HC Deb 09 February 1998 vol 306 cc6-8
4. Mr. David Heath

What assessment he has made of the current strategic importance and future need for aircraft carriers in the Royal Navy. [26098]

Mr. George Robertson

The future requirement for aircraft carriers is being considered as part of the strategic defence review.

Mr. Heath

My question may be particularly apposite because of the current deployment of HMS Illustrious and HMS Invincible and the aircrew from Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the carrier fleet provides the essential platform for extending the reach of British peacekeeping capacity? Will he therefore ensure that that view is reflected as the defence review continues?

Mr. Robertson

The simple answer to that question is yes. We are certainly examining the case for a future generation of carriers, although we must also weigh and balance the implications that that would have for the rest of our armed forces and for the Budget. The work will of course take into account the role being played in the Gulf by Royal Navy aircraft carriers. The requirement to provide platforms to support fixed-wing aircraft beyond the life of carriers in the Invincible class is a serious and a big issue that will have to be weighed and balanced by any Government, and is therefore a crucial part of our considerations in the strategic defence review.

Mr. Hutton

Will my right hon. Friend confirm the important role played by our existing carrier fleet in maintaining Britain's effective amphibious capability? Will he also confirm that that key capability is one that we will want to retain into the next decade?

Mr. Robertson

I recognise the very strong constituency interest that my hon. Friend represents and the power with which he expresses his view. The roles of our armed forces are being examined in the most thorough and detailed—but still open—manner that we have seen for many years. His point is taken and will be given due consideration.

Mr. Soames

Even allowing for the fact that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) will have been heavily got at by the Fleet Air Arm, does not the Secretary of State agree—as he already has done, again—that the presence so speedily of Illustrious and Invincible in the Gulf, to reinforce the coalition's determination to ensure that Saddam Hussein is compelled to honour his obligations, is a very powerful ideal for the future of the carrier fleet? Will he tell the House what he has in mind for the aircraft that will go on future carriers? Is he thinking of retaining jump jet type aircraft, or will he be more conventional, as the Americans have been?

Mr. Robertson

The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point about our carriers in the Gulf. It is appropriate especially to recognise the service of HMS Invincible, its crew and the RAF staff who are also on board. They have been at sea since 2 September last year. They are now in the Gulf and will be relieved by HMS Illustrious when it gets to that part of the world. Their sacrifice and service is something for which we are profoundly grateful, and their families' sacrifice in being without them for such a long time should also be put on the record.

The hon. Gentleman of course recognises that the decision on a future generation of carriers cannot be separated from the future of the RAF jets. Clearly, that configuration and the balance that has to be struck in that respect are a central part of the defence review. It is one of the critical decisions that we will have to take during that review.