HC Deb 07 May 1969 vol 783 cc440-2
23. Mr. Brooks

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he will now make a statement on the rôle to be played by aircraft carriers in the early 1970s.

25. Mr. Boston

asked the Secretary of Slate for Defence what further consideration he now proposes to give to the rôle of the aircraft carriers after 1971.

33. Mr. Mayhew

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what rôle is now proposed for H.M.S. "Ark Royal" in the seventies.

42. Sir F. Bennett

asked the Secretary of State for Defence when it is intended that H.M.S. "Eagle" shall go out of active service in accordance with Her Majesty's Government's policies in regard to aircraft carriers.

51. Mr. Hooley

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will consider making available H.M.S. "Ark Royal" for international peace-keeping purposes when she is phased out of operational use with the Royal Navy in 1972.

Mr. Healey

The Government's plans for the aircraft carriers remain unchanged; that is to say, they will be phased out of their present fixed-wing flying task after the withdrawals from Malaysia, Singapore and the Persian Gulf have been completed in December, 1971. As we have said before, no decision has yet been taken about their future after that date.

Mr. Brooks

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that, in view of the fact that well over £32 million will have to be spent on the refit of the "Ark Royal", it would be the height of madness to get rid of her when she still has an operational potential, which I understand will persist into the middle 1970s?

Mr. Healey

I do not think that that is the case. When the Government decided not to continue the carrier force, it was because the running costs annually and the cost of replacing carriers as they became obsolescent were out of all proportion to the military value which could be obtained, particularly once we decided to leave our bases east of Suez.

Mr. Boston

Will my right hon. Friend accept that there has been confusion in some Press reports about the future of the carriers? Would he clarify the position and confirm that an alternative way of dealing with this would involve greater cost with no greater benefit in terms of our defence policy?

Mr. Healey

If one decides to retire an equipment from its existing rôle, it is possible to scrap it, to sell it or to give it a new rôle. Each of those possibilities is still open for the carriers, particularly the smaller carrier "Hermes", whose overhead costs when operating are very much less than those of the larger ones like "Eagle" and "Ark Royal".

Sir F. Bennett

Can the right hon. Gentleman indicate what vessel or type of vessel will replace the aircraft carrier which has been carrying out anti-evasion of Rhodesian sanctions patrols off Mozambique, once the carriers have been withdrawn?

Mr. Healey

The functions which were carried out by a carrier in the Beira patrol are being carried out very satisfactorily at the moment by Shackleton aircraft.

Mr. Hooley

Will my right hon. Friend give serious consideration to the possibility that this ship might form part of some future peace-keeping exercise, and will he explore with the Committee of 33 how it might be done?

Mr. Healey

As my hon. Friend knows, we are very anxious to assist the United Nations in any practicable way in its peace-keeping operations. However, this possibility has never been raised with us, and I would doubt whether it made sense to use a ship of this size and complexity in the rôle to which my hon. Friend refers.

Mr. Rippon

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that we on this side of the House share the anxieties expressed by his hon. Friend the Member for Bebington (Mr. Brooks), and will he confirm that the Super Harriers will be available for operations from these aircraft carriers and perhaps from other ships after 1971?

Mr. Healey

When the Pegasus engine is up-rated, which is what I assume the right hon. and learned Gentleman means by Super Harriers, the Harrier will be available for any purpose which is considered suitable at the time. One such purpose might be operating from the decks of ships. However, I doubt whether it would operate from the decks of larger ships, because the advantages of the short take-off would be lost by using a very long runway.