CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

'FUTURE SHIPS FOR THE ROYAL NAVY' (WESTMINSTER HALL) – 3 December 2013

Dr Julian Lewis: My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Tobias Ellwood) has long been an articulate commentator on Army issues; more recently he has taken up the cudgels on behalf of the Royal Navy. If I were in charge of the Royal Air Force, I would look to my laurels, because I am sure that it is next on his agenda. To give the Minister maximum time to consider my questions, I will ask them at the beginning of my contribution rather than at the end, so he will be at liberty to ignore anything I say afterwards.

First, when the main gate contracts are signed some time next year after the Scottish referendum, will a minimum of 13 frigates be ordered? Secondly, does the Minister accept that the unit cost of new frigates will be much cheaper if all 13 are ordered at the outset? Thirdly, eight of the 13 frigates will specialise in anti-submarine warfare. Was that figure derived from doctrinal consideration, and if so, what is it? My concern is that if we are to have seven frigates available for that purpose, we would need 10, not eight. I think doctrine requires at least seven to be available. Fourthly, how many of the new frigates would be necessary to escort a taskforce, whether that is an amphibious or carrier taskforce? Finally, what consideration will be given to adoption of the 'plug-and-play' method of warship development that my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East referred to, and the importance of getting hulls in the water first and then building up capacity over the lifetime of the vessel?

In the time available, I hope to speak about strategy, numbers and design concept. You have drawn the short straw, Mr Hood, in chairing this debate, because when I made my Maiden Speech on Defence in the Queen’s Speech debate in 1997, you spoke after me, and were kind enough to predict that the House would be hearing a lot more from me on Defence in the years to come. You were absolutely right, and I have been banging on about it ever since, although I had not expected to be making the same sort of repetitious points and representations to a Conservative-led Government as I did to the Labour Government during the more than six years in which I was my party’s spokesman on the Royal Navy, but there you are. Politics is a strange profession.

Oliver Colvile: My hon. Friend has a great deal to contribute, because he had a distinguished career as a reservist in the Royal Navy.

Dr Lewis: The distinction that I achieved cannot be overemphasised: I advanced from probationer ordinary seaman to full ordinary seaman. I was very proud to be one, because even in those days – it was from 1979 to 1982, or thereabouts – I was too old to be an officer cadet. I feel the bus pass jingling in my pocket.

Yesterday, I took the day off and had the great pleasure of travelling to Southampton University at the invitation of Commander Chris Ling, Commanding Officer of Thunderer Squadron, which is the Defence Technical Undergraduate Scheme at the University, and Lieutenant Amie Jackson. She – I emphasise "she" – is the Commanding Officer of the warship HMS Blazer, which is attached to the University’s Royal Naval Unit. It was wonderful to celebrate with them the opening of their new joint headquarters at the National Oceanography Centre. Looking at the fine young people who are coming through the system and having a first-class maritime education there, I could not help wondering how many opportunities they would have, and how many naval vessels would be available for them to serve in, in the years ahead, when they go on, as so many of them do, to professional careers in the Royal Navy.

I said that I would talk a bit about strategy. I have always acknowledged on a cross-party basis that the concepts of Labour’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review were very sound. They recognised that we were no longer facing as our primary concern the Cold War threat on the continent, and that if our forces were engaged, it would be in more far-flung theatres. As we were no longer an empire and no longer had a string of bases all over the world, it would be necessary to have a portable, movable sea base that we could use to take our joint forces to the theatre in which they were engaged. That seemed sound then, and it is sound today. That concept required two sorts of taskforce: one to allow air power to be projected from the sea, hence the aircraft carriers; and the other to enable military power to be landed from the sea, hence the amphibious taskforce. Broadly speaking, we have the central elements of those taskforces.

We know that the aircraft carriers are moving steadily forward, whatever financial peaks and troughs they have had in their chequered history, and that they will come to fruition. I would like to predict that the Government will bring both carriers into service, because it would be sheer madness to build one of the largest ships that the Royal Navy has ever seen and not deploy it.

The Albion, the Bulwark, and our Bay-class ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service form the core of the amphibious taskforce, and again, it would be interesting to know – although I do not expect an answer today – what plans there are to think about the next generation of assault ships to follow the Albion and the Bulwark. However, the point about the two taskforces, and the relevance to today’s debate, is that they will have to be protected against air threats, surface threats and submarine threats. As I said before, if we need a certain number of frigates – let us say as many as four to protect a taskforce, if it were in a serious regional conflict – given the roles that the frigates will have to perform in other areas, including ongoing and standing tasks, I find myself querying how the idea that we will generate a minimum of seven available anti-submarine warfare frigates from only eight out of the 13 will work.

I shall say a brief word about numbers. I start from the standpoint that we are simply not spending enough on Defence. I know all the economic arguments about that, but the fact is that as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product, Defence spending has declined too far down our list of priorities. Spending was between 4% and 5% during the Cold War years. When Labour came into office in 1997, it went from 2.9% to 2.6%, then to 2.8%. Then, in successive years, it was 2.7%, 2.7% again, 2.5%, 2.5% again, and so on. That looked fairly consistent, but the problem was that during that period, we were engaged in fighting two large regional conflicts, and the Treasury was not prepared to stump up the extra money to fund those conflicts in full. As a result, we found the core military budget being eaten away by the financing of current conflicts, and since then, under the present Government, the situation has not improved. I believe that we are down to something like 2.1% of GDP at present, and I feel that that is the root of the problem.

At the time of the Strategic Defence Review that set out those concepts, the Labour Government proposed reducing the combined number of frigates and destroyers from 35 to 32. The admirals gritted their teeth and accepted that, but it quickly emerged that 32 had actually gone down to 31, and the then Secretary of State, Geoff Hoon, formulated what I later dubbed the "Hoon excuse", which was:

"It doesn't really matter that we have lost an extra frigate, because they are more powerful than they used to be, so 31 ships can do what 32 used to do."

That, I am afraid, was the start of a very slippery slope.

The next bite taken out of the total by the Labour Government took the number down from 31 to 25. I remember standing up in the House of Commons at the beginning of 2007 waxing eloquent about persistent rumours that the Government intended to mothball, if not permanently dispose of, another half-a-dozen frigates to take the total down to 19. In the end, that gradually slipped away, but a couple of Type 23 frigates were paid off, and effectively the total went down to 23 from 25. It took the Conservative-led Coalition coming in before we went down to 19 in the 2010 SDSR, yet the concept set out in 1998 remained basically sound: we needed to be able to fulfil certain standing tasks, to protect a mobile base, and to escort an amphibious taskforce or an aircraft carrier taskforce. I do not see what doctrinal developments since then justify such a radical reduction in the numbers.

That leads to me to my final point, about the design concept, which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bournemouth East mentioned. It is about whether it might be worth looking at the other five more general-purpose hulls that are proposed to bring the total number of frigates up to 13, and whether it might be worth considering doing something simpler to get more hulls in the water from which we can regenerate the surface fleet. Back in February 2005, in putting forward that concept, I was unwise enough to say that, really, the replacement general-purpose frigates ought to be “as cheap as chips”, which is not the sort of phrase that a proud Navy wants to hear. However, the point is based on an important development that I referred to in my opening questions – the idea of 'plug-and-play'.

When the Type 45s were designed and put into service, they had a very large gymnasium. Why? Because they were designed in such a way that at a future stage in their life-cycle, when we could afford it, we would be able to plug into that large space a module of land-attack cruise missiles, which would hugely increase the ships' power, even though we felt that we could not afford to do so at the beginning. It is perfectly possible to design ships that are relatively simple, but that have that capacity; I am extremely glad to see the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) nodding in agreement. We are very capable of upgrading those ships in their lifetime, and adding to their capacity. Perhaps it is too late now – I do not know – but we could at least try to keep the number of hulls a bit larger and lessen the complexity a bit; we would then have the basis for upgrading the quality of the vessels during their lifetime.

Angus Robertson: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks closely at the Royal Danish Navy’s StanFlex system, which does exactly that.

Dr Lewis: It is very much one of the examples that I have in mind. Those vessels are extremely economical, but they are out there in good numbers, and as was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), who had to leave, they are exportable. I think that the Chamber has heard more than enough from me on these matters. I very much look forward to hearing the wind-ups and, in particular, answers to some of the questions I posed. If I cannot have them all just now, perhaps I can have some of them in writing.