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HMS “Queen Elizabeth”

Volume 807: debated on Wednesday 4 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to change the level of support that will accompany HMS Queen Elizabeth’s deployment to the South China Sea in 2021.

My Lords, HMS “Queen Elizabeth” will sail on her first operational deployment during 2021. Detailed planning continues, but we have yet to announce our programme or destination. A Statement will be made to Parliament in due course, once planning is complete. All Royal Navy deployments and decisions on support are planned carefully, in line with operating environment, and constantly reviewed over time. The first operational deployment programme of HMS “Queen Elizabeth” will be no exception.

I thank the Minister for her Answer. We are in a dangerous world; no one can predict what will happen tomorrow, let alone a few months hence. There are real concerns about Chinese behaviour, and I believe it is right we should show solidarity with our friends in the region. This year, Australia has increased defence spending by a massive 70% and Japan by 8%—a seventh consecutive annual increase. Both countries have cited concerns over China’s aggressive actions. There is a need for strong alliances in the region. Sending a carrier task group is a good way of showing support, but we must not deal in half measures. Since 2010, our military has been grievously damaged. Can the Minister confirm that the “Queen Elizabeth” carrier battle group, deploying to the Indo-Pac region, will have its complete array of ships and aircraft and its air wing, weapons, weapons stocks and support to be able to conduct, if necessary, operations at every level of intensity? Only then can we be sure it will not be called upon to do so.

As I indicated to the noble Lord, I cannot comment on where the “Queen Elizabeth” is going, how she is going to get there or what route she will take. All of that will be unfolded to Parliament in due course. But the noble Lord makes an important point about the purpose of our military and naval capability. Certainly, I want to reassure him that HMS “Queen Elizabeth” will operate as part of a maritime task group, which will include allies and will be tailored to meet the required task. The destinations and precise number and mix of vessels deployed will depend on the operational circumstances in 2021.

My Lords, the deployment of HMS “Queen Elizabeth” to the South China Sea would show that Britain is prepared to make a contribution to the protection of freedom of navigation through the South China Sea, which is vital to protect rules-based free trade in the region. Does the Minister agree that our involvement in naval operations in Asia necessitates not only an increase in joint exercises with friendly nations, such as Japan, but deeper co-operation in procurement? Would she also agree that this strengthens the case to pursue opportunities to collaborate where such countries have similar requirements?

I say to my noble friend that he is correct that the UK has enduring interests in the Indo-Pacific and south-east Asian regions. That is without prejudice to what the “Queen Elizabeth” may or may not do. But he is also correct to identify that we are committed to maintaining regional security, and we are certainly committed to asserting rights to freedom of navigation and overflight, as laid out in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. We continue to challenge any coastal nation’s excessive maritime claims.

My Lords, the deployment of our carrier strike group next year is to be welcomed. If that is to include the Indo-Pacific, would the Minister confirm that the opportunity will be taken to refresh our ties with the five-power defence arrangements? Would she also agree that, if there are not already plans to do so, there would be great merit in establishing links with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad, consisting of the United States, Australia, Japan and India, and that, furthermore, we could act as a catalyst in bringing the FPDA and the Quad together, which would both be beneficial to our alliances in the region?

The noble and gallant Lord identifies a number of significant issues. The unique attributes of the carrier strike group mean that it can provide a global presence wherever the Government require it. The carrier and its supporting ships and aircraft can be configured to support a range of joint operations. We enjoy good relations with the parties to which he has referred and we see our purpose as a global influencer. We will do what we can that is in the best interest of upholding law and setting a good example.

My Lords, if the “Queen Elizabeth” is to be deployed as planned, with all the necessary and vital support, what are the implications for our flexibility and speed of response, and for the role that must be played by the Royal Navy in such a response, if something arises elsewhere in the world? Will we become a bit tied and muscle-bound by where we are down there if we do not have the flexibility to respond elsewhere?

I reassure the noble Lord that the deployment of the carrier strike group 21 does not leave the Navy short-handed for other priorities. The Royal Navy has sufficient ships and submarines to meet its global commitments.

My Lords, the Minister’s predecessor, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, in his inimitable reassuring way used to suggest that the support vessels would come not necessarily from the Royal Navy but from our allies. Have the Government assessed whether the support will be there from our allies in the context of the likely or possible outcomes of the American elections?

The noble Baroness’s crystal ball must be bigger than mine, because the answer to the outcome of the United States presidential election is unclear to me. As she will be aware, the United States is of course a very important ally. It is very significant to our defence relationships across the world. We work with Administrations of whatever hue. That is what we have done in the past and will do in the future.

My Lords, on 13 March last year, during a Question about deploying HMS “Queen Elizabeth” to the Pacific, I said:

“When the Americans deploy a carrier they provide an escort of a cruiser, four destroyers, a carrier wing, a submarine and 7,500 sailors.”—[Official Report, 13/3/19; col. 1019.]

I asked whether Britain can do that. Unfortunately, I am still waiting for an answer.

I am not sure the noble Lord will get one this afternoon, but I will do my best. As I indicated, the carrier strike group is importantly constructed to operate with the support of allies. By way of illustration, within the UK’s capability, the October group exercise brought together all the CSG elements—a carrier, jets, helicopters, escorts and supporting assets. Building on that success, the carrier strike group then participated in the annual NATO exercise Joint Warrior off Scotland, which was a massive exercise and in total involved 6,000 people on land, sea and air. I reassure the noble Lord that the carrier strike group will be a formidable presence.

My Lords, can the Minister say whether any other deployments of this nature are planned, for example to the south Atlantic?

I thank my noble friend. I am unable to comment in detail as to future deployments for the very same reasons that I am unable to comment in detail on the immediate deployment of HMS “Queen Elizabeth”. He identifies an important point. The south Atlantic is strategically significant and is becoming more so. That is an aspect of our global approach that we keep under constant review.

The Minister will be aware that the proposed deployment of HMS “Queen Elizabeth” was conceived when there were many justified concerns about the overall size of the surface fleet and its ability to meet the Royal Navy’s standing maritime tasks at home and around the world. Can she therefore confirm what risks are likely to be taken against those standing tasks to provide adequate escorts for the deployment of HMS “Queen Elizabeth” next year?

The noble and gallant Lord will be aware that, in contemplating any deployment, we make an extensive and robust assessment of risk in all respects. That is what we do at the moment and what we shall continue to do.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. It was a rather leisurely session, which means that three Members were unable to be brought in. We now come to the second Oral Question.