HC Deb 17 July 1968 vol 768 cc1403-6
11. Mr. Wall

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will now define the rôle of the Royal Navy in the 1970s.

50. Mr. Cronin

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a further statement on the rôle of the Royal Navy in the 1970s.

Dr. David Owen

As announced in Cmnd. 3540, Britain's defence effort will in future be concentrated mainly in Europe and the North Atlantic. The main rôle of the Navy will be to play a leading part in the maritime defence of the Atlantic Alliance.

Mr. Wall

Is not the main rôle of the Navy to protect sea communications, without which this country cannot eat or trade? By depriving the Navy of its aircraft carriers, how can this possibly be carried out? Has not the Secretary of State made the surface Navy a coast defence force?

Dr. Owen

The main classes of ships announced in July last year, together with our growing force of nuclear fleet submarines, will strengthen our contribution to the maritime forces of N.A.T.O. and add significantly to the defence of the oceans.

Mr. Cronin

Bearing in mind the increasing evidence of the vulnerability of all surface ships to ship-to-ship missiles, is the hon. Gentleman satisfied that his Department is giving sufficient attention to developing this capacity and also developing an effective defence against it?

Dr. Owen

As my hon. Friend knows, this has been the subject of a number of debates in the House. We believe that we can have an effective defence force by using helicopters, and this has been announced to the House.

Mr. Powell

Does the maritime defence take into account the possibility of prolonged operations at sea or not?

Dr. Owen

Yes. The Navy of the future will be able to operate at sea for a long time.

Mr. Maudling

The Under-Secretary said that the rôle of the Navy will be mainly European and Atlantic. What rôle or capability do the Government propose for the Navy east of Suez and what air cover will be available for it in that area?

Dr. Owen

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have a commitment in, for instance, the Beira patrol. As was made clear in the 1966 White Paper, we would not expect to provide another country with military assistance, unless it was prepared to make the necessary facilities available for the support of our forces, and this could include shore facilities or airfields. This applies particularly east of Suez.

Mr. Rankin

How far will the American naval vessels now lying in Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, and the aircraft carrier lying off the New Territories take up the rôle formerly occupied by British naval units in that part of the Far East?

Dr. Owen

I cannot see how they would be taking up our previous role, but we are in full consultation with our American allies.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing

Will the Undersecretary remember that the decision to plan a reduction to 79,000 in the Navy will bring our Royal Navy strength to the lowest point it has been since the end of Ramsay MacDonald's regime, and that nearly lost us the Second World War? On this occasion there are no reserve ships, whereas at that time there were many.

Dr. Owen

We are concentrating our forces in the European area and in the Atlantic area. The Government believe that this will make an effective contribution to the defence of this country.

Rear-Admiral Morgan Gi!es

Will the Minister arrange with the Secretary of State to make an early statement about this tremendous departure from the traditional rôle of the Royal Navy which for centuries has been to defend British trade worldwide and not just in the Atlantic?

Dr. Owen

The hon. and gallant Gentleman will have an opportunity in next week's debate to deploy his argument, but he is aware that the Government's policy is to concentrate our defence commitment in the European area. [An HON. MEMBER: "Scuttle."] This in no sense represents a scuttle but is a realistic assessment of our capabilities.