Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): The focus of today's debate is the Ministry of Defence's decision, announced on 28 February, to axe the Royal Navy Sea Harrier units from the beginning of 2004; service will end by 2006. The decision is of great concern to the Opposition as it affects the Royal Navy and the future of this country's defence. Even the Minister of State for Defence, who was involved in the decision, pointed out:
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): Will my hon. Friend comment on two related points? First, although we are discussing a matter of great importance to the defence of the fleet and therefore to the defence of the realm, no Labour Back Bencher is present. Secondly, without intending any disrespect to the Under-Secretary of State, for whom I have a considerable amount of time, I have to say that it is disrespectful of the Secretary of State for Defence not to be present in Westminster Hall this morning to discuss such an important matter.
Mr. Syms : I make no comment about the Government: people can make up their own mind about the Government's priorities. However, I draw attention to my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, who is answering the debate for the Opposition. I welcome his contribution, as it proves what importance the Conservative party attaches to the issue.
The 1998 strategic defence review proposed a joint force of the Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Air Force. The Opposition were not against that because there is logic in it, but we are concerned that already, only two years later, the Government are changing the shape of the defence forces proposed in the review, and the decision will reduce the flexibility of the Royal Navy. Between 2006 and the introduction into service of the new aircraft carriers between 2012 and 2015, there will be a major gap in air defence of our fleet. The Opposition regard that with great concern. A key lesson of modern defence is that air superiority is vital to our armed services, so it is a serious matter to give up air superiority of our fleet.
The United Kingdom's Sea Harrier is a capable fighter aircraft. We all remember its vital role in defending the fleet from air attack during the Falklands war. In 1982, the Sea Harrier destroyed 28 of the 100 enemy aircraft destroyed; more importantly, United States Air Force analysts said that it deterred 453 further attacks on the fleet. Without it, that enterprise would not have been successful. In 1996, Commander Richard DawkinsCommander Air for the Fleet Air Armsaid:
That is a critical point. There has just been a major refit of the FA2s. In 1985, work began on a mid-life update of the Sea Harrier fleet. Finished only in 1996, the programme cost £466 million. We can stretch the life of the aircraft to give our fleet substantial protection.
Why have the Government changed their policy and what are their motives? Is it money? The overall cost of keeping the Sea Harriers would represent good, not bad value for the taxpayer. The Government claim that the move will save £109 million between 200203 and 200506, but if it impedes the flexibility of naval forces and does not provide protection for carriers, it is a short-sighted economy. The replacement of the Harrier GR7 with the upgraded GR9 means no stand-off weapons capability, as the aircraft will not be equipped with an appropriate gun. The arms it possesses will give it an over-the-target capability, but, as we all know, it is difficult to deliver that payload when the enemy state has an air defence system.
It is important that the fleet has a layered defence. Sea Harriers provide the outer layer, patrolling perhaps 100 nautical miles around the fleet's exterior. Because radar can see down and jet fighters can cover hundreds of square miles, they provide the outer protection. The key to protecting the fleet is to see off any potential threat before it becomes a real threat to our ships, and that involves deterring as well as shooting down. The problem with relying on the type 45 for missile defence is that the moment an aircraft comes within the range of our missiles, we are within the range of its missiles. That puts our fleet in great danger.
We all know that Britain has been involved in several areas of tension, albeit not clear-cut war. Our fleet may be stationed off the coast of a nation over which the west is in dispute. I can readily imagine a rogue state sending jet fighters to threaten our fleet, and presenting our fleet commander with a difficult choiceto take an aircraft out, or allow it to come close enough to launch its missiles, which could result in the loss of a ship. That choice would not arise with Sea Harriers protecting the fleet, because of their great reach.
I remain deeply concerned about the change. The Government place great emphasis on the type 45, but the fact remains that by 2010 to 2012, we shall have only three type 45s. The missile for which we all have great hopesthe principal anti-air-missile systemwill certainly be superior to the Sea Dart, but to provide high-level protection it will have to act at the height of its capability from day one, straight out of the box, and we know that high technology does not always work like that. I am worried that we are giving away an air superiority fighter that would have provided protection for the fleet, and instead relying on missile defence when we may not have sufficient ships or sufficient missiles to make it work for our fleet in areas of significant risk.
The Government have spoken about significant technical difficulties, such as problems with the Harrier and Sea Harrier in hot climates, which can affect the power of the engines, but the Harrier's record shows that it has served all over the world, including the middle east and off Sierra Leone, so I see no reason not to continue its service. Even with a slight diminution of capability, it remains a capable air defence fighter for protecting our fleet. Off the coast of Sierra Leone, the Sea Harrier was used for patrolling and bombing missions on the mainland in preference to the Army version. Its radar enables it to find the ship, which the Army version cannot do.
Incidentally, a hardy aircraft is required to serve in a maritime environment. The Sea Harrier has anti-corrosive treatment to enable it to serve in that environment, whereas adapting the proposed GR9 to ensure that it can serve on land and off aircraft carriers might involve quite expensive treatment.
My principal concern is that getting rid of the Sea Harrier will make us heavily reliant on other forces if we were to deploy in the air defence of a British battle group. We would have to rely on US carrier protection, which immediately inhibits what we can do. The French are also a possibility, because they have an aircraft carrier and air superiority forces; perhaps India is, too. Perhaps if we had to sell the aircraft to India, we could do a deal whereby the Indians protect the Royal Navy. The Government's policy decision leads us to all those conclusions.
I am genuinely concerned because the Sea Harrier is a proven aircraft. Admittedly, it is slowly becoming obsolescent, but all military kit becomes obsolescent. There is a substantial difference between keeping an aircraft that is ageing but can perform a role, and getting rid of it entirely and having no aircraft to perform that role. Our fleet needs protection: the added security of an air defence fighter in the form of the Sea Harrier is vital to ensure the maximum flexibility of the armed services.
I hope that the Government will reconsider carefully the arguments being advanced from all quarters, including the Opposition. The policy decision will substantially inhibit the Government's strategic outlook. It will be a sad day in the future when the Royal Navy can deploy a battle group only by agreement with other countries. The Royal Navy has always been the third navy in the world and a blue-water navy that can deploy around the world. I believe that, at least in the
Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): First, let me pick up on the final remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms). Once, as the British fleet closed on the American fleet, the Americans signalled to the British fleet, "How's the world's second largest navy?" The Royal Navy replied, "Fine. How's the second best?"
I had the privilege to serve in the Fleet Air Arm in the 1960s. I was a fighter controller, carried on board HMS Eagle and operating out of Royal Naval air station Yeovilton. It was a time of great tension: Russian aircraft would constantly overfly the fleet. We operated primarily in the north Atlantic, off the coast of Norway, and in the Mediterranean. I had the privilege of being on board HMS Eagle when the first vertical take-off aircraft landed. The Kestrel was the forerunner of the Harrier, and it became obvious to those of us involved in defence of the fleet that it was an integral part of Britain's defence system. I was also involved in the trials of the Phantom, which was the backbone of the Fleet Air Arm throughout the 1970s and 1980s. HMS Eagle carried a fleet of Sea Vixens of 899 Squadron, which were the backbone of the air defence capability of the Fleet Air Arm. Those aircraft were flown in combat air patrols over the fleet, in a manner that was described admirably by my hon. Friend the Member for Poole, in an air defence capacity.
It is unthinkable that British amphibious forces could be deployed in a modern theatre without air coverit is an essential ingredient of modern warfare. I can understand how the problem has arisen. The new carriers are predicted to come into service in 2012, but I guess that it will be 2015 or even later. There will potentially be an eight, nine or 10-year gap in the fleet.
The FA2 is a fantastic aircraft: it carries a tremendous weapons system and good radar. One difficulty is that it is getting old; another is that it is designed to operate in the north Atlantic, not in hot weather conditions such as the Indian ocean and the Gulf. It is unable to land if it is still carrying a heavy load of unused missiles, and the only alternative is to dump the missiles, which is a bit like dumping a Rolls-Royce every time the aircraft comes in to land. It differs from the GR7, which is bigger, lighter and made of more modern fibres than the heavy FA2. More recently, the FA2 has effectively ridden as shotgun for GR7 bombers, for example in Bosnia and Kosovo.
The solution is to upgrade the FA2 and fit a modern engine, but the Government have chosen not to do so. I assume that the reasons for that are budgetary, but there are only 17 FA2s: is it really worth sacrificing the essential air defence cover of our amphibious forces because there is a lack of cash to upgrade the engines of 17 aircraft? It is a big risk, and the Government are seriously exposing themselves with the decision.
The second world war was won as a result of air superiority, and HMS Sheffield was lost due to a lack of air superiority. In the Gulf war, the position was never tested, but I am sure that the Americans would not have gone to the Gulf had they not had air defence cover.
The Government say that the answer is to upgrade the missile defence system and have spoken about the introduction of the type 45s and new PAAMS air defence system. However, the world is an uncertain place. Who would have thought 12 months ago that the Marines would be deployed in Afghanistan today? We have no idea where future threats will come from. We are highly vulnerable in many theatres, and the Government's decision will put at risk the lives of many men and women who serve the interests of this country.
Equally seriously, the Minister will be putting at risk major warships at the centre of our amphibious fleet. The potential to lose a ship is dramatically increased in the event of a missile attack on the fleet, and the result would be catastrophic. The Exocet that sunk HMS Sheffield is now out of date, but just as British and European technology has advanced, so too has other technology. Missiles now have all the capability in the world.
I have three questions. First, how good does the Minister think PAAMS, which is, unfortunately, a French system, will be on the type 45, and how much cover will it give to our amphibious forces? Secondly, what are his proposals for airborne early warning radar cover of the fleet? Thirdly, how do the Government intend to fill the gap I have mentioned?
If there are no clear answers, the consequences will be profound. If the fleet is lost as a result, I would not like to be in the Minister's shoes when he faces the House to explain the decision. Defence is the most basic function of Government, and a strong defence is the surest way to peace. By this decision, the Minister has put that status at risk, and he will be held to account if he gets it wrong.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) on securing the debate. It is a great pleasure for me to take part, because I represent the constituency that contains Yeovilton, where much of the Fleet Air Arm is basedalthough if the boundary commission has its way, it will be moved to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws). I would consider that a great loss.
We are proud of the Fleet Air Arm, which is the oldest air service in this country. We are proud of both its history and its future capabilities. I am pleased that the Government have recognised that capability in some of their recent decisions, but the decision on the Harriers has rightly caused some consternation, not least because of the personal issues associated with the crew and
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the point. The fact that the Government were planning to transfer the Sea Harriers to Lincolnshire underlines the short-term nature of their decision. It was not the intended decision; they made it under budgetary pressures in the short term. It was originally intended to extend the life of the Sea Harriers and deploy them from Lincolnshire.
Mr. Heath : The hon. Gentleman pre-empts my point. This is an example of the Ministry's short-term thinking, which is difficult to defend to the people involved, however grateful I am to see a continuation of their presence in Somerset in years to come.
The hon. Member for Poole raised the wider issue that the decision strikes at the heart of the expeditionary strategy, which was the basis of the strategic defence review. I welcomed the development of the strategy, which puts amphibious operations at the heart of the future capabilities of the British armed forces, treats the Navy as a crucial element of that capacity, and envisages the amphibious taskforce as a basic unit of deployment in the Navy. However, if that strategy is to be successful, the decision on the Sea Harriers leaves many questions, because it leaves an amphibious force no air-to-air capacity and no forward detection capability beyond the horizon offered by rotary aircraft above the taskforce. The decision suggests that the Ministry has taken the view that within the relevant period an amphibious taskforce can and will be deployed only in the context of littoral warfare, and only with support from America or other navies that still enjoy air-to-air capacity.
Although I understand that rationale, it begs the question what happens in the case of the unexpected and the unknowable. To what extent is an expeditionary strategy constrained by that lack of capacity? As we have heard, eventually we will have type 45s, which will provide missile defence in the form of PAAMS, but that is an untried system, and as a replacement it will need to work from day one.
The second strand of replacement is the joint strike fighter, but there are questions about the JSF's design and how far advanced its marinisation is. There is a conundrum: the Government have announced that they want to have two carriers, but they cannot be designed until we know the form of the aircraft that will fly from those carriers. The whole process is held up while we wait for the Americans to work on the marinisation of the JSF.
Have the Government accepted a curtailment of the capacity of the expeditionary strategy during the interim period? How soon will we have firm proposals for the marinisation of the joint strike fighter, and at what stage will firm design proposals for the new carriers be possible? What will happen to our existing carriers in the interimat what stage will one or both of the operational carriers be taken out of service? Do those carriers have the capacity to convert to rotary wing use, which would enhance our amphibious capacity and might supplement HMS Ocean, which is one of the most important elements of the strategy?
Is it clear that the contribution made by naval air capacity is crucial to the future defence of this country and to the deployment further afield that the Government clearly want to use and have used frequently in the past few years? If so, are they willing to put in the investment that will make the means equal to the ends?
Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) on securing such a timely debate. I declare an interest in that two members of my family are serving officers in the Royal Navy.
The Government's on-the-hoof decision to withdraw the Sea Harrier is bad for both the Navy and its personnel. I contend that it reduces the capability of the joint force Harrier. Most significantly and as highlighted by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), it will undermine the pivotal role of the Royal Navy in the future defence of this country and its role in an expeditionary force.
The Sea Harrier has served this country well. The original version was at the heart of the naval campaign in the Falklands, where, even shorn of its current capabilities, it showed its defensive strength on several occasions. Since then, the Sea Harrier has been radically upgraded. Only three or four years ago, at the time of the strategic defence review, it was clearly intended by the Government to be the provider of air defence for the Royal Navy all the way through to 2012. All the documentation and information that the Royal Navy has published clearly supports that intention, so the last-minute decision to withdraw the Sea Harrier 10 years earlier than was previously anticipated seems peculiar.
What is the reason? Ministers say, "Well, the aircraft is ageing," but we are discussing the FA2, which only began service in approximately 1993indeed, one of those aeroplanes was delivered only three years ago, in 1999. It is not an ageing aircraft. If it were, Ministers might be less able to sell it to other countries. We are told that the engine will not be able to cope with the heat, yet it has served in Sierra Leone and the Gulf. It is said, "Well, don't worry because the Harrier GR7 and GR9 will replace it," but those aircraft are designed specifically as a ground attack planea specific and different purpose. To replace a defensive aircraft with a ground attack aircraft is like trying to replace a shield with a spear. They are inherently different in their function and, operationally, such a replacement makes no sense.
The unstated reason is, as usual, money. As my hon. Friend the Member for Poole pointed out, in practical terms, the Royal Navy will be left without a defensive fixed-wing aircraft for at least six yearsand probably 10 years. We all accept that air defence should be provided in layers, the first and most important of which is the Sea Harrier; therefore to remove that layer will inevitably increase the risk to our ships and service personnel. I understand that the Minister of State for Defence has already accepted that possibility, but I ask the Minister present today whether he believes that our service personnel should have to accept such a risk. After all, it is their safety on the line, not his.
Another argument put forward by the Government is that the type 45 destroyer will fill the gap. That is to overlook the tiny detail that one is a ship and the other is a subsonic aircraft. There are other problems. The type 45 does not have the Sea Harrier's over-the-horizon radar and, as we heard earlier, there will not be sufficient numbers to provide complete cover in any realistic sense until at least 2010. Also, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome rightly pointed out, the much vaunted PAAMS missile system is still in a box and has yet to be tested. We do not know whether it will work: it may be superb, but it may fail. That is the risk that Ministers are taking.
Perhaps the most ironic result of the decision to scrap Sea Harriers is that the capability of joint force Harrier will be set back, because, as we have heard, Sea Harrier has the Blue Vixen radar and GR7/9 does not. Therefore, joint force Harrier will now have to rely on the one aircraft that does not have that radar. That is a retrograde step and although I appreciate that the Minister is not directly responsible for the decision, I hope that he will confirm that in his reply.
The Government's on-the-hoof decision will undermine the Navy's expeditionary rolea critical role that lies at the heart of the whole characteristic of the strategic defence review. All expeditionary sea forces need air defenceask any Falklands veteran. Even 20 years ago, the Sea Harrier was able to take out 28 Argentine aircraft for the loss of only two of our own in combat. Sea Harrier is essential to any taskforce or similar naval operation.
Without our own naval air defence aircraft, the MOD is asking the Royal Navy to face an invidious choice. This country must either rely on the forces of another country if we sail beyond our own shores, or take the huge risk of travelling without proper cover; or we must play safe and the Royal Navy become a coastal defence force. The Minister does not have to take my word for that. Lieutenant-Commander Peter Burgess wrote to The Daily Telegraph at the end of March, saying:
Patrick Mercer (Newark): I am grateful for this opportunity to speak and especially grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) for securing this debate, which goes to the heart of our future defence policy. I have never been in the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy or the Fleet Air Arm, but I have been carried by and served under the protection of the Fleet Air Arm, and I was hugely grateful in both instances for the professionalism and dedication of that service.
On St. George's day 1918, there was a combined attack on the German naval base at Zeebrugge. Admiral Sir Roger Keyes felt that, despite the death of nearly 1,000 bluejackets and Royal Marines, the nation's safety was still endangered because he did not have aircraft in his control, as the Royal Naval Air Service had recently been transferred into the nascent Royal Air Force. I suggest that we may be putting ourselves in a similar position today.
The lessons of history were heeded at first. Our understanding of the projection of power from or by ships into the air both for coastal and blue-water defence developed into the Fleet Air Arm. That led to our outstanding naval successes in the second world war, the Korean war and, most recently, in the Falklands. What worries me horribly about the gap of at least six years that will be left is that the lessons of history have been ignored.
A great deal has been said and, for the sake of brevity, I shall not repeat much of the technicalities. I shall talk about the essential difference between the FA2 and the GR7/GR9. We have heard the splendid analogy made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) of the shield and the spear. We should take that further and use it to try to understand the layered element that the use of Sea Harriers gives the Royal Navy.
We know about the medium-range Sea Dart, which has the limitations of its age and radar, and about the closer-range Sea Wolf. There is also the last-ditch defence, the Phalanx gun, which we trust and hope willas it did in many cases in the Falklandsinterdict enemy aircraft attacking the fleet. However, the Sea Harrier is the shield, or more properly the eyes and ears of the Navy. It is capable of seeing beyond not only the physical horizon but the radar horizon provided by the Royal Navy's current radar suite. Without that aircraft not only to interdict but to see and report for maritime reconnaissance, the Navy is effectively blinded.
The GL7 is and the improved GL9 will be an impressive aircraft that will fill much of the capability gap for ground attack. However, the aircraft has no defensive capability, and it has precious little reconnaissance capability without the radar system that the FA2 already has. These systems are still highly
I have personal understanding of two systems of radar and radar-controlled missiles. The first is Sea Owl, which was a naval system that was meant to be extremely well adapted, capable and competent for use at sea. We tried to adapt that system for use in the Victor towers in south Armagh, to oversee the landscape in that difficult countryside. Eventually, we got the system working, but it was not as adaptable as we had hoped, and there were all sorts of glitches. That meant that our operational effectiveness as soldiers on the south Armagh border was severely hampered until the equipment worked.
Secondly, and much more pertinently, I have experience of the Rapier system. As many of my hon. Friends will know, the Rapier was developed for point defence of military instillations against ground-attack aircraft. It worked extremely well, and was designed for the cold war. It was extensively troop-trialled, and was embarked with a naval force to go to the Falklands. It was thought to be highly effective until it was established as point defence in winds of up to 70 or 80 mph, at which point the system failed. Eventually, those involved got the thing working, but in the interim operational effectiveness had been severely curtailed and British Marines and paratroopers had died as a result of ground attack. The system simply did not work and had not been tried in such conditions.
I urge the Minister not to place too much faith in an untried system. Any soldier, sailor or airman will make the point that equipment must be tried. Until such time as it is tried, PAAMS cannot be relied on to plug the gap that will be at least six years in duration. I do not want to iterate points that have already been made, but an aircraft that may be ageing, obsolescent and under severe trial in hot and dusty conditions is none the less battle proven and, most importantly, still commands the faith and trust of its pilots. I speak from personal experiencea Harrier coming in at low level over the top of one is a hugely reassuring sight. Until such time as we have a proper, reliable and sensible replacement, I urge the Minister to reconsider his decision.
We have heard that the Navy has been reduced to coastal protection. I take that a stage further: it is almost a fisheries protection fleet. That is all that we have. Without the aircraft, the Navy is effectively blinded. Someone once said that, if nothing else, war is the province of confusion and uncertainty. Until such time as we can guarantee that we can operate without crucial help from allies, to propose that we should operate only under an American or French air umbrella is simply ridiculous.
One point that I do not believe has been mentioned is that there will be a vital training gap until such time as our two new carriers are on stream. That will be sometime between 2012 and 2015, by which time the Fleet Air Arm, or what remains of it, is likely to have lost any capability that it has for the style of operation involved. It is not an operational style that is quickly
In conclusion, I simply say this: all the time, the armed forces have a finger pointed at them and are told that they are preparing for the last warthey are blamed for not looking over the horizon and preparing for the next war. However, in this instance we have neglected the lessons of the last war and previous wars. One thing is certain: we can never be certain. To protect against uncertainty, we must keep the Sea Harrier in service.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Occasionally, the MOD throws up a decision that is so bizarre or so illiterate, as the shadow Secretary of State described the decision this morning on the radio, that some analysis has to be carried out to ascertain how it could possibly have reached such a conclusion. Inevitably, we find that the dead hand of the Treasury sits behind the reason why the MOD has reached an extremely strange conclusion.
I take issue with one point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway). He said that he would not want to be in the Minister's shoes if and when Royal Navy sailors incur the decision's potentially awful consequences. By the time the decision comes into effect, the Minister will be long gonebeing, in Sir Robin Day's famous words, "A here today, gone tomorrow Minister", as all Ministers are. It is likely that the Minister who will carry the can at that stage is sitting on the Benches alongside my hon. Friend. I therefore hope that the MOD will review the decision, but not merely in the interests of one of my hon. Friends, who may have responsibility for the matter in future.
The decision is important because the consequences at some point down the line are potentially catastrophic. The MOD is making a decision now that will have an effect in 12 or 14 years' time. The analysis that it has advanced in support of the decision not to upgrade the FA2s and to keep them in service until the joint strike fighter comes on line does not bear scrutiny. The risks that the Ministry is taking, such as those associated with PAAMS and the difficulty of bringing such technology into service on time, are far too great. The MOD's claim that the type 45s will be delivered on time and in sufficient numbers to cover the gap left by the FA2s does not bear analysis either.
In its 1998 strategic defence review, the MOD confirmed the decision taken by the previous Conservative Government and announced in the 1997 general election manifesto to replace existing carriers with new ones. It was an expensive decision, and the necessary investment must be behind it if it is to be delivered. I speak as a veteran of three long-term costings rounds, in 1993, 1994 and 1995. Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will remember from your service on the Select Committee on Defence that at that time the defence budget was under significant pressure. Money is the reason why the MOD has come up with a decision that flies in the face of the overall strategy of the SDR and violates the principles of the entire direction of British defence policy as set out in 1998. The Ministry is plainly scratching round within each area of its budget for savings to meet the budget line.
The whole LTC process is always an effort to get a quart into pint pot, and it occasionally throws up painful decisions. Perhaps this is a case of royal yachting gone wrong. To those hon. Members who are not familiar with royal yachting, I should explain that when the Navy was asked for cuts, the first thing it offered was the royal yacht. It knew that as long as there was a Conservative Secretary of State for Defence, there was no question of the royal yacht being taken as a defence cut. Eventually that strategy became discredited, but it did not stop the Navy continuing with it from time to time. I suspect that someone may have made the suggestion about the FA2s in the firm knowledge that as we now have a carrier strategy and as the whole of the MOD's policy is predicated on expeditionary capacity and a proper ability to defend the fleet, there could be no question of taking the FA2s.
Optimistic calculations give us a six-year gap, but the aircraft will start to come out of service in 2004 and will be completely out of service by 2006. The gap will last between six to eight yearsand that is an optimistic estimate. There may be problems bringing a new carrier into service. We may have to wait until we know the exact capability and requirements of the new joint strike fighter. The timetable may slipthey always doand we could be carrying a risk for a wholly unacceptable period.
Those who put this measure in LTC 2002 may have believed that it would never be accepted, yet it has been. The decision may have been taken because of the consequences that the carrier strategy, which I endorse, has for expenditure in other areas. Some painful decisions are having to be taken in the land and air budgets. Perhaps this was an opportunity for a little bit of revenge to be taken inside the MOD. Who knows what happened in the internal MOD debate and exactly what the motivations are of the staff who accepted the measure and allowed it to be put to Ministers? None the less, Ministers must understand that their job is to take decisions, and they are the ones who have to engage with the Treasury to ensure that the defence strategy to which the Government have set their hand will be properly funded.
In the light of the decision on the FA2s, one has to conclude that the Government are not prepared to invest properly in the defence policy that they have announced and to which they have committed the country. It cannot be right for the Government to accept the appalling risk created by the length of time that the Royal Navy will be without a proper air-to-air capability that would enable it to act, if necessary on its own, in circumstances that it is impossible to predict, in the next decade and beyond. The decision vividly illustrates the fact that the Ministry of Defence appears to have lost its debate with the Treasury about securing proper funding for the 1998 strategic defence review and the new chapter.
The Government must collectively reconsider. The Secretary of State for Defence must make it clear that the position is unacceptable and that he must have a properly funded defence strategy. If the Government will not provide the means, they must re-evaluate their strategyan uncomfortable conclusionbecause there is no point in having a carrier-based, expeditionary strategy to enable the United Kingdom to operate around the world if that strategy is not properly funded
Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this important debate, and I add my thanks to the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) for having raised the subject. All our defence debates are important, but some are more important than others, and this debate addresses one of the biggest issues that has arisen in defence policy since the electionand perhaps for considerably longer than that. We are talking about losing for years not merely a small portion of our capability in a particular defence area, but our entire capability in that area.
The case for the prosecution has been made effectively in the speeches by the hon. Members for Poole, for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway), for Newark (Patrick Mercer), for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), and for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). However, from the perspective of actually having a debate, it is a pity that we have not heard the other side of the argument, because that would have made it possible for us to engage more fully with the points that we will hear shortly from the Minister.
I take particular pleasure in being able to take part in the debate because of the proximity of the Yeovilton air base to my constituency. As my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome said, when we are both swept back into power after the next election, we may find that boundary changes make the Yeovilton air base part of my constituency.
The main arguments have already been thoroughly covered, but I wish to raise several points. The one common factor in all our debates on defence is the need for our forces to retain flexibility, so that we can respond to all the different challenges we face in this post-cold war era, wherein we do not know where the next threats will come from. In the 1970s, many people considered it unlikely that we would fight a campaign such as the one we fought in the Falklands in the early 1980s. The Sea Harrier was vital to our success in that campaignindeed, it is difficult to imagine how we could have won that war without the contribution of the Sea Harrier. None of us are in a position to know whether we will have to fight similar campaigns in future, and the Government are making a serious mistake if they base their policy on the experiences of recent times.
On 28 February, the Minister of State for Defence sent a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch)and, no doubt, to the Conservative defence spokesmanthat explained the reasons for taking the decision. The Minister wrote:
The Under-Secretary of State for Defence will know that there is not only the question whether we need Sea Harriers to defend our fleet in the future, but the fact that in some conflicts we will need aircraft that can defend our ground-attack aircraft against attack from other aircraft. An officer who served with the Fleet Air Arm in the Falklands conflict put that point to me this morning. One consideration that we have perhaps underplayed so far is the great concern felt by experienced, serving and former members of the armed forces about the Government's decision. That includes the taskforce commander in the Falklands, who said that it would be impossible to mount a similar campaign now without the protection that Sea Harriers currently provide and that we will shortly lose.
I do not want to open up a gap between my Conservative colleagues and myself, but we should also address the Government's intentions in respect of European Union military capability. Were the Government not intending combat aircraft, including Sea Harriers, to form an important part of that military capability? What decisions have the Government taken about the gap that will be opened up with their future inability to deliver on their commitment to our EU partners regarding the availability of Sea Harriers to act as air defence for our fleet and, potentially, the ships of other EU navies?
Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): My hon. Friend raises a very important point that relates to not only the European security and defence policy, but our NATO allies. The capability represented by the Sea Harriers is a NATO capability in the sense that it is available to NATO. Does my hon. Friend have any information about the extent to which the Government's decision was the subject of consultation with our NATO allies, particularly the United States, to whom we might have to look for the protection that the Sea Harriers currently provide?
Mr. Laws : I thank my right hon. and learned Friend, but sadly such matters are beyond me. No doubt the Minister will be able to enlighten us about any discussions that took place with EU and NATO allies before the Government took such a fundamental decision.
Other hon. Members have commented on the gaps that will exist in the lines of defence for the fleet and our other various lines of air defence. That is not only because the Sea Harriersthe furthest out line of defenceare proposed to be removed for some years with nothing in their place, but because there will be holes in the missile defence based on the destroyers. Again, the Minister of State for Defence did not reassure us in his letter of 28 February. In explaining the departure of the Sea Harriers, he said:
Not only are we talking about another gap before we can be sure that that capability is in place, but, as other hon. Members have said, no serious individual with even the remotest experience of military matters would
Mr. Heath : Is not the obvious conclusion that the Government's decision represents, at least in the medium term, a substantial change to the strategy of the Royal Navy and United Kingdom forces? As such, is it not extraordinary that the Government announced that not as a change in strategy, but as either a procurement decision or a decision based on the location of units in the United Kingdom, neither of which does credit to the fundamental decision that has been taken?
Mr. Laws : My hon. Friend is right. It is difficult to deduce the significance of the decision in the press release in which the Ministry of Defence announced it. It merited a more significant statement, so that the matter could be properly debated in the House first.
The hon. Member for Newark mentioned skills, which are important. Over the past few years, aircrew have built up significant experience in air-to-air defence activities. If they no longer engage in those activities and if those skills are not in place for the next few years, we may lose a vital part of our capability. Even if we have new aircraft to fulfil the Sea Harriers' role, it will take some time to acquire the skills that were deployed to such effect in the Falklands conflict.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome mentioned, the decision raises a fundamental question about the Government's approach to defence policy. We understood that the Government wanted to have large carriers in the years aheadhopefully, shortly after 2012; presumably, they would have not only ground-attack aircraft, but aircraft that could fulfil the Sea Harriers' role. How can the Government take a decision that involves so much expenditure on new aircraft and aircraft carriers that are so fundamental to our future defence needs and argue that we can limp along for the next few years with a couple of much smaller carriers with no serious air defence capability for themselves, the fleet or the ground attack aircraft? This is an important part of air defence policy, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Poole for having raised the issue.
Many hon. Members have concluded that the Government are taking not only a risk, but a serious gamble with their defence policy, and with the lives and security of the service men whom we ask to do important jobs on our behalf.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) on obtaining this debate on such an important subject. We have expressed the serious concern felt in this Chamber and by many well informed members of the defence community with little, if any, party political point scoring.
I agree with the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) that we have not had much of a debate so far. I will be brief, so that the lonely Minister can express his and the Government's thinking. It is disappointing that the Government have been so unwilling to engage in the debate. This morning's Daily Telegraph reported that it sought to publish the Government's point of view, but that Ministers declined to be interviewed. What sort of open government is that? The Government have an obligation to be braver and to explain more. It is an insult not to me, but to the Royal Navy and the services that the Secretary of State for Defence is meant to represent that he will not engage in the debate.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): My hon. Friend might not have heard the comment made twice by the Under-Secretary of State from a sedentary position. The answer to the question, "Where is the Secretary of State?" was, "He's working." That indicates his view that coming to the Chamber to answer this important debate is not work. Is that not a disgraceful attitude?
Mr. Jenkin : I have no animus towards the Under-Secretary of State, but I sent a message through him that I would be taking part in the debate and that I hoped that the Secretary of State would attend. That is why this Chamber exists. [Interruption.] The fact that the Under-Secretary of State is muttering betrays his embarrassment.
There is emotion attached to the question because the Sea Harrier became such a symbol of British military prowess and expertise during the Falklands conflict. It is worth recalling that 4 May 20 years ago last Saturday was the day that HMS Sheffield was hit by a sea-skimming missile. A year ago tomorrow, it finally sank. That is the price we may find ourselves paying for inadequate fleet air defence. We did not have enough of the previous variant of the Sea Harrier in theatre to provide round-the-clock air defence at that stage of the conflict. We were reliant on ship-based radar, which provided barely more than a minute's warning to manoeuvre craft to a more advantageous position and deploy counter-measures. As Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward subsequently explained, ultimately, HMS Sheffield was out on the edge of the defence perimeter to act as a sacrificial decoy, to save the more important ships of the taskforce. We might find ourselves in that position again because of the decision to withdraw the Sea Harrier FA2s from 2004 onwards.
The debate is not about the past or about emotion; we must engage constructively to ensure that we understand why the Government have made their decision. As we have heard from all hon. Members participating in the debate, that decision not only potentially puts the lives of our service men at risk and imperils the operational capability of the British Navy, but it is a militarily illiterate decision in the context of the expeditionary concept of warfare set out in the SDR and in "Options for Change" under the Conservative Government. The purpose of the Government's
Many of the technicalities have been covered. The FA2 is not comparable with the GR7 or the upgraded variant, the GR9, which do not have radar that can track 20 targets simultaneously 70 miles away from the aircraft, 100 miles away from the battle group. The first key capability of the FA2 is its deep penetration 100 to 200 miles away from the battle group, seeing over the horizon. The second is the AMRAAMthe advanced medium-range air-to-air missile. Even the upgraded variant, the GR9, will carry only the Sidewinder missile, which is a short-range missile requiring visual contact that can be used only in daylight and is ultimately a weapon of self-defence rather than a weapon for taskgrouped defence. GR7/GR9 is a slower aircraft: if it encounters fighter aircraftRussian Migs or French Miragesit will be outrun. It will not be able to catch up with the target if it is attempting to attack. It will not be able to escape an attacking aircraft because it is too slow. That leaves the GR7s and GR9swhich are supposed to replace the FA2deeply vulnerable to attack.
That is the sort of rubbish that should end up at the bottom of deep-trenched latrines in Kabul. It is no serious contribution to a debate on defence. Radar capability on these destroyers will be a mere 20 nautical miles. Even with the new helicopter-based airborne early warning system, it might extend no more than 70 nautical milesnot the vital hundreds of miles that provide the crucial first and second layers of air defence that the fleet requires in order to remain capable.
The only possible conclusion is that the Government have decided that compromise requires us to forgo a considerable element of our expeditionary capability. That means that they do not foresee the need for that capabilitywhat an extraordinary risk to take. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) pointed out, the only certainty is that things are uncertain. Who could have foreseen an amphibious assault on Sierra Leone led by British forces? Who could have foreseen that we would send a huge taskforce to fight in the Gulf war in the early 1990s? Who could have foreseen that we would send 1,000 Royal Marines to do battle with terrorists in the mountains of Afghanistan at the same time as an infantry battalion and headquarters were managing peacekeeping in Kabul? The precise purpose of our defence policy is to provide for the unforeseen. If the unforeseen happens, how long do we have to prepare for it? How many times in history can we look back and say that we wish we had what we have not? The Falklands was a case in point; we need go back no further than that.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): Does my hon. Friend agree that we have been here before? When a previous Labour Government decided to get rid of strike carriers, the Gannet airborne early warning system was scrapped as well. That proved to be the main
Mr. Jenkin : One can conclude only that Ministers have cajoled themselves into this decision on the basis of advice from the services about what is available. Our armed services are brilliant at making do. If they have been told that they must make do with less than they really need, they will not appear on the television screens to say that it cannot be done. That is not in their character and we should not expect them to do so. It is for Ministers to ask themselves whether the advice that they are receiving is the best that could have been provided if the strategic defence review had been properly funded from the start. We know from the comments of Lord Guthrie in another place in December that the SDR was underfunded from the start.
No doubt the Minister will speak about obsolescence: he will say that the aircraft is obsolete, the engine inadequate, and so on. Every piece of defence equipment becomes obsolete, but many obsolete pieces can prove extremely effective in certain types of conflict. We can all agree that it is desirable to upgrade the Sea Harriers' engine and we know that it will be expensive. Even if the Government cannot afford the engine upgrade, I submit that Sea Harriers with the existing engine remaining in service as long as possible is much better than no Sea Harriers at all. We should not be scrapping them all on the basis that they cannot deploy in extreme tropical conditions when they will be capable of deployment everywhere else. Even in extreme tropical conditions, we could deploy them, perhaps with fewer munitions and a lighter load of fuel, to perform their essential airborne early warning function.
That option would be better than scrapping the Sea Harriers altogether simply because the Government think that they cannot afford the upgrade. Money is, of course, at the heart of this issue. The real question is whether the Government are capable of funding the strategic defence review by which they set so much store when it was launched in 1998.
The purpose of drawing attention to the Sea Harriers in an emotional way is that the decision about them betrays what is going on in the armed forces in a way that we can communicate to the public. The scrapping of long-distance weapons programmes and the downgrading of other technical capabilities do not seize the public imagination. That may be why Ministers have chosen Sea Harriers: it is the bleeding-stumps syndrome, where something visible is cut to up the ante in negotiations with the Treasury. Those negotiations are the real crunch point in the Government's defence policy. It is meant to be foreign policy led, but is proving to be anything but.
I shall conclude my remarks now to give the Minister plenty of time to respond. I hope that he can also take one or two interventions. His purpose must be to explain a major change in the Government's defence policy and a major departure from their original intentions, but how he will square that circle, I do not know.
Mr. Blunt : The Minister should say what programmes have been kept in the budget. The Government's decision to strike out the Sea Harriers for the period that has been mentioned indicates the enormous pressure that the Ministry is under because of a wholly inadequate budget. He should shed some light on the alternatives that produced such an extraordinary conclusion.
Dr. Moonie : The hon. Gentleman did not listen: I said that we had a finite budget. In the real world, when one is in government, that is what one has to deal with. It is only in opposition that people have the luxury of a fantasy budget that can be expanded infinitely to take in every choice that they want to make.
There have been many references to danger and past conflicts. I remind Opposition Members that all operational decisions that we make involve a balance of risk for our forces. We are well aware that we may call on our men and women to make the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf. We need no reminders about that from Opposition Members.
Last week, Air Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the deputy Chief of the Defence Staff, in charge of commitments, gave evidence to the Select Committee on Defence. I shall paraphrase his remarks, because the evidence has not yet been published as a minute and has merely been placed on the internet for information. His comments provide an appropriate framework for our discussion. He said that to sustain the Sea Harrierthe FA2beyond 2006 as a viable weapon system would require a great deal of investment and entailed substantial technical risk. He went on to say that a number of other areas of the programme required investment and, as ever, it was a question of balance of priorities. Given the need to balance the priorities and the risk, the decision was taken that it would not be sensible for that period of time to make the degree of investment in the Sea Harrier that would have been necessary to keep it viable in service.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam): Order. May I assist the Minister? The fact that the Committee's sitting was public and the transcript has gone out on the internet means that he can quote every word of it.
Dr. Moonie : Absolutely. No one has tried to pretend otherwise for a moment. If the hon. Gentleman reads carefully the remarks that were made last week, when Sir Jock was speaking on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, he will see that we are well aware that any decision like the one that we are debating involves a balance of risk. Nobody has attempted to hide that neither Ministers nor any of our senior military advisers who have led us to our decision
The Sea Harrier has had a long and distinguished career and the decision to withdraw the aircraft earlier than planned was complex. I welcome the opportunity to explain the decision that was announced on 28 February and how we plan to improve the utility of the joint force Harrier to meet today's and tomorrow's defence needs. The aircraft was procured in the mid 1970s to meet the threat posed principally by shadowing reconnaissance aircraft and long-range bombers threatening our anti-submarine forces operating in the north Atlantic in concert with United States Navy nuclear aircraft carrier battle groups.
The Sea Harrier entered service in 1979 and, as hon. Members have recalled, it achieved early operational success in the campaign to recover the Falkland Islands in 1982, accounting for 26 Argentine aircraft. Today, of course, the circumstances in Argentina and the nature of the Falklands garrison are entirely different. Beginning in 1994 the Sea Harrier fleet was upgraded to the FA2 standard to provide an enhanced capability for the following decade. When the Sea Harrier is withdrawn from service in 2006 it will have been in service for a significant length of timemore than 25 years, which is far longer than most of its predecessors in the Fleet Air Arm.
A strong theme throughout the strategic defence review was the importance of joint operations. The SDR concluded that the emphasis for the Invincible-class carriers had already moved away from cold war deep-water anti-submarine operations supported by the Sea Harrier providing a limited air defence capability. In future, as Sir Jock Stirrup said, the priority will be the delivery of flexible expeditionary air power, with an increased emphasis on ground-attack strike missions
Mr. Prisk : Is the Minister arguing that we do not need any air defence aircraft? Certainly all hon. Members present would accept that there is a case for having an increased ground-attack capability. The concern here is that the removal of all air defence capabilities removes the defence and security of the personnel. This long read-out passage, which seems to be replacing a speech, does not answer that question.
Dr. Moonie : I have already made the point, but I shall make it again. We are not saying that there is no change in the balance of risk, but our advice and the advice that we have received from the service chiefs on which we base our decisions is that the balance of risk is acceptable. We are not saying that in an ideal world we would not have every capability, but we do not live in an ideal world. We live in the real world and within that we must make decisions. The balance of risk has changed, but it remains acceptable.
Mr. Jenkin : The hon. Gentleman is arguing that the aircraft is old. The FA2, which was introduced in 1993, is a much newer aircraft than the Tornado GR1A or GR4A, which was introduced in 1989, or the Tornado F3, which was introduced in 1986, or the Jaguar, which the Government are keeping in service and which was introduced in 1973. The age of the aircraft is not relevant to the debate.
Dr. Moonie : Unfortunately, the age of the aircraft is relevant to the debate. The upgrade in the FA2 is concerned predominantly with avionics and other systems that are placed on the aircraft. The aircraft frame remains old. The aircraft structure remains old, and there is nothing that we can do about that. The hon. Gentleman has not properly examined what the upgrades involve. I now want to make some progress. As usual, I have given way far too often. I apologise to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) for not giving way to him before, but I want to finish my remarks.
The strategic defence review included a commitment to establish a joint force Harriera joint, flexible and deployable force that is ideally suited to the demands of the new strategic environment. It was formed on 1 April 2000 under the command of 3 Group, Strike Command, and it operates two aircraft types. During 2001, it became evident that both Sea Harrier FA2 and the GR7 would require substantial investment over the next few years to ensure that they remained effective until replaced by the future joint combat aircraft. Upgrades to both aircraft types were considered, but the improvement and maintenance of one type was deemed achievable and preferable to maximise our ability to deliver carrier-based offensive air power in a joint force.
To ensure that the Harrier GR7 fleet maintains a credible expeditionary capability by day and night from land and sea until the introduction to service of the FJCA, several important aircraft system enhancements will be necessary, and they have been drawn together to form the GR9 upgrade programme. The GR9 aircraft will be able to communicate securely with each other
Because of what the Sea Harrier was designed to do and where it was designed to operate, there are limitations on the worldwide operational deployment of the FA2. That renders it incapable of operating to its full capability for certain periods of the year in the Gulf and the middle east due to the thrust limitations of its engine. While the FA2 possesses a capable weapon system, it would also require significant investment to remain effective beyond 2005 to deal with obsolescence and shortcomings in its radar and self-protection systems. Unlike the GR7, the FA2 was not designed to be able to take the more powerful Rolls-Royce Pegasus, so any engine upgrade would carry considerable technical risk.
In the light of those considerations, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence announced to the House on 28 February the Government's intention that the joint force Harrier should migrate to an all-Harrier GR force, maximising investment in one aircraft type.
Dr. Moonie : No, I shall not. The Sea Harrier FA2 will therefore be withdrawn earlier than planned, by 2006. As a consequence of its earlier withdrawal from service, the planned relocation of Sea Harrier FA2 aircraft from RNAS Yeovilton to RAF Cottesmore and RAF Wittering in 2003 will not now proceed. The relocation of Royal Navy personnel will go ahead, but slightly later than planned, over the period 2004 to 2006. By 1 April 2007, joint force Harrier will have migrated to an all-Harrier GR9 force manned by roughly equal numbers of RN and RAF personnel.