HC Deb 08 November 1967 vol 753 cc1010-2
13. Mr. Wall

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether, in view of the failure to develop surface-to-surface weapons for the Royal Navy, he will reconsider the case for the replacement of exsting aircraft carriers by small modern carriers.

39. Mr. Ian Lloyd

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether, in the light of the sinking of the Israeli destroyer "Eilat" by Komar missiles, he will review Her Majesty's Government's policy not to replace aircraft carriers due to become obsolescent in the early 1970's.

62. Mr. Cronin

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what further consideration he has given to the replacement of existing aircraft carriers by small modern carriers.

69. Sir Ian Orr-Ewing

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will reconsider the provision of small modern carriers, in view of the threat from surface-to-surface missiles and the lack of alternative defensive measures.

Mr. Healey

The answer to all four Questions is, none, and, no, Sir.

Mr. Wall

Would the right hon. Gentleman not agree that, although the helicopter has an important rôle to play in submarine warfare, anti-surface ship helicopters are vulnerable to fighter aircraft and missiles? Will he therefore look again at the whole case for cheaper and less sophisticated aircraft carriers?

Mr. Healey

I have had a careful look, as the hon. Gentleman will no doubt recognise, in recent months, but nothing which has recently happened has caused me to change my view that the best type of defence for ships at sea in the period after our own aircraft carriers phase out will be a combination of naval vessels, helicopter-borne missiles, perhaps surface-to-surface missiles and land-based strike aircraft. I am confirmed in this view by the fact that I have seen reports that the Soviet Navy is producing helicopter carriers and a substantial amphibious force but seems to have no current intention of providing a strike aircraft carrier to protect them.

Mr. Cronin

While there may be serious economic objections to the provision of even small modern aircraft carriers, will my right hon. Friend ensure that, to the maximum extent, all surface ships will be provided with helicopters equipped with air-to-ship missiles?

Mr. Healey

Yes, Sir, this is a most important element in our policy, because, even if we had an aircraft carrier force of three, as the previous Government intended, we could not hope to have more than one on station in extra-European waters at a time, and the capacity of that one carrier to protect the whole fleet would obviously be very limited. By giving each substantial ship its own heli- copter or its own surface-to-air missile, we are substantially increasing the defensive capability of the fleet at sea.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind, before quoting the Russian Navy, that it has developed a very effective surface-to-surface capability and that this is perhaps why they do not need aircraft carriers or the very versatile manned aircraft, and that it would not be comparable to quote the fact that we do not need a surface-to-surface capability or aircraft? We have not developed, as a conscious act of policy, a surface-to-surface missile.

Mr. Healey

With respect, the hon. Gentleman, with all his previous Ministerial knowledge, will recognise that one does not protect the fleet at sea with a 20-mile surface-to-surface missile. That is not the function of the Komar missile or the Komar patrol boats.

Mr. Mayhew

What trials have been made of the helicopter using the AS.12? Was it not strange to decide to phase out the carriers before making sure whether this alternative protection of our vessels worked?

Mr. Healey

No, Sir, I do not think so, as I explained to my hon. Friend at the time in another capacity. The importance of taking a decision on the carriers—a decision which had been dodged by the previous Government for about 15 years—was that by taking it in 1966, we gave ourselves time to meet the requirement by the time that the carriers phased out.