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Royal Navy: Operational Capability

Volume 787: debated on Wednesday 20 December 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the sufficiency of the United Kingdom’s anti-submarine capability to ensure protection of crucial undersea cables.

My Lords, the House will appreciate that I cannot go into the details of the United Kingdom’s anti-submarine capability. However, I assure the noble Lord that any threat to UK infrastructure is taken extremely seriously. In respect of submarine cables, there is considerable resilience in the UK network, and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is working closely with industry to improve this further. Undersea cables support the whole global economy, and states are well aware that any deliberate attempt to interfere with cables would have wide repercussions, including for their own interests.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Indeed, in the spirit of Christmas, I shall not raise the fact that for the first time in centuries we do not have a single frigate or destroyer deployed overseas. However, for a Chief of the Defence Staff to mention a specific threat—something that has always been very sensitive in the past—is very worrying. This issue stems from the Policy Exchange report, and that is why it has been raised, but there is no doubt whatever that this nation’s anti-submarine warfare capability has been seriously degraded. We used to be pre-eminent in the world. Going back to when the Soviets first carried out attacks on undersea cables, when they did not carry all the digital information they do today, we had 20-plus submarines, an MPA force and 48 anti-submarine warfare frigates, and we had all the supporting infrastructure to carry out anti-submarine warfare to monitor these things. Today, we have eight anti-submarine warfare frigates and seven submarines, with no maritime patrol aircraft. It is extremely worrying when someone like the Chief of the Defence Staff mentions this.

My question relates to the frigates. We have now, at last, ordered the first of the Type 26 frigates, which is super, but it is going to take five years to build the first one. It took one year to build the ground-breaking battleship “Dreadnought”. We are taking five years, and we have ordered only three. Does the Minister agree that we need a steady drumbeat of orders of anti-submarine ships to drive down costs, to improve British shipyard efficiency and to counter this threat?

My Lords, the noble Lord has immense experience in this area and I acknowledge that immediately. He is of course quite right about the need for a steady drumbeat of shipbuilding. That was one of the themes in the national shipbuilding strategy that we published recently. I do not think we should underplay the cutting-edge capability of the Type 23 frigates, of which we already have 13. However, as the noble Lord will know, defence uses a variety of assets and means to monitor potentially hostile maritime activity in the UK area of interest and beyond. For example, the Royal Navy routinely escorts non-NATO vessels transiting through the UK area of interest. However, I can tell him that this whole area is a central consideration in the national security capability review, which is currently under way.

My Lords, the training budgets of all three services have been heavily reduced by savings measures, imperilling operational capability across our Armed Forces. Anti-submarine warfare is an art form as much as it is a science, and sufficient training is absolutely critical. Will the Minister say whether anti-submarine warfare training has been affected by the cuts I have just mentioned and by the lack of manpower that is keeping some of our ASW specialist ships alongside?

My Lords, my understanding is that the quality of our training in anti-submarine warfare has not suffered, but the noble and gallant Lord is right to draw attention to shortages of skills in key technical areas such as nuclear and other types of engineering. The Royal Navy has this agenda very much in hand but it is a challenge—the Royal Navy is competing with industry for those skills. However, the picture is steadily improving.

My Lords, an attack on undersea cables would be an illustration of hybrid warfare, or to put it otherwise, of using any available means for attack. What concern is being addressed in the Government’s current security review to hybrid warfare and the resources necessary to meet that challenge?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that hybrid warfare presents particular problems and issues for decision-makers. The Ministry of Defence’s contribution to the cross-government capability review is looking actively at our future defence posture and how we can best spend our defence budget—our rising defence budget, I should emphasise—in the light of the various threats we face.

My Lords, bringing the Minister back to the Question about the cables, the Policy Exchange report written by the Conservative MP Rishi Sunak said that Russian submarines are “aggressively operating” near Atlantic cables which are,

“inadequately protected and highly vulnerable to attack at sea and on land, from both hostile states and terrorists”.

The Minister will have heard concerns expressed around the House about operational capability. Does he understand the lack of confidence among the public and in the House when we find that the six Type 45 destroyers are all in Portsmouth and not at sea because of a combination of the need to give sailors leave, mechanical problems, routine maintenance and the shortage of manpower? Does he accept that this is damaging to morale in our Armed Forces?

It would be damaging if the story were entirely accurate. Over the Christmas period, the Royal Navy has about 1,500 personnel and 13 ships and submarines deployed on operations and defence tasks all over the globe including the Mediterranean, the Gulf, home waters and the Atlantic. In addition, it has assets and personnel at high readiness should there be a requirement to activate them. However, it should not surprise anybody that, wherever possible, the Royal Navy programmes leave over the Christmas period so that personnel can spend time with their families.