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Armed Forces: Future Aircraft Carrier

Volume 693: debated on Monday 25 June 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

How they intend to proceed with the future aircraft carrier project.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Corporal John Rigby, who was killed on Friday during operations in Iraq, and of Drummer Thomas Wright, who was killed yesterday during operations in Afghanistan.

We intend to start building the two new aircraft carriers once we have agreed a robust and affordable deal.

My Lords, we, too, send our condolences to the family of Drummer Thomas Wright, and our thoughts are with those who were injured in the same explosion in Afghanistan. We also send our condolences to the family of Corporal John Rigby, particularly his twin brother Will, who was serving in the same battalion of the Rifles in Basra and will accompany his brother’s coffin back to Britain.

Last year, the Minister told the House that industry consolidation was a precondition for signing the contract on the carriers, but the industry says that there can be no further consolidation unless the carriers are ordered. For how much longer are the Government content to play poker with the industry, with thousands of jobs and the future of the Royal Navy at stake? Do they still want the carriers?

My Lords, we absolutely want the carriers, and are prepared to play poker for as long as it takes to get them on the terms that we want.

My Lords, we, too, on these Benches send our condolences to the families of the latest casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, particularly those from the old Royal Green Jackets—now the Rifles—who were based at a depot in my old constituency near Winchester.

Do the Government continue to support a planned and managed approach to the restructuring of the warship-building industry and the significant benefits that it provides, including substantial savings, the de-risking of projects, the achievement of the future carrier target price, and the optimisation of export opportunities? What impact would a decision not to go ahead with the future carrier programme have on Britain’s international obligations and strategic ability to project power?

My Lords, this Government have invested more in building up a modern surface and submarine fleet than any in decades. The decisions that we have taken to ensure that we have the ships for a modern Navy are being implemented. We are robustly implementing the combination of that investment with a clear strategy for industry, published at the end of 2005. That is leading to industry making the changes that we need to get to the point where this country has a competitive shipbuilding industry that can continue to build the ships that the Navy needs in future. We do not need to begin contemplating what we do about not going ahead with the carriers; we just need to get the deal in place such that we can begin manufacture.

My Lords, if the ships are eventually built, is it intended that they will form part of the rapid reaction force?

No, my Lords. The purpose of the ships is to provide the centrepiece of the carrier strike force which was set out in the Strategic Defence Review in 1998. It is a fundamental pillar of the Government’s defence strategy.

My Lords, we agreed at the end of 2005 to work with France in licensing to it the design rights to the aircraft carriers. As it was able to use our work on its own aircraft carrier, it agreed to pay one-third of the costs through the development phase. That collaboration has gone well. We have been able to maintain the pace and cost of the British project without any negative impacts because of the structure of that collaboration with France.

My Lords, what is the earliest date when we might expect the carriers, assuming that the original date is now completely obsolete?

My Lords, it is not obsolete. Do not assume because we have not signed the contracts on the building of the carriers that we are prepared to see any slippage on their implementation and coming into service.

My Lords, is the Minister confident that there will be aircraft appropriate to fly off the carriers when they are delivered? I see that at the recent air show there was a cardboard, plywood and papier mâché model of the JSF on display. How is the JSF making progress, and are we confident that it will be ready when the aircraft carriers are ready?

My Lords, an aircraft carrier without aircraft would be useless. I am pleased that the noble Lord saw a papier mâché model. If he was prepared to travel to the United States, he could see the real thing flying. It is going through its test flights very successfully, and it is a very impressive aircraft.

My Lords, have the vessels that were lost to the Iranians from HMS “Cornwall” been replaced? Have replacements even been ordered?

My Lords, they have absolutely been replaced. No loss of capability has followed from the loss of those two small boats to the Iranians.

My Lords, it is going really well. The STOVL version has the British technology, and it is the follow-up to the Harrier. It is British technology not only in the lift fan, which powers the short take-off and vertical landing aircraft, but in the technology around the manufacture of the aircraft.