The Secretary of State for Defence (Dr Liam Fox): I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of the Strategic Defence and Security Review.
Last month, the Government published the strategic..
Mr Speaker: Order. The Secretary of State should resume his seat. Given that he was manifestly late for the debate, I thought that, as a matter of straightforward courtesy, he would begin his remarks with a fulsome apology to the House. That is what he will now do.
Dr Fox: Mr Speaker, I completely apologise for any inconvenience to you or the House as a result of my late attendance.
Last month, the Government published the strategic defence and security review. This was a thorough, cross-Government strategic effort, overseen by the National Security Council, looking at all aspects of security and defence. It describes the adaptable posture that we have chosen to meet the threats and exploit the opportunities that we identified in the national security strategy.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I intervene to assist the Secretary of State. He should pour a cup of water and catch his breath, so that he can be fully refreshed as he makes his statement. I hope that my intervention has been helpful.
Dr Fox: There always had to be very good reasons for the coalition; my hon. Friend shows how collegiate we have become in the past few months.
I turn to some specific issues. The carrier strike capability that we plan will give the UK the ability to project military power over land as well as sea, from anywhere in the world, without reliance on land bases in other countries. Britain will require the strategic choice and flexibility in force projection that carrier strike offers. I also believe that that capability should be as interoperable as possible with the allies with whom we are most likely to work in future. The inherited design of the carriers would not have achieved that.
The House and the country must understand that any decisions regarding the carriers must be taken in the context of their extended service life of 50 years. The final captain of a Queen Elizabeth carrier has not even been born yet. When they go out of service, I will be 109 years old and the shadow Defence Secretary a sprightly 103. We are taking decisions now on what will be best for us as a country in the middle of the century. That is why we have taken three decisions. First, we have decided to take a capability gap in carrier strike, because we assess that the risk of not having access to basing and overflight for our fast jet force in the next decade is low. However, the same cannot be said looking further ahead.
Secondly, we have decided to install catapult and arrester gear, which will allow greater interoperability, particularly with US and French carriers and jets, and maximise the through-life utility of our carrier strike capability. Thirdly, we have decided to acquire the carrier variant of the joint strike fighter. Adding the "cats and traps" will allow us to use the carrier variant of the JSF, which has a bigger payload and a longer range than the STOVL variant planned by the previous Government. Overall, the carrier variant will be significantly cheaper, reducing the through-life cost compared with the STOVL version.
Contrary to popular belief, there will not be a new Queen Elizabeth class carrier in service without the planes to go on it, apart from in the period required by law for us to have the carrier properly crewed up and ready to accept the planes. The idea I have come across in some parts of the media-that we can get brand-new carriers and the brand-new planes to fly off them almost on the same day-simply defies the complexity of the operation involved.
When the carrier enters service towards the end of the decade, the JSF will be ready to embark on it. Yes, there will be a delay to the programme as a consequence of the decisions I have mentioned, but unlike the previous Government's delay to the carrier programme in 2008, which added £1.6 billion to the overall cost -- more than the whole Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget next year -- and gave us nothing in return, our delay will give us a carrier that is best configured for the next 50 years.
Mr Ainsworth: I am seriously concerned about the decision that the Government have taken. They have not only scrapped the Harrier, but retreated from STOVL, going back to what is basically today's and yesterday's technology of "cats and traps". They have left themselves potentially reliant on two aircraft that do fundamentally the same thing, giving up the ability to use short-take-off and vertical-landing aircraft. This is about more than the capability of the carrier. We are giving up-not temporarily, but permanently-the capability that the Harrier has given us. We will have two fleets of aircraft that fundamentally do the same thing.
Dr Fox: First, "cats and traps" are not yesterday's technology. In fact, considerable expense is going into ensuring that there are more modern, more effective "cat and trap" systems. The United States is spending a great deal of research and development money on that at present.
Secondly, if we are to have genuine interoperability, it makes sense to have carriers that the American navy or the French can land on and, in the case of the French, use when their carrier is in refit and they require ongoing training. It is perfectly rational to buy the plane with the longer range and bigger payload, which is in fact cheaper. In the past, it was decided, for whatever reasons, to build 65,000-tonne carriers without a "cat and trap" system, and that decision was augmented by the STOVL decision. That would have been the most expensive variant, with the shortest range and the smallest payload. We are bringing those greater capabilities into better alignment with the carrier itself.
The right hon. Member for Coventry North East mentioned the Harrier. We had to face up to the difficult choices that the previous Government put off. Regrettably, we have decided to retire HMS Ark Royal three years early and to retire the Harrier force-both in 2011. Of course, that is not unprecedented. The UK's carrier strike capability was gapped during the late 1970s, as we transitioned from Buccaneer to Harrier itself. While Harrier was operating in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2009, our ability to generate carrier strike was at best severely curtailed.
Over the next five years, life-saving combat air support to operations in Afghanistan has to be the overriding priority. In Afghanistan, the Joint Force Harrier did wonderful work, and I pay tribute to the Harrier aircraft, the crews that have serviced them and the pilots who have flown them since they entered service. During its deployment to Afghanistan, the Joint Force Harrier flew in excess of 22,000 hours on more than 8,500 sorties, more than 2,000 of which were close air support missions. It is my understanding that every Harrier pilot from every Harrier squadron took part at some point during the Harrier's deployment to Afghanistan.
Tough and unsentimental choices had to be made, however, and the military advice was that Tornado was the more capable aircraft to retain, due to its wider capabilities and force size, for not only Afghanistan but other significant contingent capabilities. Operations in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2009 took their toll on the Harrier force. By the time the aircraft was withdrawn from theatre, the force's ability to recuperate and regenerate a fully operational carrier strike capability-notwithstanding the strenuous efforts to do so by Joint Force Harrier-had understandably been affected.
The decision taken by the previous Government in 2009 drastically to salami-slice the number of Harriers meant that, even if we had wanted to, we could not sustain our current fast-jet requirement in Afghanistan using Harriers alone. The decision in 2009 reduced the number of Harriers from 18 force elements at readiness to 10, but the military advice is that we require 40 force elements at readiness of Harriers to maintain our fast-jet contribution in Afghanistan on an enduring basis and without breaching harmony guidelines.
Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): What steps does my right hon. Friend intend to take to retain the critical mass of flying skills of the absolutely admirable and remarkable Fleet Air Arm?
Dr Fox: The Fleet Air Arm will require something of a transitioning with the new joint strike fighter when we get towards the end of the decade. I have had discussions with my American counterparts, who have made it clear that, should we require help to maintain skills in any way in the run-up to that period, the United States will make the facilities available to us, and we fully understand that. Let me make it clear, as I did earlier, that the joint strike fighter will be flown from our carriers by both Royal Navy and Air Force pilots. We will maintain a joint force, which is an important message to both services at a time of uncertainty.
Some of the things we have read about Harrier have been hugely over-simplistic. As a result of decisions taken in recent years, I am afraid that the previous Government loaded the dice against Harrier a long time before the last election. I fully understand the consequences of retiring Harrier for livelihoods and basing, and the emotiveness of this beautiful and iconic aircraft, particularly in relation to the Falklands conflict of 1982, as everyone in the House will appreciate. However, I believe that we have made the right decision, based on unsentimental military logic.
The Falklands have been the subject of some comment in recent days. The Government are unequivocally committed to the defence of our overseas territories and dependencies, but the situation now is far removed from that of the early 1980s. First, we maintain a far more robust and capable force in the Falklands to act as a deterrent and to secure our interests there, and that force is able to be reinforced as the need arises. Secondly, and more importantly, Argentina is no longer ruled by a military junta that is repressive at home and aggressive abroad. Argentina is now a vibrant, multi-party democracy, constructive on the world stage and pledged to peaceful resolution of the issues that undoubtedly remain between us. Of course, we maintain robust contingency plans for times of crisis, and there is no questioning our resolve to defend the Falklands whenever required and from whatever quarter. (end of excerpt)
Click here for the full transcript of the debate, on the UK Parliament website.