Royal Air Force pilots and ground crew are poised on quick reaction alert 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year round, ready to scramble within minutes. My hon. Friend would point out quickly that it would be remiss of me to say that that is solely the endeavour of fast jet pilots. Equally poised are those in his constituency who crew the tankers that must also deploy rapidly to support. QRA has been launched on five occasions in 2023 with every incident resolved successfully.
I thank the Minister for his kind words about my constituents. He will no doubt have read the report from the Select Committee on Defence, “Aviation Procurement: Winging it?”, which warns of an unacceptable gap in combat air mass. With the retirement of the Hercules placing even more demands on the air mobility force, and the Voyagers—to which he rightly pays tribute—being asked to do more and more each month, what confidence does he have that, if required to do so, those forces have enough men, women and machines to defend the UK in a peer conflict?
I have complete confidence that quick reaction alert will be resourced. The highest priority of the air force is to defend the homeland. I also have complete confidence that the combat air force, as currently structured, is capable of performing a very wide range of duties around the world. I pay tribute to the work of the Air and Space Commander and his team, who, through work on agile deployment, are finding that we can deploy Typhoon and F-35 ever more quickly to ever more austere operating environments. That drives the productivity of the force even further.
There is, of course, no question over the quality of combat aircrews, but there is a big question mark over the quantity of aircraft that they can fly. I want to challenge the Minister on the confidence he has just articulated, because there are serious concerns that our combat aircrew are engaged almost universally in transit and air policing, and have very little aircraft availability to practise proper combat air. What is his assessment of that concern?
We take very seriously the work that the Defence Committee does; we enjoy reading the Committee’s reports and, as I hope members of the Committee and of the House recognise, often take the findings into policy. I do push back gently, however, because in addition to the incredible work of QRA and the support the Royal Air Force has given to NATO missions over the last 18 months, since the start of the war in Ukraine, they have also been able to support carrier strike deployments, deployment on Exercise Red Flag, and indeed the deployment of a squadron, below full strength, all the way across to Australia. That gets to exactly what I told my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts): that this ability to deploy air force with greater agility, further from home, in more austere settings, is a step change for the Royal Air Force, allowing it to operate from more austere environments rather than solely from its home bases.