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House of Lords Hansard

Royal Navy: Harpoon Anti-ship Missiles

23 November 2016
Volume 776


    Asked by

  • To ask Her Majesty’s Government what intelligence assessment they conducted before making the decision to withdraw the Harpoon anti-ship missiles from Royal Navy service at the end of 2018 without replacement.

  • My Lords, the Royal Navy continuously reviews the capabilities it requires. Inevitably, this means choices must be made on where to invest. Work is ongoing across the MoD to consider options for Harpoon replacement. It has long been the established practice not to comment publicly on intelligence matters, as to do so would likely prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the Armed Forces.

  • I thank the noble Earl for his Answer but it fills me with despair. We are paying off HMS “Ocean” and HMS “Diligence” early. We are paying HMS “Bulwark” into reserve for five years. We have 19 escorts, which is a national disgrace, two of which are tied alongside because of lack of manpower due to cuts made by the coalition. Six destroyers of the 19 have major intercooler problems and there is no programme for exactly when they will be repaired. The House of Commons Defence Committee said it is appalling that we have no real replacements for the ageing Type 23s, and now we are removing Harpoon. This is not an abstract issue. For a number of years we will have ships deployed that might suddenly come across an opponent and have to fight—as happened to me and others. We will have ships sunk and people—boys and girls, as mine were—killed. That is not a good thing. Is it possible to look at having available, on standby, some Block II Harpoons, ready to be pulled out very quickly should we need them for our ships? If not, we are standing into danger.

  • My Lords, the noble Lord paints a false picture of the Royal Navy, which for the first time in a generation is growing. We need to be aware of that. He asked a specific question about Harpoon. The current batch of Harpoon missiles we carry has now reached its natural end of life. To replace it would require significant investment in a new missile stockpile. It was the Royal Navy’s judgment that that would be a less than optimal use of its budget for future investment.

  • My Lords, when the coalition Government took office in 2010, the finances of the Ministry of Defence were in complete chaos, largely because of decisions made by the previous Government, including the buying of the two magnificent aircraft carriers that we all look forward to seeing in service one day. Although we had to make a great many cuts, would my noble friend take down to the Ministry of Defence the message from this House that perhaps, now that the situation has changed in so many ways, the Royal Navy and other services need a little more money spent on them?

  • I am grateful to my noble friend. It is important to understand the larger picture, as I alluded to a minute ago. For the first time in many decades, the Royal Navy is growing in both size and capability. Its judgment was that investing in the carriers, the Type 26 Global Combat Ship, the new submarines and the offshore patrol vessels, as well a range of missiles and capabilities, rather than reinvesting in a 1980s weapons system, represented the right order of priority for the Royal Navy’s overall capability. That firmly remains its judgment.

  • My Lords, will the Minister set out which of the items in the long list of problems we have just heard are not correct and which are?

  • The noble Lord, Lord West, painted a picture of a dysfunctional Royal Navy. I repudiate that picture entirely. It is a Royal Navy that can be proud of the investment that is being placed in it. One of the proudest features are the carriers that the noble Lord, Lord West, was instrumental in commissioning.

  • My Lords, all our Type 23 frigates and half our Type 45s carry the Harpoon missile. Will the Minister tell the House the effect of the inevitable loss of capability and can he reassure the House that we will not be putting these ships and their crews at extra risk during this period?

  • It is important to understand the context in which a weapon such as Harpoon would be used. Harpoon would be likely to be used only in open ocean against frigates and above in a state-on-state conflict when our naval assets would most likely be operating within a coalition task group with a range of offensive systems at its disposal. There are ways other than Harpoon of delivering that offensive capability.

  • My Lords, one press report described Harpoon as obsolete, but better than having nothing at all; another said that the Royal Navy without Harpoon was less capable of fighting an enemy vessel than our Navy in the 19th century; and a third likened it to Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar getting rid of his cannon and relying on muskets. That may be, but if we are engaged in a possible conflict, as my noble friend Lord West mentioned, how will the Royal Navy respond effectively without anti-ship missiles?

  • My Lords, Royal Navy ships habitually work in task groups with a range of offensive and defensive assets. A task group can be made up of a number of different platforms, including submarines, surface ships, helicopters and, from 2021, our new Queen Elizabeth carriers. In turn, those platforms host a variety of complementary capabilities, such as anti-surface warfare, air defence, intelligence and so on. It is important to look at the overall context.

  • My Lords, sometimes in these debates we forget about our service men and women. At the end of September, HMS “Portland” was docked in Dar es Salaam, and I had the honour of meeting Captain Paul Stroude, the commanding officer. HMS “Portland” was patrolling the difficult waters of east Africa in a brilliant fashion. While we have this debate, will the Minister join me in paying fulsome tribute to our brave and skilful members of the Royal Navy for their outstanding service across the globe?

  • I do so unhesitatingly.