§ The first duty of the Air Force, and by far the most important, is to provide air defence against possible air attack, a duty that has been admitted by successive Governments and by all parties in the House, and consisting in its concrete form in the provision of a force of 52 squadrons. Three years ago, when I had the privilege of being Secretary of State for Air before, there were only three squadrons allocated to home defence. There are now 25, and at the end of the financial year there will be 28. To-day we are in the position of being the second greatest air Power in the world, leaving out of account for the moment the Air Force of Russia, about which I have no official knowledge. But, even so, we are still in an inferiority of rather less than one to two as compared with our nearest neighbour.
§ Sir S. HOARE
No, one to two, compared with the strength of our nearest neighbour. I think my hon. and gallant Friend is comparing our Home Defence Force with the Metropolitan Air Force of our nearest neighbour. I am comparing total strengths.
§ Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY
Might I make this point clear? The right hon. Gentleman cannot count our squadrons on the North-west Frontier of India and in Iraq in comparing our Home Defence Force with the forces of France.
§ Sir S. HOARE
I am not making the comparison with our Horn© Defence Force. I said specifically that I am comparing the total forces. Comparing total forces with total forces, we are in an inferiority of rather less than one to two. I do not want to modify or to withdraw any single 768 statement that I have ever made in this House or outside as to the weakness of that position, however friendly may be our relations with our nearest neighbour; and there is no question to-day of underrating this weakness or of scrapping in any detail our programme of Air Force expansion.
The only question before the House—and I draw the attention of hon. Members to it as strongly as I can—is whether, as a result of the events of the last 12 months, it is justifiable for the Government and the country to take a somewhat longer period for the completion of their programme, than they would otherwise have taken. The question was a difficult one for the Government to decide. On the one hand, there was the urgent need of a stronger Air Force. On the other hand, there was the admitted need of keeping down public expenditure to the lowest possible limit, and over and above these two domestic questions, there was the new situation created in the field of international politics by the signing of the Locarno Treaty. Every hon. Member has an equal right to form his own opinion as to whether or not the signing of the Locarno Treaty is going to bring about a new phase in European politics, as a result of which it will be possible to make great reductions in national armaments. I am not so rash as to make any prophecy on the subject, but I do say, and I believe it is a view shared by many hon. Members in all parts of the House, that at the very lowest estimate, the signing of the Treaty, under which the great Powers of Europe guarantee each other against unwarranted aggression, makes the risk of war in the near future less than it was before. To that extent, it surely justifies us in taking a somewhat longer period than we should otherwise have taken, for the completion of our expansion programme.
Hon. Members whilst, possibly, following me so far, may say "That is all very well, but supposing the international situation grew worse, would not this slowing down make it more difficult for us to expand our programme again at a quicker rate? Again, would not this slowing down injure the aircraft industry which, after all, is the basis of aircraft expansion in time of war, and to that extent may it not be more difficult in the future to meet the international situation 769 should the international situation, contrary to our expectations, become worse." Let me deal with these two questions First let me say that whilst I do not deny for a moment that a slowing down of the programme will make it more difficult and probably more expensive, to carry out that programme in the long run, there are reasons why the Air Force do not altogether regret a slight slowing down in the pace of our expansion. It will give us an opportunity, a breathing space, for more intensive training. It will give us an opportunity, when we are not overwhelmed with problems of quantitative expansion, for raising the already high standard of the quality of the Force. Suppose, for instance, during this breathing space we can improve the fighting efficiency of the squadrons by—to take two or three examples—increasing their bombing accuracy, developing the tactics of flying in formation, and enabling them to get more quickly off the ground than they do at present, then I think the House will agree, that whilst our expansion so far as quantity goes may not be great in the ensuing year, yet we may make a substantial addition to the quality and fighting strength of the Force.
Let me give the House another example. During last year we started upon a programme of long-distance flights for the purpose of testing the range and endurance of Air Force units. We propose to develop this policy still further during the next 12 months. Last year the Air Force carried out a series of remarkable long-distance flights in the neighbourhood of the British Isles. Here are one or two of them. On 24th September, five Vickers' Virginias, from No. 9 Bombing Squadron, flew from Manston, in Kent, to Leuchars, the most northerly air station in the British Isles, and back to Manston in a day, a distance of 870 miles. A second flight was undertaken by eight Vickers' Virginias from Worthy Down, in Hampshire, again to Leuchars, on 3rd September. Although the weather was very bad three of the machines flew from Hampshire to Edinburgh and back without landing.
§ Sir S. HOARE
Yes, with full service load, and as an ordinary service exercise, and not in any way as a stunt. They flew 770 a distance of about 800 miles, spending as much as 12¼ hours continuously in the air. Here is a third example, in an exercise carried out by a flight of Southampton flying boats—the new type of flying boats—which flew, in September, from Calshot, on the Solent, to Carrickfergus, on Belfast Lough, spent several days in manœuvring off the coasts of Scotland and Ireland, carried out exercises with the Fleet in a period of such bad weather that it almost brought the Army manœuvres to an end, and at the end of this period came back to Calshot without any mishap after flying a total distance of 10,000 miles. I quote those examples to show the House the kind of intensive training which we have already commenced and the kind of training which we shall carry out during the next 12 months—during this breathing space, if I may so term it, in our expansion programme.