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Royal Navy: Aircraft Carriers

Volume 700: debated on Wednesday 26 March 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

When they expect to sign the main contract for new aircraft carriers.

My Lords, we will sign the main manufacture contract for the aircraft carriers when we have achieved the best alignment of planned annual expenditure, work schedule and commercial arrangements. In the interim, we continue to place supporting contracts such as those placed earlier this month for more than £70 million worth of material and equipment to maintain the in-service dates which we have previously announced.

My Lords, it has been 10 long years since SDR, so what is still holding up the final signature? There will be severe industrial consequences if the decision is not made very soon. Given the completely unacceptable defence capability gap that will arise, will it be possible to keep HMS “Ark Royal” and HMS “Illustrious” in service until the new carriers arrive?

My Lords, the delay is not 10 years; the Government announced the programme on 25 July last year, as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review. We are currently trying to ensure that we get the right profile of spending while maintaining the in-service date. It is worth paying some attention to try to get that right and to work through the incentivised contract that we have on this important project. On our existing capabilities, the noble Lord will be aware that HMS “Illustrious” had a major refit recently and is due to be in service until at least 2015. Under current plans, HMS “Ark Royal” will come out of service in 2012. Those dates are obviously kept under review.

My Lords, can the Minister please confirm that the in-service dates are still to be 2014 and 2016—although it is difficult to see how they will be held to if the contract continues to be delayed? Has the training pipeline to deliver the right, qualified crew by those in-service dates been held up as a result of the contract delay? It is very important that that is maintained, especially for specialised aircrew.

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord makes a significant point about training; we give that direct attention—we need to ensure that everything works and is going in the right direction. The Secretary of State for Defence in the other place recently made it clear that there had been no change in in-service dates.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will welcome the prospect of greater military co-operation between this country and France. Will the Prime Minister be raising with President Sarkozy the prospect of greater French involvement in the carrier programme?

My Lords, the French have been involved in this project for a significant period. They have already paid £70 million towards the development costs of the project. French people are working in Abbey Wood as part of the integrated project team. If the French decide to go ahead with their own carrier, they will pay another £45 million into the project. Our understanding is that they are not yet in a position to announce their intentions. It may well be that this comes up in discussions because defence is high on the agenda at this summit but I should be very surprised if we got an announcement from the French president while he is here in Britain about his intentions towards an aircraft carrier.

My Lords, what is the position of the aircraft to be shipped on the new carriers? That is an American programme; is it on track?

My Lords, in terms of capabilities, the intention is to use the Joint Strike Fighter—we are in a joint project with the Americans on that. It has never been the case that that would be ready for the in-service dates that we have announced. The Harrier will be used in the interim; that has virtually always been the case.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that, should the two aircraft carriers be built, they are due to be put together at the bottom of the Prime Minister’s garden?

My Lords, I am not sure that that will actually be done at the bottom of the Prime Minister’s garden but the construction work will involve a very large number of people and provide a very large number of British jobs from the south coast to the Clyde and Rosyth, which is very close to the Prime Minister’s constituency.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever is usually pretty careful in what he says. He suggested that the programme had started 10 years ago; the noble Baroness said that it started last year. Can she please do something that is satisfactory to all to reconcile the two statements?

My Lords, people in the MoD—some of whom are not far from me at the moment—have been pressing for this programme for a very long time, but the announcement that it would go ahead was made on 25 July last year in another place.

My Lords, did I understand the Minister to say that the Joint Strike Fighter, which is an essential element of this new carrier force, will not be available in 2014 and 2016, when the two ships are due to be available? Bearing in mind that the Sea Harrier was withdrawn in 2006, that seems an unconscionably long time to have no aircraft at sea.

My Lords, as I understand it, it has always been the case that there would be a transition from the Sea Harrier to the Joint Strike Fighter and that that would be a carefully managed programme. I do not think that there has been any significant change in that intention. As I understand it, that was the case from the moment that the project was announced last July.

My Lords, perhaps I may trespass on the time of the House again. In earlier answers, the noble Baroness has assured me that there will be no interval in which there is no fixed-wing cover for fleets far at sea. Can she reconcile that with what she has just said? Will there be an overlap or not?

My Lords, as I said to the House some moments ago, we will ensure that the transition from the Sea Harrier to the Joint Strike Fighter is carefully managed. As I understand it, that has been the plan since the start of the JSF programme.

My Lords, some very worrying reports are coming out of the United States on weight problems in relation to the JSF programme—particularly the STOVL version, which is due to go on carriers. Are Her Majesty’s Government giving some attention to a fallback position? It seems rather idiotic that there are reports of converting the Eurofighter when there is a perfectly decent French aircraft built to fly off carriers that might be viable for this purpose.

My Lords, I know that there are those who think that a marinised Typhoon would be a suitable alternative, but our judgment remains that the JSF is still the optimum solution to this country’s requirements.