. We are leading efforts within NATO to look at next-generation rotorcraft concepts and opportunities. This will help to drive consensus on what the future requirements will be and ensure that industry is ready to meet them. We are also observing the US army’s ambitious future vertical lift programme to develop a family of new-generation helicopters. There is much we can learn from the US approach and conclusions, but we have made no decisions on our future rotary requirements, or on how we would deliver them.

Our review of the rotary-wing strategy will need to inform and be informed by the Government’s overall defence and security objectives. That is why I am pleased that the Government are committed to the deepest review of Britain’s security, defence and foreign policy since the end of the cold war. I note the shadow Minister’s hope that a timeline might be confirmed soon; I am sure that news will be forthcoming. The MOD will enthusiastically participate in that review, and it will ensure that we have in place the right strategy to meet the challenges and opportunities that we face as a country in the decades ahead.

The industrial backdrop and some of the themes mentioned—skills, exports and new technologies—are applicable across our industrial base. Our refreshed defence industrial policy, published in December 2017, sets out our commitment to encouraging a thriving and globally competitive UK defence sector. We have decided in the past to adopt alternative approaches in specific areas—shipbuilding and combat air—and we continually assess our approach to other sectors to determine whether we need to develop separate strategies or whether they can form part of a wider defence industrial strategy.

This Government recognise the importance of the defence rotary-wing capability today and in the future. We will continue to ensure that our long-term strategy is coherent and encompasses the equipment, support, training, basing infrastructure and the industry that we need to deliver it. Moreover, we see this as an opportunity for the defence pound to contribute meaningfully to the Government’s levelling-up agenda. It is encouraging to note the number of local enterprise partnerships that have included defence and aerospace in their regional industrial strategies.

The rotary sector has a great story to tell, and it is fortunate to have champions in Parliament as eloquent and knowledgeable as my hon. Friends the Members for Witney and for Yeovil. It is also good to hear the considered and largely consensual contributions from the Opposition parties. I am particularly looking forward to working cross-party in defence—although I am sure we will have our moments. This is an area of policy where everybody wants the best for the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who ultimately have to go to dangerous places on behalf of our country. I am really looking forward to working with spokespeople and shadow Ministers on the Opposition Benches to make sure that, as we go through this security, defence and foreign policy review, there is an opportunity to share our ideas together, so that we can come to some sound and enduring conclusions.

Finally, there is understandable pressure from my hon. Friend the Member for Witney, who has sought this debate principally to raise an ambition for a rotary-wing strategy. My gut feeling is that in a year when we are looking more broadly at defence, security and foreign policy needs, and seeking to understand the threats that are emerging and how we will counter them across all five domains—land, sea, air, cyber and space—we first need to understand all of that and work out from it what our strategic ambition is, which is exactly what the strategic defence and security review is there to do. We need to work out what the role is for the defence pound and the levelling-up agenda, and how that contributes to a defence industrial strategy, and then look beyond that at whether there is a requirement for bespoke sector deals, or whether the wider programme actually covers what we need. I hope that my hon. Friend will be patient and will participate, just as all other colleagues will. This is going to be a fascinating time to be involved in defence policy, and I look forward to hearing the further thoughts of colleagues as the year goes on.

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I have one or two comments. Thank you, Ms McDonagh, for your guidance on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I was referring to air show tickets, which I have declared, and hospitality received through the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces.

I thank all other colleagues for the constructive and collegiate approach they have taken to this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) has enormous constituency interest in the matter, and he is absolutely right when he speaks of R&D, skills and the potential for export sales. I had not referred to that, but he is absolutely right.

I am very grateful to the Scottish National party’s spokesperson for her story. I am not surprised that helicopters matter, given the story she told. She is absolutely bang on about the skills gap, and the importance of STEM and inspiring our young people, particularly women, given the lack of female engineers. We are all aware of that and absolutely must address it. I am very grateful to the Opposition’s Front Bencher for making, as always, constructive and collegiate comments. So much of what we are trying to do in this sphere is cross-party, and he is absolutely right about the wider defence industrial strategy, which I had not quite put into that context. I am grateful to him for doing so.

I am also grateful to the Minister for his highly constructive comments. It was an outstanding flying start, if that is not too much of an awful pun to close the debate. I am grateful to him for mentioning the Jupiter and Juno helicopters, which are serviced just outside my constituency at Oxford airport. Many of my constituents work on them and it is of enormous importance.

I applaud the Government’s investment, but it is the strategy surrounding it that I push for, and I know the Minister understands that. I entirely accept his point that a wider defence and foreign policy review is going on at present, and that the strategy may have to await that. It is simply something I put across his radar. On the wider importance of the rotary strategy within the foreign and defence review, we are in cordial agreement.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered UK defence rotary strategy.

Sitting adjourned.