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House of Lords Hansard
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HMS “Queen Elizabeth”
02 March 2017
Volume 779

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government on what date the aircraft carrier HMS “Queen Elizabeth” will begin sea trials.

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My Lords, HMS “Queen Elizabeth” is currently undertaking harbour trials as part of her test and integration phase. Sea trials will begin on successful completion of this phase.

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My Lords, we were told in the review of the SDSR that the carrier HMS “Queen Elizabeth” would begin sea trials in the spring. Alas, in the words of Ella Fitzgerald, “spring will be a little late this year”, because Ministers now say that that will happen in the summer. But lo and behold, just two weeks ago, when my noble friend Lord West of Spithead asked whether summer was,

“defined as … from the summer solstice to the September equinox, or … June to August”,

he was told by the Minister that summer “was not defined” and that rather, it was a,

“broad indication of the likely timetable”.

This milestone in Britain’s maritime history is turning into a farce. I invite the Minister to come clean, tell us what has caused the delay and give us a firm date for the sea trials.

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My Lords, perhaps I can clarify the timetable a little bit. “The summer” means “a little later than shortly”. To address the substance of his question, this is about the need to test systems. The Queen Elizabeth class carriers are the largest and most complex warships ever built in this country. It is essential that we thoroughly test the ship’s many complex systems before she begins sea trials. None of the issues now being tested will affect acceptance of contract of HMS “Queen Elizabeth” later this year. The work is within the tolerance that we had anticipated in the contract schedule.

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When the carriers have been sorted out, can we have a Spithead review so that we can see for ourselves the size and might of the new British Navy?

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I am sure that the First Sea Lord will be very interested in that suggestion.

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I had the privilege of seeing the Queen Elizabeth class carriers at Rosyth last week, and the “Queen Elizabeth” was doing her harbour trials. My question relates to the aircraft that are meant to go on the carrier. Will the F-35s be available when the “Queen Elizabeth” is set to sail, or are the delays to the carrier simply to enable the F-35s to be delayed as well?

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My Lords, the 2015 strategic defence and security review set out our intent to have two front-line operational F-35B squadrons by the end of 2023, and we plan to buy 138 Lightning aircraft over the life of the programme. To date we have taken delivery of eight F-35B aircraft, with a further six, currently in production, to follow very shortly. The next annual production contract is scheduled to be let next month, and we intend to order a further three under that part of the contract.

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In her visit to Washington, the Prime Minister made the highly significant statement that we would stop trying to change the world in our image. While this will come as a considerable relief to the 22 countries we have not invaded at some time or other, does the Minister agree that the Prime Minister’s important statement should lead to a reassessment of foreign policy and a possible defence saving?

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My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord that precise assurance. I say that because we are clear—and I am sure that most noble Lords in this House are clear—that NATO must remain the cornerstone of this country’s defence and the defence of western Europe. It is very important that we remind ourselves of the significance of NATO in that context.

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My Lords, the first thing to say is that we should be extremely proud of these carriers. They are going to be a force for stability and good all around the world. They are the only conventional capability we have with true strategic global significance, and that is why the Americans are so keen that we should have them. My question is similar to that of the noble Baroness. We last lost an aircraft carrier in 1942, and she did not have her air group with her. It is actually very difficult to find and kill an aircraft carrier, but she did not have an air group. When HMS “Queen Elizabeth” sails on her first operational deployment, particularly if it is east of Suez, will she have a full air group of Sea Lightnings, Crowsnest and the supporting ships—frigates, destroyers and nuclear submarine—which make a carrier battle group? The group I took to Hong Kong had 14 ships. Will we be able to do that, looking at the pressure on resources at the moment?

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My Lords, the initial operating capability for carrier strike, which is scheduled for no later than December 2020, will consist of one carrier, one squadron of Lightnings and Crowsnest. As the noble Lord will know, the carriers will operate as part of a maritime task group which will be tailored to meet the required task, so the precise number and mix of vessels deployed will have to depend on the operational circumstances of the time. We will be able to draw from a range of modern and highly capable vessels to support the carriers, such as the Type 45 destroyers, Type 23 frigates, Astute class submarines and, in the longer term, Type 26 frigates.

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My Lords, given that the Royal Navy is fully deployed on standing tasks, can the Minister explain from where these extra ships will come to form a carrier task force, should HMS “Queen Elizabeth” be deployed?

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We have many of these ships at the moment. We have the Type 45 destroyers and the Type 23 frigates; the Astute class submarines are coming off the production line, so we will have those; and as I say, in the longer term we will have the Type 26 frigates. The plan is to cut steel for the first one this year.