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Royal Navy: Aircraft Carriers

Volume 718: debated on Thursday 25 March 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in constructing the new aircraft carriers HMS “Queen Elizabeth” and HMS “Prince of Wales”.

My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Serjeant Steven Campbell from 3rd Battalion The Rifles, who was killed on operations in Afghanistan this past week.

Turning to the Question, the contract for the QE class aircraft carriers was signed on 3 July 2008 and work is now under way in five UK shipyards—Appledore, Rosyth, Govan, Portsmouth and Tyne—with work due to start at the sixth and final yard, Birkenhead, in the next few months. In addition, equipment sub-contracts to the value of some £1.2 billion have been placed to date.

First, I enjoin these Benches with the earlier tribute. Combined annual Franco-British defence expenditure totals $130 billion, with significant duplication. Given that a carrier embraces the three elements of crew, escorts and aircraft, both fixed-wing and rotary, will not our two new carriers provide a unique opportunity to develop a joint Anglo-French naval force? Is it not time to show leadership and think outside the traditional box of national sovereignty, especially given the immense pressures on our defence budget?

My Lords, I see very little prospect of an Anglo-French naval force, but that does not mean that co-operation cannot take place. Indeed, the United Kingdom and France signed a memorandum of understanding in March 2006 with the aim of co-operating on carrier design. Indeed, the French have contributed to the design and have contributed money, as well as expertise, and they retain an interest in that design. However, the decision, which I understand will be made next year, on whether the French will go ahead with their carriers is for them. It has been an example of good co-operation, but I do not think that taking it further to an Anglo-French naval force is on the cards at the moment.

My Lords, we on these Benches also send our condolences to the family and friends of Serjeant Campbell of The Rifles. Turning to the Question, we know that the JSF programme, which is due to fly off the carriers, is delayed by 13 months. Can the Minister give the House some assurance that there will not be any further delays?

My Lords, the JSF programme is extremely important and significant progress has been made. There has been some reprofiling of the timescale, but it is important to recall two or three things. British pilots have now flown JSF, the STOVL variation has flown and, perhaps most important of all, the memorandum of understanding that we signed in 2001 means that the contribution to our programme has not changed. Therefore, approaching this contract incrementally was the right way forward.

My Lords, in today’s world scenario, what is the purpose of these aircraft carriers? Is it defence, or is it attack? If it is attack, who are we proposing to attack?

My Lords, the Green Paper that we published recently shows the changing trends in the world, the rise of Asia-Pacific and the threats from globalisation and climate change. We are facing many threats. The idea of having an expeditionary capability is thoroughly appropriate in the modern age.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the carriers will have a flexible role and not be confined to a fixed-wing strike role and that they are designed to be deployed not only for all-out combat but also for humanitarian operations?

My Lords, that is a very good example of the range of work that carriers can undertake. Those who are interested in rotary capability are also very excited at the prospect of the carriers.

My Lords, is it normal practice for such vessels to be named before they are named, if you follow me?

I do not think that this is the first time this has happened. The names that have been given are ones that should get the overall support of the whole House.

My Lords, it seems clear that there will have to be retrenchment in government expenditure. Would it not therefore be much better to have the aircraft carriers rather than new nuclear missile submarines?

My Lords, we have made it clear that the Green Paper and the Strategic Defence Review are not expected to revisit the decision that was made by Parliament in 2006 on nuclear deterrence. As for the future of the carrier, we do not want to pre-empt the Strategic Defence Review, but the First Sea Lord is extremely confident that it will confirm the need for the carriers, and the Secretary of State said recently, in answer to a PQ in another place, that he cannot foresee any outcome of the Strategic Defence Review that would lead to the cancellation of the carriers. We do not have such a clear commitment from other parties, and those who are threatening to revisit and to go clause-by-clause to find break clauses that could lead to the cancellation of the carrier are going down exactly the wrong track.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would be madness to engage in combat operations on land without appropriate air cover?