HC Deb 23 May 1958 vol 588 cc1669-92

11.50 a.m.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

Six years ago I had the good fortune to open an Adjournment debate. The subject I then raised was the question of the continuance of National Service. The House was as crowded then as it is today and I had the same distinguished support as I have now, in the person of my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell). He and I tried to make our fellow countrymen aware that National Service could not continue on the basis of two years if the other members of N.A.T.O. and the Commonwealth did not face up to their obligations.

What we said then has proved to be right. Nothing was done until the Government took the decision, in the Defence White Paper of 1957 and announced, regardless of the consequences and regardless of the military considerations, that they proposed to get rid of National Service by 1962. That was a leap in the dark, actuated only by political and economic considerations. We were right in 1952 and I believe that we are right again today in seeking this Adjournment debate to make our fellow countrymen aware of the consequences of the joint defence policy supported by both Front Benches.

The situation was highlighted by a conference organised by the Secretary of State for Air with the knowledge and approval of the Minister of Defence. There was a great how-d'you-do in the Press. I ventured to put a Question on the Order Paper, first to the Prime Minister and subsequently to the Secretary of State for Air. Unfortunately, a queue lined up behind me and after I put my Question I was never able to put the supplementary question which I would have liked to have put in order to make the situation clear.

I say again that I am not seeking to attack any serving officer. Once the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Air had taken the responsibility by this conference, those distinguished officers were out of the argument. I go a little further. I express my regret at reading a leading article in the Daily Mirror calling for the dismissal of Sir Dermot Boyle. It was highly improper that such a leading article should appear. This is a free country and we have a free Press, but we have not always a responsible Press. If the Daily Mirror wants to sack anybody it ought to start by sacking the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence, or even the Secretary of State for Air. It has been doing its best, but it could do it a lot more effectively if it were a little more responsible. This was an irresponsible leading article. So far as I am concerned the serving officers are out of it.

I am not even aiming my darts at the Secretary of State for Air and certainly not at the Under-Secretary of State for Air, who has kindly come to the House today to reply to me. Today, the villain—I use the word in the kindest way—is the Minister of Defence. I do not say that he is wicked, but I think that he is incredibly stupid. It is almost difficult to believe that he can be so stupid. Again, I do not want to view this matter in a personal way. These matters are of very great public importance.

It has been said by the Prime Minister that nothing that was said at that conference contradicts or cancels out Government policy. The Secretary of State for Air altered the emphasis a little. He said that nothing said at the conference could be interpreted as being in conflict with the Government's defence policy. Let us see what the Government's policy is, as I understand it. It will take a little time. Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State will interrupt me if I am wrong.

The two key paragraphs are 61 and 62 of the 1957 Defence White Paper, in which the Government make it clear that they do not propose to go on with the development of the supersonic bomber and that what money was available was to be spent on the production of a missile; first, on the development of the missile and eventually on the operational availability of the missile. The next paragraph is that in which the Government announced that they were not proposing to produce a fighter after the P.I. The Government policy was to be based upon the deterrent and the means of delivering it, which was to be the unmanned vehicle, the missile in some form.

After the abolition of National Service, there was to be the development of a highly mobile strategic reserve, conveyed by transport by the Royal Air Force. The Army was to provide the police force, while the Royal Air Force was to be responsible for its conveyance. If I am wrong, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will interrupt me. If I am right, that is what this Defence White Paper means, what I take it to mean, and what I believe everybody else does, who has studied the problem.

Let us have a look at what the conference was trying to say. This is an important point. Here is a group of very distinguished officers and very able political heads talking about the Air Ministry. As they got near to the consequences of the Defence White Paper they became more and more worried. First, there is no possibility, in my judgment, of the Government's getting the manpower they wanted. I do not say that the Government will be fantastically short but, taking the Army and the Air Force together, they will be 30,000 men short in 1960.

Secondly, will any hon. Gentleman seriously argue at this Whitsuntide, 1958, that we can carry our world-wide commitments on the basis of the 49 infantry battalions which we are to have in 1962? Of those 49 battalions, not more than 20 will be up to establishment. I would remind hon. Gentlemen who wish to face the realities of this problem over the holidays that we have no fewer than 17 battalions in Cyprus at the moment. What passes for a strategic reserve is already committed in Aden. We have even had to take two rifle companies from the Royal Fusiliers, part of the strategic reserve, up into Bahrein. At present, there is in this country only one battalion, the Durham Light Infantry, remaining of the riot force which the Government announced they were going to form to be sent to any trouble spots in the world.

We have to face the problems which were revealed at this conference and put the evidence which is available against the situation as it will develop over the next five years. The evidence is overwhelming that there is room for very serious doubt whether the safety of the country is not being jeopardised by a continuation of this policy.

First, may I quote from Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Tedder at the conference. I quote not from a particular newspaper, but from a report from one of the reputable agencies. He said: If there was not another V-bomber on the drawing board at the moment, it was unlikely that there would be one at all in ten years' time. We know that the Government have stated that there will not be a V-bomber on the drawing board at present. We know that the present breed of V-bombers, of which we have ordered 250 to 260, 160 of them having been delivered, will be obsolescent within ten years. Ten years from now, we shall have no effective means of delivery should the missile prove not to be all that is sometimes written about it.

Here I have the gravest doubts. Let me quote from Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Dermot Boyle. He said: The Royal Air Force was convinced that manned aircraft would be required as far as they could see to supplement missiles in both the offensive and defensive rôle. Translated into English, that means in terms of the supersonic bomber and the supersonic fighter. He went on to say: It would be much more attractive if they had been able to say that they would get rid of the expensive bombers and fighters and pour all their money into the missile. But they would be absolute hypocrites if they subscribed to such an arrangement. But that is just the policy which is envisaged in the Defence White Paper. When the first White Paper was produced in 1957 our stupid Minister of Defence had then got caught up with the headlines, particularly in the American Press, because the Americans at that time were perhaps over-persuaded by Mr. Khrushchev's smile and were cutting down on their expenditure in the aircraft industry. There was a school of thought in the United States which believed that it would be possible to produce a missile, to move away from manned aircraft and go in for push-button warfare. But that is not the belief today.

I have been able to obtain a report, published in the last few weeks in the United States, of an inquiry into the satellite and missile programme of that country. It is a report of hearings before the Preparedness Investigating Sub-Committee of the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate. The hearings of the evidence took place quite recently. This report relates to the period from 25th November, 1957, till 23rd January, 1958. I shall not read large extracts, because the report runs into about a quarter of a million words. I will read a little, starting with the evidence of Mr. Kindelberger, who was accepted by the Commission as a great authority. He is President of the North American Aviation Company.

Talking about missiles, Mr. Kindelberger said: I think it is going to be a long, long time before we have what I consider dependable, reliable missiles. I am talking about the ballistic area. They are intricate beyond human belief. They have not been developed. If we wanted any evidence of that, we have it in the fact that only this morning there is a report of some Nikes having gone astray over New York, killing a number of people, and others having fallen into the sea. I merely mention that to illustrate the point of view of Mr. Kindelberger that we are a long way from the drawing board to operational employment.

On page 1284 of the report, Mr. Kindelberger said: If possible, we will go forward with some experimental work. But my belief is that we are going to be using manned aircraft for many, many years, and I think we are going to have to fight peripheral wars and we are going to have to use the type of airplanes that we can project from hereon for a long time. Then he said: I am sure we will be using a manned bomber in 1970, and I think we will be using a manned interceptor for a long while, too. On page 1289 we come to the key point. Senator Symington asked Mr. Kindelberger a question. He said: Let me ask this question. We have now gotten very interested in the glamour of missiles, but wouldn't it be against the best interests of the United Stales, in your opinion, if we began to believe that our only salvation lay in missiles and we forgot about manned bombers or manned units? Mr. Kindelberger: I think it would be the greatest mistake we can make. I believe we will be using manned bombers for fifteen years easily. Senator Symington: Fifteen years? Mr. Kindelberger: Yes, and maybe beyond that. I am sure we will be using them that long, and I think we will be using manned interceptors, too. We have the considered opinion of the greatest experts available to the American Government that as far as their policy is concerned they will be using manned bombers and interceptors for the next fifteen years. I hope that the Under-Secretary will not attempt to brush it off by saying that there are different kinds of bombers. I am not referring to supersonic bombers at the moment for, as I pointed out on a previous occasion, our V-bombers are roughly the equivalent of the American B-47. They have got the B-52 and the B-58, and they are going on with the WS.110 and the WS.117 and weapon systems even beyond that. I hope, therefore, that we shall not have that produced as an alibi.

I want to tie up the indisputable evidence that the United States is not putting its money on the missile but that the missile is a long way ahead, and I would add that it is the opinion of their experts that there will not be a time when it can be said, "We have the bomber; now we have the missile". The missile will grow out of the bomber; it is a development of the bomber into the missile. If we cut off the bomber as the Minister of Defence has cut off the bomber, if we cut off the interceptor as he has cut it off in this arbitrary way, and as he did in the 1957 Defence White Paper, regardless of the consequences, it means that this country falls out of the race.

I go back to Lord Tedder's statement. He said: If there was not another V-bomber on the drawing board at the moment, it was unlikely that there would be one at all in ten years' time". He also said: If there was no supersonic bomber in the future there would be no supersonic civil air transport and we would cease to be competitive in air transport". The consequence of the defence policy of the Minister of Defence—I use the word "defence" in inverted commas and with an enormous question mark; he has not got a defence policy at all—goes far beyond the scope of the Armed Forces. This is what seriously worries not only members of the Royal Air Force, but all who are interested in the effective development of such defence as we can afford. We are told that nothing that was said at this conference was in conflict with the Government's policy and that, indeed, nothing should be so interpreted.

But I put it to the right hon. Gentleman: who is responsible for the airlift of what we call a mobilised reserve? The Royal Air Force, of course. It runs Transport Command. I am sure that the Under-Secretary would not dissent from that. The Royal Air Force has the responsibility for the provision of airlift. The American report from which I have quoted makes the point that if all the resources of the United States were mobilised they could not lift a division. They could lift just about 0.9 of a division. I do not believe that they could supply it.

I have recently done an exercise on the ability to reinforce in the Gambia, the most accessible and smallest of our Colonies. The Gambia Regiment has been wound up arbitrarily, without consideration of the military consequences, merely to save £50,000 a year. What is involved? I worked out that taking a para-battalion, without its parachutes, and taking the whole of the resources of Transport Command, they could just about lift one battalion and maintain it. I am sure, on the basis of the evidence given before the American inquiry, that the Americans could not lift more than a division. That is just about right, taking the abilities of the two countries.

What was said at the conference? I do not think that the Under-Secretary will dissent, but if he does perhaps he will interrupt me. Air Marshal Sir Edmund Hudleston, Vice-Chief of the Air Staff, pointed out that the Air Ministry was not responsible for Government policy on service transport by air. That is the first time we have ever heard that one. Later in the same conference, we are again told that talks were taking place with the War Office about the possibility of providing a long range, heavy freighter to do these jobs. Either the Air Force is responsible for Transport Command and the air lift, or it is not. On the basis of the evidence and statements made at this conference, the Air Force, of course, is very dubious about accepting responsibility for something which it knows, if the pinch ever comes, it would be unable to deal with.

I do not want to trespass on the time of other hon. Members. I do not want to hog the time, because there may be other points to be made. I sought this Adjournment debate today for the same reasons as I sought the Adjournment debate on National Service six years ago. I believe that there is a logic about these things, that a country as weak as ours, weak economically and militarily, is always living on the edge of things. Sooner or later, a time will come, as it came in Suez, a couple of years ago, when the logic of all that has happened since the Minister of Defence took over will be put to the test. I am not happy in saying these things. I believe that the logical outcome of the Government's defence policy is either a humiliating diplomatic defeat, or an even more humiliating military defeat. That can be the only logical outcome of the way we are still acting.

On bath Front Benches, there is still talk as if we owned unlimited forces, that all we have to do is to call the Chiefs of Staff together and everything will be all right on the day. I have even heard it said by hon. Members on both sides of the House that, in relation to diplomatic dealings with the Russians, we should not rule out the possibility of "going it alone." I do not believe that that is possible. I believe that we have two courses of action open to us. Either we must change our overall policies, in the light of the force which we can deploy effectively, or we must be prepared to spend a great deal more money, and, not only that, but spend it much more wisely and in better ways than we have done in the past. Otherwise, there will indeed be a day of reckoning.

I myself am very glad that this conference was held. I entirely agree with Sir Dermot Boyle when he said that confusion exists in the public mind. There is no doubt at all about that. The overwhelming majority of our fellow citizens have not the least idea of the implications of the defence policies of the Government. The same thing was true between the wars. In 1940, when the truth could no longer be hidden, a Government of all the talents managed to save us from the consequences of our own blindness and our own folly.

I do not believe that that is possible now. I believe that 1958 or, if not 1958, then 1959, will be the year of no return. If we have not a supersonic bomber now and we have no plans for it, if we have no plans for an interceptor, and if we are content to go muddling along in this absurd and fantastic manpower policy, there will inevitably be, by the end of 1959, a hiatus which not all the imagination of even another Churchill will be able to bridge.

For these reasons, I raise my voice today, not that I think it will have any effect. But at least my conscience is clear. I am convinced that the defence policy of the Government is disastrous and I hope that it will not be very long before another Administration will have introduced a wiser and saner policy.

12.15 p.m.

Mr. E. Shinwell (Easington)

I remind myself this morning of those far-off propagandist days, more than fifty years ago, when I had occasion to address meetings at street corners consisting, for the most part, of five men and a dog. They were not always the same five men. This is an occasion when we have with us a distinguished, but not very large, audience. That is a great pity.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) is to be commended for having initiated a debate of this kind on the Adjournment, and also, as I think hon. Members will agree, for his remarkable industry and enterprise. Whether we agree with my hon. Friend or not, we are compelled to admit that he succeeds in impressing the House with his amazing knowledge of military affairs.

I should like also to commend other hon. Members who seek to raise local and national matters on the Adjournment. In the preceding discussion, we were debating the subject of the tourist industry and the desirability of providing adequate accommodation for foreign visitors. That is also a matter of national concern, but what has been happening in recent weeks? We have been occupying our time—with very small attendances—discussing on the Report and Committee stages of Bills matters which, no doubt, are of some importance but which, in my judgment, ought to have been telescoped and made far more brief.

For example, during the last few days, when the world is almost in flames, when we have seen what is happening in Algeria and in metropolitan France, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is threatened by almost imminent collapse, what have we been debating? We have been debating babies' dusting powders, shopping baskets, Welsh harps, and whether there is a Freudian connection between cosmetics and the fair sex. Very interesting topics no doubt, but it seems to me, after the dreary drip of dissertation to which we have been compelled to listen in the past few weeks, that the time has come to make a protest.

Who is to blame for it? It is no use blaming the Opposition for not initiating debates. I should have thought, in view of the matters of great moment now happening throughout the world, that the Lord Privy Seal, the Leader of the House, would have asked the Foreign Secretary, before the House rose for the Whitsuntide Recess, to make a statement on foreign affairs and to let the House have the views of the Government on those momentous matters so that we might have an opportunity of probing and illuminating the Government's mind on those affairs.

One cannot always expect the Opposition to demand debates, though I think that a certain amount of blame does lie with the Opposition. Yesterday, instead of having a debate on aircraft—no doubt very important—it would have been better, particularly in view of the recent statement by the Minister of Supply on the subject, to have had a statement of the Government's views on foreign affairs.

Some time ago the Lord Privy Seal was asked whether it was possible to have a debate on shipping, surely a matter of some importance. Every time that question is put to the right hon. Gentleman, we are informed that the Government have not the time because the House must proceed with legislation. All I ask is that the House should address itself to the need for telescoping the process of legislation, for however important it may be to many hon. Members, such matters are of less importance than topics of great international moment upon which the public ought to be fully informed. If there is a subject upon which the country and right hon. and hon. Members should be informed, it is defence. That is the charge levelled against the Government by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley.

My hon. Friend has made reference to the defence policy of the Government. Frankly, I do not know what is their defence policy. There is much confusion and misunderstanding about it, and in spite of successive White Papers and successive Ministers of Defence over a period of years this country is not yet adequately informed about the content of our defence policy. We are spending £1,500 million a year. What have we got for it?—a succession of White Papers and a number of Ministers of Defence following upon each others' heels. In view of the controversy that is raging in military circles and, indeed, civilian circles about the present Minister of Defence, before long we may be called upon to debate defence matters with a new member of the Government.

As a result of information conveyed to me from various quarters, sometimes from Government quarters, sometimes from people outside this House, I probably know as much about defence matters as any other hon. Member. Yet, I confess that I am unaware of what is the Government's defence policy. For example, I do not know whether the Government have an adequate number of aircraft in the event of an emergency. Nor whether they have a sufficient number of transport aircraft to convey troops in the event of an emergency. If an incident occurred, perhaps, in the Middle East, or in some Colonial Territory where it is necessary to take what are regarded as police measures, I do not know whether the Government are capable of undertaking their responsibilities.

I think that we ought to be informed of these matters. The only way is to raise debates in the House and to probe and interrogate until we drag out of the Government the information that we require. I would much rather have debates on defence and foreign policy and various other matters of national and international importance than have a repetition of the kind of debates that we have had in the last few weeks.

I hope that when the House resumes after the Whitsuntide Recess an effort will be made on both sides of the House to telescope the discussions on the Finance Bill so that we can find time to occupy ourselves with debates of first-class importance. I think that that required to be said. At any rate, whether hon. Members agree with me or not, I say it, and I shall return to it on another occasion when, perhaps, there is a larger attendance in the House.

I come now to the matter of the R.A.F. conference "Prospect II". I do not disagree with the holding of such a conference. There is a great deal of controversy in military and other circles about the relations between the political chiefs and the chiefs of staff and high-ranking officers—in fact, the military in general. In my view, policy is primarily a matter for the political chiefs, but in so far as one can separate strategy from policy—and to some extent they are interlocked—strategy is a matter for the military chiefs. The one thing that is essential in the defence sphere is that there should be adequate consultation and, indeed, continuous consultation at almost every level, to remove the confusion and make it unnecessary to hold conferences such as we have had recently. But if such conferences are to be held, then I suggest that there should be a much wider audience.

Why should not Sir Dermot Boyle, an excellent officer, Sir Gerald Templer, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, or Lord Mountbatten—who, apparently, has a great deal of time on his hands—come to a room upstairs, or perhaps Westminster Hall, and say what they have to say about defence matters, having gained the consent of the Minister of Defence? Apparently, the consent of the Minister of Defence was given for the recent conference. Of course, that is essential. They have no right to hold a conference or address people outside unless they have the consent of their civilian chiefs. But if they can get the consent of their civilian chiefs, why should not they come and tell us all about it?

Not long ago General Norstad, the Supreme Commander in the West, addressed a meeting of hon. Members in Westminster Hall. General Ridgway, General Gruenther, who was also Supreme Commander, and Admiral Wright, who is the naval chief in the North Atlantic, all did the same. It is desirable that this should happen. Hon. Members ought to be enlightened on matters of this sort, otherwise how is it possible to discuss them freely, liberally and intelligently? How is it possible for hon. Members to say whether the £1,500 million a year is being wisely and adequately spent unless we are fully informed on such matters?

I am not asking that we should impinge on security. The other day I asked the Prime Minister whether we had an H-bomb of British manufacture, and he said, "Yes". I do not know whether we have one, two, or three bombs, or what kind of bombs we have. I had to be content with that answer. I did a little probing on the sly and gained a little more information, some of which I am not allowed to disclose; but I am still dissatisfied, bewildered and confused. When, sometimes, people say, "You have been Minister of Defence and Secretary of State for War; you ought to know something about it", I must frankly confess that, in spite of reading White Papers, I do not know very much. It is a shame that we should be in that position. It is because the Government will not take the opportunity of informing hon. Members about these matters, apart from an occasional debate on a White Paper submitted by them.

Therefore, I do not object to the conference. Let us have a wider and less selective audience. I understand that the arrangements for hon. Members' attendance were made by the Whips. Frankly, I do not care for that system. Unless we can encourage the Whips to take a favourable view of one's activities, sometimes we miss their patronage.

I observe my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South-West (Mr. Bowden), the Opposition Chief Whip, sitting on the Front Bench. It is seldom that I get the opportunity to say anything in his presence, and I am very grateful for the opportunity today. Sometimes he might look over his shoulder at some of those who are anxious to be recognised. I will not put it higher than that.

No doubt the people selected to attend such conferences have great knowledge of defence matters—or perhaps they were asked to go because they had no knowledge at all and hoped to gain some. It is difficult to say. I would much rather see Sir Dermot Boyle come to Westminster Hall and tell us as much as he can. Then we might have a worthwhile debate.

I should like to dot the i's and cross the t's of what my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley said about the controversy which has emerged about the need for manned bombers in the future or the provision of missiles and rockets. I ask the Under-Secretary to convey to his right hon. Friend and perhaps to the Minister of Defence—and if not, I hope that the right hon. Gentlemen will read what I have said—that the Government must not put all their eggs into the nuclear basket. In my judgment, that would be fatal. Unfortunately, there is a trend in that direction. If I understood the recent White Paper at all, it denoted the Government's intention to set aside the need for conventional forces, and even the manned bomber, and to express a preference for the provision of missiles and the ballistic rocket.

I venture the opinion that neither this country nor the United States—and, I am beginning to think, Russia—have the ballistic rockets which some people have been bragging about for quite a long time. I do not believe it. For a long time to come we shall require the manned bomber. I do not like the expense that is involved—none of us likes defence expenditure—but if we are preparing for a possible emergency—and God knows we do not want it—and that is the whole purpose of our defence organisation, let us concentrate a little more on the kind of weapons which might—I put it no higher—prevent a nuclear war.

I have ventured to say before that it is far better to use conventional weapons in a limited war, if that is possible, even if it means humiliation and even if it leads to defeat, than to be completely annihilated. If it is completely annihilated as the result of a nuclear war, a country cannot revive. But if a country suffers as a result of conventional war, as Germany and Japan did, there is an opportunity to revive.

I conclude by expressing the hope that in spite of the recent White Paper the Government will reconsider this matter of defence and, in particular, inform hon. Members as frequently as possible of their views about defence matters, their future intentions, and how the money is being spent.

12.33 p.m.

Mr. George Chetwynd (Stockton-on-Tees)

During the war I was closely associated, in a junior capacity, with my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), although I do not now share his views as I shared them at that time. I was invited to the conference—I do not know why or how—but if my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) thinks that there was any patronage from the Whips Office, he is making a mistake. Most hon. Members on this side of the House, if nominated for a military conference, would regard that more as a punishment than as a reward. As it turned out, I could not attend for the whole time.

What the debate boils down to is the fact that we are not given sufficient time to deal with these problems and, with all respect to the Under-Secretary, we do not have the right Minister to answer the questions which are being asked today. We want to know what is the basis of our defence policy for the future and how we are to tackle the three projected kinds of warfare, all-out nuclear war, limited war, or a kind of brush fire.

The problem is that we cannot do those things by ourselves, for we have insufficient resources, manpower, money and equipment, and we therefore have to shape some kind of priorities. It may be that our priorities are wrong. The Air Ministry ought to indicate what are the priorities for as far ahead as can be seen and to explain that in a conference, possibly of a nature similar to conference Prospect II."

My only comment on some of the play-lets at the conference is that they were extremely puerile and that a second form of a school would have found them ridiculous. Some of them were a travesty. I was not present for the discussion, so I am not in a position to judge, but it seems to me that the speakers were falling over backwards in their efforts to separate politics and defence. That is impossible, for politics and defence are closely intertwined and it is grossly unfair to expect defence experts to deal with politics.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to explain our rôle and our priorities and whether he can give any information on the Russian attitude on these matters and some indication of American future policy. May we be told whether the Russians are concentrating on building manned bombers and manned fighters, or are they going forward with the development of ballistic missiles? If the hon. Gentleman can anwer that without a breach of security, it would help us to decide what our policy should be.

My final comment is to remark that what my right hon. Friend said about the holding of these conferences in future reminds me of the hymn about Greenland's icy mountains and the words Though every prospect pleases, And only man is vile. I hope that my right hon. Friend will not take that too much to heart.

12.37 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. Charles Ian Orr-Ewing)

I thank the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) for introducing the debate, and the other speakers for attending. Like the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell), I am sorry that this is such a thin House. That is partly due to the fact that we discussed aeronautical subjects and the future of the aeronautical industry at considerable length yesterday, and partly because we are about to rise for the Whitsun Recess. It may also be because in some ways political squalls and political storms are rather like omelettes—created very quickly, rather difficult to keep and certainly impossible to warm up.

It may be desirable to remind the House of the subject of the debate, because we have gone rather wider than that subject. The subject put down for debate was: Manned aircraft in relation to the R.A.F. Conference Prospect II. The right hon. Member for Easington asked about the manner in which invitations were issued. This is a subject somewhat outside my sphere. In this instance, it was in the hands of the Whips. We issued invitations to twenty-five Members of Parliament. I wish it could have been more, but the number was dictated by the size of the hall available. It was the Whips who passed on the invitation to hon. Members.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

The hon. Member says "we issued". Who are "we"?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

"We" are the Air Ministry on behalf of the Air Council which organised the conference.

If the invitation is not to be in the hands of the Whips, I can think of only one person who would be in a position to undertake the task and that would be you, Mr. Speaker. I do not know that you would welcome this extra duty on top of your others, but perhaps there will be another occasion for debating that.

The hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) asked me to outline priorities. It would be going rather too wide to try to re-assess and to revive all the debates which we have had through the spring on this matter, but I will say that the over-riding priority of the Air Force is always to have an effective deterrent so that we are not involved in the catastrophe of a third World War.

I think it is also desirable to put on record that this conference, which has been welcomed by the speakers in this debate, was not setting a precedent. In the time of the Labour Government there were three similar conferences. There was "Spearhead", which was an Army conference held at Camberley in 1947 under the direction of Lord Montgomery. The Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence—perhaps it was the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Easington at that time—and other Ministers attended.

That was followed by a Naval conference called "Trident" in April, 1949, when the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duke of Gloucester and Ministers were present, with American representatives and leaders of civil industry in this country connected with Admiralty work. Then there was also conference "Ariel" held by the Royal Air Force in 1949, but that was on a rather narrower front. The main theme of that was Royal Air Force manpower. In the time of this Government there was conference "Fairlead" which was held by the Navy in the summer of 1957 and which was very similar in its general aspects to "Prospect". It was illustrated by talks and playlets and was forward-looking to the problems of the Navy's future. Then we had this fifth conference, "Prospect".

None of these conferences was identical in form or attendance, but they had one feature in common. They showed defence problems to, and enabled them to be discussed by, circles far wider than those of professional Service men. I was glad to have the confirmation of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Easington that this is desirable. The hon. Member for Dudley endorsed that, too.

It would be a pity if the controversy which has arisen over this conference were allowed to obscure the value of the conference in putting before a large and representative audience problems which the Royal Air Force is at present facing. Those problems fall under three headings: first, its re-equipment, which has drawn most of the attention; secondly, the financial problems involved in this re-equipment; and thirdly, the manpower problems, which, as the hon. Member for Dudley said, are the basis for all defence forces.

I am sorry there has been so much publicity on the hardware problems, because some of the facts about recruiting have not really emerged. What we did say was—and the increase in the first quarter's figures confirm this—that we should reach the target which we aimed to reach in 1962. We had thought at the time of the defence debates that we should fall 10 per cent. short of that target, but the present indications are even more encouraging than that, and it looks as though, from the way we are carrying on, we shall hit it.

However, there are cases where we definitely are lagging. We drew attention at the conference to the need for air crew. We are badly in need of new recruits. Anything we can do in this House to draw attention to the future of manned aircraft will be a help in this direction. Perhaps I could tell the House of some words which I came across last night: In an age of swift invention it is frequently believed That the pressing of a button is as good as work achieved But the optimist inventor should remember if he can Though the instruments be perfect, they depend upon the man. Unless we get the men of the quality and in the quantity we want we shall never be able to use this hardware to its full effectiveness.

I turn to the question of the hardware and to some aspects on which I think there is no controversy at all. There are three new aircraft requirements which are clearly essential and which are being studied at the present time. All of them are at the stage of evolution. In all of them we have to proceed carefully. I fully realise how important it is, and yesterday's debate underlines this point, to place orders with industry as soon as possible, but it is at least as important for us to be certain that the designs we choose are those best able to meet our needs many years ahead.

The first of these new requirements is a replacement for the Beverley. It is not very long since the Beverley entered service with Transport Command and it has made a tremendous increase in the Command's ability to lift heavy and awkward loads. We plan to go on using the Beverley as a heavy freighter until the middle 'sixties. It is with the period after that, some six or seven years ahead, that we are now looking for a successor. Of course, that exploration has to be done in close co-ordination with the War Office because the War Office has to tell us the types of loads which it wishes us to carry and the distances over which it wishes us to carry them.

I think there must have been some misunderstanding about this and I want to make it clear that we in the Royal Air Force are completely responsible for carrying the strategic reserves although we are not solely responsible for saying what ought to be carried. That is obviously a subject for the War Office.

The next new aircraft requirement which is also under study is the Canberra replacement. The Canberra is performing a most useful service in a great variety of rôles but we shall need to find a replacement for it in the strike and reconnaissance rôles in overseas theatres. Last year a general operational requirement was put out to the industry and we have received a number of designs to meet it, and we are now considering them together with, as was explained in the White Paper, the N.A.39 as a possible contender. This tactical strike aircraft may need to have supersonic qualities. If hon. Members will look at paragraph 61 of the Defence White Paper they will see that the decision to stop development of a supersonic manned bomber referred not to a tactical manned bomber but to a strategic manned bomber. I would underline this point because I think there has been some confusion between tactical and strategical.

Mr. Wigg

All the way through I was referring to the same thing. I am not confused about this. There is no confusion in my mind—not the least bit. It is what the Americans are doing. That can be judged by their actions. They are going on with the B52 and B58 and so on.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I confirm everything the hon. Member says. He is not confused, but I think that outside I have noticed, in the Press and elsewhere, some confusion in this matter.

What was cancelled last year was the supersonic, high-flying bomber. It was known in Air Force parlance as "Operational Requirement 330." It could not play a useful part in the time scale. We did not know when we were likely to get it.

Finally, for overseas theatres, we also are looking for a replacement for the Venom. Venoms are doing a first-class job in many parts of the world, attacking ground targets with considerable accuracy. We realise that they will eventually die out, however, and in the coming summer we are going to test for a possible successor in the arduous conditions which exist in the Aden Protectorate. I told the House last week that the Gnat is one of those aircraft which is a contender.

Having got out of the way what, I think, is common ground, I should like to deal with matters about which there may be more controversy.

Mr. Wigg

The hon. Gentleman has been completely fair up to now, but now he is wandering a little. He is talking about the introduction of the Gnat in Aden. He has not said that the reason for this is that the runway is not long enough to take the Hunter.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I do not think I ought to enter into operational requirements, but I would tell the hon. Member that it is not only the length of the runway which is under consideration. The aircraft has to attack ground targets and then has to climb out from awkward, narrow valleys.

Mr. Wigg

That is what the hon. Gentleman is trying to do.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I want to turn to the other subjects which have raised some controversy. There has been a tendency in some quarters, particularly in the Press, to over dramatise the introduction of new weapons. It has been suggested that with the introduction of missiles the age of the aircraft has gone. This was never true and it was never said in those terms in the White Paper.

Mr. Shinwell

I do not want to raise any more controversy than necessary because I recognise the need for adequate defence and the last thing I want to do is to quarrel with the Government about that, but I am bound to say that my impression from reading the White Paper was that we were gradually abandoning the concept of the manned bomber in preference for the nuclear weapons.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

May I deal with that in two sections, first, the manned fighter and then the manned bomber afterwards. I speak as one trained as a physicist and as an engineer. I want to make the point that occasionally one gets scientific break-throughs in the defence field but they are very rare. What happens far more often is that we get a progressive improvement in a weapon, and it comes in gradually while other weapons go out gradually. There is not a firm line after which there is no use for the other weapon. That philosophy applies not only in this country but particularly overseas, where the operational requirement is somewhat different. One might also say that old weapons are like old soldiers, they never die but they sometimes fade away.

Yesterday my right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply referred to the fact that decisions were taken in the 1957 White Paper to cancel two specific aircraft projects. It is true that the idea of developing an entirely new aircraft as a successor to the P.1. was abandoned last year for the reasons given by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence, and this was covered in paragraph 62 of last year's White Paper. May I have the attention of the hon. Member for Dudley for a moment, because these words are important. It stated: The Royal Air Force are unlikely to have a requirement for fighter aircraft of types more advanced than the supersonic P.1. This statement was taken in some quarters to mean that there would not be P.ls. How one can get that belief out of this statement I have found it difficult to understand. I cannot otherwise explain the surprise which followed upon recent decisions to place production orders for the P.1, when we were told in certain quarters that this was a complete change of policy. It follows logically from last year's White Paper, which stated that we were going on with the P.1.

The P.1. is not with us yet, and when it comes it will be with us for many years. I think it has a long and useful life and it will be needed for tasks which contemporary missiles are unable to perform. Manned fighters during this period are required to interrogate any unidentified aircraft within our air space. In passing may I say that as jet civil aicraft come into more general use they will fly higher and faster, and it will be more difficult to recognise the difference between a civil and a military aircraft which is off its course.

They are also required to prevent unchallenged photo and radio and radar reconnaissance of these islands. Of course, they will be needed for many years to deal with the stand-off bomber and the stand-off jammer. Conference "Prospect II" did no more than repeat these arguments in a far more colourful way than I am able to do, and it co-ordinated these arguments. The Government have never said that we can dispense with fighters overseas. Here I will quote what was said by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence: … there will still remain a very wide variety of rôles for which manned aircraft will continue to be needed."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th April, 1957; Vol. 568, c. 1764.] That is categorical and I am surprised that anyone should read it as an intention of the Government not to have any more manned aircraft. Manned aircraft are wanted, as was said yesterday by the Minister of Supply, in the overseas rôle, where they are needed to locate, identify and attack small and difficult targets and, of course, to take advantage of opportunity targets which may show themselves.

The P.1 is not yet in service. It will doubtless be developed during its service, just as many of its famous predecessors were whilst they were in Fighter Command. It has many vital years of life ahead of it, and if operational needs and economy permit, it can be equipped with ever more sophisticated air-to-air weapons, which will make it more effective.

The second criticism which has come up again this morning has been that somehow we were opting out of the manned bomber quickly. I want to go over what we have said about V-bombers. We have said they are good, and I think those in this House who are knowledgeable about air affairs would endorse that remark. We have said that there are Mark II bombers on order and that these will be even better. We have said that their life will be further extended by equipping them with the stand-off bomb. Just as there is a stretch in bombers, there is a stretch in stand-off bombs. We have also said that we are developing flight refuelling so that they can attack their targets by devious routes instead of obvious routes. All this means that the life of our manned bombers—V-bombers—may go on for many years, and they not only have a life of usefulness in hot war as a deterrent, but they can also serve a useful purpose in the cold war as well.

There has been some reference, though not today, to the Assistant Chief of Air Staff's speech about a future successor to the supersonic bomber. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister dealt with this fairly fully at Question Time last week, when he made it clear that they were talking in the context of a strategic situation where a counter anti-missile missile might be developed, and if that occurred one would have to go back and consider a manned vehicle which need not necessarily be a bomber. However, we are looking ahead not one but many decades into the future.

Conference "Prospect II" lasted from 10 o'clock in the morning until 6 o'clock in the evening. Large numbers of people spoke from the platform and many from the audience. I have examined the trans-script and I see that more than 50,000 words were spoken. Of course it is possible to select out of 50,000 words one or two sentences which appear to show a discrepancy and which create controversy, but I think there is no controversy about the greater part of what was said at "Prospect II". Many letters my right hon. Friend has received from people who were there suggest that it achieved its object, of giving the audience a better idea of the problems which face us, both now and in the future. A great deal went into and a great deal came out of this conference. Even if there was some controversy, it achieved a great deal of good.

Last year the Government took their decision. Summarising this, it was to stop working on a number of specific Royal Air Force projects. Decisions were taken in relation to the time scale of their development, the cost of their introduction and, above all, the potential threat. The Air Council, of course, was a party to these decisions. It is the duty of the Air Council to consider our future needs. In defence nothing is static and we must constantly endeavour to peer into the future. Decisions on development requirements will be taken not on whether the project has wings or has not got wings, not on whether it has a man in it or has not got a man in it. They will rest on the time scale, on the cost, and, above all, on the contribution which each new project can give to the peace of the free world. A wider understanding of this can do nothing but good and I hope the House will agree that this is why conferences like "Prospect II" serve a useful purpose.

Mr. Shinwell

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, may I ask him if he realises that he has given us far more information than we have as yet had from the Minister of Defence and even from the Minister of Supply yesterday, and that if it had not been that my hon. Friend initiated this debate, we should not have got this information?

Mr. Wigg

May I say "Thank you"' to the hon. Gentleman? I am much obliged to him for giving us this time, and I share his view that nothing is static, not even Ministers of Defence.