HC Deb 18 December 1953 vol 522 cc793-9

3.38 p.m.

Mr. Ian Harvey (Harrow, East)

I am particularly grateful that this subject should be debated today in view of the fact that, owing to illness, I was unable to raise it the other night. I am sure that the Minister is grateful also. I must admit on this subject to have divided loyalty, because I have had a long and happy association in the Territorial Army and, in the war, with the Anti-Aircraft Command. I hope that I shall still be on speaking terms with them after what I have to say this afternoon, particularly as their headquarters is established in my constituency. I venture to raise this particular aspect of military operations with the Minister because it presents a number of new problems which require study.

Two new factors have entered into the position since Anti-Aircraft Command took part in the last war. The first is the tremendous development of jet pro- pulsion and the increased speeds of aircraft. This means that the division and blocking of spheres of influence between gun areas and fighter areas which was practised in the last war is now no longer a practical possibility. That makes it all the more imperative that the operational control of the air defence of this country should be in every single respect vested in one command.

There is a second aspect of the situation which has more recently come forward with what is, in my view, the right decision of the Government to give the new guided missiles to the R.A.F. I have no doubt the Minister will say that this is a long-range project, and that anti-aircraft gunnery has still an important part to play. With neither of those contentions do I disagree, but I submit that if we give to the R.A.F. a new and vitally important development such as guided missiles, we are in fact saying to the heavy anti-aircraft gunner, "So far, and no farther. In future all the interesting things which are to be done will be in the hands of the R.A.F. and your activities will gradually, but definitely, be curtailed."

I submit that is not an encouraging position for any set of troops to be in, particularly when one remembers that Anti-Aircraft Command is largely recruited from volunteers to the Territorial Army. It is not a very satisfactory position from the point of view of recruitment to the Territorial Army for those concerned with anti aircraft defence.

Let us consider the structure of Anti-Aircraft Command, consisting as it does of groups, brigades and numbers of anti-aircraft regiments. The expense of running these headquarters is considerable and the number of people employed is large. In view of the fact that a completely new departure has been undertaken in the granting of ground-air missiles to the R.A.F., the relationship between Anti-Aircraft Command and Fighter Command is now so close as to make it desirable that the two should be operationally merged.

In the last war the technical operational control—as I know the right hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) will agree—was vested in Fighter Command, although a great deal of the operational activities was the responsibility of Anti-Aircraft Command. I submit that the fact that the R.A.F. are now to be on the ground firing in the air has radically altered the whole situation.

There are also large administrative organisations belonging to the field arm, including R.A. formations, which are playing a separate rôle to anti-aircraft gunners. I submit therefore that there is a case for saying that, operationally, all static anti-aircraft units should be controlled and administered by Fighter Command in this country; and that those mobile anti-aircraft units still required by the field arm should be transferred to the field arm for all administrative purposes and should remain under the operational control of Fighter Command when they are in operation in this country, as opposed to overseas.

I would also ask the Minister to look carefully at the amount of money spent, and planned to be spent, upon heavy anti aircraft installations. The White Paper on Defence stated clearly that the intention of the Government was not to spend more money than was essential on equipment which might in due course become obsolete. We are well aware of the problem of obsolescent equipment and the necessity for drawing the line at some point to ensure that we have the best necessary for the time being.

I believe that far too much money is being spent, and is being planned to be spent, on heavy anti-aircraft installation. Although I agree that the anti-aircraft gun still has a rôle to play, in the light of the development of methods of aircraft attack I do not think that rôle is so efficient as to justify extreme expenditure upon certain modern radar equipment. In fact, I believe that today we are in serious danger of retaining in our anti-aircraft layout and planning conceptions which were relevant to the last war but would not be relevant to another.

I am aware that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Supply got into difficulties on this subject before the last war but I hope that, in view of the attitude I am taking this afternoon, I shall escape a similar fate. I suggest to the Minister of Defence that first, at an early date he should consider the abolition of Anti-Aircraft Command and that the R.A.F. should be asked to take over static anti aircraft units in this country. There is already in existence the R.A.F. Regiment which is trained in the use of the light A.A. gun. I am sceptical about the future value of that gun in static defence, and I hope we shall soon be told that a new light A.A. gun is not being thought about but is in production.

In the recent debate we were confronted with the problem that the National Service men in the R.A.F. are not being called up during the three-year period after they have served their two years. If my suggestion is adopted, here is a new way in which to employ a greater number of those R.A.F. men and to reduce the Army commitment. I ask the Minister to consider singling out those A.A. regiments which are to be retained in the Army. My right hon. Friend is confronted there with a considerable problem because many A.A. regiments have traditions reaching into the past which they would not wish to have broken. However, where changes are essential in the general interest, I know that they would be accepted loyally. I would also ask the Minister to put these under the administrative control of the Field Army, and under operational control of Fighter Command when they are operating in this country.

This is a big problem and one which requires considerable thought and planning, but at the present time we are working upon a system which instead of becoming more efficient might tend to become less so. I think that the undoubted advance of weapons of attack makes it imperative that we should think ahead and with courage, and therefore I hope the Minister will not reject out of hand the suggestions I have made simply because they are not in keeping with the old formula, because I think that the old formula is out of date.

3.49 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Defence (Mr. Nigel Birch)

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Ian Harvey) has raised a big subject, which it is difficult to deal with in a quarter of an hour. He is unusual in one respect. In speaking in debates on defence in this House my experience is that most people who have been in a command, as my hon. Friend has been in Anti-Aircraft Command, are of opinion that their old command or service should be vastly increased, if necessary at the expense of other commands and services. He has reversed the process. But though his approach is unusual, I cannot altogether agree with him. It is probably true to say that we are nearing the end of the profitable development of anti-aircraft artillery, but it is certain, on the other hand, that anti-aircraft artillery will be needed for a great many years ahead.

My hon. Friend mentioned some of the factors which he thought might tend to make that untrue. First, he mentioned the speed of aircraft. It is certainly true that their speed makes the whole problem of air defence very much more difficult than it was before, but I do not think that it has a vital bearing on the problem whether we ought to have anti-aircraft artillery or not. My hon. Friend also raised the question of guided weapons. We have to remember that we have not yet got guided weapons in service. Even when we have them I do not think that it will be found, at any rate in the early years, that they are likely to be directly competitive with anti-aircraft artillery. They will be operating at different heights and ranges and both weapons will have different tasks and will work in together.

My hon. Friend then spoke at some length about the possible economies of handing over Anti-Aircraft Command to the R.A.F., and he spoke about the big command structure and so forth. I have been into this quite carefully. My own view is that the prospects of economies by doing that are illusory. I should like to give one or two reasons for that view. There are a great many men in Anti-Aircraft Command and when we have a large body of men we must have a command structure to look after their training, discipline and administration. It does not happen just by itself.

The average size of an Anti-Aircraft group at full strength is 40,000 men. It is commanded by a major-general. A major-general commands a division in the field army with very many fewer men under his command and I do not think that the whole structure is really overblown. In addition, Anti-Aircraft Command has the advantage of the Army's static administrative layout with such people as command land agents, district engineers, and so forth.

If we were to transfer all these men to the Air Force there would be no certainty that we should be able to reduce the Army's static layout in this country in the same proportion as their loss of men. Somebody like a command land agent deals with everybody in his area, whereas one would have to create a very considerable Air Force layout. The area of the permanent Army Command is not by any means necessarily the area where the Air Force personnel are stationed.

I do not think my hon. Friend is right in saying that it would be feasible to put all these men under Fighter Command. Fighter Command has a big task already and I do not think that it would be possible for the Air officer in command of Fighter Command to look after his own very technical command and the whole training, discipline and administration of Anti-Aircraft Command.

If we handed Anti-Aircraft Command over to the Air Ministry we should have to create a new command in the Air Force. Comparisons are odious and I do not wish to make them, but I do not think that I would say, anyway, that the administration of the Air Force was more economical than the administration of the War Office. I should like to say that they were the same. My hon. Friend raised the question of morale. It is true that many of these regiments have very long traditions indeed, and except in the limited case of a certain number of Bofors guns the Air Force has no tradition of operating artillery. They know something about the wrong end of a gun, but they have no experience of operating a gun from the right end. The whole of their training, experience and tradition would have to be acquired, and it would take some time.

On the question of flexibility between static anti-aircraft defence and the field force anti-aircraft units, it seems to me that the one way not to have flexibility is to make static units in this country part of the Air Force. If they are part of the Army they can obviously be switched from home to abroad if it is necessary to do so. It seems to me that if we put them in the Air Force we positively decrease flexibility.

Operation in war has been worked out and proved in war and tested again in peace-time since the war. At the moment the Air Defence Commander is the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Fighter Command. He enjoys not only the complete command and control of Fighter Command but also the operational command of all anti-aircraft guns in this country and of the fire of ships in harbour. It was proved again and again in the war that to exercise operational command it is not necessary to command administratively. It works perfectly well. I see no reason whatever to suppose that that is now likely to go wrong.

My hon. Friend mentioned some of the the static lay-out in this country, which he thought was out-of-date and over-expensive. That matter has been gone into, and is from time to time gone into, most carefully. The lay-out is not the responsibility of Anti-Aircraft Command. It is the responsibility of the Chiefs of Staff as advised by the Air Defence Commander. I can assure my hon. Friend that the present conception of the correct lay-out of our anti-aircraft defences in war is by no means the same as it was during the last war. There has been a good deal of new thought upon the subject.

In spite of the perspiration of good will required of one in replying to the last but one debate on the Christmas Adjournment, I cannot agree that my hon. Friend's proposal is sound either operationally or administratively. Though I shall, of course, report what he has said to my noble Friend and ask him to consider it, I cannot hold out any very firm hopes that we shall accept his suggestion.