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Global Combat Air Programme Treaty

Volume 742: debated on Monday 18 December 2023

Thank you for that warm welcome, Mr Speaker. With permission I would like to share details of the treaty that I signed with my Japanese and Italian counterparts last Thursday.

A year ago, the Prime Ministers of the UK, Japan and Italy agreed to work together on a joint programme to develop a new generation of military combat aircraft. Supersonic and armed with an array of revolutionary new capabilities, our global combat air programme, or GCAP for short, will deliver vital military capability, strengthening and sustaining our combat air sectors, and setting the standard for future combat air. Above all, it will bolster our collective security. The fact is that we are living in a much more dangerous and contested world. Our skies and international airspace are increasingly contested, not least from threats posed by Russia and China. All three treaty countries are already making significant investments in combat air to pursue these lofty ambitions. During recent years, the Ministry of Defence alone has invested £2 billion in UK combat air technology, with a further £600 million from industry to shape the capabilities and develop the necessary skills pipeline to deliver this state-of-the-art aircraft for the future.

Today I am pleased to announce, as an early Christmas present to the House, a major milestone in that programme. On Thursday 14 December in Tokyo, alongside my Italian Defence Minister colleague Guido Crosetto and my Japanese colleague Minister Minoru Kihara, I signed the GCAP treaty. It establishes the legal basis for the formation of a new GCAP international governmental organisation. As everyone seems fond of acronyms, the GIGO—or, as Guido Crosetto told me, the “JIGO”—is now formed. It is with great pleasure that I now confirm that the headquarters of the GIGO will be in the UK.

The GIGO will be responsible for delivering vital military innovation, strengthening our trinational industrial capacity, and getting the most punch out of our pounds, euro and yen. While located in the UK, it will, however, be a partnership of equals, which is why the first chief executive of the new GCAP agency will be from Japan, and the first chief executive officer of the joint venture will be from Italy.

It is worth spending a brief moment reiterating why GCAP is so strategically important. It will immeasurably enhance our freedom of action, ensuring that the RAF has the global reach and cutting-edge capabilities it needs to conduct operations and exercises for decades to come. It will deepen our collaboration with partners in the Euro-Atlantic at a time of increasing instability, and it will also ensure that we remain a key player in the Indo-Pacific theatre, which will only grow in geopolitical influence and importance over decades to come. Indeed, our new treaty already builds upon our existing defence relationships with Japan, complementing the recently signed reciprocal access agreement, which facilitates mutually beneficial defence co-operation, and I was able to speak about that in Japan last week.

Like AUKUS, today’s treaty is a truly multi-decade endeavour with like-minded partners who share our view of the international environment. The agreement arrives two years after we deployed our magnificent Royal Navy carrier strike group in 2021, and it is two years away from a planned carrier strike group deployment in 2025, which will include Japan. Collectively the signal we are sending both to our allies and to our adversaries is clear: the UK is deeply committed to Indo-Pacific security and Euro-Atlantic security, as well as global security. In increasingly uncertain and deadly times, we will do everything in our power to preserve an open and stable international order.

We should never forget, however, that GCAP is more than just an engine of security; it is also an engine of prosperity. With key combat air hubs in the north-west and south-west of England and in Edinburgh, GCAP will help accelerate economic growth across the country. There are already around 3,000 people working on the future combat air programme in the UK, with almost 600 organisations on contracts across the country, including many SMEs and academic institutions. The GIGO headquarters alone will support hundreds of jobs here in the UK. It will attract substantial inward investment in research and development, providing opportunities for our next generation of highly skilled engineers and technicians, not to mention the prospect of thousands more high-value jobs right across the supply chains of our three nations.

More than that, it is a programme of such size and sophistication—it is a programme that will innovate on such an extraordinary scale, using artificial intelligence, digital twinning, open architecture and robotic engineering —that I believe it will inspire a whole new generation to get into engineering, aerospace and defence. Today, we are glimpsing the future, and it comes after months of intensive work to get this together with Japan and Italy, establishing the concept of a GCAP aircraft and the joint structures to launch the development phase in 2025.

One year on from the landmark deal that three Prime Ministers put together, our GCAP partnership is soaring to new heights. Getting here has been the product of immense effort and long sleepless nights from colleagues in all three countries. I pay tribute to their tireless effort, because today we fire up the thrusters to turbo-boost our nations towards a revolutionary air capability. That capability will one day surpass an earlier pantheon of legends in the sky, from the Spitfire to the Tornado and from the Typhoon to the F-35. It is a capability that will initiate a step-change in the industrial co-operation between our three nations and will usher in a new era of combat air power. Given all it will do for our country, I have no doubt that, when it comes to formally laying the treaty for ratification before this Parliament, it will meet with the approval of colleagues on both sides of the House. The treaty has been published on today, and I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Defence Secretary for his statement this afternoon and for early sight of it.

We welcome the treaty that he signed on behalf of the UK last week with Japan and Italy, and we warmly welcome the decision to locate the GCAP government headquarters in London. The treaty is the latest in the planned steps for developing our tri-nation sixth-generation fighter and weaponry. Ukraine has shown us that some of our strongest allies are in east Asia and the Pacific, and we share with them concern about China’s growing military power and assertiveness in the region. We want to see peace, stability and deterrence strengthened in the Indo-Pacific. GCAP is, like AUKUS, a strategic UK commitment to contribute to that. I know it is welcomed in Washington and Canberra, just like AUKUS.

Most importantly, developing a sixth-generation fighter will ensure that we can continue to safeguard our UK skies and those of our NATO allies for decades to come. It will inspire innovation, strengthen UK industry and keep Britain at the cutting edge of defence technology. The Defence Secretary is right to report that to the House.

Defence industrial collaboration underpinned by treaty is unusual. It is a multi-decade undertaking for this nation. As the Secretary of State says, it should command support across the House, and Ministers should report on it openly and regularly. May I ask him what scope the treaty allows to work with other allies, both at a secondary level and as primary partners? Does article 50 ensure that the export problems with the Typhoon will not be encountered with GCAP? When will he lay the treaty before Parliament for ratification?

This month, the National Audit Office reported on the MOD’s equipment plan. It exposed a £17 billion black hole in Britain’s defence plans and showed that Ministers have lost control of the defence budget. In June, the defence Command Paper reaffirmed that the UK would spend £2 billion on this project “out to 2025”. Will the Secretary of State confirm what funding has been made available for GCAP in the defence budget for 2025 and 2026? In response to a written question, the then procurement Minister, the right hon. and learned Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), told me back in March:

“We will determine the cost-sharing arrangements ahead of the next phase”.

Has that now been done, ahead of the treaty signing?

Meanwhile, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority this year downgraded the GCAP programme to red, which rates

“successful delivery…to be unachievable. There are major issues which at this stage do not appear to be manageable or resolvable.”

What are the major issues that led to the IPA downgrade? What action is the Secretary of State now taking to lift the red rating?

The Secretary of State said this afternoon that the joint development phase will launch in 2025. His press statement on the treaty signing said this combat aircraft is

“due to take to the skies in 2035”.

Keeping the programme on time, as well as in budget, will be critical, so by what date does he expect the design to be locked down, the national work shares to be settled, the manufacturing agreements to be in place, and the first flight trials to begin?

Signing the treaty is the easy part. Britain and its allies must now do the hard work to get this new-generation fighter aircraft in the air and on time.

May I start by warmly welcoming the right hon. Gentleman’s welcoming of this treaty signing and the overall programme? As I say, Members on both sides of the House agree that the defence of the realm comes first. In an ever more dangerous world, it is important to have the facilities that a sixth-generation fighter aircraft would bring.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that the HQ is coming to London, but I want to put it on record that it is coming to the UK. We have not decided a location for it yet. I think there are 20-plus potential locations, so I would not want to assume that it will be based in London. We are not as London-centric on everything as he may be.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about examples of working internationally previously. It is worth pointing out that the Typhoon was Italian, British, German and Spanish, and it has been a very successful programme. We are used to working with partners, including Italy, which is involved in this programme.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about article 50 export issues. I think his question is born out of a specific concern about German export licences, which we believe are resolvable. Time will tell. On a wider basis, we recognise that such an aircraft can only be truly successful if the market is greater than the UK, Italy and Japan.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the broader equipment plans, and he mentioned the £16.9 billion programme. There are a number of caveats. Of course, we have seen huge inflation, but at the other end we have also seen a big expansion of the amount of money that is going into our 10-year equipment programme. That number, which was a snapshot in time, was taken before the refresh and takes into account programmes that will and will not happen, so it is not quite as black and white as he presented.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about cost sharing on the programme. That is part of what the process of discussions both on the treaty and on the new GIGO organisation will ascertain. That is because the industrial capacity and capability of each of the three countries is important, as is the intellectual property that will be brought forward. That is part of what that organisation is currently establishing. It cannot be prejudged simply because we are likely to have greater industrial capacity in certain areas relative to other countries. The amount of project ownership will therefore fall on these factors: how much money goes in, the intellectual property and the industrial capacity.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about RAG—red, amber, green—ratings. If I remember rightly—I will correct the record if I am wrong—one of the reasons for the red rating was about laying a treaty for the project. That is one of the reasons why we are laying the treaty for the project, and we will carry on systematically working through any other factors that could be slowing up the programme or causing the rating to be lower.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the timing for the treaty. I am pleased that there seems to be strong cross-party consensus on this. As he will know, passing such treaties in this House is not a particularly complex matter—the treaty will be laid before the House, and it will be a question for the business managers. In other countries—in Italy and particularly in the Diet in Japan—there is a rather more complicated process, so the time limiter is likely to be more on their side than on ours. They will be looking to lay the treaty at their end in the spring, and that is more likely to be the issue.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the timings overall. It is a compressed timetable, with a specific requirement for it to be in service for 2035, which comes from the Japanese side because of its aircraft replacement programme. Japan pressed the target, which we are fully signed up to, and there are a large number of milestones along the way, including a UK demonstrator aircraft, which will be very much sooner. I hope that that information is helpful. I am happy to write to him with any further detail and to take further questions.

In welcoming this project for a long-term future aircraft, may I ask the Secretary of State whether he agrees that the threat picture that will face it will in large measure depend on the outcome of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia? Can he say anything to the House about the efforts that he and fellow NATO members are making to ensure that Ukraine has some current aircraft with which to defend itself, so as to improve the prospects that will face us when this future aircraft comes into being?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that air facilities and combat capabilities are essential to Ukraine, as we have seen. That is not just aircraft but unmanned vehicles of all types. That is why this aircraft—it will be known to some in the House as the Tempest, which was the name when we originally set off—will have the facility to fly unmanned. We know that Ukraine has chosen the F-16. We do not fly F-16s, but to persuade the world to give Ukraine aircraft, we offered the first training. That seemed to create a situation where other countries pitched in. We do, of course, help Ukraine in many other ways on unmanned aerial vehicles, some of which perhaps we will not go into here.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight his statement. The SNP welcomes this defence co-operation between responsible allies that will be taken forward. The Secretary of State rather brushed away the question from the Labour shadow Secretary of State about the £17 billion black hole in the defence equipment budget. Since the Secretary of State mentioned expansion, will he expand on that? Will he guarantee that other areas in defence spending are not to be sacrificed and that they will get the support that is required? When will he come to the House to detail how that support will be delivered? I will come back to that in a moment.

The Secretary of State talked about the additional market for this equipment. What concerns are there about Saudi Arabia joining the programme and the potential use of future combat aircraft in Yemen? What assessment has been made of the possibility of the programme increasing tensions with China and worsening the situation in the Taiwan strait?

Finally, I want to come back to finance. Can the Secretary of State detail how the UK will adhere to its treaty commitments if the shortfall in the MOD budget increases to £29 billion, as projected?

I should point out again that it is not a shortfall in the budget but a snapshot of a forecast done before the refresh.

It is not, simply for the reason that the projects in there may or may not go ahead. The largest increase in that budget was to do with the nuclear enterprise, which we all know the hon. Gentleman does not approve of in the first place because he does not want us to have that ultimate security of constant nuclear defence at sea. We are totally committed to that, and will make sure that it always exists.

The hon. Gentleman asked a good question about Saudi or any other country’s engagement. A programme of this nature is of great interest to many other nations. We receive constant inquiries. The Saudis have been partners with us in air combat for many decades—since Margaret Thatcher’s time at this Dispatch Box. We will see how their interest develops. He mentioned Yemen in relation to Saudi Arabia. Surprisingly, he completely failed to mention that Houthis from Yemen have been attacking ships, including the British ship HMS Diamond, which fired down one of their unmanned aerial vehicles this weekend.

The reality, as ever, is that the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the global context. We will back our RAF to have sixth-generation aircraft capable of being the best in the world.

This is a really exciting announcement, and I congratulate the Defence Secretary. As we procure the sixth generation, we will become a leading nation in advancing air capability. Our world has turned a dark corner and has become more angry. It is right that we collaborate internationally—that is the way forward in upgrading our defence posture. He did not mention how many airframes he planned or hoped to build—perhaps that was deliberate. He did mention the F-35B. We originally wanted more than 130 of those, but we might be lucky to get half that. As has been said, the world will look very different in 2035, and we will need more F-35s. Can he confirm how many of those airframes will be procured? I do not apologise for saying this again and again: is it now time to increase our defence budget to 2.5%?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his points. He is right that having a sixth-generation aircraft in our fleet will ensure that we keep ahead. He will know that Typhoons are at four and a half, and the F-35B is a very capable fifth-generation aircraft. Our current plan is to have 48 by 2025, and another 27 after that. For 2035, it is not possible right now to provide an exact number of a sixth-generation aircraft that is yet to be designed and built. As my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis) pointed out, we do not know quite what the shape of air war will be at the time, particularly with drones, swarms and many other developments. We do know that air combat will continue to be vital in future, and that we will have the best form of air combat available through GCAP.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, delivered in his usual “never knowingly undersold” style. I welcome the treaty, but does he agree that if GCAP is to be successful, he must ensure that we have a vibrant manufacturing base in the UK? I do not know if he is aware or whether his officials have briefed him, but following the completion of the Qatari order at BAE Systems at Warton, there is no more manufacturing taking place at that site. What will he do to fill the gap between delivering the development phase of GCAP and the final aircraft?

It is worth pointing out that the Tempest programme, the UK side of GCAP, already employs 3,000 people in this country—I mentioned that £2 billion has been spent so far—and the right hon. Gentleman will be interested to hear that 1,000 of those are apprentices. He asks about a factory run by what is essentially a private business, or rather not Government, in BAE—

It is factually true to say that it is a private business. I was going to answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question by saying that he will perhaps be aware that there is further interest in Typhoon around the world. I cannot go into specifics, but I very much hope that it is successful in winning that. As a Government, we will certainly be fully behind that.

I have the honour of being the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Japan. The GCAP treaty is a powerful testament to the very close and like-minded relationship between our two countries. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that it would be helpful if Japan were to revise, carefully and sensibly, the three principles governing its defence technology exports, to allow GCAP to be most effective in today’s changed world?

Mr Speaker, they speak so highly of my right hon. Friend in Japan that I heard of little else while I was there last week. I am very grateful for his work in helping to ensure that the GCAP treaty came to the conclusion that it did last week. He asks about the three principles. They are not in Japanese law, but relate to its Cabinet, and they determine where and how things from the defence world can be exported. When I was in Japan last week, I made it very clear that, in no small part to help the programme to operate successfully, changes to the three principles were likely to be needed, in just the same way that, for AUKUS, Congress needs to make changes to allow exports to happen between the UK and Australia. It is a very similar situation in Tokyo and I did gently persuade my opposite number that that will need to be taken care of.

I welcome the statement and the treaty set out by the Secretary of State. One key problem with procuring new assets and equipment is that once it is specified, lots of changes come in further down the line and the costs shoot up. Given his discussions, has he set a date for when this asset will be specified? What safeguards has he put in place to ensure that it is not continually changed, therefore delaying the project further and adding extra costs?

The hon. Gentleman will be interested to hear that a huge amount of work has been done. On Thursday in Tokyo, we received yet another update from the industry consortium that has been working on the specifics of both the concept behind the joint venture and the different aspects of the aircraft’s performance. It is not yet known in detail exactly what those will be. The technology is so cutting edge that, as he knows, part of the programme is R&D. That will be an iterative programme.

The hon. Gentleman’s central point is absolutely right: the single greatest danger is mission creep that keeps adding on new facilities. One thing that we, as the UK, will be saying is, “Let’s get the aircraft flying and stable as a valuable asset, and then let it iterate or spiral over a period of time once it is in service.”

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the treaty and on forming a technological partnership with Italy and Japan to face some of the more difficult challenges in the world. The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) said that it is all very well to sign the treaty, but it is about the hard work and the skilled work. May I gently remind my right hon. Friend that Lancashire has the heritage, the skills, the apprentices and the site? Does he agree that the best place to put a new site would be next to the National Cyber Force centre in Lancashire, because of the mixture of skills that would come together beautifully?

As I corrected the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), London is not guaranteed as the headquarters, and I think the whole House heard my hon. Friend’s valuable pitch for Lancashire.

I thank the Secretary of State for his positive statement—it is good to hear positivity at any time of the year, but more so at Christmas. It is great to hear of the proactive nature of this programme, and I thank the Secretary of State and his team for the hard work that they have done so far. I note that the north-east of England and Scotland are seeing jobs and engagement. Will the Secretary of State outline how this will enhance skills and labour throughout the United Kingdom and particularly in Northern Ireland, which has a skilled business workforce and industrial trades just waiting to be used? We are here for the Secretary of State’s use, if he will only give us a chance.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the skills that the programme will provide throughout the UK. I am reminded of Thales, in Northern Ireland, and of how important the Next-generation Light Anti-tank Weapon has been to the battle in Ukraine—pivotal, I am told, when I speak to my opposite number. I have no doubt that some of the great skills and brilliance from Northern Ireland will be part of GCAP.

Having been involved in some of the early discussions with Italy and Japan, I warmly welcome this treaty and congratulate my right hon. Friend—they are truly excellent partners. However, he is right in saying that if we are to maintain those manufacturing bases for decades to come, we will need export orders. May I encourage him from the outset not only to look at exports from the licensing point of view, but to look at the potential for export variants, which will allow us to export while also maintaining national security?

I thank my right hon. Friend—a brilliant Minister for Defence Procurement in a former time—for what he has said. He is entirely right about exports. I do not think we can forget the significance of Japan’s engagement in the programme, and I congratulate him on his earlier work on this. For Japan, its involvement is a totemic shift from its settlement after the second world war. I think that over time it is countries that are democratic, that want freedom and that are on the side of people’s liberty and rights that will need to have this sixth-generation aircraft. As I said in my statement, we are living in a far more contested world, and one in which it is more important than it has been in any recent decade that we have the best capabilities, and those are what this will bring us.

The Secretary of State is clearly very pleased with himself, which would presumably account for the unnecessary amount of levity following a statement that was actually very serious. I pay all tribute to Italy and Japan for signing the treaty—I would not trust a cheque that this Government had signed, much less an international treaty—but I suspect that they take their confidence from MBDA, from BAE Systems, from Rolls-Royce and from Leonardo, which are behind this project, unlike the UK Government, who are just signing it off. Does he agree that it is absolute testament that the beating heart and the brain of this platform comes from Leonardo’s facility in Edinburgh? Will he also redouble his efforts to bring Sweden inside this tent? We need Sweden for its industrial base and its technological know-how, and for further orders.

I do not think that anyone in the House would accuse the hon. Gentleman of undue levity and cheerfulness, although it is Christmas. None the less, I wish him well. Of course we want to ensure that all our defence companies succeed as a result of this, including those in Scotland—and who knows, that could be a location for the headquarters.

As a former serviceman and a former Defence Minister, I, too, welcome the treaty that the Secretary of State has announced. What worries me, though, and what worried me when I was a Defence Minister, is slippage, under previous Governments and under this Government. Can the Secretary of State assure us that no airframe will be taken out of service on the basis of something coming in in 2035? We need to keep what we have until this is available in the air.

The 2035 date is really the absolute backstop, as I mentioned before, and not just for us but for our Japanese partners, who have a specific issue with their previous airframe coming out of service at that time. That is, as it were, our guiding light. As for the way in which the Royal Air Force itself decides to operate its airframes in the meantime, that is in no small part a question of what happens with technology during this period. As I also mentioned, over the last nearly two years in Ukraine we have seen the development of air combat at a speed that would have seemed impossible to us before the Ukraine war, so I would not want to pre-empt it entirely, while still supporting my right hon. Friend’s principle that we should ensure that we have sufficient airframes operational and in the sky at all times—which, as the Typhoons and the F-35Bs remind us, is so very important.

The GCAP is a prestigious project that will offer careers and high-skilled roles to people across the global supply chain for decades. Will my right hon. Friend commit to keeping up the work of the armed forces in their support for technical education in our schools and colleges, which is critical to making these projects a big success?

I absolutely will commit to doing that. My hon. Friend is right to highlight it. I am in conversation with my Cabinet colleagues about how we can maximise the amount of skills, not least because we need them for this programme. It is a matter of great pride that there are already 1,000 apprenticeships involved in the UK side of this.

As the world becomes a more dangerous place, I very much welcome this statement. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the global combat air programme is another demonstration of this Government’s commitment to Indo-Pacific security?

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on, not only about GCAP today but about AUKUS. I think that, five years ago, people would have been surprised to find that we had signed a global arrangement with Australia and America for nuclear powered subs and pillar 2 for AUKUS, and I think they would now be surprised to discover that we are bringing in a treaty to allow for joint aircraft production and research and development with Japan. This is all a sign of our commitment to the Indo-Pacific and to making sure that the waterways and skies around the world remain free and open for commerce and for every country to use.

I welcome this treaty and project, which will bring the GCAP alongside AUKUS and the five power defence arrangements at the heart of our Indo-Pacific defence partnerships. Could the Secretary of State confirm that this will also secure the future of the supply chain behind Typhoon and Eurofighter, including the landing gear and avionics from Gloucestershire? By the way, Gloucestershire airport would make an outstanding choice for project headquarters. I make a declaration of interest here: will he also confirm that he will be deploying the Prime Minister’s Indo-Pacific-focused trade envoys to ensure that other nations in the region are aware of the opportunities that this offers? That would also bring us greater air compatibility.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the supply chain. There is a strong read-across between the 4.5 version of the Typhoon and the GCAP, so it will be important for our defence supply chain, particularly when it comes to combat aircraft. I note his pitch for a potential HQ, and I also want to thank him publicly for his work in south-east Asia, where he does a tremendous job as one of the trade envoys.

I join others in welcoming this treaty, not just in the defence sense but for the benefits it could bring to the south-west region. In the light of recent incidents with North Korea and the rising threat of China, can my right hon. Friend say a bit more about how he sees this as part of our genuine commitment to stand with our allies if they come under threat?

We have a choice as a nation, as indeed does the world: we see a much more aggressive Russia invading its neighbour; we see China looking threateningly towards its neighbours; and it is important to understand the dynamics of North Korea, of Iran and of what is happening in the middle east. We are undoubtedly living in a more contested and more dangerous world, and preparing now for the sixth-generation fighter combat aircraft is therefore more important than ever. This Government are entirely committed to securing our future and that of the global order of the world.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. As somebody who represents Samlesbury in the Ribble Valley, may I give him advance notice that I shall be knocking on his door shortly?