HC Deb 20 December 1961 vol 651 cc1329-31
2 and 3. Captain W. Elliot

asked the Civil Lord of the Admiralty (1) what was the highest number of anti-sub marine vessels in commission at one time during the war of 1939–45;

(2) what is the number of anti-submarine vessels in commission at the present time.

Mr. C. Ian Orr-Ewing

The greatest number of vessels employed in a predominantly anti-submarine rôle in the last war was 916. The number of predominantly anti-submarine vessels in commission at the present time is 100.

Captain Elliot

Is my hon. Friend aware that the contrast between the two sets of figures he has given is alarming, particularly as the potential submarine threat today is at least as great as at the height of the last war? Can he undertake to see that the most earnest consideration is given to this problem when the Naval Estimates are being considered?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

We are giving very high priority to our research and development of anti-submarine devices. We must remember that in any major conflict we are unlikely to be fighting this battle alone and will be fighting it with our N.A.T.O. and other allies.

Mr. Hector Hughes

What steps is the hon. Gentleman taking to increase the number of these vessels, and how is he to distribute the orders for the new vessels which he expects to have built? In particular, is he sending any orders to Aberdeen where there is increasing unemployment in the shipyards? Will he see that some orders are sent to Aberdeen?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I am afraid that the many claims on the Admiralty Votes for nuclear and amphibious warfare weapons and carriers mean that the numbers are unlikely to be increased. We are trying to increase the capability of each ship now at sea by the effort we are putting into research and development. To date, with competitive tendering, the Aberdeen shipyards have not been successful in winning any orders.

Commander Courtney

Will my hon. Friend clear up three points? Is it correct that the Soviet and United States fleets between them now have about twenty-five nuclear submarines in commission? Would he agree that this type of ship possibly represents the most formidable and versatile ship of war which the world has ever seen? Thirdly, is it a fact that the Royal Navy, assuming normal conditions of Atlantic weather, does not have a single anti-submarine vessel capable of catching and killing this type of submarine?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I would not want to quarrel with the estimates of my hon. and gallant Friend in the first part of his supplementary question, although I have no figures about the Russian nuclear submarine fleet. It is true that these are formidable weapons, but my hon. and gallant Friend should not underestimate the capability of our antisubmarine forces and their high degree of operational readiness through considerable exercise in this rôle. As we showed in our list in the White Paper accompanying the Estimates last year, we are giving tremendous priority to this phase of naval warfare.

Mr. Paget

Surely the hon. Gentleman does not suggest that any of these anti-submarine ships has the slightest chance against an atomic submarine. What is the point of going on expanding capacity against an obsolete weapon, which will not be used, in order to protect ships going to ports which cannot be defended?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

The hon. and learned Gentleman is not right in all his assumptions, but the Board of Admiralty recognises the formidable threat which these new nuclear submarines represent, and that is why we have laid down two nuclear submarines already, and I hope that in due course we will lay down more.