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Defence: UK Territorial Waters

Volume 760: debated on Tuesday 24 March 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they are satisfied with the present arrangements for detecting and shadowing non-NATO naval units which may enter the United Kingdom’s territorial waters without prior authority.

My Lords, this Government take security of our maritime boundaries very seriously. Our Armed Forces have a multilayered submarine detection capability, using highly effective assets including frigates, submarines and anti-submarine helicopters, and maritime patrol aircraft support from NATO allies. We, in turn, often support them when they have capability shortfalls. It is routine for NATO allies to support each other in this way and demonstrates one of the benefits to the UK of NATO membership.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply. Is he really satisfied, though, with the maritime patrol aircraft arrangements that he described? Are those arrangements permanent, or does he have some better plans for the future?

My Lords, we have a robust range of measures for detecting and shadowing non-NATO vessels that may seek to enter our territorial waters without authority. We continue to develop new detection capabilities to maintain our operational advantage. SDSR 2015 will allow us to review the full spectrum of submarine detection capability, including maritime patrol aircraft. Meanwhile, RAF air crew are flying in allied MPA to retain the skills to regenerate the capability, should we decide to do so.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the National Maritime Information Centre, established by the last Government but funded since then by the current Government, gives very good situational awareness of our waters, but we need assets to track and monitor things. Normally we have three offshore patrol vessels; one is in the West Indies, filling in because we do not have enough destroyers and frigates. We have only one frigate in UK waters, acting as the fleet ready escort—only one, in a great maritime nation such as ours. That shortage of assets is bad.

My question, though, relates to the helicopters that he talked about. I asked two years ago, a year ago, and I ask again now: has the Merlin Mk2 incorporated fully the ASW capabilities of the MRA4 Nimrod? Each of the previous times the Minister said, “Yes we’re doing it, yes we’re doing it”. Have we done it?

My Lords, on the first part of his question, I agree with the noble Lord about the National Maritime Information Centre, but he will know that I cannot answer the second part of his question.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord West, about the numbers of destroyers and frigates. The fact is that the size of our destroyer and frigate force is inadequate to meet all the tasks demanded of it both by NATO and nationally. Indeed, a number of important tasks have been gapped over the years, including the Article 5 operation in the eastern Mediterranean, and of course we have increasing threats as we speak. What are the Government doing, and what will they do, to ensure that the current inadequate number of destroyers and frigates does not drop below 19 and that the destroyer/frigate force actually increases in size?

My Lords, I assure the noble and gallant Lord that this will be a matter that SDSR 15 looks at very closely.

My Lords, I realise that this is a very sensitive area, but I do think that the public and Parliament are entitled to a little more information in this area and that the Minister and the MoD should not shelter behind generalisations. Specifically, how does Russian submarine activity off our shores compare with activity off the shores of our allies? Secondly, is the Russian activity increasing and, thirdly, is it very much focused on Faslane and our deterrent capability?

My Lords, I am sure my noble friend will appreciate that for reasons of national security I cannot discuss the detail of such events, as to do so could allow conclusions to be drawn on the UK’s capabilities. However, I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord West, and my noble friend that we take the security of our maritime boundaries very seriously.

My Lords, I appreciate the sensitivity of this, but can the noble Lord go a bit further and tell us whether we have an estimate of activity around the waters of Scotland and whether the Scottish Government are aware of any problems of this nature? Although it is not a matter for them, it is a matter of interest to the people of Scotland.

My Lords, again, I am sorry to disappoint the noble Lord; I cannot discuss this issue, but I can tell him that defence is a reserved issue and is not the business of the Scottish Government. We will not compromise on the defence of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the SDSR. Under SDSR 2010, brutal cuts were made and Nimrods were physically destroyed. Would he now say that the Government regret the decision to destroy that amazing capability, which we could use right now?

My Lords, the severe pressure on the public finances in 2010 and the urgent need to bring the defence programme into balance meant that we could not retain all our existing programmes and that we had to prioritise between capabilities. The aircraft’s future high support costs were a clear factor in that decision. It is also well known that the MRA4 project suffered from repeated delays and cost overruns, and was still suffering from technical problems in 2010.

My Lords, further to the Minister’s answer to my noble friend Lord Soley, we all understand that defence is a reserved matter, but would it not be sensible to let the First Minister of Scotland know the threats from Russia so that we get a more sensible policy in relation to the Trident nuclear deterrent?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point and I will make sure that my department passes that on to the Scotland Office.