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7.56 pm

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) and to contribute to the debate. I acknowledge the Minister's courtesy in giving way on numerous occasions, including to me more than once. He or the Under-Secretary may want to return the compliment before I sit down because I shall focus on the proposed procurement and disposal of aircraft.

The Government's 1998 strategic defence review reoriented Britain's armed forces towards an essentially expeditionary strategy. In a press conference shortly after SDR was announced, the then Secretary of State for Defence, now Lord Robertson, Secretary General of NATO, summed up the change:

That realignment of Britain's armed forces had important implications for their associated equipment programme, with a renewed emphasis on equipment to facilitate expeditionary warfare such as transport aircraft, helicopters and amphibious shipping.

A centrepiece of the new force structure was the decision to replace the Royal Navy's three existing aircraft carriers of the Invincible class with two new, larger aircraft carriers, which would allow for a far larger complement of aircraft, including what has become the F-35 joint strike fighter. The new carriers are intended to enter service in 2012 and 2015. They will be escorted by the new Type 45 destroyer, equipped with the equally new principal anti-air missile system or PAAMS.

The first new ship is due to enter service in late 2007 to replace the Type 42 destroyers, which are armed with the increasingly obsolescent Sea Dart anti-air missile system. As I said earlier, the first Type 45 will be a first of class. That means a prolonged trials process. From past experience, that could extend the in-service date until the ship is declared operational into the fleet in 2008 or even 2009, especially if PAAMS does not perform as advertised, straight out of the box, first time around.

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Those points are important because air superiority is crucial to 21st century military operations. As the strategic defence review White Paper pointed out in paragraph 87 on page 22:

We should ask, therefore, what the implications are for our expeditionary warfare capability in the decade ahead before the first of the proposed new carriers becomes available. To begin with, there has been considerable speculation about whether the two new ships will still be delivered according to the original schedule. I hope that they will be, but even if they are, the Royal Navy will still in the meantime have to provide support for expeditionary operations with its existing assets, which would have to be run on until the carriers and their new aircraft join the fleet.

However, the Government have since taken the controversial decision to withdraw the Sea Harrier from Royal Navy service between 2004 and 2006. The Government allege that they have to do so because the aircraft suffers performance limitations in certain hot climates and they cannot afford an engine upgrade to address that. In seeking to justify this, the Government have also sought to stress that the carriers will still carry the GR7/9 variant, which is optimised for ground attack rather than for air defence.

As Ministers will recall, there was a very lively debate about the decision on 8 May in Westminster Hall. It would be charitable to say that the Government did not exactly win the argument that morning in seeking to justify their decision. We were told, for instance, that the Sea Harrier, which was combat-proven in the Falklands campaign, has to go because it is an old aircraft, being more than 20 years old. However, the Jaguar is nearly 30 years old and the Canberra has been in service for virtually half a century and is still going strong.

Moreover, the Sea Harriers have been significantly upgraded. Beginning in 1994, the then Government invested £466 million in upgrading the aircraft to the new F/A2 standard, with a more capable radar and associated electronics, and medium range air-to-air missiles—making the F/A2 one of the best air defence aircraft in Europe and considerably more capable than the aircraft that fought in the Falklands.

Jim Knight: I acknowledge comments in the Defence Committee's report about the weaknesses of abolishing the aircraft so quickly following the last upgrade, but does the right hon. Gentleman—sorry, the hon. Gentleman—acknowledge that even following that upgrade the aircraft is still no defence against sea-skimming missiles? Given that many of the savings from getting rid of the Sea Harriers are going into the upgrade of GR7s and GR9s, does he agree that on balance and on the cost-benefit analysis, the MOD's decision has considerable merit?

Mr. Francois: I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for inadvertently promoting me; it is a burden that I shall live with. Exocet, which hit the Sheffield in 1982, was a sea-skimmer, but it was launched from an aircraft. Therefore, it is important that we keep any threat aircraft that can be armed with missiles designed to sea skim in the terminal phase as far away from friendly shipping as possible.

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The last of the upgrades begun in 1994 was completed just a few years ago, so the considerable investment of almost £500 million of taxpayers' money will, effectively, be largely foregone if the aircraft are scrapped early before the new JSF is available. It makes very little sense to upgrade those aircraft and then scrap them just a few years later.

I believe that there are still powerful reasons why the Sea Harriers should not be retired early, as the Government envisage. First, doing so will seriously weaken the defence of our expeditionary forces. As Ministers have pointed out in this debate, the theory of naval air defence is based on a concept of layered defence—addressing the threat from as far out as possible. Sea Harrier, with its look-down, shoot-down radar and medium-range missiles, allows a fleet commander to do that considerably beyond the horizon. Without the Sea Harrier, that critical outer layer is removed, thus allowing threat aircraft that carry certain classes of air-to-surface missiles to get much closer to the target shipping and to threaten to saturate the ship-based defences—in other words to overwhelm the defence by getting close enough.

Jim Knight: I would be interested to know which potential adversaries the hon. Gentleman thinks have such technology, which would be a threat to us if we did not have the Sea Harrier.

Mr. Francois: First, as I understand it, a number of middle eastern states have air-to-surface missile technology, as indeed does China. I cite those two examples off the top of my head, but I am sure that I could come up with others.

Secondly, Sea Harriers should not be retired early because doing so threatens to denude offensive operations. In littoral operations of the kind often envisaged in the strategic defence review, the Sea Harriers might be needed to provide "top cover" for the GR7s against intercepting enemy aircraft—a role the land-attack Harriers are effectively unable to carry out for themselves.

In the debate on 8 May, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) used the good analogy of a shield, the Sea Harriers, and a spear, the GR7s. By this decision, we would not only remove the shield but blunt the spear wherever the enemy has air defence aircraft of its own that could threaten the GR7 Harriers as they went into attack.

Jim Knight: I am exceptionally grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way a third time. He talks of shields and spears, and he will be aware that occasionally people use a two-handed sword rather than a sword and a shield. He mentioned some possible adversaries who have the technology to threaten us if we do not have Sea Harriers. Does he envisage that we would ever go into combat with such nations on our own?

Mr. Francois: In early 1982, no one envisaged that we would go into combat to defend the Falkland Islands. History shows again and again that we must prepare as far as we practically can for the unexpected. The great problem with this decision is that it assumes that we will fight only in certain given scenarios. History shows that that is probably a mistake.

Thirdly, Sea Harriers should not be retired early because there are important implications for rules of engagement. I do not think that that has been mentioned.

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The Sea Harrier allows a fleet commander to identify visually a potential threat—that could turn out to be a civilian airliner—rather than rely just on the interpretation of a radar image. Without that capability, and even allowing for helicopter-borne airborne early warning, the fleet commander is partially blinded and can only take a "launch/don't launch" decision about his missiles when the contact is much closer in and he is under much greater time pressure to do so. Crucially, he cannot visually check until it is perhaps too late. All those important operational constraints could put a naval task force heading into harm's way at serious risk if it were attacked from the air.

Ministers have already conceded that the decision involves an element of risk. On 29 April the Minister told the House:

My contention is that it is a greater risk than Ministers have been prepared to acknowledge, perhaps even to themselves. In short, it is not possible to maintain a credible commitment to an expeditionary strategy that lies at the heart of the SDR, and then to announce the abolition of carrier-based air defence for six years. If the Government wish to press ahead with the decision, they should acknowledge that the expeditionary strategy envisaged in the SDR will be largely in abeyance for six years between 2006 and 2012.

All that being so, the Sea Harriers should still be run on. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) argued from the Front Bench in Westminster Hall:

That sums up the situation in a nutshell. Moreover, in cold climates, there are few constraints, and even in tropical conditions the aircraft could still be deployed—perhaps operating with lighter loads if necessary in order still to provide some capability.

Ministers have already conceded that the decision was partly due to financial reasons—it was a balance of investment decision. Given the extra resources apparently announced for defence in the comprehensive spending review, is this not a suitable opportunity for the Government to concede that they have got this one wrong and that some of the additional resources could be directed to rectifying the mistake? That would maintain integral air defence cover for the Royal Navy until the new carriers and their associated aircraft were available. Furthermore, it would not expose the fleet and whomever it was assigned to protect to unacceptable risk for six years or more.

Ministers have been unable to carry the House on this subject today. I do not believe that they have won the argument. If they want to repent, this would be a very good time for them to do so, and I sincerely urge them to reconsider this dangerous decision while there is still time.

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