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Armed Forces: Warships

Volume 696: debated on Monday 19 November 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

How many destroyers and similar surface vessels they regard as necessary to dispose of their commitments.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Captain John McDermid, who died last Wednesday while serving on operations in Afghanistan.

Turning to the Question, the requirement is not defined by numbers of surface vessels alone, but by the overall capability that they deliver. Against our present defence commitments, which are regularly reviewed, the Government judge that the size of the current surface fleet is broadly adequate.

My Lords, we on these Benches also send our condolences to the family and friends of Captain John McDermid.

The noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, said last year, when he was still a simple sailor, that the Royal Navy was too small for its commitments. The noble Lord said that we need 30 destroyers and frigates; we have 25 today. With more maritime trouble spots opening up—most recently, the Arctic—are the Government content simply to hope that others will defend our maritime trade and security? As our fleet is one of the oldest among comparable nations, when will the Government start honouring the undertaking made by the noble Baroness’s predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, in the maritime industrial strategy for a steady flow of orders to assist the shipbuilding industry and restore confidence to those serving in the Royal Navy?

My Lords, as I said in my initial reply, we always keep all our requirements under review. I am sure that my noble friend Lord West would agree with that. We are satisfied that our orders and commitments are broadly adequate. We do not intend to have a situation where others have to defend us. We intend to make our contribution not only to defending this country but to meeting our international obligations.

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that that answer affords very little comfort to many of us who are very concerned about the situation, not only for the Navy, but for the Army and the Air Force, now that a fine Minister has gone racing?

My Lords, I was among those who in a debate just last week paid tribute to the work of my predecessor, although it seems a long time ago. I assure the House that the work he started will be continued.

My Lords, given that there is a great deal of pressure on the naval budget, have the Government given any thought to what savings might be made by the outsourcing of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary?

My Lords, the Comprehensive Spending Review gave the Ministry of Defence a 1.5 per cent increase in spending in real terms. That is a challenging settlement because the technology costs that we face on many orders cause difficulties. We have to take all those things into account. As a new Minister, I have not looked in detail at every aspect of the budget, but I hope that we can make further progress in the planning round that is under way so that, as I said earlier, we can meet all our obligations.

My Lords, can the Minister assure us that no time is foreseen when the British Navy will not be able to undertake distant operations without cover from fixed-wing aircraft from another country’s air force?

My Lords, the noble Lord will know that we have made significant spending commitments for future carriers. They were announced earlier and progress is being made. We are also making progress on the Type 45 destroyers being built. Our commitment is clear. If the noble Lord wants further details, I shall of course be happy to provide them.

My Lords, I do not want the detail. I should just like to know whether there will be a time when there will be no British fixed-wing aeroplanes to support our fleet when it is far at sea.

My Lords, since we appear to be short of surface vessels, have we yet got back the vessel illegally seized by the Iranians ?

My Lords, I am afraid that that piece of paper has not crossed my desk yet, but I will find out. The noble Lord referred to an overall shortage of surface vessels. I would not wish to concede that point. It is true that we wish to keep that situation under review, but we do not accept that there is a basic shortage.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness give an update on the progress of the joint French-British undertaking with regard to aircraft carrier manufacture?

My Lords, the new joint venture for the aircraft carrier is well under way and discussions on the details are going on. Nothing is finalised about the French involvement, but it would have to be to the advantage of everyone to go down that path.