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Armed Forces: Aircraft Carrier

Volume 759: debated on Thursday 29 January 2015

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will have operational aircraft to fly off the new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier when it comes into service.

My Lords, initial flight trials of the F35B aircraft from the carrier remain on track for 2018, allowing a coherent build-up towards delivering a cutting-edge expeditionary capability for the UK from 2020. Royal Navy and Royal Air Force pilots and supporting ground crew are now operating UK F35Bs in the US, to conduct flight and weapon trials and, in due course, flights off our carrier. Our carriers will be capable of operating a wide range of operational aircraft, including helicopters.

My Lords, there is widespread concern at the substantial gap in time during which we will have an absence of capability. This is also evidenced in our having no capability whatever in airborne anti-submarine detection, running in parallel. Was it wise to put all our eggs in one basket and leave a major part of our defence capability dependent on the development of a single aircraft which is, as yet, unproven and increasingly expensive?

My Lords, this is a fantastic aircraft. British pilots who fly it tell me it is a real step change in capability. The F35 fleet has now flown some 20,000 hours and successfully completed two sets of sea trials off the USS “Wasp”. The F35 is the world’s largest single defence programme, and the UK is playing a leading role as the only non-US level 1 partner, resulting in significant contracts and jobs for UK industry.

My Lords, is it not intended that the United States Marine Corps will purchase and operate the same aircraft as us? Will its aircraft be operating from our carriers?

My Lords, British F35B aircraft and pilots will be the first to operate from our carriers. UK pilots, engineers and deck handlers are currently operating from US Navy carriers, developing and maintaining skill sets to regenerate our carrier strike capability, working, as my noble friend said, with the US Marine Corps. We continue to identify opportunities to develop interoperability and synergy with our allies, including potential options to operate US Marine Corps aircraft from our carriers.

My Lords, I am sure the whole House, and the nation, are delighted that we are now developing this carrier capability again after the real risk we took in 2010 of dropping it for the first time in 100 years. We are looking forward to this date. It is a long period of risk: we have got through five years of it and there are five years to go. There have been reports that the Sea Lightning—which rolls off the tongue much better than Lightning II, so perhaps the Minister would consider calling it Sea Lightning in future, rather than F35B—might be vulnerable to cyberattack through the autonomic logistics information system. If this is true, will the Minister confirm that we are making sure it is resilient, and that that resilience will be hardened, to stop that happening?

My Lords, that is a very good question. I gave a Written Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Davies, on this very subject. The F35 autonomic logistics information system has been designed to be resilient against cyberattack and will be subject to testing throughout the life of the programme.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, pending the full operational capability of the Sea Lightning, between that date and when the aircraft carrier is actually commissioned, there are other roles it can very usefully play around the world?

I absolutely agree with the noble and gallant Lord. The carriers are highly versatile defence assets, able to meet the widest range of tasks, from humanitarian assistance to carrier-strike and amphibious operations with Royal Marines and battlefield helicopters. Work is under way to plan the most effective and coherent way to operate the carrier capability. This includes the development of deployment cycles, manpower requirements, total F35B—or Sea Lightning—numbers and interoperability with allies.

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that it is the intention to place a contract very shortly, perhaps in April, for the dredging of Portsmouth harbour? Will he give an indication of the likely cost of that dredging?

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that it is our intention to dredge Portsmouth harbour. As we are in the process of selecting the preferred bidder, it would be inappropriate to give a cost. We will also be carrying out some other infrastructure upgrades to support the carriers coming into Portsmouth.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive Answer on the dates for the aircraft and the carrier. However, if you google the aircraft, looking particularly at the US media, you see that the project is full of delays, with tranches of software not available and guns that will not work for more than four years, while the Department of Defense says that the programme is unaffordable. How confident is the Minister that the dates he has given will actually happen? How many aircraft do the Government envisage buying, and will there be enough aircraft to operate on both carriers?

My Lords, I am told that there are always technical issues during the test phase of an aircraft programme, so what is happening is not uncommon. With regard to the numbers, the UK has received three of 35 to date. Another is being built, and the MoD recently approved the purchase of 14 additional aircraft, the first four of which were ordered at the end of last year. Total F35 aircraft numbers will be examined within SDSR 15.

My Lords, will the Minister join me in paying tributes to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for getting UK industry fully involved in the F35 programme?