HC Deb 18 December 1968 vol 775 cc1356-8
7. Mr. Gordon Campbell

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what is the role of the carrier to be added to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation forces in the Mediterranean.

Mr. Healey

As my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence for Administration informed the House on 14th November, an aircraft carrier will alternate with a commando ship or an assault ship in providing an almost continuous large ship presence in the Mediterranean from January, 1969. The rôle of all three ships will be to make a major contribution to the forces immediately available on the southern flank of N.A.T.O.—[Vol. 773, c. 146–7.]

Mr. Campbell

Will the carrier alternating in the Mediterranean be able to carry fixed-wing aircraft after 1971?

Mr. Healey

After the carrier force phases out in 1972, there will be no carrier in the Mediterranean. The amphibious force by that time will be permanently stationed in the area.

Mr. Brooks

Does the Mediterranean include the Black Sea?

Mr. Healey

Not for these purposes.

34. Mr. Cronin

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what is his policy with regard to the commitment of ships of the Royal Navy to the Mediterranean in the foreseeable future.

59. Captain W. Elliot

asked the Secretary of S: ate for Defence what action he is taking to strengthen the naval forces of the United Kingdom on the southern flank of: he North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

Mr. Healey

I have nothing to add to the reply given by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence for Administration on 14th November, in reply to a Question from my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon).—[Vol. 773, c. 146–7.]

Mr. Cronin

But are not the Soviet forces in the Mediterranean far too small to justify any increased commitment there? Would my right hon. Friend not agree that the real danger is that, in the foreseeable future, the Soviet Union might establish an air force presence in Egypt or Algeria and that the correct way of dealing with that would be through diplomatic and economic measures?

Mr. Healey

The tone of that supplementary question is almost exactly the opposite of the tone of my hon. Friend's previous one, to an almost identical Question. It is, of course, true that there is no military action by the West which could influence the desire of the Soviet Union to put air forces into Egypt or Algeria, or the readiness of the Egyptian or Algerian Government to receive those forces. I am glad to say that there is no current evidence available to me that the Soviet Union has any such intention. On the other hand, the increase in Soviet naval activity, of a seasonal nature, as we have made clear, in the last year or two has required a certain increase, particularly in the long term reconnaissance capability of N.A.T.O. forces in the Mediterranean. I am very glad to say that the British Government are making a major contribution to the increase in this reconnaissance capability.

Captain W. Elliot

Is it the Government's opinion that the southern flank of N.A.T.O. rests on the Mediterranean regardless of changing circumstances?

Mr. Healey

It is true that the Mediterranean is to the south of Europe, and that is likely to remain so for a very long time.

Mr. Barnett

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that it is an adequate use of re- sources to spend £30 million on refitting "Ark Royal" for only about two years' use, or is he now planning on a longer period?

Mr. Healey

No, Sir. I agree that this might well seem an odd decision, but I am not prepared to expose our forces to the risk of being without this type of cover before we have provided the type of capability that we will need when the carrier goes. For that reason, in order to make the general saving possible through the phasing out of the carrier force in 1972, it is necessary to maintain a credible and effective military force up to that date, and the refit of "Ark Royal" is one necessary means of doing that.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing

We all appreciate the strengthening of the southern flank of N.A.T.O. and the presence of ships in the Mediterranean, but is it not wasteful to use an aircraft carrier? Is this not an area where shore-based aircraft can carry out this reconnaissance, thus releasing the carrier for other parts of the world where it may be invaluable and essential?

Mr. Healey

As I made clear at the time of the original announcement, the aircraft carrier will not be continuously in the Mediterranean but will fill in the gaps there when an assault or commando ship cannot be there. The periods during the next few years when a carrier will be in the Mediterranean are comparatively short. I myself strongly share the view of the American admiral quoted in a Times interview this morning that a visible capability in the Mediterranean is an important counter to the visible capability provided by the Soviet Union. In this respect, the aircraft carrier has a unique value.

Captain Elliot

On a point of order. In view of the unsatisfactory and frivolous nature of the right hon. Gentleman's reply, I beg to give notice that I will raise the matter on the Adjournment.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Notice must be given in the conventional way.