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Defence: Helicopters

Volume 791: debated on Thursday 14 June 2018

Question

Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to sustain the United Kingdom’s standalone capacity to design and manufacture helicopters as part of their modernising defence programme.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, we continue to assess the military effectiveness of rotary unmanned aerial systems and carry out ongoing capability studies that will help inform our future manned and unmanned equipment choices.

I thank the Minister for his response, but the Government’s failure to provide a clear strategy for the preservation of our onshore sovereign capability to design and manufacture helicopters is now endangering investment, jobs and prosperity, both in the south-west and nationally. Is the Minister aware that, if this is not remedied either in the modernising defence paper this summer or in the Budget, long-term real damage will be done to the crucial national defence and aerospace capability, as well as to local jobs in the Yeovil area and to the UK economy?

The noble Baroness raises some very important points and I understand the emphasis that she attaches to this aspect of UK industry. Our approach to rotary capability will be considered as part of the modernising defence programme, as she mentioned. It is worth remembering that we already have a long-term close relationship with Leonardo helicopters, which represents the design and manufacturing capability in the south-west, through our strategic partnership arrangement—a 10-year arrangement from 2016. That arrangement is unique and it enables us to maintain a continuing dialogue with the company to ensure that we are speaking the same language on capabilities, needs and requirements.

My Lords, another NATO summit is imminent. This brings to mind the frustrations of 15 years of shortfalls in NATO’s helicopter capability, which was much-needed in Afghanistan. Despite the fact that most of our European allies had helicopters available—at one stage I counted over 1,000—we could not get 17 into Afghanistan. Our stand-alone capability reminds me of the relevance of this Question. We have an opportunity with the MDP for the noble Earl and the MoD to sit down with Leonardo, Boeing, Airbus and other providers of our helicopter capability. Will the noble Earl refresh his memory of the 2005 defence industrial strategy, which is still the last strategy any UK Government have had and is still relevant? He may want to look at page 90 in particular.

My Lords, I shall do exactly that. I am grateful to the noble Lord for his suggestion. We are on track to share headline conclusions from the modernising defence programme by the NATO summit in July. At that stage we expect to describe what the changed strategic context means for defence policy and planning, including the area in which the noble Lord is interested; how our overall approach needs to evolve, as surely it must; and how we intend to pursue improved capability in the new domains of warfare.

My Lords, does the noble Earl not agree that, given both the size of our defence budget and the multiple challenges of affordability it faces, the idea that we can for all time sustain a whole range of sovereign defence capability is simply untenable?

My Lords, I do not think that this Government or any preceding recent Government have pretended that we can maintain sovereign capability in every area of our defence requirements. We certainly consider maintaining sovereign capability where that is in the national interest but, in general, competition ensures best value for money, best capability and innovation.

My Lords, following up on my noble friend’s Question, I am sure the Minister will agree that this not only is a question for the south-west but also affects the position of Airbus, which, after all, provides at the moment one-third of all UK defence helicopters. Bearing in mind the likely pressures on Airbus to shift production to France or Germany if Brexit happens, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that Airbus’s helicopter capability remains in the UK?

The noble Lord is right: Airbus provides the majority of police and emergency services helicopters and has the largest share of the UK’s civil and military market. Its main base is in Oxford, where it modifies and customises helicopters, although the design and manufacture is completed in France, as the noble Lord is aware. We are in regular contact and have regular discussions with the company. The aerospace growth partnership, in particular, enables the industry and Government to engage on a formal basis to tackle the barriers and unlock market opportunities across these sectors of the economy.

I know it is not my noble friend’s responsibility but does he have any idea when the Metropolitan Police will start using unmanned aircraft for surveillance over London rather than flying helicopters, which is the most expensive form of aviation?

My Lords, I am afraid I shall have to write to my noble friend on that issue as it is not in my brief.

My Lords, in researching this Question I discovered the defence industrial policy December 2017, which I believe is the latest statement of the Government’s intentions. I word-searched it for the word “helicopter”, which appeared under two pretty pictures and nowhere in the main text. Are we really going to get by the middle of July in the modernising defence programme a definitive answer to the original Question?

I might suggest that the noble Lord should turn his attention to the Government’s industrial strategy White Paper as well. We are very alive to the issue he raised concerning helicopters. We are committed to keeping the UK as a leading aerospace nation. The industrial strategy White Paper identifies a range of cross-government measures to boost productivity, employment, innovation and skills. Indeed, my honourable friend Philip Dunne has recently completed a review of prosperity arising from our defence industries which will help to inform our future thinking in this area.