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Royal Navy: F35B

Volume 824: debated on Thursday 8 September 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when the Royal Navy will be able to deploy a carrier with the full complement of 36 United Kingdom-owned F35B in its air wing.

My Lords, the noble Lord’s figure of 36 F35B as the optimum deployment for a carrier is not a measurement recognised within the MoD. Each Queen Elizabeth-class carrier has been designed for the flexible usage necessary in a modern defence capability, including transporting a mix of fixed-wing and rotary aircraft, but the composition and size of an embarked air group in a deploying carrier will be tailored to meet the operational requirement.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer. I was very heavily involved in getting the aircraft carriers, and one of the bases for their size and scale was that they needed to carry 36 fast jets and be able to do operations over a three-day period. That is why they ended up at that size. You need to do that if you are going to be a hot-war situation, when they will do serious damage to the Queen’s enemies and can look after themselves. There is a war going on in Europe, and there could be a world war. We do not have enough aircraft to fill the carriers should we need to. In the defence review that is to be carried out, which was referred to by the Secretary of State for Defence two days ago, can the Minister ensure that it will look very closely at making sure we have enough aircraft and, even more fundamentally, enough pilots? The UK Military Flying Training System is a disaster at the moment and we have too few fast-jet pilots.

I pay tribute to the noble Lord for his role at the time of conceiving the two carriers, but that concept is now fairly mature and life has moved on. As I have indicated, the MoD has taken a view that we need flexibility. We need the capacity to be sure that, depending on operational requirement, we have these F35s, both land based and, if necessary, ship based, which is a sensible proposition to advance. I remind the noble Lord that the UK’s carrier strike group is a unique-value capability. The UK is the only ally to contribute a formed maritime task group complete with carrier-strike capability to NATO via the NATO readiness initiative.

My Lords, given that this hot war has been going on for six months in Ukraine, can my noble friend reassure the House that we have sufficient land forces, as well as naval and air forces, to sustain an operation such as this for six months? Most people say that we do not.

I hesitate to contradict my noble friend; I know he poses his question in very good faith. I would say to him that the role that the British military has been playing in relation to Ukraine is essentially one of support and advice, and of course, most recently and importantly, of training within this country—a very welcome facility for the armed forces of Ukraine. We also maintain our necessary capability to protect the security and defence of this country.

My Lords, for once the noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, focused on helicopters and the air; I will focus on the sea. In the light of the fact that HMS “Prince of Wales” had to come back to dock because of technical issues and that earlier in the year all the Type 45s were in dock because of various issues, does the Minister feel that our naval capability is adequate, and what focus will Her Majesty’s Government, with the new Prime Minister, be putting on making sure that we are sufficiently resilient in the naval sphere?

On the HMS “Prince of Wales”, that has of course been a regrettable development. I can confirm that the “Prince of Wales” is alongside in Portsmouth and will proceed to Rosyth dry dock in due course. In the meantime, HMS “Queen Elizabeth” has departed to carry out duties with the United States. On the broader question of the fleet, the noble Baroness will be aware that the fleet has been a very important supporter of the carrier project. Many of our ships were in attendance discharging duties. Most recently, there have been ships in the Mediterranean escorting Russian ships. I therefore reassure your Lordships that the fleet is in a good state. What is exciting is the planned development of the fleet, not just with Type 26 and Type 31 but now with Type 32 and Type 83 coming into scope.

My Lords, the noble Baroness’s previous answer focused on the size of one carrier air group on one carrier. Even when Lightning numbers have been increased, the UK will still have only one air group for two carriers—an average of half an air group per carrier. The United States has an average of over one-and-a-half air groups per carrier, because it recognises that only this will enable it to maintain operational tempo. The Government have shown great ambition for deployments of the carrier and carrier air groups; will they recognise that if they are to sustain this ambition into the future, they need to provide the necessary resources to back it up?

There are various situations where the United States and the United Kingdom approach differently configurations of capability. The noble and gallant Lord will be aware of the planned increase of the F35B flight support in 2025, when it will go from 26 at the moment up to 48. The ultimate plan is to increase it to 74. That is exciting and should reassure noble Lords that there is very robust capability.

My Lords, what is the cause of HMS “Prince of Wales” being taken out of operation, who is responsible and when will it be fully operational?

I am unable to give any specific answers. The “Prince of Wales” will need to make her way to Rosyth to go into dry dock. At this stage, it is not known what the cause is; we know that the problem is mechanical failure on the propeller, on the shaft and the coupling, but what is causing the problem will become clearer only once inspection can be carried out. I see the noble Lord is shaking his head; I have huge admiration for him, but I did not realise that naval architecture was part of his skillset.

My Lords, with other members of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, I visited the Lockheed Martin factory in Dallas where the F35 is built. In the course of that visit, I was subject to a large number of questions as to precisely how many further aircraft the United Kingdom proposed to buy. Once upon a time, the figure was 138—I doubt that is still current. Will the Minister take the opportunity, as of today’s date, to give a definitive answer on the number of this fifth-generation aircraft that the United Kingdom Government are prepared to buy?

As I indicated to the noble and gallant Lord, the current level of F35s is 26; by 2025, there will be a further 22, bringing the flight up to 48. The intention is to buy a further tranche of additional F35B aircraft, which has been announced and will bring the UK total fleet up to 74 aircraft.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, as the present economic crisis was triggered, and indeed largely caused, by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, additional military expenditure, especially in as far as it helps expedite the expulsion of Russian troops from the territory of Ukraine, is part of dealing with the economic crisis?

As my noble friend will be aware, the integrated review absolutely and sharply identified the principal threat as far as the UK is concerned as being Russia. That has now manifested itself in an ugly and defined shape. He will be aware that the spending review accorded to the Ministry of Defence a record-busting extra £24 billion over the course of this Parliament. That is indicative of the Government’s commitment to defence. Obviously, with the new Prime Minister and, I have to say, a very determined Secretary of State for Defence, I am sure that the future significance—as my noble friend has indicated—of our defence capability will be constantly highlighted.

My Lords, the Minister can see from the number of questions that people are really concerned to hear from the Government a firm commitment that we will have a sufficient number of aircraft for our aircraft carriers. That is why she has been pressed, and some of the reassurance she has given to the House today is good. On the use of the aircraft carriers, can she say a bit more about the trials that are going on, about UAVs being used off the carriers and where that has got to? What are the Government’s objectives and plans with respect to that? Will it impact on the numbers of F35Bs that are to be ordered? Also, more worryingly, what will it mean for the way the aircraft carriers are configured and will any changes be needed to accommodate that?

As the noble Lord will be aware, the F35 is a state-of-the-art aircraft and we are very pleased to have them. We are very pleased to be adding to our fleet and we look forward to these additions. They are already armed with very sophisticated weaponry, but the Royal Air Force intends to continue upgrading them with the wider programme and to equip them with UK weapons, which will include the UK-developed SPEAR Cap 3 and Meteor. To augment their strike capability and to complement and, perhaps, potentially replace some of the roles delivered by its crewed helicopters, the Royal Navy is exploring options for a range of uncrewed air systems.