NATIONAL SHIPBUILDING STRATEGY – 11 July 2019
Dr Julian Lewis: As an old schoolmate of yours, Mr Evans, it is a particular pleasure for me to contribute to this debate under your able chairmanship. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for North Durham (Kevan Jones) for continuing his relentless and entirely justified campaign to ensure that the Defence footprint, particularly as regards naval shipbuilding, is not shrunk still further in this country.
Mr Evans, you will know, having been in the House even longer than me, that one of the few benefits of having spent more than two decades here is that we get to see trends over decades. What has happened with our naval shipbuilding does not make for a pretty picture. I remember the 1998 Strategic Defence Review undertaken by the then new Labour Government of Tony Blair. It set out a policy for the Royal Navy that seemed to leave it in quite a winning position. Although the Royal Navy was asked to sacrifice three of its frigates or destroyers, thus reducing its total from 35 to 32, the Review put forward the concept of carrier strike and amphibious strike, which meant that the two large aircraft carriers would be built.
Had it remained in that formulation, the Royal Navy would have had every reason to be satisfied. We all know, however, that that was not the case. Successive Governments reduced the total from 32 frigates and destroyers, first to 31, on the basis that these were much more capable ships and therefore 31 would be able to do the work of 32. When that little stratagem succeeded, the 31 were reduced to 25, and the 25 were then reduced to our present pathetic total of 19 destroyers and frigates – six destroyers and 13 frigates, to be precise. Before anybody starts lecturing us about the change in the nature of warfare, it is worth reflecting on the fact that one of those 13 frigates, HMS Montrose, is in the news today, having performed the very important function of protecting British shipping from Iranian attempts to respond to the impounding of a large vessel of theirs that was believed to be carrying contraband oil to Syria.
It is rather hard to have a strategy when we are dealing with only a relatively limited number of vessels, even though those vessels may well be much more potent, powerful and versatile than their predecessors. However powerful, versatile and potent they are, each can be in only one place at any one time, and that means that each can be built in only one place over a particular period. That makes it harder to have a versatile and flexible strategy to match those qualities in the ships that are being built.
One of the encouraging results of the publication of the national shipbuilding strategy was that, in identifying the general purpose frigate, the Type 31e – the cheap and cheerful version of the next generation of frigates – as one that should be designed for export, Sir John Parker, to whom we should again pay tribute for everything he did, also specified that, as a result of those vessels being built in modular fashion, they would be very flexible and adaptable over time to what is sometimes called incremental acquisition. In other words, we get the ship hulls built and get them out to sea, and then, over time, because we have built compartments in the vessels that can be used for a variety of purposes over a period of years, we sow the seeds of their future adaptability and additional potency.
We should remember that this was the first time there was talk of an increase in the total number of vessels. Instead of just being told, “We will be replacing 13 Type 23 frigates on a like-for-like basis,” we were told that there would definitely be eight of the Type 26, specialising in anti-submarine warfare, and at least five – not a limit of five – of the Type 31e general purpose vessels. It will be interesting to hear from the Minister whether there are plans to exceed the figure of five for the Type 31e.
Slightly less than a week away, on Tuesday 16 July, there will be another debate in this Chamber about Defence expenditure. Of course, all these issues, including the important one about the fleet solid support ships raised by the right hon. Gentleman, generally come back to Defence expenditure and – it must be said – the inadequacy of Defence expenditure.
I regard it as one of the achievements of the Select Committee on Defence that, with members representing no fewer than four different parties, it has consistently come to the view, irrespective of party allegiance, that too little is spent on Defence in the United Kingdom – far too little. Our expectations were managed downwards to such an extent that it was believed to be some sort of triumph when we did not dip below NATO’s basic recommended minimum guideline of 2% of GDP. To coincide with next Tuesday’s debate, the Committee will bring out an updated report, following on from our 2016 report in which we laid out the decline in Defence expenditure as a proportion of GDP compared with rises in Health, Education and, above all, Pensions and Benefits, and how Defence had declined in our scale of national priorities to such an extent that the size of the Armed Forces was becoming unsustainable.
The national shipbuilding strategy gives us an opportunity to reverse that decline, and I would be grateful to hear from the Minister what plans there are to do that. It will be no easy task, given that we will remove the Type 23 frigates from the fleet at the rate of one a year between 2023 and 2035. It will be no small task to replace each of those frigates at that sort of rate with a new, modern, complex warship.
Mr Kevan Jones: The right hon. Gentleman is talking about the number of ships. Does he agree that the crisis point in the Navy is also about people and not just in number? I referred to skills in the shipbuilding industry, but there is also a need for particular skills in the Royal Navy.
Dr Lewis: That is true, because if we fall below what one might call critical mass, we will not be able to maintain the necessary footprint to support the construction and manning of vessels on a consistent basis. That is why the question of the fleet solid support ships is so important. Those vessels can be classified as warships or, if we choose not to, simply as auxiliaries. We have that choice, and it is a choice that we feel, on a cross-party basis, it is necessary to exercise.
The trouble that the Ministry of Defence runs into is that every time a long-term strategic view suggests to it that we ought to make an investment of this sort, it runs up against the short-term imperative that the Defence budget is so small that cuts must be made at every opportunity, even where, as in this case, they are short-sighted and storing up problems for the future.
Chris Stephens: I thank the Chair of the Defence Committee for giving way. Is there not another priority for the MOD – the increased submarine activity we are seeing from Russia? The lack of Navy surface vessels could contribute to that. The Modernising Defence Programme really needs to address that issue.
Dr Lewis: I entirely endorse what the hon. Gentleman said, and I am glad that he mentioned the Modernising Defence Programme. I will take a moment to talk about that exercise. It was felt at the time that the Programme was not a very substantial document, but it did rescue the Armed forces From what I can only describe as a bureaucratic ambush laid out for it by something called the National Security Capability Review.
Right hon. and hon. Members will remember that that mini-Strategic Defence Review was an exercise that I believe began in 2017 and was conducted not by the Ministry of Defence but by the National Security Adviser, who is currently also the Cabinet Secretary. It was designed to consider Security, Intelligence, Cyber-warfare and Defence all in the round. I even heard Sir Mark Sedwill in front of a Committee on which I sat refer to a £56 billion defence and security budget, thus taking all the budgets and putting them together, as it were, in a single basket. There was only one snag with that. If the Review decided, as it was minded to do, that much more money needed to be spent on what was called “21st century threats” such as cyber-warfare and ambiguous or hybrid warfare, as there was to be no extra money for anything, the already depleted conventional Armed Forces would have to be cut further.
The hon. Gentleman’s point is therefore particularly pertinent. Although we live in a world where we face new hybrid warfare, cyber-warfare and other highly technological threats we have not faced before, that does not mean that the traditional threats on the sea, under the sea, in the air and on land have gone away. It is a profound mistake to say that, just because we need to spend more money to meet novel threats, we can afford to spend less money to keep up the strength of our conventional Armed Forces.
I referred briefly to the Defence Committee’s original report from April 2016, entitled Shifting the Goalposts? that set out charts showing the decline in Defence expenditure to barely 2% – and that figure was achieved only by including certain categories in the total, such as war pensions, that NATO guidelines allow us to include but we never previously chose to. We just scraped over the 2% line by doing that. I will not spoil the effect by revealing in advance what the new figures show, but believe me, they are not cause for great comfort.
We are now at a stage when we are expecting a change of Prime Minister. Every Prime Minister has a honeymoon period. Even the present one did – sadly, it did not last all that long. In this case, the person most likely to become the next Prime Minister projects an optimism, a sunny personality and a robust world view.
I suggest that all of us, from whichever party we are, should remain united on one thought – there will be a brief window of opportunity. There will be a moment when we will have a new occupant of No. 10 Downing Street who will be full of the joys of spring. This will be our chance to say that the great naval traditions, all those matters of history and all the events in which his great hero, Sir Winston Churchill, participated as First Lord of the Admiralty and later as Prime Minister will be laying, as another Prime Minister once said, the hand of history on his shoulder. What better way to shake the hand of history than to restore Defence spending to its rightful place in the scale of our national priorities?
Mr Nigel Evans (in the Chair): Hon. Members will be able to tell that the right hon. Gentleman and I are old school chums because I gave him a bit of latitude to ski off-piste. ...