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Carrier Strike Group

Volume 827: debated on Monday 6 February 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government how they intend to achieve Full Operating Capability for the Carrier Strike Group operating within a Maritime Task Group configuration by December 2023, given the requirement for 36 F-35B Lightning aircraft.

My Lords, I declare my interests as a serving Army reservist. However, I am today responding in my capacity as His Majesty’s Government’s spokesperson for defence. The definition of “full operating capability” for the carrier strike group includes 24 UK Lightnings or 36 Lightnings with partner nations when operating within a maritime task group. The programme is 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 requirements.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for the Answer, but it just adds to the confusion. When on 8 September I talked about 36 aircraft being required for an FOC, I was told that the MoD did not recognise the figure of 36— which surprised me because I had written it into the requirement for the aircraft carrier when it was built. On 23 December I was told, “Ah, for a full FOC, we do need 36 of these aircraft”, so there is a certain amount of confusion. I am confused and I am meant to know about aircraft—as well as ships, I hasten to add—so I imagine the House is very confused. I will ask the Minister a couple of questions, and if he does not know, maybe he could write to me. First, is the full operating capability of the carrier strike group to be reached by December 2023, as I was told by the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, on 12 December? The other day somebody said, “No, it has changed to 2025”, and I would like to know whether it has not. Secondly, if yes, how is it possible, because we will have only 33 F35s in our inventory in this country, so we cannot possibly put 36 of them to sea? Lastly, will 809 Squadron—

I will stop there: I think that is enough questions. For an Army officer, the Minister has made a great start.

My Lords, there are currently 29 UK F35Bs in service. The complement of assets deployed on the carriers will be flexible. The air wing will be configured to meet defence needs for each operation or deployment.

Could my noble friend arrange with his colleagues for us to have a full report of the lessons from the last carrier strike group deployment, which I think ended in December, in the Indo-Pacific and the Far East, including the unfortunate loss of one F35B? What lessons arose from working with the Japanese navy? Once we had that report, we would be able to judge more effectively how things were going to go with the next deployment, which will of course involve the “Prince of Wales” when it is ready.

My Lords, we welcome the findings of the interim report into the loss of the F35B aircraft in 2021. While it would be inappropriate to comment fully until the final report is published, we can confirm that immediate steps are being taken after the crash to ensure the safety of earmarked flying operations.

My Lords, I will add to the list of things on which the noble Lord will write to the House, or perhaps he can tell us today. Can he say when HMS “Prince of Wales” is likely to be operational again? Are we likely to have two ships in the Queen Elizabeth class that are both seaworthy?

HMS “Prince of Wales” is expected to commence her operational programme as planned in autumn 2023. However, an issue has been identified with her port shaft. To prevent a similar defect occurring, rectification of this issue is expected to be completed prior to her planned departure. The defects with the shafts of HMS “Prince of Wales” are not believed to be a class issue, and HMS “Queen Elizabeth” will continue to undertake strike carrier duties until 2024, when HMS “Prince of Wales” will take over as strike carrier at very high readiness.

My Lords, I did not quite catch the Minister’s Answer on the date of full operating capability. Can he reassure the House that, when it is declared, the F35B Lightning force will be fully supported by all the logistics and the depth and quantity of weapons supplies necessary for high-intensity conflict, which is certainly not the case for most of our force structure at the moment?

I understand the point that the noble and gallant Lord is making. In 2022, the number of UK F35Bs available for embarked operations to support routine carrier deployments was a squadron of up to 12 jets. This number will increase to the full operating capability for F35Bs, currently scheduled for 2025, which is up to two UK squadrons. The Royal Air Force intends to continue upgrading these aircraft in line with the wider programme and to equip them with UK weapons, including the UK-developed SPEAR Cap 3 and Meteor.

My Lords, what is the present size of the Royal Navy and is it sufficient for the purposes referred to in this Question?

Will my noble friend clarify the numbers on F35Bs? The noble Lord, Lord West, clearly could not tell from the authorities whether the date was December 2023 or 2025, so will my noble friend clarify when we will be fully up to complement? Given the tense situation because of Ukraine and our role as a maritime nation, should we consider some form of lend-lease in the short term so that we are up to full complement as quickly as possible?

I understand what my noble friend is saying, but the CSG21 deployment saw the US Marine Corps F35 squadron integrated throughout, which is a tangible demonstration of the UK-US special relationship and our united efforts to ensure stability, security and freedom of the seas. A further tranche of additional F35 aircraft has been announced; once complete, it will bring the total UK fleet up to 74 aircraft.

My Lords, the original intention was that the United Kingdom should take 138 of the Lightnings. Is that still the Government’s intention?

On current plans, by the end of 2025 the UK will have procured 48 F35B Lightning aircraft, which are capable of operating from both land and the UK’s Queen Elizabeth-class carriers. As I said, the intention to buy a further tranche of additional F35B aircraft has been announced; when complete, this will bring the total UK fleet up to 74.

My Lords, the UK and France are the two European nations with more than carrier strike capability, along with Indo-Pacific nations. We have a UK-France summit coming up on 10 March. Is there any intention to announce co-ordinated deployments of our carrier strike capabilities towards the Far East?

I would not wish to comment on specific locations of operations for reasons that I am sure the noble Lord would understand. I can say that we are always training and working with NATO and other allied partners.

When will the refit of HMS “Vanguard” that has been going on since 2015 be finished? It was recently discovered—just before the engines were about to be fired up, as it were—that Babcock’s workers had superglued bolts on it instead of replacing them. How much has that put back the deployment of this ship?

The noble Lord is correct that, as part of a planned inspection, a defect was found. It was promptly reported and fixed. In light of this issue, my right honourable friend the Defence Secretary spoke directly with the chief executive office of Babcock to seek assurances about future work. It is UK policy that we do not comment on specific details of submarine activity or operations; however, I can confirm that there were no nuclear safety implications or risks associated with the identified defect at any point.

My Lords, it has been reported this morning that the expected update of the integrated review—which may address the concerns around the carrier strike group—may now be delayed because the initial draft failed to reflect the transformed security environment in Europe. Was that not the main reason for it being updated or are these reports wrong?

As your Lordships are aware, the integrated review refresh is an ongoing process and it would not be appropriate for me to prejudge the outcome.