The speech made by John Healey, the Shadow Secretary for Defence, in the House of Commons on 26 April 2021.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for the advance copy, and I add Labour’s condolences to the friends, family and comrades of the Indonesian submariners who tragically lost their lives in the service of their country this week.
We welcome this first major deployment of the Queen Elizabeth, and pay tribute to all those involved who have made this possible. The Secretary of State rightly says that the UK has a proud history as a carrier nation, but Britain has not had a carrier strike force since 2010, when the Conservative defence review scrapped all three of our aircraft carriers, along with 74 newly upgraded Harriers that flew from them. This deployment fills a big gap in Britain’s military capability over the past decade. It is a major achievement that, in the words of Sir Nick Houghton, vice-chief of the defence staff in 2011, is as complex as “staging the Olympics.”
The successful design and build of our two new aircraft carriers is a tribute to the UK’s shipbuilding industry and our UK steelmakers. Will the Secretary of State confirm how much UK-produced steel will be used in the new Type 26s, Type 31s, Astute, Dreadnought and Fleet Solid Support ships? This is a big opportunity to back British industry and jobs. If done well, it will strengthen the UK economy, and our sovereignty and self-reliance. The carrier strike group will sail east with the support of US and Dutch naval warships, and with US F-35 fighters on board.
It is good that the Queen Elizabeth sails with allies, but it is not good if she can sail only with allies. Despite state-based threats to the UK growing and diversifying, the Secretary of State will cut the number of Royal Navy frigates over the next two years. When, if ever, does he plan to have enough British warships to sail with our own British carriers? Will he confirm clearly that the majority of planes on the deck of the Queen Elizabeth will be US not British fighters? Despite the increasing military threats to the UK, he confirmed last month that Britain has ordered only 48 of the planned 138 F-35 fighters. When, if ever, does he plan to have enough British F-35s for our own British carriers?
There are serious concerns about the carrier’s long-delayed Crowsnest radar. Will the Secretary of State confirm that Crowsnest is now fully operational, and that the carrier strike group is fully combat ready? With the Royal Navy currently almost 1,600 under strength, and with the real cuts to the MOD’s resource budget through to 2024, will he confirm the full cost of this year’s deployment?
The Secretary of State has spoken of hard power and soft power, and across the House we hope that Britain will see significant diplomatic and trade benefits from that deployment. With covid security, however, how far will the diplomatic impact be reduced when a carrier cannot host guests or send people ashore? This deployment is important proof of our new British carrier strike capability, but let us not fall for the illusion that Britain is somehow able to project force everywhere in the world at once. Global Britain is a beguiling phrase, but this time-limited deployment will not significantly alter the balance of military power in the Indo-Pacific region. Surely we should focus our defence efforts on where the threats are, not on where the business opportunities might be. Can the Secretary of State confirm that, after the Queen Elizabeth’s gap-year tour of 40 countries, she will return to the military business of helping to protect Britain and patrol the north Atlantic, the High North and the Mediterranean—our NATO area, where Russia poses the greatest threats to our vital national interests?
As the Secretary of State rightly says, the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales are the most powerful surface ships ever constructed in Britain. They will strengthen our maritime forces for decades to come. This maiden mission for the Queen Elizabeth is a great achievement for the Royal Navy and a proud moment for our country. We wish her well.