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Royal Navy: Aircraft Carriers

Volume 836: debated on Monday 12 February 2024

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the material state of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers.

My Lords, the Royal Navy continues to meet its operational commitments, both at home and abroad. Having two aircraft carriers means that HMS “Prince of Wales” has quickly prepared to deploy in place of HMS “Queen Elizabeth”. She has sailed from Portsmouth this afternoon to join the NATO exercise Steadfast Defender. Following initial investigations, HMS “Queen Elizabeth” will be required to sail for Rosyth in Scotland to undergo repairs for an issue with her starboard propeller shaft coupling, which will be carried out in due course. Her issue is not the same as that experienced by HMS “Prince of Wales” back in 2022.

My Lords, the Minister has made it quite clear that the “Prince of Wales” has now sailed. It is unfortunate that they prepped everyone for a sailing yesterday and that did not happen, but I understand why that was the case. Beatty very famously said, as his second battle-cruiser blew up at the Battle of Jutland, “There seems to be something wrong with our”—expletive—“ships today”. That is not the case with the carriers, but I am very concerned about the initial problem the “Prince of Wales” had some almost two years ago with the shaft misalignment. Will the Minister tell us how we are going to be able to get some payment from the people who built the ship? To have accepted it with a misaligned shaft was bad, and it was badly built. Somehow, we should be able to get money back from the builders, rather than the UK public paying for that damage.

I thank the noble Lord, and I concur that the Royal Navy has worked extremely fast to be able to move the “Prince of Wales” out in place of the “Queen Elizabeth” after only eight days—it is a remarkable feat, and we should be grateful to them all. As far as her propellor shaft problem, my understanding is that it is ongoing and subject to continued negotiations.

My Lords, nobody knows better than me how much the noble Lord, Lord West, enjoys his little bit of impish mischief when discussing Royal Naval assets. I say to the Minister that, while technical malfunctions are, of course, regrettable—and I am pleased to hear that the “Prince of Wales” has now sailed—it must be acknowledged that both aircraft carriers have made significant contributions to our naval capability. They have been a huge credit to us across the globe, and that is an important part not just of our RN operational capability but of our global soft power.

I thank my noble friend for that confirmation and entirely agree with it. It is worth saying that HMS “Prince of Wales” will reach Steadfast Defender before the commencement of this extremely important NATO exercise, involving the 31 nations of NATO and Sweden as well.

My Lords, the material state of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers should be a national shame. Without these aircraft carriers being in a suitable state, the Navy cannot carry out its necessary defence duties. At this stage, it appears to be difficult to determine whether the issues are due to fundamental design flaws or with the amount of testing time allocated when these vehicles are trialled. In the light of this, would the Minister support a review into the procedures for routine maintenance checks on HMS vessels?

My Lords, I answered this question the other day. These are highly technical pieces of equipment. We carry out regular tests, and it was a regular test which determined that the “Queen Elizabeth” should not sail. The advice was that it should not sail, and the sensible thing to do was to use the other aircraft carrier. That is exactly what we have done.

My Lords, further to the request from the noble Lord, Lord West, that compensation should be paid by the manufacturers of these aircraft carriers for a total sum of £6.2 billion, does my noble friend accept that BAE S might not be very good at building ships but it is very good at writing contracts?

My Lords, that is not something I am particularly expert in, but I can see that it is important to make certain that a contract has the correct clauses to ensure that, when things go wrong, the placer of the contract is suitably covered.

My Lords, I refer your Lordships’ House to my register of interests, specifically my ties to the Royal Navy. Our aircraft carriers are a core component of our conventional deterrent. While we welcome the fact that the “Prince of Wales” has deployed—we thank the crew for so quickly changing their plans—can the Minister tell the House what message it sends to our adversaries that we have had such struggles with our carriers in recent days? What assurances can he give your Lordships’ House that the carrier is able to complete this deployment in full, without further maintenance issues?

My Lords, that is precisely the question I asked earlier in a briefing. I am assured that the carrier which has left to join Steadfast Defender will certainly fulfil its commitments, and that the “Queen Elizabeth” is on her way to dry dock to find out exactly what is wrong.

My Lords, I am a simple soldier, but I do not underestimate the complexities of trying to get carriers to sea, not least marrying the personnel issues with the mechanical. My concern, though, is a slightly different question. Does my noble friend feel that the MoD’s attitude to risk is currently in balance? From my experience over a number of years now, our attitude to risk seems to be that we are becoming ever more averse to it. Of course if a propeller is not working, a warship cannot go to sea, but it seems that ever smaller incidents prevent principled actions happening because we are becoming so risk-averse when many of these risks could be mitigated and ships could get to sea.

My noble friend raises an extremely interesting point. As I think many noble Lords know, I have come in from the private sector relatively recently, where the concept of risk is considered completely differently from how it is within government, and certainly within the Ministry of Defence. I fully understand that, when you are dealing with people’s lives, you want to minimise the risk as far as you possibly can, but there comes a point where you have to get the risk-return in balance. I am not certain that we have got that right in government yet.

Could the Minister update the House as to when aircraft suitable for flying from these very expensive aircraft carriers will be ready to be deployed?

Could the Minister tell us how many other UK vessels are available to accompany and defend our aircraft carrier going to the Red Sea?

My Lords, the answer to that question is that there is planned maintenance and a certain amount of ships are out of service at any one time. However, force protection is considered paramount at all times, and there is sufficient cover to ensure that is the case.

My noble friend raised the question of risk in the Ministry of Defence. Is there not also the question of efficiency, particularly an ongoing question of the efficiency of procurement in the Ministry of Defence? This is a vital issue, given the state of the world at the moment. Will he take this point to his friend the Minister in the department so that we can consider this carefully?

I thank my noble friend for that. I certainly will; the question of procurement is a deep and difficult one to get your hands around, but it is certainly something we should all take very seriously.

My Lords, in the light of this discussion, and the usual concerns of the noble Lord, Lord West, what discussions are the Government and the Ministry of Defence having, in the light of the comments from a potential presidential candidate in the United States about backing off from NATO or potentially encouraging Russia to attack certain NATO members?

I am sure that all noble Lords will find that particular gentleman’s comments extraordinary. I assure all noble Lords that the Ministry of Defence is looking into all possibilities very seriously.

My Lords, can I come back to the Question posed by my noble friend Lord West right at the beginning? In answer to my noble friend’s question about recovering some of the costs from the companies which built the carrier, the noble Earl said that the Government are involved in negotiations. Will he undertake to come back to the House and update us on these negotiations, so that we can see if we can get some of our money back?

My Lords, to come back on the point of risk, would the Minister not agree that, if there had been a war, there is no doubt that the “Queen Elizabeth” would have sailed, thus with corrosion on her coupling of tensile steel? I have no doubt, with my professional knowledge of this, that she would have been under steam for many months without anything going wrong. They are doing double checks and double checks because they are so nervous about something happening. I think there is an issue about risk, and possibly sometimes we do not take risks we should. On this occasion, I think it was the right decision, because another carrier was available, but in wartime we would have gone ahead and the ship would have operated.

My Lords, from what I know about that, I agree entirely with what the noble and gallant Lord has just said.

Would my noble friend the Minister agree with me that, disappointingly, these aircraft carriers, which are in any event extremely vulnerable in the theatre of operations, also appear to be unreliable? Will he confirm to the House that there will have sailed with the aircraft carrier an added complement to her crew from the civilian engineers responsible for these problems?

My Lords, my understanding is that that is the case. Clearly, these matters are looked at seriously throughout these exercises, and obviously one hopes that the reliability of these extremely complicated pieces of equipment improves.