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809 Naval Air Squadron

Volume 836: debated on Monday 11 March 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government when they plan on 809 Naval Air Squadron being fully operational with a full complement of aircraft.

My Lords, 809 Naval Air Squadron has been stood up as a joint Royal Navy and RAF front-line F35B Lightning squadron. The squadron’s force growth, strength and capabilities will continue to increase throughout this and next year. This will enable the first operational deployment of the squadron as planned as part of the carrier strike group 2025 air group.

My Lords, it is absolutely extraordinary in this highly volatile and dangerous world, as recognised by a number of senior people in government, that there was no extra money for defence in the Budget. It is very difficult to understand. Symptomatic of that blindness to defence spending is the length of time that it has taken to build up the air groups for carrier strike, which are well behind time. It illustrates a peacetime mindset but, I am afraid, we are now in a world where one cannot have a peacetime mindset. The disgraceful issue over pilot training and the slow rate of delivery of airframes could have been overcome if we had approached it in the right way. I think the Minister understands the shortage of cash for defence, although he cannot say much sitting on the Front Bench. Can he confirm that, when 809 and 617 deploy under the deployment plan in 2025—it was announced by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence in Japan—there will be 12 aircraft from each squadron on board the ship?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point about additional funds for defence; I think we are all in the same area on this. The problem is that resources are finite. There are strong arguments in all sorts of different directions. The Prime Minister has given a clear indication to reach 2.5%; it looks as though this year will end up at about 2.3%. As far as the two squadrons are concerned, the answer is yes: there will be up to 12 aircraft in each squadron by the time the carrier force is ready to go.

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that there will be, and is, a pipeline of training sufficient for the pilots of both the Royal Air Force and the Fleet Air Arm to cover these mythical beasts?

My Lords, the training programme is in line with the build-up of aircraft. While it is not an easy thing to get right, the aircraft will certainly be capable of being manned.

My Lords, in 2022 the then Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, told the International Relations and Defence Select Committee that the RAF training programme was “lacking” and

“not in the place I would like it to be”.

Apparently, at that stage we had only 30 British pilots who could fly the F35s. Has the situation improved? How many pilots have we got at present who can fly the F35s? Can he also please tell us what aircraft are currently deployed in the Falklands?

My Lords, on the number of pilots going through training, as I have said, the Lightning Force continues to grow its pilot numbers and graduate additional pilots in the operational conversion unit in line with the planned force growth. The pilots are in training. I will write to the noble Lord and let him know exactly how many pilots we have available at the moment. His second question was about the Falklands. My understanding is that there are four Typhoon FGR4s based in the Falklands and a Voyager tanker based at Mount Pleasant in the South Atlantic.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that naval forces are being deployed urgently to the eastern Mediterranean to protect the cargo ships taking the urgently needed food supplies from Cyprus to Gaza?

My Lords, I understand that this is the case. Sometimes I think we forget just how incredibly amenable and spread our forces are. We have 22 ships and submarines on order or under construction. The Army is globally deployed across 67 countries, with 14,000 troops on exercises and operations throughout Europe. We certainly fulfil all our role as part of NATO and in the safety of security of this country. We also involve ourselves in issues such as combating the Houthi rebels and the other issues we are facing around the world.

My Lords, could the Minister have another try at answering the question from my noble friend Lord West? He asked if the Minister could confirm that both squadrons will have 12 aircraft. If I heard the Minister correctly, he said that there would be “up to” 12, which of course could mean two. Could he give a straight answer to my noble friend?

The noble Lord is quite right; I did say up to 12. The whole point of this is that the forces we have need to be flexible and interchangeable. By the end of 2025, we will have two squadrons in full operation. We will have 48 aircraft by the end of 2025, and I am assured that there will be up to 12 aircraft in each squadron which are capable at any one time. I am absolutely certain that there will be a lot more than two in each.

My Lords, is my noble friend happy that we have chosen a situation where there is only one aircraft in the world that can fly off our carriers? It is a very expensive aircraft which is in short supply. Is it not inevitable that we will have to modify these aircraft carriers so that they can fly off catapult-launched aircraft?

My Lords, the noble Lord has greater knowledge than I have in this area. As far as the Lightning is concerned, we are fully committed to the 138, as we originally set out. We will have 48 by the end of 2025 and another 27 by the early 2030s. As far as flexibility on the aircraft is concerned, I shall have to find out the full detail and write.

I remind the House of my registered interests, specifically my roles with the Royal Navy. Last year, the Defence Select Committee in the other place highlighted that the proposed cuts to the F35B and Typhoon fleets, as outlined in the defence Command Paper, would significantly undermine our ability to exert combat mass in conflict. What risk analysis has the MoD undertaken to assess the value of high-capability platforms versus airframe mass in peer-to-peer conflict? Where is the balance between sovereign capability and sovereign mass?

My Lords, the noble Baroness asked a very detailed question. The key is that, as the threat changes, we need to change the capability to meet it. We work on very long lead times. All these aircraft are extremely complicated and need to be adjusted to meet the particular threat as it comes through. Through the relationship with Lockheed Martin and the Joint Program Office, we are trying to understand what the delay on some of the deliveries is. However, we do not currently anticipate a shortfall in the ability to build the UK Lightning Force to full operational capability by the end of 2025.

My Lords, what is the point of having all the platforms that my noble friend the Minister referred to if we cannot improve the terms and conditions of service for the ratings, to retain them so that they can man the platforms?

My noble friend makes a very good point. I think we addressed this last week or the week before. An enormous amount of work is being undertaken on the question of recruitment and, particularly, retention, to ensure that the terms and conditions of employment within His Majesty’s Armed Forces are fit for purpose.