My Lords, we have been clear for some time that the right point to look again at the requirement for a maritime patrol aircraft is in the forthcoming strategic defence and security review, the SDSR. That decision will be informed by the latest threat assessments and the conclusions come to in recent years. We continue to embed around 30 former Nimrod air crew in the maritime patrol communities of allied air forces in order to reduce the time and risks associated with regenerating a capability.
Steady on. Does the Minister not agree with me that one does not need a review to know that, as an island nation with a sea-borne nuclear deterrent capability, we are not even in a position to secure our own deterrent, because we do not have the capability to do so? I understand that all things have to be reviewed, but this is such a no-brainer. It is obviously of great concern if we cannot protect our own sea lanes against an increasingly aggressive Russian naval force. Will the Minister go back to his right honourable friend in the other place and say that we should be proceeding now to prepare the necessary facilities to ensure that we have adequate protection for our nuclear deterrent as well as for our shores?
My Lords, I absolutely do not accept that we cannot protect our own sea lanes. We have acknowledged that we have a capability gap, following the decision not to bring the Nimrod MRA4 into service, but at the same time we made it clear that we chose to accept that gap because we knew that we could mitigate it through employment of other assets, as well as through co-operation with allies. Even taking operational activity into account, we remain of the view that the SDSR is the right context in which to take a decision of this significance.
My Lords, does the noble Earl accept that there is an ingenuity in the MoD in producing euphemisms? I was once told that something was being put not into mothballs, but into a “state of extended readiness”. When he mentions the capability gap, will he accept that the maritime patrol aircraft and its facilities is not an optional add-on for a nuclear deterrent but an essential component providing surveillance, security and secrecy of location? What is the point of having a continuous at-sea submarine-based nuclear deterrent if it does not have those features? This has all the hallmarks not of a minor housekeeping problem for the MoD but of a major strategic blunder.
My Lords, I emphasise again that this matter will be looked at very closely in the context of the SDSR—indeed, some preparatory work has already been done. I do not accept the noble Lord’s contention that we are without protection in this important area. We have the use of other military assets, as I said, including Type 23 frigates, submarines and Merlin anti-submarine warfare helicopters, and we rely on the assistance that we get from our allies and partners.
My Lords, I think that the noble and gallant Lord will accept that we must not leap ahead of ourselves too much. However, I can tell him that the capabilities required from a future maritime patrol aircraft have been studied by the MoD over the past two and a half years. The study has received representations from a number of defence industrial organisations, which have allowed us to understand better the nature of the platforms in existence, as well as the timeframe in which novel technologies are likely to mature.
My Lords, given the Minister’s response just now, can he reassure the House in the mean time how we will be able to meet our international obligations on search and rescue—for example, were an aircraft to crash in the furthermost corner of our sector of the Atlantic?
My Lords, a range of other military aircraft provide search and rescue radar capability to the Armed Forces. We have the E-3D Sentry system, which admittedly is optimised for the air-to-air role, but its radar has a maritime search mode. C-130 Hercules aircraft are fitted with radar systems that, combined with visual search, provide basic maritime search capabilities. RAF Sea King helicopters, and Royal Navy Merlin and Lynx helicopters all possess short-range surface search radar for use in maritime search operations.
I welcome the Minister to his first Defence Question since his appointment. He has moved from the health of the nation to the health of our Armed Forces. He referred to the strategic defence and security review and our maritime patrol capability. Can he confirm that, in pursuit of a bipartisan approach to defence policy, Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition will also be involved in the consultations on the SDSR, which the Government told us last Thursday in this House are now taking place?
My Lords, I hope I can reassure the noble Lord. We will be looking for opportunities to consult a wide range of stakeholders, including industry, naturally, academics and parliamentarians. The Opposition will be welcome to feed in their ideas in the course of that process.
My Lords, the surveillance of our offshore economic zone and our waters is much broader than just the submarine issue. There is a real resource and money issue. We have already sent two Border Force cutters to the Mediterranean, one of our offshore patrol vessels for fishery protection has gone to the West Indies, and there is insufficient money in the defence budget. If we are going to provide this capability, what capabilities are going to be removed because there is just not enough money to do the things we need to do without going up to at least the 2% of GDP and, ideally, more?
My Lords, it is important to emphasise that the SDSR will be underpinned by a very robust assessment of the threats that face us and the needs that we have to meet those threats. On the noble Lord’s wider point, the Ministry of Defence is just one organisation with a role in the security of the UK’s territorial waters. Under the UK national strategy for maritime security we have a ministerial working group chaired by the FCO. That has been established to focus on maritime security in its entirety.