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Royal Navy: Aircraft Carriers

Volume 691: debated on Monday 30 April 2007

My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Trefgarne, and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper:

What construction and certification standards they propose for the two aircraft carriers to be ordered for the Royal Navy.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Rifleman Paul Donnachie, who was killed yesterday during operations in Iraq.

The construction and certification standards applied to the two aircraft carriers are the Lloyd’s Register Rules and Regulations, supplemented by tailored Defence Standards capturing specific MoD requirements.

My Lords, once again from these Benches, we send our condolences to the families and friends of the riflemen killed in Iraq.

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. This vital project risks losing momentum unless a definite order is made very soon. Can the Minister confirm that an announcement of an order will be made without any further delay?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord; we need to get on with this project. We have worked very hard to reach a conclusion on both the design of the aircraft carriers and the agreement with industry. We have strongly encouraged industry to make the necessary changes to ensure that the carriers are built effectively. We are keen for all this to be resolved as quickly as possible.

My Lords, from these Benches we add our condolences to the family of the rifleman who was so sadly killed yesterday.

The Joint Strike Fighter aircraft is an essential component of our carrier capability. In March 2007, the United States Government Accounting Office reported on it again and showed further cost growth. The GAO said:

“Accurately predicting JSF costs and schedule and ensuring sufficient funding will likely be key challenges facing the program in the future”.

Does the Minister believe that, in the United Kingdom, the current JSF acquisition strategy manages those risks adequately? Can he assure us that the UK will not replicate the much criticised Department of Defense cost-reimbursement contracts which it is issuing for the initial production models?

My Lords, I recognise the concerns that the noble Lord has raised about the cost of the Joint Strike Fighter; it is something that we are looking at very closely. I am satisfied that our acquisition process is appropriate to the task, and I concentrate on it as a high priority. Indeed, towards the end of this year I expect to get a clearer view of the aircraft’s overall acquisition costs and, as important, of the sustainment strategy. We have not yet committed to purchasing these aircraft and will closely scrutinise the progress of the project.

My Lords, aircraft carriers do not operate on their own. Can we be sure that there will be sufficient support shipping for the aircraft carriers once they come into view?

Yes, my Lords. As the noble Baroness says, it is important that the carrier strike force has the necessary protection, both undersea and on the surface. Air defence is an important part of it, and the new class of Type 45 destroyers is a central part of that.

My Lords, will there be an interval in which the British fleet will not have the cover of carrier-borne fixed-wing aircraft? For how long will the period last, if there is one?

My Lords, I can give the House that assurance. There will not be a period in which our aircraft carriers do not have that aircraft cover.

My Lords, am I not right in thinking that there is some collaboration with the French on this project? Will the Minister enlarge on that?

Yes, my Lords. Last year we signed an agreement with the French where the French acquired the rights to the British designs for the aircraft carriers. They are looking at their own project to build one carrier. The fundamental principle of the collaboration was to find ways of working together to improve the effectiveness of the build, but that it must not come at a cost or delay to the British project. We have been able to meet that principle thus far and I will ensure that we maintain it.

My Lords, do we still plan to build this aircraft carrier in two halves—one in Scotland and one in the south of England—with a very large contract to make sure that they fit together? Is the idea now that the French will build the back half and we will build the front half of two carriers? Would there be a cost saving in that?

No, my Lords, that is not accurate. It is a little more complicated than that. My noble friend is right that the aircraft carriers are being built in sections. That is a modern shipbuilding practice that has developed over a number of years. We are confident that the blocks—a total of four, rather than the two that he describes—will be successfully brought together and assembled at Rosyth. The collaboration with the French explores opportunities to make savings in procurement, as there is obvious potential for economies of scale in buying three of everything rather than two, and then sharing the savings between us. The principle was formed on a one-third/two-thirds basis.

My Lords, with the delay in signing the contract for these aircraft carriers, will the timescale of the project slip? Will it now be further phased backwards?

No, my Lords; I am very keen that that does not happen. The important principle behind the project is that building these carriers—at 65,000 tonnes, the largest two ships that the Royal Navy has ever had—requires the entire assets of the British shipbuilding industry. All of the yards have to work together. Our alliance approach has worked well in making the yards better at communicating and collaborating. There is still some way to go on change within the industry, and that needs to happen before we are in a position to order these two carriers, but it must not be at the expense of the build timescale.