MPs debate Carrier Strike strategy amidst rumours HMS Prince of Wales could be mothballed

On 28 February, Robert Courts MP led a Parliamentary debate held in Westminster Hall to “consider carrier strike strategy and its contribution to UK defence”. Here we look at the highlights of this constructive two and a half hour discussion held by a small cross-party group of MPs.

During the speeches, Anne-Marie Trevelyan MP, a dedicated advocate for the navy, asked the Minister for reassurance that recent “rumours emanating from Treasury sources about plans to mothball or sell HMS Prince of Wales” were unfounded. Speaking at the end of the debate, the Armed Forces Minister, Mark Lancaster did not reply directly to the question, although continued to describe the ongoing delivery of the QEC carrier project on track as expected. Anne-Marie Trevelyan is well connected to Treasury officials as a member of the Commons Public Accounts Committee but there is no way to verify this story further at this stage.

It was government policy between 2010-14 that the second carrier would be sold or mothballed on completion (The Aircraft Carrier Alliance had sensibly locked the government into a contract that made it impossibly expensive to cancel the project). In 2014 David Cameron saw sense and reversed the decision but HMS Prince of Wales has always seemed slightly vulnerable to cuts. This latest rumour is unconfirmed but with a big hole in MoD finances, axing PoW would suit the Treasury nicely, however strategically illiterate. Apart from the inherent folly in throwing away an enormous investment, with only a single ship, we would be left in the same position as the French, with a carrier only available for operations about 30-40% of the time.

There would also be some embarrassing difficulty squaring the circle of planned UK amphibious capability. Since HMS Ocean was sold without replacement, the carriers are additionally supposed to perform as helicopter assault ships in the ‘Littoral Manoeuvre’ role. Robert Courts MP recognised the limitations of this concept during his excellent opening speech, but the CVF/LPH compromise would be a far greater stretch with just one ship. The newly announced Future Littoral Strike Ships would be a very poor substitute to mitigate the loss of LPH capability.

The Defence Secretary has been credited with fighting and winning battles in Whitehall for more defence funding, notably saving HMS Albion and Bulwark from the axe. These ‘triumphs’ would mean little and instead, he would be remembered as the Minister who oversaw the loss of HMS Prince of Wales.

HMS Prince of Wales currently fitting out in Rosyth ahead of sea trials planned for September. Her future once again under threat?

Putting aside the sudden shadow cast over the whole carrier project, the contributions made to the debate were amongst the best speeches on naval issues made in Parliament for some time. Although small in number, the speakers from all parties not only understood the context of the aircraft carriers construction but were genuinely passionate about what they can offer the UK. Robert Courts demonstrated a good grasp of Royal Navy history and opened with a long introduction outlining the story of RN carrier operations and the decline in the fleet, adding “This is not a lament for lost naval power, although I make no secret of the fact that, as far as I am concerned, we do not spend enough on defence. Our armed forces are constantly being asked to do too much with too little”. He also went on to argue the navy needs more mass and resilience and expressed tacit concern about lack of carrier escorts. He cited the General Shirreff’s novel “War With Russia” which describes a British Prime Minister desperate to make a strong political gesture, sending HMS Queen Elizabeth to sea without an adequate escort only to be sunk by the Russians.

Ruth Smeeth MP, lead on the Royal Navy for the all-party Parliamentary Group for the Armed Forces replied first. She made a plea for long-range governmental planning for the Navy and a steady drumbeat of orders for new vessels. She noted that in the 50-year lifetime of the QEC carriers, we will have to replace the Astute class submarines, the Type 45 destroyers and even the Type 26 frigates.

Amongst many good points made by Anne-Marie Trevelyan, she pointed out how the carriers epitomise the new ‘fusion doctrine’ created by national security adviser, Sir Mark Sedwill. This is an attempt to properly join up all the strands of defensive, offensive and humanitarian activity, ordered and put into effect by Government. Part of forming and executing an effective strategy to maximise the potential of the carriers must be better inter-departmental cooperation.

Paul Sweeney spoke as the only Member of Parliament with experience of working on the carrier project. He pointed out that a compared with an average RAF Airfield, an aircraft carrier has to condense a similar number of aircraft movements into 0.3% of the space. He noted the RN says it really needs at least 24 surface escorts and more could be done to make them cheaper. The steel hull of a typical complex warship makes up only about 8% of the cost and he suggested we use a standardised, basic hull for all types of warship needed for the Royal Navy…“we can drive efficiency into the programmes, get more hulls into the water, and build a rigorous, carrier strike battle group”. 

The doughty Julian Lewis, Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, argued with his usual eloquence that the carriers were an important pillar of UK defence. The UK needs a comprehensive range of military capabilities to respond to events. There was little love for the Treasury throughout the debate. Mr Lewis said: “I think the Treasury has probably sunk more ships in the Royal Navy than any other enemy we have faced” In reference to Gavin Williamson confirming the planned deployment of a carrier to the South China Sea, he mischievously added “It was gratifying to see a bit of advance retaliation in that HMS Queen Elizabeth appears to have sunk the Chancellor’s visit to the Communist Chinese without even having embarked on its first operational voyage”.

Vernon Coaker MP, then made several profound points. He highlighted the lack of strategy across government and asked that in future “defence, foreign policy, and international development objectives should be married together.” He also accepted that politicians, government have failed to properly explain the value and purpose of armed forces to the general public. Constituents may understand why we spend money on countering terrorism but how the navy can be a force for good in the world has not been communicated properly. Besides the obvious ‘warfighting’ roles, our forces are engaged in upholding international law, protecting the environment, humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations, an understanding of which would resonate with most ordinary people.

Mark Lancaster spoke on behalf of the government at the conclusion of the debate. He did not say anything very new and failed to answer some of the specific questions raised. He stated that the MoD did not intend to make a decision for some time on whether to split the F-35 purchase into A and B variants, awaiting more operational experience with the aircraft. He also pointed out that the normal warship cycle of deployment / maintenance / force generation would apply to the two carriers and provide for at least one ship at “high availability” at all times. If plans exist to axe HMS Prince of Wales, no one had told Mr Lancaster.

In refreshing contrast to so much of what goes on in Westminster, this debate was conducted by participants who knew their subject and was held in an atmosphere of mutual respect and cooperation across party lines. The MPs involved should be commended and let us hope their influence on policy can outweigh their small numbers.

You can read the Hansard transcript here or watch the video of the full debate below.