HL Deb 06 April 2004 vol 659 cc1721-2

11.37 a.m.

Lord Astor of Hever asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether there will be sufficient air cover for future Royal Naval operations.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)

My Lords, all naval task groups, whether those now or in the future, will deploy with appropriate defence capabilities.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, but, with the withdrawal of the Sea Harriers, how confident is the Minister in the current escort air defence capability before PAMS comes into service with the Type 45s? Will he confirm the Government's commitment to procure all 12 Type 45 destroyers?

Lord Bach

My Lords, maritime task groups possess their air defence capability, typically including medium and short range air defence missiles, such as Sea Dart and Sea Wolf, close-in weapon systems and active and passive decoys. We have introduced the upgraded Sea King airborne surveillance and control helicopter.

The noble Lord and his party must understand that the nature of the threat has evolved over time with the main above-water threat to the fleet judged now to come from sea-skimming missiles which can be launched from air, land or sea-based platforms. As he knows, the Sea Harrier is designed to shoot down the aircraft, not the missile and is therefore unable to counter the full extent of the threat effectively as compared with modern ship-borne systems, designed specifically for that missile threat. As to his second question about Type 45s, no, I am not prepared to answer that question.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, my noble friend referred to the Sea Harrier. Should we have kept the Sea Harrier? If we had done so, what would have been the cost of doing that?

Lord Bach

My Lords, if we had upgraded the Sea Harrier, as the Official Opposition were asking us to do, and which seems to have been their policy, it would have cost us at least £0.5 billion. It is not certain that putting a bigger engine into it would necessarily have worked at all.

Given that the party opposite is determined to freeze defence spending, which effectively is a cut of £1.5 billion—we do not know yet how it would find that money—how would it find the other £0.5 billion?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, if it is practical to manage without air cover for our current carriers for probably the next 10 years before the Joint Strike Fighter comes into operation, why is it absolutely essential that we have air cover from, say, 2015 onwards? What does he imagine is the threat that they will be meeting?

Lord Bach

My Lords, we want to have as widely layered an air defence as possible. The Joint Strike Fighter, which is due to come in. on present estimates, in 2012 in this country, and in 2008 in the United States, will be a multi-role aircraft. It will have an offensive role just as much as it has an air defence role. In fact, it will primarily have an air attack role. That fits in much more with our philosophy, which is that the role of the aircraft carrier is no longer to protect the fleet, as it was in the Cold War days, but involves power projection in support of offensive strikes. That is why we took the decision to have a Harrier, a GR7/9, which is an offensive, attack aircraft, as opposed to the Sea Harrier.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned air defence twice. Could he remind me, because I ought to know, whether the GR7/9 will have the role of the Sea Harrier as far as missiles and so on are concerned? When it is one aircraft against another in the air defence role, will he confirm that the GR7/9s will have all the avionics and everything necessary for that role?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the GR7/9 is not an air defence aircraft. It has Sidewinder Missiles in order to defend itself, but it does not have all the facilities of the Sea Harrier, which is an air defence aircraft. Indeed, it is right to say that the radar that the Sea Harrier and air defence aircraft had is different from that of the GR7/9.

Lord Elton

My Lords, as the noble Lord is getting more and more technical, could he help those of us who are laymen on this matter, who suppose, probably in an antiquated fashion, that the role of the helicopter was to go out around the fleet to pick up, in particular, submarine attack? Surely, those aircraft need fixed-wing cover, and that will not be available under present arrangements for some years.

Lord Bach

My Lords, the noble Lord accuses me of being an expert. I deny it completely. From his question, he sounds like much more of an expert than I am. The GR7/9 Harrier that will be on the aircraft carriers will be sufficient, as far as air cover is concerned, until the Joint Strike Fighter comes along.

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