Lord Lee of Trafford (Liberal Democrat) To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the ability of the Royal Navy’s escort vessels to meet the United Kingdom’s maritime commitments.
Lord Astor of Hever (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Defence; Conservative) My Lords, the Royal Navy continues to meet its operational commitments. Looking forward, we are introducing six new Type 45 destroyers and seven Astute class submarines. In addition, the first of the four Tide class Royal Fleet Auxiliary tankers will enter service in 2016. We are rebuilding our strike capability through the Queen Elizabeth class carriers and, with the Type 26 global combat ship, we have a new programme to develop more flexible frigates of the future.
Lord Lee of Trafford (Liberal Democrat) My noble friend’s carefully crafted and well camouflaged reply hardly answers my specific Question. In 1982 at the time of the Falklands, we sent 22 escort vessels down there. Now, we probably have hardly 12 that we could put out operationally at any one time to meet all our worldwide commitments. The pressure is increasing, with Russia reviving its nuclear submarine patrols to the South Pole and China determined to become a major maritime power to support its growing overseas interests. In addition, the early warning Crow’s Nest radar system, to be integrated into our Merlin helicopters, apparently will not be ready until five years after our first new carrier is operational, thus increasing our position of vulnerability. Is the Navy not more concerned about the lack of escorts than anything else—and should not we be?
Lord Astor of Hever (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Defence; Conservative) My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his compliment about the carefully crafted response. SDSR set out how the Government would secure Britain in an age of uncertainty. Central to this is maintaining the trade routes and access to resources and protecting United Kingdom citizens, territory and trade from terrorism, piracy and unlawful restrictions on freedom of navigation. My noble friend mentioned Crow’s Nest. The final assessment phase was approved in January and is due to come into service in 2020, with a deployable capability shortly afterwards. Navy Command and Defence Equipment and Support are exploring whether funding can be made available sooner, to bring forward the in-service date by up to two years.
Lord West of Spithead (Labour) My Lords, the Minister, for whom I have great admiration, knows that we have insufficient escort hulls and need more. Nineteen are simply insufficient for our nation and paying off four Type 22 escorts in the strategic defence and security review—since when £12 billion of underspend has been created—was a terrible error. However, one must not dwell on these mistakes of the past. Does the Minister not agree that the £250 million per annum that we will pay BAE Systems not to build warships should perhaps be used to build escorts?
Lord Astor of Hever (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Defence; Conservative) My Lords, I cannot comment on what the noble Lord says about BAE. However, I compliment him on his resolute lobbying for the Royal Navy to attend the Royal Australian Navy’s 100th anniversary. The noble Lord has had a word with me two or three times about it. I can now assure him that the Royal Navy has responded to his request and will attend the 100th anniversary. HMS “Daring”, a Type 45 destroyer, will also be out there.
Lord Craig of Radley (Crossbench) My Lords, bearing in mind the reduction in the number of surface vessels over the past few years, what commitments have Her Majesty’s Government had to give up as a result?
Lord Astor of Hever (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Defence; Conservative) My Lords, the Naval Service, which includes the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary which supports them is able to fulfil commitments around the globe and maintain a maritime presence in priority regions, such as the South Atlantic, the Gulf and the Indian Ocean. The Naval Service also safeguards the security of home waters, meets our defence commitments in the North Atlantic and the Caribbean, patrols the Antarctic waters and undertakes periodic deployments to other areas, such as the Far East and the Pacific.
Lord Palmer of Childs Hill (Liberal Democrat) My Lords, the Minister referred to the next generation of escort ships. Where are we with the development of Type 26 global combat ships? Are they still on target to come into service in the early 2020s; what does “the early 2020s” mean; and do we still intend to have 12 to 13 of these vessels?
Lord Astor of Hever (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Defence; Conservative) My Lords, the Type 26 will be the workhorse of the future Royal Navy. It is in its assessment phase. I understand that the main investment decision will be made in the middle of the decade. The aspiration is that Type 26 will be in service by 2020, and the number we are hoping to have is 13.
Baroness Wilcox (Conservative) Can the Royal Navy still deploy and support a Royal Marines brigade, given what the Minister has just said?
Lord Astor of Hever (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Defence; Conservative) My Lords, 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines continues to provide a key element of our high-readiness response force. With the Royal Navy’s amphibious shipping, 3 Commando Brigade has strategic reach and is able to land and sustain from the sea a commando group of up to 1,800 personnel, together with protective vehicles and other equipment. Other elements of the Royal Marines continue to undertake a wide range of tasks, including protecting the nuclear deterrent and contributing to operations against piracy in the Indian Ocean.
Lord Rosser (Labour) My Lords, there is a significant gap in our maritime surveillance capability. How and when do the Government intend to plug it?
Lord Astor of Hever (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Defence; Conservative) My Lords, there is no gap. Everything is carefully thought out. We would not be irresponsible enough to do what the noble Lord said.