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Aircraft Carrier Task Force

Volume 796: debated on Wednesday 13 March 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what they consider to be the minimum size and composition of a United Kingdom aircraft carrier task force when deployed to the Pacific.

My Lords, the United Kingdom carrier strike group will achieve initial operating capability in December 2020 and deploy in 2021. The size and composition of that group is set by the deployment requirements as determined during operational planning.

I thank the Minister for that non-Answer. Can he confirm that the normal aircraft carrier task force requires two, three or four frigates, one or two submarines and a couple of support ships, and that to maintain a task force of that size in the Pacific requires at least as many ships at home, in maintenance or on their way in and out? Does he recall the Secretary of State for Defence’s speech at the Royal United Services Institute some weeks ago, in which he promised that we intend in our future global deployment to keep six ships permanently in the Gulf and maintain a permanent presence in the Caribbean and the Asia-Pacific? He said:

“Our vision is for these ships to form part of 2 Littoral Strike Groups complete with escorts, support vessels and helicopters. One would be based east of Suez … and one based west of Suez in the Mediterranean”.

Is the Minister confident that the Navy is capable of supporting all these parts of the Secretary of State’s vision?

My Lords, we will always have a sovereign task group capability. As I said, the carriers will operate as part of a maritime task group, which will be tailored to meet the required tasks in a particular case. The precise number and mix of vessels deployed would depend on operational circumstances. As the noble Lord knows, we will be able to draw on a range of modern and highly capable vessels to support the carriers, including Type 45 destroyers, Type 23 frigates, Astute-class submarines and, in due course, Type 26 frigates. We will also work routinely with ships from allied navies.

My Lords, is this sabre-rattling in the Pacific intended to give our friends in the region confidence, or to make the Chinese tremble? When the Americans deploy a carrier they provide an escort of a cruiser, four destroyers, a carrier wing, a submarine and 7,500 sailors. Can we do that?

My Lords, this is not about sabre-rattling. Indeed, it is not about antagonising China in any way. My right honourable friend the Defence Secretary announced that the first operational mission of the “Queen Elizabeth” would include the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Pacific region, thereby enabling the Royal Navy to maximise the opportunities we have to exercise and interact with our key regional allies and partners, and to make a statement about upholding the international rules-based system, including freedom of navigation.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one must be careful not to get seduced by the destroyers and frigates—much as I would like to see a bigger destroyer and frigate force? The Royal Navy consists of other vessels—for example, the important role of mine counter measures vessels in the Persian Gulf, and what our great RFA ships can do. They will all contribute to that statement that the Secretary of State made at RUSI. One should not focus purely on destroyers and frigates, much though I would like to do so on a day-to-day basis.

The noble and gallant Lord is absolutely right. Of course the number of platforms matters, but I would say to noble Lords, look not only at the number of warships; look also at the breadth of capability that the Royal Navy possesses. There are few navies in the world that can match the Royal Navy for the range and quality of the defensive, offensive and deterrent effects that it can deliver.

Does the Minister not agree that we talk about this as if the carriers were vulnerable, whereas they can go 500 miles in any direction in one day, and are extremely difficult to find? Certainly, terrorists cannot get at them at all when they are at sea, unlike a static air base, which is very easy to find, as we know exactly where it is. However, if we deploy a carrier group east of Suez into the Indo-Pacific region, does the Minister not agree that it would be foolhardy—historically we have never done this—not to have within the region, because of the transit times, at least one SSN, one destroyer, two key ASW frigates and the support ships involved? Doing that will put huge pressure on the other tasks the Navy does day to day, because we have insufficient frigates and destroyers to do all those tasks as well.

The noble Lord, with his immense experience, is almost certainly right about the kinds of deployment that we will see the carrier perform. The first operational deployment is still in the planning stage. As recently announced, it will involve our Dutch allies: it will be a joint deployment with US Marine Corps Lightning squadron. The precise composition of the group is being worked through at the moment. We should emphasise the noble Lord’s first point: this carrier represents an extremely capable strategic deterrent for the nation. Let me stress that it will be robustly protected by air and sea assets against threats of all kinds.

My Lords, I do not wish to challenge the principles set out by the Secretary of State in his recent speech, but is it not better not to go into too much detail on these occasions, for fear of challenging the safety and security of the units concerned?

My Lords, the Minister has on several occasions talked about working with our allies, as he has in the past in the context of the escort ships alongside the Queen Elizabeth class. What additional work are the Secretary of State and the Ministry of Defence doing to ensure that we have stronger bilateral co-operation, particularly in the context of Brexit, to strengthen our resilience?

There is a great deal of interest on the part of our European allies, in particular, in working more closely with the Royal Navy once the carriers come into service. The carriers will enable the UK to make an unparalleled contribution to NATO, not only through the carriers’ own capability but also as a means of coalescing European naval effort alongside that of our close partners the United States.