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BAE Systems: Type 26 Frigate

Volume 820: debated on Thursday 24 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with BAE Systems to speed up the build rate of the Type 26 frigate; and what assessment they have made of the optimum build rate to ensure best value for money.

My Lords, ministerial colleagues and Ministry of Defence officials have regular meetings with BAE Systems to discuss the Type 26 frigate programme. On current plans, the average delivery rate for vessel acceptance for the Type 26 batch 1 ships is the optimum that can be achieved, considering all relevant factors. It is expected to be one ship every 18 months. The time between delivery of successive ships is not constant across the class.

My Lords, we are closer to a world war than at any stage during the last 60 years. We must not delude ourselves into thinking that our Armed Forces are capable of standing up to a peer enemy in a face-to-face conflict. With that backdrop, which is terrifying and horrifying, I was appalled that yesterday in the Spring Statement there was no mention of extra money for defence. The frigates are just one example. Basically, three of our frigates pay off in the next 12 months, and more after that. The first one to start replacing them comes in five years; the last of the eight Type 26s comes in 2043. God knows how many wars we will have had by then. May I ask the Minister to go back to the Secretary of State for Defence and ask him to plead with the Chancellor for extra funding? Our nation has understood for centuries that, when under military threat, we need fighting power. What has changed?

I hope I can reassure the noble Lord. He will have been present for the messages which came out last week from my noble friend Lady Goldie on the whole of our shipbuilding programme. Regarding the specific questions on the Type 26 frigates, we are committed to building eight. As the noble Lord knows, the first three ships are under construction on the Clyde. The first, HMS “Glasgow”, is doing well, as are HMS “Cardiff” and HMS “Belfast”. Batch 2, with the five others, is on track. There is no issue over funding. The funding has been set, including for batch 2, although the contracts have yet to be awarded. I hope that is some reassurance for the noble Lord, who knows so much about this subject.

My Lords, the security situation has changed dramatically in the last four weeks. It is beyond comprehension that the Chancellor should deliver a Statement yesterday and mention neither the international situation nor defence. It was always the top Tory priority, and it is time that it became the priority again.

It certainly does remain a priority. Again, I must reassure my noble friend that defence is playing a central role in the UK’s response to the Russian invasion. It is not about funding. We will continue to work closely with our allies and partners to fully understand the rapidly changing situation on the ground. We continue to offer a collective response that is robust and proportionate.

My Lords, the Minister in his answers is clearly seeking to reassure the House. However, I am afraid that from these Benches, I am not reassured. His answer to the noble Lord, Lord West, was that the rate of build for the Type 26 frigates was “optimum” given “all relevant factors”. What are those relevant factors, and have they been reassessed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine four weeks ago today?

I hope to reassure the noble Baroness because the factors include, as she is well aware, the gearbox delivery issues for the Type 26. Some flexibility on the timing was allowed for. It is unique, complex and built to extremely fine tolerances, but it has been delivered. We are on time for this programme, for both batch 1 and batch 2. There should be complete reassurance on that front.

My Lords, I also find the Minister’s answer about the Type 26 build rate disappointing, particularly given how long it is before the first Type 26 comes into service. It will certainly see our frigate force level drop to being unacceptably low before the new ships come online. Will the Minister say what level our frigate numbers will sink to before the new ships become operational? That also includes the Type 31.

Again, I reassure the noble and gallant Lord that we have a very clear programme of rolling out shipbuilding. It includes, for the first time, the Type 26s and the Type 31s. It is very important to say, first, that our current capability is absolutely fine and, secondly, that we will have two types of frigate on stream by the end of the decade.

Our frigates are really of any use to us only if they are armed. We have, of course, rightly in recent weeks donated a lot of arms to Ukraine, including 4,000 NLAWs. Can my noble friend reassure your Lordships’ House that an order has been placed to replace those weapons and that, crucially, they will be paid for not by the MoD budget but by the Treasury contingency fund?

I can say to my noble friend and to the House that we will continue in the UK to support the Ukrainian Government in the face of this appalling assault on Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. We are liaising daily with the Ukrainian Government to continue to respond to their request to supply more defensive military equipment. To answer the question, the UK has granted in-kind assets and inventory to Ukraine, and these have come from MoD stocks or have been purchased. Where the replenishment of stocks is required, it is expected to be funded from the Treasury special reserve.

My Lords, a highly placed mole in the Royal Navy—it was not him—has told me that, as much as a decade ago, senior officers were extremely worried about the impact of climate change, which was also not mentioned in the Chancellor’s speech yesterday. Why has the UK military still not got any net-zero carbon targets?

Maybe there should be a leak inquiry—but perhaps I should not go there. On the noble Baroness’s question, of course, she makes a regular point about climate change. However, I can reassure her, particularly on the national shipbuilding programme—I think she was present for the Statement from my noble friend Lady Goldie—that there is much going on. She will have read that big document about ensuring that our future warships in our shipbuilding strategy will be of a clean nature.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell me how many destroyers and frigates are presently available to the Royal Navy?

I start by saying that we have an improving picture in fleet availability, which is the result of targeted interventions to minimise support requirements, improve maintenance and generate ships faster. Perhaps to reassure my noble friend, in May 2021 there were 935 ship days at sea, the most since July 2014. May I also say, although I cannot of course give too much out, that, for example, there are at least 10 fully operational ships at sea now? That includes “HMS “Diamond” in the east Mediterranean, HMS “Northumberland”, from that TV series, which noble Lords may have watched, which is taking part in normal deployment, and many more.

The Minister has an elegant way of saying no. The MoD confirmed funding last summer for the second batch of five Type 26 frigates. Given that the national shipbuilding strategy failed to commit to a British-built by default approach to procurement, can the Government confirm that this batch will be built in UK shipyards with UK steel?

I am pleased to say that the steel aspect of HMS “Glasgow” comes up to about 50%. The noble Lord will know, however, that steel manufacture for ships has to be very precise and, at the moment, the UK is not capable of producing the type of thin steel for frigates—or, indeed, the thick steel for submarines, which is another matter. But I can reassure him that the £3.7 billion contract to manufacture the first batch of Type 26s, which was awarded in 2017, is on track.

Yesterday, in answer to a Question on defence expenditure, the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, gave an alarmingly complacent answer, seeming to indicate that the defence budget that had been settled pre-Ukraine remained perfectly satisfactory. In effect, she was saying that her right honourable colleague the Foreign Secretary was dead wrong. May I ask the Minister whether this is the corporate Cabinet view?

It is very much unlike my noble friend on the Front Bench to sound complacent. Even before the events of the past two years, the Government bolstered defence spending with the greatest supplement since the Cold War—an extra £24 billion over the next four years. That has enabled us, once again, to make sure that we have a proper defence programme and is a reform that puts men and women in the Armed Forces at the heart of what we do.

My Lords, how much worse do things have to get in Ukraine before we substantially lift the 2% of GDP that we spend on defence?