HC Deb 14 March 1923 vol 161 cc1609-12

I now propose to leave this part of the subject which deals with the past, and to ask the attention of hon. Members to the very important and serious question of air defence. Ever since I have been Secretary of State for Air I have been conscious of a general feeling of anxiety, both inside and outside the House, as to whether our air defence is adequate. One sees that anxiety expressed day after day in the Press, and one hears it in general conversation. In this House I have had it constantly brought to my attention by the fact that hon. Members on all sides have asked me week after week questions as to the comparison of the strength of this or that part of our air defences With the air strength of some other Power. I propose, therefore, with the approval of hon. Members, to give the facts and figures so far as I can, and to ask the help of all hon. Members, for this is not a party question, in our attempts to arrive at a sound and wise national air policy.

Before I give these facts and figures, I wish to make one overriding observation, which must be connected with every sentence I use, and with every figure I give. If I make a comparison of our strength with the French strength, no one here or in France must form the impression that for one moment I believe war even remotely possible between the two Allies. No Frenchman should certainly suspect me of any such unnatural idea. Hon. Members who were in the last Parliament may remember that throughout the whole of its duration I did as a private Member what I could to bring about a guarantee Treaty between ourselves and the French. That in itself should be sufficient to show that there has not been the remotest idea in my mind of any such disastrous contingency as hostilities between the two Allies.

I quote the French figures, not because it can be even remotely imagined that hostilities could break out between the two Allies, but because France of all the Great Powers has most fully developed its air arm. The simple fact that one of the Great Powers should attach such importance to the air arm forces the question upon us whether we, the other great European Power, are giving the British air arm sufficient support. As I wish to make the problem as concrete as possible, I give the House one or two comparisons.

In November, 1918, at the end of the War, the Royal Air Force was composed of 30,122 officers, 263,410 airmen and 3,300 service aeroplanes. To-day it is composed of 3,071 officers, 27,499 airmen and 371 first line aeroplanes, that is excluding reserve and training machines; a total of 30,000 against nearly 300,000 at the end of the War.

In the case of the French, it would be misleading to make a comparison of personnel as so large a part of it is provided in France from purely military personnel. The only accurate comparison, therefore, is one of machines. In November, 1918, the French had 3,600 service machines, to-day she has 1,260. The House, therefore, will see that, whilst our peace Air Service is only about one-tenth of our war Air Service, the French Air Service of to-day is one-third of what it was in 1918.

That is, however, not the whole story, for not less than two-thirds of the British Service machines are overseas, while three-quarters of the French machines are in France. Of our 34 Service squadrons—two of which are included in the expansion scheme of which I shall speak later—18 are in Egypt, the Mediterranean and the Near East, six in India, four allocated to naval work at home, and one to Army work at home. That leaves only five Service squadrons in Great Britain for home defence. Of these five squadrons only one is a fighter and four are bombers. I may mention that in France there are 32 fighting squadrons and 32 bombing squadrons. Moreover, in 1925, the French programme that has already been frequently discussed in the Chamber of Deputies will presumably be completed. This will mean that whilst France will have 2,180 Service machines, we shall only have 575, even when we include the 15 additional regular squadrons about which I shall say a word or two in a few minutes.

In 1922 200 machines, civil and military, were built in Great Britain, 3,300 in France.


What is the proportion of civil and military machines?


I think the French figures are 300 civil and 3,000 military.

Further, it should be remembered, in connection with the possibility of quick expansion, that, whilst the number of men employed in the French aircraft industry is about 9,250, the number employed in the aircraft industry in Great Britain is about 2,500. I am fully prepared to admit the many differences between the British and the French position. France has its great conscript army and a consequent need for more army air units than ourselves. France has a long land frontier and the constant feeling of insecurity Even so, the disparity is overwhelming, and this question must arise in the mind of every Member. If one great European Power has so big an Air Force and another great European Power so small an Air Force, which is right? Whilst it is inconceivable that these two great allies should ever embark upon hostilities with each other, how is it possible to justify the fact that one of them has an Air Force only a quarter the size of the other?

I would ask the serious attention of hon. Members to this question. And I would venture to make to them one or two suggestions before they answer it. In the first place, I would venture to point out to them the great difficuly of applying any rough and ready standard for deciding off-hand, and at the present moment, the strength of the British Air Force.

For many years past the Navy and the Army have been entrusted with definite Imperial responsibilities. It is only now that, with the independent Air Command in Iraq, and the responsibility for anti-air defence in Great Britain, the Air Force is being given any definite Imperial duties. Hon. Members, therefore, should be clear in their own minds as to the national and Imperial duties to be imposed upon the Air Force before they settle upon any definite standard of strength.

They should also be clear about the cost. In matters of national defence the question of cost is not a final factor, but it must obviously be taken into account. In 1913–14 the Navy Estimates were £48,809,300, and the Army Estimates were £28,220,000, about seventy-seven millions in all. This year the Navy Estimates are £58,000,000, the Army Estimates £52,000,000, and the gross Air Estimates £18,605,000, making £128,680,000 in all. In other words, the defence Estimates are already double what they were before the War. If we now decided to apply a one-power standard to the Air, without making corresponding reductions in the Estimates of the Army and Navy, it would mean an immediate increase over our gross Estimate of about £5,000,000, but it would mean an eventual increase, in order to keep pace with the progress of other great Powers, of £17,000,000.


Why does the right hon. Gentleman deal with the net Estimates of the Army and Navy and the gross Estimates of the Air Ministry?


I agree with my right hon. Friend that I should have taken the net or gross figures of both, but so far as the Air is concerned let me take the net. Taking the net cost of the squadrons this year at £15,000,000, applying a one-power standard would increase the expenditure to £23,000,000 at once and to £35,000,000 eventually to keep pace with the growing programme of other Powers. For a one-power standard it may be assumed that the cost would be £35,000,000 a year net and our total defence Estimates would be over £145,000,000. The House should note this figure of £17,000,000, for it will show that it is possible to increase our Air Force six-fold with an expenditure that is little more than double the present expenditure. I suggest, however, that from every point of view, the point of view of economy, the point of view of humanity, and the point of view of common sense we should try to avoid, if it be possible, another and a new lap in the old race of armaments.