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Defence: Support Ships and Type 32 Frigates

Volume 831: debated on Tuesday 20 June 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government when they expect to place orders for (1) multi-role support ships, and (2) Type 32 frigates.

My Lords, the multi-role support ship—MRSS—and the Type 32 programmes remain in the concept phase and have not yet reached the level of maturity for me to confirm when orders are expected to be placed. The programme and procurement strategy for MRSS and Type 32 will be decided following the concept phase.

My Lords, as I stand here today, our great maritime nation has 11 operational destroyers and frigates. Why are we in this parlous state? The reason is that, for many years, up until fairly recently, we have not been ordering ships on a rolling basis. This is absolutely necessary for a proper shipbuilding industry. Indeed, the Government recognise that now and, within the MoD, Ministers understand the need for a rolling programme. We have had some recent orders, but they have stopped. We must keep ordering, otherwise we will have the same problem again. The Treasury does not seem to understand that, if we do not do that, the SMEs and all our trained people will go to the wall, we will not have a proper shipbuilding industry and we will not have a proper fleet. Could the Minister please go to the Treasury, point out the error of its ways, and explain how important it is for us to go down this route?

I do not impugn the noble Lord’s right to hold the Government to account but I would not wish his persistent interrogation and commentary to imply that our Royal Navy is in some dysfunctional state. The Royal Navy was one of the few navies in the world to have ships in every ocean on the planet in 2022, from the High North to the Antarctic, and from the Baltic to the Pacific. It continues to deliver its commitments by undertaking the biggest recapitalisation of the fleet in a generation, from Type 23 to 26 and 31, and from Vanguard to Dreadnought. It is worthwhile reminding your Lordships that our Royal Navy is one of only three navies in the world to be able to operate to fifth-generation carriers and aircraft, along with the United States and China. The Royal Navy is our British pride and joy. I wish that sometimes the noble Lord, Lord West, would acknowledge that, instead of repeatedly and monotonously talking down his former service. It is time to champion it.

My Lords, I do not wish to talk down His Majesty’s Royal Navy. However, like the noble Lord, Lord West, I am keen to ensure not only that we have an effective rolling programme but that our ships should be buoyant and seaworthy, ideally as soon as the trials are over. With regard to moving from the concept phase for the Type 32s, can the Minister tell the House what lessons His Majesty’s Government have learned from procuring the Type 45s and the “Queen Elizabeth” class so that, when the next ships go into service, they will be seaworthy from day one?

Again, to disabuse anyone of any misconception of the noble Baroness’s question, we have a functional, operational Royal Navy which is discharging its obligations to the country. As regards the more recent types of shipbuilding commissioning by the Royal Navy, such as the Type 26 and Type 31, part of their attraction is their design concept, which means that they are more readily produced, and they have an exportable value, and that means that the sorts of problems to which the noble Baroness refers, which certainly characterise some previous ships, are now much less likely to materialise. What I described to the Chamber with regard to what the Royal Navy is currently undertaking demonstrates beyond a shred of a doubt that it is highly professional, very well-equipped and functional.

My Lords, is it not customary, in the year which sees the Coronation of a new monarch, for the Royal Navy to be reviewed by the new monarch? Will His Majesty review the fleet in the course of the current year?

That is a matter for the palace. However, I am sure that if His Majesty were to review the fleet, it would be very positively received.

My Lords, the Minister has made some excellent points in defence of our wonderful Royal Navy. However, the impressive response of Ukraine in the current conflict demonstrates the rapidly changing nature of warfare and the growing importance of agility and flexibility. The Royal Navy is working hard to maximise these latest technologies, including AI. Does the Minister agree that the Type 32 frigate addresses all those developing priorities?

The Type 32 is conceived as an agile, resilient and capable ship. However, I point out to the noble Lord that we have already, for example, upgraded Type 45s with the Sea Viper Evolution programme and upgraded Type 23s with the Naval Strike Missile in partnership with the Norwegians—the first ship will be ready by the end of the year. In addition, the initial Sonar Type 2150 ships have already been upgraded. We are constantly reviewing how we can keep our fleet swift, agile and effective.

My Lords, given that one of the intentions and evident benefits of a national shipbuilding programme is local economic benefit, including the levelling-up aims of investing in young people and retraining older workers, and that shipyards are, by and large, in areas of deprivation where such benefit is vital, will His Majesty’s Government ensure that current capacity and design skills, apprenticeship training and other essential infrastructure is maintained pending the commitment to the Type 32 frigates and MRSS programmes so that it does not cost a great deal more to initiate these vital programmes?

I thank the right reverend Prelate for making a number of extremely important points. The whole essence of the national shipbuilding strategy was to ensure that we got shipbuilding in the United Kingdom on to a more stable and sustainable basis. The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right: the MoD’s direct spend supports 29,800 jobs in the shipbuilding industry—that includes submarines—with a further 21,300 jobs supported indirectly. There is an opportunity for shipbuilding in the UK to deliver exactly the sort of benefits to which the right reverend Prelate refers.

Can the Minister explain how asking questions, however persistently, about providing the Royal Navy with the equipment that it needs is somehow talking it down?

If the noble Lord had listened to my preface in response to the noble Lord, Lord West, he would have heard me say that I do not impugn the right of the noble Lord, Lord West, to hold the Government to account. However, I think the Chamber would agree that there is a certain predictability to the character of the noble Lord’s questions; I know from first-hand experience the volume of questions with which I have to deal. I am not impugning his right to hold the Government to account but to do so repetitively, without ever counterbalancing the argument by acknowledging some of the Royal Navy’s enormous triumphs, gives a slightly disproportionate and not totally representative picture.

My Lords, how many qualified crews do we have to support our destroyers and frigates? Have any been deployed in recent days in search for the missing mini-submarine near the “Titanic”?

I have no information on my noble friend’s latter point. I can seek specific information about the crew numbers to which he refers and will write to him.

My Lords, the Type 32 frigate was announced on 19 November 2020. I understand that, to make the national shipbuilding strategy work, the first ship needs to be laid down by mid-2027. After two years and seven months, the project is still in the pre-concept stage. I think that means, in plain English, that we do not even know what these ships are for. Can the Minister enlighten the House, or will the project slip, so plunging the British shipbuilding industry into chaos once again?

I have already indicated to the House that this ship is in the concept phase; there is no more that I can add to that. The programme and procurement strategy will be decided following the current concept phase, once that has concluded. However, I would observe that this is part of a shipbuilding programme for the Royal Navy that is substantial, significant and very important for the Navy’s future operational effectiveness.

My Lords, on this particular argument I find myself more in favour of the Minister’s point, inasmuch as the lineage of these questions, although entertaining, occasionally gives the impression that the sole purpose of the defence budget is the maritime renaissance. Increasingly, the issue of military advantage will be born not of hardware but of software. Can the Minister confirm that it is this strategic shift, and not necessarily by accounting for military competence and capability in the counting of input numbers, that is the qualitative output of a sophisticated and technologically equipped Armed Forces—the point of the Minister’s expression of frustration—and a more balanced approach to the investment necessary?

I thank the noble and gallant Lord. He makes the point more eloquently and with greater authority than I can. I do not seek to pre-empt the defence Command Paper refresh, which is imminently in the stages of becoming public, but the hybrid nature of our capability will be obvious from that paper. The noble and gallant Lord is quite correct: we cannot put things in silos. We have to work out what we are trying to deal with, what the threat is, what the hybrid character of the threat is and how we can have a capability—whether by land, air or sea—that will effectively combine to address that threat.