§ Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.
§ 4.59 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force (Mr. James Wellbeloved)
I hope the House will bear with me if I make one or two personal observations on my first appearance at the Dispatch Box.
I am sure that hon. Members opposite will be pleased to know that, since taking office, I have embarked on a whole series of visits to stations and units to see at first hand the RAF in operation and to familiarise myself with the practical considerations which affect the day-to-day work of the Service. My first impressions have been very good. I take this opportunity of paying tribute to the personnel of the Air Force whom I have met, who in peace as well as in war discharge their arduous duties with great courage and determination.
I have been profoundly impressed by the professional skill and dedication of all the personnel I have met. They are men and women from all walks of life who have one thing in common—namely, a commitment, freely and voluntarily undertaken, to serve in the Armed Forces and 1704 to defend our freedom under the control and guidance of a democratically elected Government and Parliament.
Although by far the youngest of the three Services, the RAF has a fine record. It has played a significant and vital rôle in this country's defence. With the new developments in the capability of aircraft and their weapon systems, the Air Force is as important now as it was in the Second World War. In the event of hostilities the RAF will be called upon, in co-operation with our allies, to defend these islands against attack from the air and sea, to co-operate with the Royal Navy in keeping open the lines of communication and reinforcement from North America, and to support our Army in the field and undertake offensive operations against any enemy.
The RAF can undertake these tasks rapidly and effectively. That it can do this involves the patience and understanding of many people throughout the country who live close to RAF stations and in areas where low flying is frequently practised. No doubt that is a subject that will be taken up in today's debate.
I now turn to one or two of the matters raised by the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow). He made particular reference to the speech of the Chief of the Air Staff. When he quoted the passage from page 9 of the transcript of the CAS's speech, he may inadvertently have given a slightly different emphasis to the words that the CAS used than was, I am sure, intended. When he quotedIt is nonsense to talk as though further reductions could be made in support areas without damaging our operational capabilitythe impression may have been gained that the CAS was talking about the reductions which have already formed part of the defence review in respect of the support facilities of the Royal Air Force, but clearly the CAS was talking about further reductions in that area.
I agree with the CAS that it would be nonsense to believe that there could be further substantial reductions in support facilities without affecting the operational capability of the Royal Air Force.
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will contain his impatience, I hope in the course of my remarks to deal with a great number of matters, and no doubt at some stage the point he has raised will receive my attention.
The CAS's speech was very significant in many other respects. In another passage he said:In every respect air power is more potent, more effective, more significant that it was in the past. Our defence, our future security, depends today at least as much on it, on the capability of the Air Force, as it ever did. But somehow we have grown shy of talking about air power, about the critical importance of the Air Force in our defences. We must put this right because, as I have said, the Air Force has been reduced much more severely than the other Services in the defence cuts since 1957, and, while the financial situation remains as serious as it is, we cannot rule out the possibility of further pressure for cuts in defence expenditure.I have quoted that section of his speech for two reasons. First, I want to make it clear to the House and to those who serve in the RAF that it is nonsense, if I may pray in aid some of the CAS's language, to try to build up an impression that the state of the Royal Air Force today is the responsibility of the present Government. As the Chief of the Air Staff made clear to the RAF Association, the cuts have gone on in the Air Force since 1957. There was a time when the Air Force, under a Conservative Administration had virtually no air defence capability in the United Kingdom. I am not prepared in this debate or in any other to accept criticism of the Government, who have replaced and regained a capacity for the country to be defended in the air.
§ Mr. Onslow
May I help the hon. Gentleman to remove himself from the dilemma on which he seems to be placing himself? I did not leave out any words about 1957. In fact, in the passage I quoted at length there is reference to that period. If the hon. Gentleman wants to have a debate on responsibility for events since 1957 and on the effect upon the Air Force and the other Services of the annual Budget cuts introduced by his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer during the previous Labour Government, let us have one, but do not let him try to put the responsibility upon the Conservative Party when he knows full well where it rests.
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
I hope that when the hon. Gentleman reads Hansard tomorrow he will acquit me of seeking to misquote him. I said that he may have given the impression in his first quotation from the CAS's speech that the CAS was implying something which in my view he did not seek to imply.
My second reason for quoting the CAS's speech is that we cannot rule out, as the CAS said, the possibility of further pressures for cuts in defence expenditure. Nobody in his right mind could dissent from that. Our ability to maintain our defence capacity depends on our ability to maintain our economic stability. If we fail in that we shall fail in many other matters as well.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to "Labour's Programme 1976". I hope he will forgive me for dealing with the more controversial matters that may lie between us so early in my speech. I want to proceed in due course to the serious factors of the debate without being distracted by the more partisan political aspects introduced by the hon. Gentleman at the tail end of his speech.
I read with great interest the copy of Labour Weekly that set out the programme for 1976. Section 16 is only one of 23 sections in the paper. The hon. Gentleman may like to cast his eye upon other sections with regard to Section 16. In the first column of the second paragraph he will note the words:Within an alliance, it seems reasonable that the contribution made by each member should be related to its economic capacity.That is absolutely in conformity with the Government's policy. If the hon. Gentleman turns to the second column he will find at the top the words:Military and political strength is ultimately founded on economic security.Is there anyone who would deny that? If the hon. Gentleman casts his eye to the bottom of the third column, just before the big black blodge andLevel of savings",he will see the words:While the work of the Study Group is not yet complete, we set out in the following interim report our tentative findings as a basis for discussion within the Party.I should not like anyone who reads the hon. Gentleman's speech to be under the impression that the document to which he has referred—"Labour's Programme 1707 1976"—is any more than it sets out to be—namely, a basis of discussion in a democratic party to determine the policies that it will pursue and that it may or may not put to the electorate in a General Election.
The hon. Gentleman was somewhat critical of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence for not placing in the Library private correspondence between himself and the General Secretary of the Labour Party. I do not think there is anything improper in that. If the hon. Gentleman goes to any newsagent and coughs up 10p—I am sure that all good newsagents stock good newspapers—and takes this week's copy of Labour Weekly, he will find in the centre page that there is no hesitation on my right hon. Friend's part in making clear to his political colleagues in the Labour Party throughout the country his full evaluation of the interim report of the study group. On a personal note, I am more impressed by my right hon. Friend's contribution than by any other recent contribution I have read on this matter.
§ Mr. Onslow
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for telling us where we may find that set out in full. Why the publication cannot be placed officially in the House of Commons Library so that it is available to us all, I do not know. It should be placed on record that copies are available in the Library. If there is a shortage of copies I will go in with the hon. Gentleman in buying one.
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
I shall save the hon. Gentleman 10p by seeing that copy of Labour Weekly is deposited forthwith in the Library, in the hope that some hon. Members may improve their understanding of these matters by reading our weekly political journal.
§ Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)
Will the Minister point to any sentence he can find in the Labour Party programme which refers to the threat which we face?
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
Yes, quite a lot refers to the threat. When I have placed the current issue of Labour Weekly in the Library the hon. Gentleman will be able to see that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spells out in great detail—as I intend to do as I proceed 1708 through my brief remarks—the threat which confronts the free world.
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
I do not intend to jump up and down with the hon. Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks). He will make his own speech should he be successful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in catching your eye.
Having dealt with the more partisan aspects of the debate, I turn to the defence review and its effect on the RAF. The review was conducted in such a way as to avoid any significant reduction in the Royal Air Force's front-line capability. The savings made have been largely in the support area, in such fields as support helicopters and training and communications aircraft. Reductions in our overseas commitments and the RAF withdrawal from Gan and Singapore have allowed us to make the Transport Force smaller. At home, the RAF has given up a number of stations and is regrouping on larger, more cost-effective sites.
I think it is true to say that, by and large, everyone now acepts that, in the situation we were faced with, the outcome of the defence review was both timely and right.
§ Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)
Does the Minister agree that, however difficult it may be to justify reductions in the support elements, it is totally impossible to defend the transfer of the RAF maintenance units from Aldergrove to St. Athan without a convincing reason?
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
I accept the hon. Gentleman's sincere concern about that transfer. I shall address myself briefly to it later in my speech.
There were further cuts in projected defence expenditure as a result of the public expenditure exercise last year. The background to this is well known. The whole exercise was aimed at releasing resources to the areas of export and investment to enable industry to take full advantage of the upswing in the world economy. The cuts were widespread, their impact was severe and defence had to play its part.
There is general recognition of the validity of my right hon. Friend the Secretary 1709 of State's statement to the House that we must judge the resources that we put into our defence in relation to the threat, and against the strength of our economy. Defence is not an exact science and judgments will continue to play a dominant rôle. But my view is that we are now at a general level where our capabilities are about equal to our commitments and ability in the present economic climate.
The Defence White Paper has already detailed the Public Expenditure Survey Committee cuts as they affect the RAF. There will be a change in the composition of the Transport Force by withdrawing the Belfast squadron and substituting VC10s and Hercules. We believe that this will enable us to make more economical use of the fleet and yield useful savings without any significant detriment to our reinforcement plans. We shall make savings from organisational changes, including the merger of Support and Training Commands and from economies in spares and engineering support—partly through improved provisioning methods, and works expenditure.
I come to the point raised by the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux). The painful decision to close the RAF Maintenance Units at Aldergrove and Sydenham in April 1978 has already been taken. Much has been said already about the closure of Sydenham and Aldergrove and there is little I can add to what was said in the debate in the House on that subject on 20th March. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern.
On the general question of the loss of job opportunities, the point is worth making that it simply is not true to suggest that the defence budget can be slashed again and again without any effect on the livelihood of many thousands of men and women. If anyone doubts that, I suggest that he asks the workers whose jobs have disappeared or will disappear as the decisions on defence reductions become operative.
This whole question of the effect on jobs and job opportunities is not new, but it is very much in the forefront of our argument over defence at the moment. For my part I think it is naive to believe that a sudden, massive shift of resources 1710 away from defence could be handled without enormous disruption of people's lives and the loss of many thousands of jobs. Moreover, the implications this would have on our capability to defend ourselves, and on our standing in the world, do not even bear contemplating.
Let me take one example. The MRCA project is the largest single component in the RAF's current re-equipment programme, and the aircraft will eventually replace five aircraft types now in service —Vulcans, Canberras, Buccaneers, Phantoms and Lightnings—all aircraft which, having already been in service for a number of years, must before long reach the end of their useful operational lives.
The MRCA is a fundamental part of our post Defence Review force structure and the aircraft, from their bases in the United Kingdom and Germany, will be employed entirely on NATO priority tasks. With two other NATO countries —Germany and Italy—also operating the same aircraft type, there will be considerable benefits in terms of interoperability, commonality of training and reduced logistic support.
Good progress is being made with the negotiations with our partners on entering into the production phase, and it is hoped that agreement will soon be reached. The MRCA development programme is going well. Since the beginning of May, six prototype Tornados have completed a total of 64 hours flying, making a total of just over 430 flying hours. I intend to use the description "Tornado".
When the production go-ahead is given, we shall also enter into full development of the air defence variant of the MRCA, a national version of the common aircraft, designed as a replacement for the RAF's Phantom and Lightning air defence aircraft.
Before taking the decision to develop this version, a most stringent review was made of all the alternatives, including a study of the likely rôle of surface-to-air missiles as an alternative to aircraft for air defence, and the possibility of buying other aircraft. However, the review confirmed that, taking into account the operational, financial and industrial 1711 factors concerned, the MRCA ADV version would be the best solution to our requirements.
This is by far the biggest single programme ever undertaken by the United Kingdom aerospace industry, and already about 14,000 jobs have been created. At the peak of production this will rise to about 24,000 directly involved in the programme and a further 12,000 employed indirectly. The programme will involve over 100 major sub-contracting firms.
In the context of employment, it is perhaps worth mentioning at this juncture that just over half the aircraft industry is dependent on military work.
The MRCA programme is, of course, just one example of the British Government's firm intention to continue to support NATO in its efforts to preserve the military balance.
The extent to which the Warsaw Pact's military capability continues to increase can only be a source of grave concern to the United Kingdom and other NATO Governments. During the last year we have seen some further widening of the disparities in manpower and equipment between the Warsaw Pact and the NATO Alliance. In addition to improvements in ground forces, the Soviet Union has enhanced its maritime capability and new ships are now under construction capable of carrying vertical and short take off and landing aircraft. In addition, the Soviet naval air force has, with the introduction of the Backfire supersonic medium bomber, the capability of reaching the North Atlantic sea routes. Warsaw Pact air forces and missile systems are being improved and Soviet tactical air forces modernised with variable geometry aircraft with greater ranges and payloads than the aircraft they are replacing. The expansion of the Warsaw Pact Air Forces, both in quantity and quality, must remain a major concern to those charged with the responsibility of maintaining the security of our people.
It is against this background that it remains one of the most urgent tasks of the Governments of the NATO Alliance to take measures to strengthen their collective defences.
For a number of years—and particularly in response to the increased con- 1712 ventional capability of the Warsaw Pact —successive Governments have recognised the need to strengthen our front-line air defence squadrons. This need remains. At present we have nine squadrons of air defence aircraft. Seven are based at home and two are based in Germany. Planned improvements announced in recent White Papers include the transfer of Phantoms to the air defence rôle, the run-on part of the existing Lightning force alongside the Phantoms and the introduction of the Victor K2 tanker. We have begun the deployment of Bloodhound and Rapier surface-to-air missiles and we are planning major improvements to the early warning systems as well as an aircraft shelter programme to improve our capability to operate under enemy air attack.
The Government have, as I have mentioned, given their approval for the full development of the Air Defence Variant of the MRCA, and we are examining, with our NATO Allies, the best way of meeting our requirement for an airborne early warning aircraft to replace the Shackleton. Later this year we shall be introducing the Hawk into service to replace the Gnat, and the Hunter as a fast jet training aircraft, and this will be followed by the Sea King Search and Rescue helicopter which will replace some of the RAF's Whirlwinds. We shall introduce the Tornado-MRCA at the beginning of the 1980s which will bring about a substantial improvement to the qualitative strength of the RAF's front line.
§ Mr. Onslow
It sounds as if the Minister is leaving the subject of the MRCA. May I remind him of my question about a contingency plan. All he has said about the importance of the MRCA, underlines the importance of a contingency plan in case something goes wrong.
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
In all our negotiations with other Governments we take on those dealings in good faith and in the hope that they will be successfully concluded. Nothing which has yet come to my Department leads me to believe that the position with the MRCA will be other than that. No responsible Government could see such a major development as the MRCA fall to the ground.
1713 It is not my responsibility to proceed into that area at this time.
As far as offensive air effort is concerned, we have seen major advances in enemy defensive systems notably in radar and anti-aircraft missiles, and the most effective counter in war would be high speed-low level attack as close to the ground as possible. All major air forces recognise the need for this low level capability and in addition aircraft may have to fly very low in support of the forces on the ground.
Low level flying is an exacting technique, and once aircrew have become proficient they must keep in constant practice. My predecessor spoke in this debate last year on this very difficult subject. There is little I can add to what he said except to say that of course I recognise that the activity of low level military flying does not meet with everyone's approval and regrettably does cause some disturbance to local communities and individuals. In the wider context I consider it rather ironic that I have received representations from hon. Members opposite who wish, on the one hand, to see low flying curtailed, or completely stopped, in their constituencies, but yet seek, or have sought, safeguards on the jobs some of their constituents have in support of the Defence effort.
I turn to the particular point raised by the hon. Member for Woking on the accident rate and its relationship to fuel economy. He may be aware that within a few days of my taking office there was a fatal accident in the RAF. Naturally I have given considerable attention to this matter, because it is not part of my intention to allow gallant young men to lose their lives unnecessarily while training in the RAF. I have taken particular care on all visits to particular commands to acquaint myself with the realities of the situation.
I can assure the hon. Member that it is absolutely wrong to suggest that defence economies expressed in the form of fuel restrictions are having an adverse effect on the training of air crew and flying safety. The Royal Air Force has a fuel economy target of 10 per cent. compared with the year before the fuel crisis, but the achievement of that target has not been at the expense of training 1714 Standards or operational effectiveness. No flying training syllabus has had to be altered on account of the fuel economies.
§ Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)
Before my hon. Friend leaves the question of low flying, has he taken sufficient account of the development of the infantry anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons which surely would change these tactics somewhat? What is the point of having low-level support when there are missiles which can do the job without aircraft at all?
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
That is an interesting point, but all those who are professionally qualified in these matters are quite convinced that low flying is an absolute necessity for the defence and strike capability of the RAF.
But returning to the point about accidents, we must rest content that the RAF and the ministerial team in that Department are quite satisfied that the fuel economies do not have any affect at all on the situation.
§ Mr. Onslow
I am grateful for what the Minister has said. I hope that we can have a general reassurance on the whole subject, and of course we all hope that there will be no repetition of this tragic accident.
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
Turning to the topic of energy conservation in general, the Ministry of Defence is a large user of energy and it is right that it should make a contribution to the national effort through fuel saving measures which can be sustained in the longer term without adversely affecting the capability of the Services.
Where worthwhile economies would result from such measures as reduced flying, alterations to programmes are being sought, but not at the expense of operation effectiveness. The hon. Member for Woking will, I hope, accept what I say and be assured that economies come a long way behind the risking of pilots' lives and those of the rest of the community.
These annual debates on the Armed Forces are vitally important, and it is right that Parliament should give its most careful attention to the state of the nation's defences.
1715 Peace, freedom and security are not gifts bestowed by nature upon mankind. They are obtained and maintained by courage, determination, and the support of informed public opinion.
But we have to recognise that our power rôle in world affairs has dramatically changed over the last 30 years and that world economic and monetary trends have confronted us with many difficult decisions.
It is worth reminding ourselves now and again of a fundamental fact that is often obscured in the heat and sometimes brutal thrust of political debate—that it was to ensure that argument and debate on the great issues of the day should be the hallmark of our free democratic society that men and women in both peace and war have suffered and died.
In terms of expenditure of resources on defence, a lavish, extravagant defence posture would be foolish. But conversely, to expend too little on the real security needs of our country could be catastrophic because it would put at risk our most cherished possession—the freedom to determine the destiny of our country through the ballot box.
I believe that the Government, with the knowledge that is available to them, and in the light of the present economic constraints have got the balance just about right, and I commend the policy to the House and the country.
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Neil Macfarlane (Sutton and Cheam)
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) in wishing the Under-Secretary the best of good fortune in his office and congratulating him on his recent appointment. I fear that one of the most important tasks facing him in his period of office will be to adress himself to the morale of the Royal Air Force. I want to confine my contribution in this debate immediately to this particular aspect, rather as my hon. Friend the Member for Woking did from the Front Bench, in the early part of his speech.
I want to consider the rôle of the air Service man himself, the person who is the most important constituent of the Royal Air Force. It was suggested to me a few weeks ago by a former and recently retired serving officer that now- 1716 adays the average airman tends to regard his career in perhaps more materialistic terms than did his predecessors in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. He is not so likely therefore to be motivated to the extent that they were by such things as loyalty to the Service and the desire for the RAF family atmosphere. But this change has not been due entirely to sociological factors. One important reason for the shift was the military salary initiated in the late 1960s and implemented in 1970 by the present Chancellor of the Exchequer in his former Cabinet responsibility.
The military salary changed the rôle of air Service men substantialy by providing that all Service men were to be compared, via job evaluation, with similar jobs in civilian life, and that Service pay was to be based upon that comparison. The hitherto totally separate environment of air Service men began to merge with that of the civilian, even though the environment of each was totally different, and that encouraged the Service man to become his own subjective judge of the relative values of civilian careers and Service employment.
How does a member of the Royal Air Force acknowledge the value of his security of employment at the moment? He must think that the RAF has suffered a great deal more than the other two Services in the recent defence reviews, and he must draw the conclusion that the reviews are bound to implement compulsory redundancy programmes. He must reflect also that the general shrinkage of RAF establishments at home and abroad is bound to affect him sooner or later. This must be bad for the morale of the Service man, and we must bear in mind that the airman can draw no bonuses from working long or extra hours as can be done on the shop floor. The only rewards he can expect come by promotion, and that may take years, or it might never come.
Then there is the question of family disruption. RAF families perhaps suffer more than the other arms and over a 20-year span of career can expect disruption about every two years—perhaps a little more or a little less. This involves regular uprooting from friends, schooling problems with youngsters and difficulties with wives attempting to pursue their own careers. All this is part of the background of difficulty for the modern day air 1717 Service man, and the great carrot of yesteryear which tended to minimise domestic disruption—the overseas tour—is yet another shrinking aspect of RAF life.
House purchase in the RAF is a great administrative problem, and once again the RAF seems to suffer more than the Army or the Royal Navy. For many years the Navy has actively encouraged and helped its Service men to buy houses of their own, especially in the great seaport catchment areas, so that families are left in secure and familiar surroundings when the husband goes abroad or to sea. The Army is generally concentrated in large garrison areas and relies generally on the unit moving in its entirety from one barracks to the next. The Royal Air Force, however, operates in smaller numbers and is fairly widely spread. It is often of necessity fairly remote from civilian families and resources. So for operational efficiency it has been RAF policy to base its townships—mainly married quarters—on the airfield, in other words, "over the shop".
It is sad to note that the only reference to assisted house purchase in the 1976 Statement on Defence Estimates is a small paragraph on page 67 which refers only to the Royal Navy scheme which has been expanded over the last two years. There is no mention of any such scheme for airmen. I hope that the Minister will make a reference to the tri-Service assisted house purchase scheme and bring some positive action to help those serving RAF personnel who cannot for a variety of reasons enter into house purchase.
One of the principal feelings of concern among airmen is that they feel trapped. They have felt honour-bound to reside in the RAF community and on retirement have found that inflation has eaten into their savings and that they have missed the chance to buy their own homes. These days terminal gratuities will not bridge the gap.
There is no doubt that many senior serving airmen are worried at the prospect facing them. In recent years it has been the tendency for younger men, having watched these problems, to buy their own homes unassisted if they can afford them. Of course, with this comes 1718 a welcome morale booster in the form of all-round stability for the family. There is stability of education for the children and employment for the wives over a long period becomes a reality. The crunch may come when the father has to go overseas on a new posting, but the financial arrangements can be infinitely to his advantage if he chooses to live on the station as a single man.
I understand that the Finance Act works adversely in this respect for the serving officer who moves his family into married quarters. The Inland Revenue in recent months has begun creating confusion, anxiety and hardship by ruling that the married man who occupies married quarters and thus pays rent is deemed to be living at his principal residence and is thus not entiled to claim mortgage interest relief on the house he is buying himself. I do not think that the RAF and the Government have awakened to this change in living patterns for the officers and men in the RAF, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to initiate a better form of assisted house purchase scheme so that RAF personnel do not suffer.
I turn now to the large-scale redeployment of training units which is going on or has been implemented. The problems I mentioned a few moments ago plus this aspect of change must be affecting morale. The last year or two have been a time of change for the RAF. There is the new pattern of pilot training begun in 1974. There are also planned changes in training for air crew which will take effect later this year. The Central Flying School is now fragmented throughout the country. Perhaps the Minister will refer to these matters when he replies to the debate. He knows that the Headquarters and Jet Provost element is now installed at the RAF College at Cranwell. The Gnat and Bulldog elements are moving to RAF Valley and RAF Leeming respectively, and the helicopter element of the school which is now at Tern Hill will be moving shortly to RAF Shewbury in the autumn of this year. It is important that the Minister should deal with what may be excessive fragmentation of the Central Flying School.
My one overriding apprehension and concern over the Government's defence review is the shrinkage of the RAF. Cost 1719 effectiveness is one thing, but the over-pruning of our military resources is another and serious matter. Paragraph 64 on page 25 of the review in the section dealing with defence and detente makes grim reading for many of us on the Conservative Benches. It must make grim reading in respect of our commitment to CENTO and NATO but, worst of all, I am concerned about Royal Air Force morale. That is the most critical aspect of the review. It is something to which the Minister ought to turn his attention.
While I accept the economic argument which the Minister made cogently, there is, none the less, deep apprehension on this side of the House. The review refers to the Air Transport Force being reduced by half and the size of the Support Helicopter Force being reduced by half. Generally speaking there is a lot of shrinkage in the RAF. I hope that when the Minister replies he will refer to some of the matters which I have raised.
§ 5.41 p.m.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)
I would like to follow the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Macfarlane) in one matter. That concerns the way in which warrant officers do not have the same rights of commutation of pension as officers. This is an issue which a Labour Government, in particular, ought to look at again. The Minister for the Army knows that I have raised with him in great depth the case of WO1 Gradwell, late of West Lothian, now in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury.
I ask both Service Ministers to reflect once again whether something which is done, no doubt for honourable reasons, but perhaps a bit paternalistically in the 1970s, should be an ongoing matter of policy. Warrant officers, sergeants and other ranks have given the Ministry of Defence some good reasons why they should commute pensions and I do not see why they should be discriminated against simply because they are not officers and therefore, by innuendo, somehow are less responsible. I realise that Ministers have been acting under very good motives. That is not denied, but it is something which should be looked at.
1720 Shortly after my hon. Friend arrived at his desk he will have received a long letter from me—an early warning, to use RAF parlance, and a forewarning—that in this, my 13th speech in 14 seasons on RAF Estimates, I would devote myself to one topic, namely, a separate Scottish Air Force—a Tartan Air Force.
I regard this matter as no joke because I have no doubt that there is a serious possibility of the Scottish National Party obtaining political power. In that case, independence negotiations would begin and they are committed, as I understand it, to a Scottish Army, a Scottish Navy and a Scottish Air Force. We must therefore give some attention to this matter.
§ Mr. Dalyell
I will not give way just yet. Of course, I concede straight away that a small country can have an air capability. I concede that a separate Scottish Air Force may not be as difficult and impractical as a separate Scottish Army or Navy. The difficulties may not be quite as great.
§ Mr. Donald Stewart
If other countries with a smaller population and a smaller land area than Scotland can have separate defence forces, why does the hon. Member, apart from his attitude to independence which I know well, not think that a separate Scotland ought to be able to sustain this?
§ Mr. Dalyell
That is a perfectly reasonable question and there are two answers to it. Of course, if one is as rich per head as the Saudis or the ruler of Dubai—
§ Mr. Dalyell
We are as rich as the Saudis? I am afraid that is not the situation as I see it. Another answer is that it is one thing to build up a small air force from scratch, but it is another to hive off a Scottish sector of the RAF from an existing structured, coherent air force.
We are talking not about building up a new air force but rather the dismemberment of the RAF.
There are two basic questions which flow from this. How practical is it in 1721 terms of operational efficiency, and what would be the financial cost?
I would take the MRCA as an example. I remember and I confirmed it in long notes I took at the meeting that when a group of us went to Munching, near Munich, to see Dr. Madelung, the programme director, I asked why the Dutch were withdrawing from the project. The answer was simply that it was because basically Holland is too small. In fact, that makes sense.
I pursued this question with Dutch colleagues in the European Parliament, with members of the Dutch Government and those who represent the Philips factories in Eindhoven who are well informed on these matters. They said that the Dutch Air Force was on such a small scale that it could not participate in this major project. I therefore ask my hon. Friend whether it is practical to have one-eight of 385—some 50 aircraft—separate in a Scottish Air Force? Does it make sense in practical and operational requirement terms? Coupled with this, what would happen supposing an independent Scotland, and the Scottish Government, opted out of the MRCA? I have a suspicion that in these circumstances orders would not go to the Cameron Iron Works at Livingstone where many constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth (Mr. Ewing) and I earn their bread from such contracts.
If Scotland were not participating there would be no pressure to order with Scottish industry.
What goes for the MRCA and Camerons certainly goes for Ferrantis of Edinburgh which has considerable links with Bloodhound and Rapier. The truth is that Ferrantis of Edinburgh, if any kind of independent Scottish Air Force were set up, would be seriously disadvantaged and the people who work there ought to know it. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) present and he knows a lot about Ferrantis.
Three years ago I was given the figure that the training of a pilot cost £250,000. This was for Lightning and Phantom. I understand that costs will have escalated and that the training of an MRCA pilot is nearer £500,000. The same goes for all specialist skills. But supposing one 1722 hives off one-eighth of the RAF does it make any economic sense? What would be the cost of training an MRCA pilot in an air force of 50 MRCAs?
I see the hon. Lady for Moray and Nairn) (Mrs. Ewing) present. I went on a visit to RAF Lossiemouth five years ago. What would happen to the Nimrod capability there? I also visited St. Mawgan where I got a very full briefing and I clearly recall the whole question that spares, repairs and support have to be concentrated in one place There was a constant coming and going between Lossiemouth and St. Mawgan.
In those circumstances, does it make sense to hive off the Nimrod capability which is vital to any kind of North Sea protection? Those who talk about protection of the North Sea oil rigs ought to face the practical question that, if they are to have independent Scottish oil, presumably it is to be protected. If it is not to be protected, we should be told.
But, if it is to be protected, the long-range Nimrod surveillance aircraft is critical to any kind of task in that respect. Therefore, we should be told whether it is practical to break up the RAF in this way.
The Minister talked about and gave a list of engineering support savings.
If the SNP were to get its way and have an independent air force, there would be serious dis-savings. Therefore, I asked the Ministry of Defence during the summer to try to do a rough calculation of the dis-savings that an independent Scottish air force would involve. We have heard a lot about savings. Let us hear about the dis-savings of breaking up the RAF, and hiving off a Scottish Air Force.
Equally, I must ask a purely factual question. I read Sir Denis Smallwood's interesting speech. What would be the position of the Commander-in-Chief United Kingdom Air Forces? I understand that within the Ministry of Defence he is called the Cinukair.
I understand from senior RAF officers that the break-up of the command structure would be a difficult and expensive operation. Could the Under-Secretary write to me about this?
§ Mr. Macfarlane
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the period of training to 1723 bring this supposed force up to scratch would be impossible to comprehend?
§ Mr. Dalyell
It is absolutely mind-boggling to those who take an interest in the nuts and bolts. I was taught by the noble Lord Wigg that if one is to talk about the Forces, one must go into the details. Therefore one asks a whole list of purely factual questions.
The answer to the question posed by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam is that there are mind-boggling expenses. The idea of taking the Air Force apart makes no kind of financial or operational sense.
Let us be more mundane and come down to other matters. What about pension obligations? How do we disentangle them? Who will pay the Service pensions? These things matter to many people. They want to know where their entitlement is, coming from. How does one opt as between a Scottish and an English Air Force if one is born in Scotland?
I must ask the same question as I asked in the debates on the Navy and the Army. What about the separation of various specialist skills?
For example, what about the small groups of specialist maintenance engineers on Phantoms? Fortuitiously, one-eighth of them might be Scots. If not, how do we work it out? There may be great shortages or surpluses on either side. Again, dismemberment makes no sense.
§ Mr. Hooley
It is very jolly listening to my hon. Friend's fantasies in this fashion and quite amusing, I suppose, to fill in the debate. But is he aware that this problem had to be solved by every Commonwealth country when it became independent?
§ Mr. Dalyell
I do not propose to answer that question, because I resent my hon. Friend's intervention. This is no joking matter. It is serious. I am dealing with it in a serious way. It is as serious to me as the issue of South Africa is to him. My hon. Friend had better understand—I shall listen to him—that independence means independence.
§ Mr. Dalyell
Those who make the English the scapegoats for their troubles cannot expect on some cosy basis to 1724 share the same Armed Forces. Independence means what it says.
I must say to the Members of the Scottish National Party that when they make a tremendous business of their rally at Bannockburn on 26th June, it is about one thing—anti-Englishness. Otherwise, they would not hold their rally at Bannockburn. You choose Bannockburn because it is emotive. I must also say, coolly and calmly, that when you encourage the singing of "Oh flower of Scotland "—I refer to the report in The Times by Mr. David Leigh who is very sympathetic—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)
Order. The hon. Gentleman should address his remarks to the Chair.
§ Mr. Dalyell
Yes. I apologise for the discourtesy. I should not have forgotten. Mr. David Leigh says:It is clearly an Anti-English song: the crowds boo the British National Anthem—if crowds boo the National Anthem, it is a little difficult for that country to share the same Armed Services—which the Scottish National Party has told them is Anti-Scottish.That is the sympathetic correspondent of The Times in London. He goes on:Commemorating one of the last battles with the English which the Scots ever managed to win, it is a rather haunting and worrying little poem: at the end of each verse, when it describes how the Scots packed the English home tae think again', some of the crowds make rude gestures at the stand where, presumably, they think the English or at any rate the establishment to be.I do not know whether the stand at Hampden Park is the place where the English Establishment go. That is not the issue. The issue is that there is the singing:Oh flower of Scotland, when will we see your like again?That fought and died for your wee bit hill and glen,And stood against them, proud Edward's armies,And sent them homeward tae think again.That is all anti-English. All I am saying is that when people get to that situation, they cannot expect a cosy relationship in sharing Armed Forces. They cannot have their cake and eat it. [Interruption.]
Sedentary muttering by the hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) 1725 is all very well. But in a polite and gentle way I hope to bring the SNP up against the realities of the situation. Independence means an independent force. Therefore, it is no joke. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) has gone. This is a real prospect.
It would be wrong for me to make too long a speech, so I shall pose only two questions. One bothers me more than the other. I should like the Ministry of Defence to comment on the question of security checks. In The Times of 19th May there is the headline:Whitehall accused of security snooping on Scottish nationalists.The report states:There is evidence that junior government employees in sensitive fields undergo security screening for nationalists sympathies if they come from Scotland.The Scottish National Party, which has some relatively discreet members in the Armed Forces and the Edinburgh Civil Service, will probably be flattered by that disclosure.There is a long evidential piece following that. Frankly, I am not in favour of those with Scottish nationalist opinions being screened. However, there should be some further comment on the Prime Minister's very proper Written Answer to the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson), in which, according to The Times of 27th May, he said:no distinction was drawn between Scots and others in the process known as positive vetting'… Membership of any organisation, whether political or not, is inevitably part of the background to an individual.'I hope that the Ministry of Defence will expand on this subject and will say exactly what is the situation, re positive vetting.
I conclude my remarks, because I have taken my allotted span of twenty minutes, by saying that those who say that they want to see the bust-up of Britain and the dismemberment of the Royal Air Force display a mind-boggling frivolity.
§ 6.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)
I feel a certain reluctance to set myself between the Highlands and the Lowlands because I feel that I may get hurt in the process. However, I must say that the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) deployed a powerful case to which the sedentary grumblings from the SNP to 1726 the effect "It will be a matter for Scotland" are not a sufficient answer.
I join in congratulating the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force on his new post. Unless my memory serves me wrongly, I believe that at one time he served in the Royal Air Force.
§ Mr. Kershaw
This place is becoming infested with sailors. No doubt the Minister's service in the Navy is reflected by the fact that he has now grown a beard. I hope that he will enjoy his term of office more than he enjoyed his days in the Royal Navy.
I want to refer to what the Minister said about RAF accidents. I appreciate that fuel economy plays no part in the accidents which have recently taken place. I know that it would be undesirable if the Minister were to give the percentage of accidents to flying hours. However, it would be possible to allay public anxiety if he were able to say that the average rate has not been increased as a result of the recent accidents about which we have all read.
The political exchanges which were so amiably conducted between my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) and the Minister this afternoon were, I suppose, inevitable. They related to the question who is responsible for the present state of the RAF. Naturally, Her Majesty's Government claim that they have the answer about right—and indeed all Governments do so—but there is a tacit assumption beneath those mutual reproaches, namely, that the RAF is not strong enough; otherwise there would be no political animosity to talk about.
The first priority is the air defence of Great Britain. I am sure that the Minister is as anxious as anybody to see that we deploy the right sort of strength. We know our economic difficulties but they, like the poor, are always with us. It is a question of how much risk one thinks one can take.
I need not lecture the Minister on the strength and capability of the Russian Air Force. He will know that the Russians spend a larger percentage of their GNP on their armed forces than 1727 we at one time suspected, and that their technical expertise is increasing. Up to the present they have been lacking in the quality of their aircraft and pilots, although not, of course, in their quantity. If it is correct that the quality has recently been steeped up, we must make a careful scrutiny of our defence systems. Indeed, I have no doubt that the Minister has already done so.
I should like now to examine the various components of our defences. Let us first take the fighter aircraft which, ranging far out from our coasts, intercept incoming aircraft, provide a swift and flexible means of identification, and, in peace and in war, warn our own defences of danger and opposing fords of our ceaseless vigilance and expertise. The Minister will not deny that our fighter forces are today the minimum which could cope with a hostile attack—and that is only in the context of a scenario which includes participation by all our NATO allies against a general attack by Eastern Powers.
It has been found recently that, for financial reasons, it is necessary to slow down production of the MRCA. I should like to know whether the Minister is satisfied that the necessarily extended life of the aircraft at present filling the defensive rôle will enable them adequately to perform that rôle in the final years of their employment. I have in mind the increased efficiency of the hostile forces and I am concerned that, just at the moment when hostile forces are becoming more efficient, we may be forced by economic considerations temporarily to reduce our efficiency, at least not to increase it.
There is another aspect of this increased capability of hostile forces. Our air defence area stretches very far to the north of these islands, and it is right that on the vulnerable northern flank of NATO it should do so. But on the western approaches the United Kingdom air defence area stretches as far as the Isle of Man southwards.
What is being done about what one may call the West-about approach of the Russion air force? The Republic of Ireland has no capability to resist the overflying of her territory by Russian aircraft. Furthermore, it is but a short 1728 distance further for aircraft to come in from the south of Ireland over the sea. It is public knowledge that little if any air defence is deployed on our western shores. One is reminded of the guns of Singapore pointing vainly out to sea while the Japanese infantry swarmed across the Straits of Johore.
The great merit of air power is its flexibility and no doubt our fighters and interceptors could quickly switch from east to west. But adequate defence depends upon semi-static missiles and I am disturbed that so few squadrons—and those almost all in Germany—are on the strength. Surely we should have more of these missiles, and deployed in different and more places.
We must also have adequate radar—and by "adequate" I mean airborne early warning. I do not envy the Minister having to choose between the American and Nimrod systems. I recognise the financial and other difficulties. But will he bear in mind that no American or even NATO solution is likely fully to bear in mind the possibility of attack upon the United Kingdom from the west and the north-west with the same anxiety as we should, or to provide adequate capability to deal with it?
I welcome the Secretary of State's decision to go firm on the air defence variant of the MRCA. Our particular defence problems and our dependence upon sophisticated avionics over the long ranges of the Atlantic Ocean and the northern seas pose for us different problems from those which we encounter in Western Europe and demand a different type of aircraft to cope with the situation.
My next point concerns the air traffic control centre at West Drayton. The security of this building and of those working there poses in peace and in war very considerable problems. It would not be helpful for me to be more specific but I know that the Minister will inform himself—probably he has already done so—about those problems. I very much hope that he will do all in his power to remedy the obvious defects.
I turn next to the question of reserves. The reserves of all the Services have been grievously let down, partly out of a belief, which may well be mistaken, that any war would be a nuclear war and partly, in 1729 the case of the Royal Air Force, at any rate, because it was thought that the sophistication of the equipment made it non-productive to hand that equipment to insufficiently-trained men. We may be making a great mistake. In the first place, it is clearly in the interests of Russia to confine warfare to the conventional, in which Russia is very strong, rather than to let it escalate to the nuclear, in which she will share in the general holocaust.
Secondly, I question the resolution of Western or any other leaders to launch a nuclear war, even in response to imminent defeat by conventional forces, although I welcome the uncertainty of such a decision, for the uncertainty itself is the deterrent that holds the world in balance.
The duty of our military is to prepare for the worst case—and undoubtedly the worse case, after a nuclear holocaust, is a long war in which we should soon run out of troops and equipment. It would be interesting to know how long, at projected attrition rates, the Royal Air Force is expected to fight effectively. I should be dismayed if the Minister told me the answer, but I beg him to turn his attention to reserves.
I know that reserve pilots cannot readily be given the immensely sophisticated aircraft which are used today, but there are several respects in which reserves could be useful. First, there is the RAF Regiment, which has an expert and essential rôle, but a rôle, nevertheless, which can be technically mastered without the sort of expensive training for flying an aircraft.
The defence of airfields, whether by infantry action or by missiles, can suitably be done by reserve forces. I should like to see each squadron of the RAF Regiment matched by at least one or more reserve squadrons. Such a reserve could be made up partly of immediately retired and partly of Territorial reserves, although the exact composition does not matter. I would, at any rate, be quite sure that such a fine regiment, playing so important a rôle, would have no difficulty at all in finding the necessary recruits.
Then we have the problem of using civilian aircraft to supplement the lift which RAF Transport Command can no longer prove provide. We know that BAOR will depend on an important 1730 degree upon reinforcement by Army reserves on mobilisation. Some doubt must exist as to whether Transport Command, slimmed down as it will be, will be able to transport the necessary troops in the necessary time.
It may, therefore, be essential to use civilian aircraft. The areas into which those aircraft would fly may already be in a war zone. What are to be the arrangements for handling such a situation? What powers of requisition will Her Majesty's Government need in regard to the aircraft? What powers will they have over the pilots who alone have the expertise to fly these sophisticated machines? I hope that Her Majesty's Government will take in good time the legal and practical steps to bring the situation under control and that they will consider in particular whether bringing the pilots and the aircraft into some kind of reserve military status might be one way of dealing with the matter.
Lastly in the matter of reserves, the air-sea rescue organisation—which either gives already or will, I believe, shortly give 100 per cent. coverage of our coast —provides, I suggest, a first-class opportunity for reserve crews. Perhaps reserve crews could not be pilots—although I do not rule that out—but surely the other posts in the helicopters could be filled by reserves. They would, I am sure, respond with the greatest enthusiasm to this service, which has such a large element of immediate service to the public in peacetime, as well as being an essential in war. I do not need to point out how easily part-timers could also take their places in the RAF launches which form part of the air-sea rescue service.
I know that the Minister will resist any influence which seeks to suggest that the RAF should use anything but the best and most sophisticated equipment. If RAF capability is unable to defend against the worst attack which modern science can devise, it would be better and cheaper to go back to bows and arrows. In fact, it has been the tradition of the RAF always to go for the best, ever since the days of that great man, Lord Trenchard. We know how in 1940 it proved to be our salvation.
Today, the equipments which are the key to survival are the electronic countermeasures of all kinds, without which no amount of pilot expertise or operational 1731 excellence can be of any avail. I earnestly ask the Minister to ensure that, whatever else has to be cut, whatever else is held back, there shall be no hold-back whatsoever in research and development in the ECM field. Unless we have what is necessary here, all our other efforts may well be brought to naught.
§ 6.14 p.m.
§ Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)
The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow), when he commenced his remarks, admonished my hon. Friend the Minister on a number of counts. He said that he hoped that he would not go over the same details that had been given in so many speeches, but ironically later on he extolled the virtues of his own desire to repeat what he had said before.
When we talk about defence matters we all on both sides of the House have an obligation not to cover again and again the same points. As a relative newcomer to defence debates, I must say that in speaking in these debates and in listening to them I am reminded of John Wayne's film "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon". I have seen the film so many times that whenever I watch it I feel that I know what the actors are about to say and what the next scene will be.
I sometimes feel that the actors are always the same in the defence debates here, and are always saying the same things. In making this comment I do not wish to be disparaging. Perhaps I shall be similarly guilty before long. However, there is every indication that the form of this debate may differ on this occasion, as many hon. Members on both sides who usually contribute to these debates are absent. Perhaps there will be a rather different approach in this debate.
I draw the analogy of the film "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" also on another ground—that of sabre-rattling. We usually hear this in debates of this kind from hon. Members opposite. The hon. Member for Woking also said—I feel rather critical of him about this—that he had a need to shout for the benefit of the thick skulls on my side of the House. I do not know whether he meant Ministers or whether this was a general criticism. I shall read Hansard with interest in order to find out.
1732 In the interests of fairness, and in order to show that there is no monopoly of concern, of patriotism, or of intelligence on defence matters on the Opposition Benches, the hon. Gentleman should perhaps cast his eyes on an article written by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) in the Journal NATO Review published very recently. There may be some hon. Members who have not read it.
I do not wish to set friend against friend, or to say that the hon. Member's comments on the Conservative Party are necessarily unique to that party. The criticisms can perhaps be levelled elsewhere. In his article the hon. Member states:The Conservative Party cares about defence, but does not think very deeply about it. It is not enough, however, that we should wish to be defended, we must bend our minds to the subject … but defence must be accorded a greater intellectual priority.The hon. Member then pays the Labour Party a compliment by saying that the Conservative Party might model itselfon the Labour Party of the early sixties".He goes on to say thatAt present our opposition to the Labour Government's defence policy is shrill but unsustained.He also says:It is not enough to squeal every time the Government puts butter before guns. We should make better use of our supply time in the Commons".The hon. Member may care to develop this point.
As a newcomer to defence matters, I was rather interested to read this article on his performance of his colleagues.
§ Mr. Julian Critchley (Aldershot)
Will the hon. Member go on to say that there are free copies available in the Library?
§ Mr. George
The quality of the article is such that I am sure it could be sold at a very high price. Many hon. Members on the Government side would rush to buy it.
§ Mr. Macfarlane
I was most impressed with the article by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley). Perhaps the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) would care to quote further from it.
§ Mr. George
I have read the entire article, but I would not wish to detain 1733 the House by commenting on it in great detail.
There is always in these debates a great deal of talk about the Soviet buildup of forces, but I think that we should resort to rather more detailed analysis before making what are often rather hysterical outbursts.
In my contribution in the previous defence debate in April, I referred to a number of reputable sources which indicated that although the Soviet build-up was not inconsiderable, the so-called imbalance between NATO and the Warsaw Pact was not as grotesque as some people seek to maintain.
I quoted the defence correspondent of the Economist, and James Schlesinger, the American Secretary for Defence. I also mentioned the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which indicated that there was a Soviet build-up, but that, although there was great need for vigilance, there was no need to resort to wholesale increases in defence expenditure in these very difficult times. I earlier pointed out and wish to reiterate that there is no need to be panicked into a vast increase in expenditure on armaments because, as many people have maintained quite sensibly, our defences are adequate to meet the need. This does not mean that we should become complacent in the future, because I believe that the balance may be tilting against us.
§ Mr. Kershaw
Unless my ears deceived me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the hon. Gentleman referred to a "Scottish" build-up. Did he mean a Russian build-up, by any chance?
§ Mr. George
Did I say "Scottish"? I was not aware of doing so.
I should like to comment on a recent publication, the International Institute of Strategic Studies' "Strategic Survey 1975", published last month, in which it is stated that clearly the Warsaw Pacthas superiority according to some measures, NATO by others.The publication goes on to say:Overall, the balance is considered such as to make military aggression unattractive; the consequences for an attacker would be incalculable, and the risks, including that of nuclear escalation, must impose caution.1734 It goes on to say that we should not be too complacent but that nevertheless there is some potential danger. I am certain that the Government, from what they have said, are very aware of this.
On spending the article saysAt the moment NATO actually seems to provide more financial and manpower resources than the Pact.A table shows that the combined expenditure of the NATO alliance was $149.87 billion in 1975 while that of the Warsaw Pact was $111.37 billion. Perhaps that puts comparative spending on defence in a better perspective. It also shows that the manpower of NATO is superior to that of the Warsaw Pact. It is facile to contrast static data. One must look at it a different way to gauge the relative strengths of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. There is real concern about this matter. Some Opposition Members do our defence a disservice by pointing to the weaknesses which are more imaginary than real.
I want to add my comments to those already made on the build-up of the Soviet air force. Many Opposition Members concentrate on the build-up of the mass armour of the Warsaw Pact countries and on the build-up of the Soviet navy. But few hon. Members opposite, or indeed reputable sources, or indeed NATO, comment sufficiently on the qualitative and quantitative build-up of Warsaw Pact air power. An article in the International Defence Review in February 1976 says critically that in the West we appear to have ignored the buildup of Soviet manpower. In that article P. Borgart points out that there has been an increase in Soviet forces but he spends most of the article looking at the qualitative development in respect of engines, avionics, construction techniques, armaments and infrastructure, and says that we may have been too complacent in the 1960s when looking at the power of the Soviet air force. Whilst we have been complacent the Soviet air force has been quietly building up and the closure of the technological club must be cause for concern amongst politicians and military men.
§ Mr. Victor Goodhew (St. Albans)
Does the hon. Member agree that 1735 the Conservative Government in building the TSR2 were not being complacent but that perhaps the Socialist Government who cancelled it in the 1960s were?
§ Mr. George
I am sure that the arguments about that were more sophisticated, but they are now ancient. At the time I felt that the decision was correct. I repeat, a number of warnings have been given of a massive build-up of combat aircraft within the Warsaw Pact and in addition the Soviet air force is improving considerably on a qualitative level. However, one must not be too paranoid about the Soviets.
In presenting the annual Defense Department report to Congress, Donald Roumsfeld said:There are, of course, areas in which Pact tactical aviation has made no significant improvement in recent years. Moreover, in practically every specific aspect of tactical aviation technology, Pact capabilities remain deficient relative to their United States or NATO counterparts, even though they represent substantial improvements over Pact capabilities existing as recently as the late 1960s.When one is looking at the build-up of Soviet forces one needs to diversify and look also at the build-up of Soviet aircraft but one must bear in mind what is happening in the United States, Britain and other NATO countries and what they have been spending over the last ten years. I recognise that the primary rôle of the air force is defence and deterrence, but I seek the Minister's comments on three other issues—energy conservation, humanitarian assistance in disaster relief, and environmental considerations.
The RAF has to conserve energy like the rest of us, but could the Minister say what measures have been taken to achieve conservation and cost reduction? I understand that a number of promising measures have been introduced. What percentage increase in purchases of petroleum products has there been between 1973 and the present day? What is the proposed decrease for 1976. Of the high fuel consuming aircraft, how many have been replaced and what is the estimated cost avoidance? Has there been a reduction in flying hours and what effect has that had on conserving energy?
In America there has been a significant increase in the use of flight simula- 1736 tors. Are we using them more? They are expensive in terms of outlay, but highly valuable and cost effective. In a statement to the Senate, Mr. J. C. McLucas, the Secretary of the Air Force, said:Obviously, all flight training cannot be accomplished through simulation, but our investment in this area should pay extensive dividends in terms of energy conservation and cost avoidance. The resultant annual savings would build to 300,000 flying hours, 9.5 million barrels of fuel and $270 million by the middle of the next decade.To what extent have we purchased flight simulators? What effect are they having on the efficiency of air force training? Can their use be expanded in this country?
I now turn to the rôle of the RAF in assisting in disaster relief. The RAF accepts its responsibility to assist those who suffer in foreign countries as a result of disasters, such as earthquakes or floods, and one must compliment our forces in that respect. We are all familiar with the attempts of other countries, too, to airlift food, medicines and other supplies to disaster areas. We all remember the Iran earthquake of 1968, the Pakistan floods of 1973 and the Sahel drought, to name but a very few. There are many examples of military forces being used but much more could be done by the RAF.
What attempts have been made by NATO to see if there is a rôle for it to play? I know that it might be politically sensitive for NATO to be directly involved in some areas of the world. The hon. Member for Aldershot has written an article in The Times on this, I understand.
§ Mr. Critchley
I put down an Early-Day Motion about three weeks ago in favour of setting up a NATO disaster relief force. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to sign it.
§ Mr. George
I have not yet signed the motion on child benefits but that does not imply that I do not approve of it. I shall look at the hon. Gentleman's motion.
Much more could be done by NATO. It is one problem to raise the money and get the supplies and the relief to the country that needs them. But it is another to organise the distribution of the aid 1737 once it arrives in the country, because transport is often not available. The problems of the administration of relief are being examined in some universities, I believe, but the RAF and NATO could play a more significant rôle in assisting countries in that way. We are talking about a situation which, if not attended to within a matter of hours or perhaps a day after a disaster, could result in incalculable damage and even death to those who are affected. The problems of transportation are great and unless they are solved all the other effort involved is superfluous. I urge the Minister to consider what further action could be taken by the RAF and NATO.
I move on to a matter which may be considered as mundane by some but which is nevertheless significant. I refer to the pay award to members of the Armed Forces. The Fifth Report of the Review Body on Armed Forces pay, published in May, says of course that members of the Armed Forces are subject to the Government's pay policy, just as any sector of industry is. But I am somewhat concerned that the increases in accommodation and food charges have destroyed much of any value of the increase. Figures on page 9 of the report show that a corporal who had a £6 addition received a net amount of £3.90 after deduction of tax at the appropriate rate. The increase in total food and accommodation charges for single Service men and women was £1.61, so they do not see much of the pay rise. That must have an effect on morale, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister proposes to do about it.
The Government should not be ashamed of what they have done in defence planning. Opposition Members must realise that there is great pressure In the country for improvements of vital services such as housing, hospitals and the social services. The Government must achieve a balance and compromise. If they spend too much on defence, scarce resources will be denied to vital services. If they spend too little on defence, the costs could be incalculable to our national security.
I believe that the Government have got the balance just about right. I feel strongly—and I may not be alone in my party—that we have obligations to society as a whole and to our allies. Any signi- 1738 ficant decrease in defence expenditure would cause incalculable harm to the alliance. I very much hope that no Government that I support would contemplate that.
§ 6.32 p.m.
§ Mrs. Winifred Ewing (Moray and Nairn)
I should like to add my congratulations and those of my party to the Under-Secretary of State on his appointment. I hope that he has a happy period in his new office.
The House may know that I have two RAF bases in my constituency. There are about 4,000 men at them, though the number varies considerably from time to time. Like the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), I make visits to the bases, and I recently had the pleasure of flying in a Nimrod over the North Sea oil rigs, which I found very interesting. I also spent some hours in a simulator, which was also a very interesting experience.
Before I take up some of the challenges thrown at me, I should like to say something about welfare matters. I have been conducting a campaign to try to put across an idea concerning the rights of Service men to local authority housing. Hon. Members have made excellent suggestions about the difficulties of house purchase, with which I am extremely familiar in my constituency. The Service man often reaches the end of his Service career in my constituency. so I am deluged at surgeries with people faced with such problems. I do not want to rehearse the suggestions about house purchase. I agree with them. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether he can go some way to taking up some of them.
I had an Adjournment debate on the subject of local authority housing for ex-Service men, when my suggestions were received sympathetically by the then Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy. In a nutshell, my proposal was that on beginning a period of service if married, or on marriage, a member of the Armed Forces should be entitled to put his name on one local authority list of his choice. That would not advantage him over other citizens. I am asking that Service men should not be disadvantaged, because an ordinary citizen is able to do that. After all, 1739 Service men give up a great deal of their lives in the service of their country, and they should not be disadvantaged.
Under my proposal, the load would be spread over all our towns and cities. At present, there is a natural desire by Service men to stay where they are, particularly in as beautiful a constituency as I have. Many people have put down roots at the end of their service. They often have children at the local school, and they have established friendships.
The main problem is housing for those who cannot afford to buy, perhaps because of the disruptions about which we have heard. My proposal would give a boost to morale throughout their career and a feeling of security. No doubt many people would opt for the town in which they were brought up, but areas in which there are bases will always have a considerable burden. My local authorities try hard to give a fair quota to the men in question, but it can never be enough, and it causes problems with local people who are also waiting for housing.
In my Adjournment debate I was promised that a circular would be sent to local authorities on the matter. Was that circular ever sent? If not, will consideration be given to the sending of such a circular, explaining the proposal in detail? I shall not go into the detail now, because I do not want to rehearse my previous speech.
I agree with the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) that another burning issue is the pay increase. The charge for accommodation affected my Service constituents in such a way that they had virtually no benefit. That does not help morale.
I pay tribute to what the Services do in my constituency in the way of rescue operations. There is an extensive mountain rescue service, which saves many lives in a year in the adverse conditions which we often find in our Scottish mountains. In a recent accident, when a pilot had to bale out he was in the North Sea for only about three minutes, so efficient was the rescue operation.
We have a low-flying area on the Moray coast. It is suitable for low flying for various reasons—its desirable climate 1740 and so on. I live in Lossiemouth. The people there do not complain to me about low flying. The only complaints I have had about it have been when there has been damage—for example, to piglets—when the RAF paid compensation. People are used to the low flying and do not seem particularly to mind it. If there is likely to be a great deal of it, the RAF makes local announcements, and that seems to be enough. Low flying does not seem to me to present a problem, at any rate not in my constituency.
I should now like to take up some of the challenges which the hon. Member for West Lothian threw in the direction of my party's Bench. He appears to find it genuinely puzzling that Scotland could ever aspire to have its own Forces. That was answered by his hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley), who pointed out that many small States, some of them very small, had achieved independence in our lifetimes. In fact, if one drew a line halfway down a list of members of the United Nations in order of size or population Scotland would be above the line: it would be one of the big ones.
Scotland, with an area of 30,000 square miles, has a population of 5,227,000. Let me take some other countries at random: Belgium, 11,780 square miles, and a population of 9 million; Austria, about the same area, and a population of 7,500,000; Denmark, about half the area, and a population under 5 million. Next we come to Norway, with a large area stretching right up to the Arctic Circle, about four times the land mass of Scotland, but with a population of just under 4 million.
Norway also has oil rigs. No one suggests that there is anything strange or impossible about her having her own armed forces. Norway is a valued member of NATO. A glance at the map will disclose that Norway has a strategically important geographical situation, as has Scotland.
Scotland is of enormous strategic importance. It guards an important submarine gap between Greenland and the Faroes. If there were ever a move—of which my party is not in favour—for an independent Scotland to be neutral, that would present the most enormous problems.
1741 The position of the Scottish National Party has never changed. We want our own Forces in accordance with our needs, which will not be dissimilar from those of Norway. We want to be members of NATO and play our part in that Alliance. We do not envisage a neutral rôle for Scotland. That is not the policy of my party—and never has been.
It is interesting to note that Norway's strategic position is so important that Norway is a member of NATO, but without a nuclear commitment. That is the policy of my party. We are against nuclear weapons on moral grounds. Perhaps the time will come when more countries will take that stand. Norway has taken it. Canada is in the throes of taking it. No one ridicules those countries. That is Scotland's position. We wish to contribute in every way to alliances that are sensible and reasonable and around us and which contribute to the kind of idea mentioned by the hon. Member for Walsall, South, when military operations help in disaster areas.
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
The United Kingdom maintains Armed Forces on the basis of volunteers. Norway and some of the other nations mentioned by the hon. Lady maintain a military capability by conscription. I wonder whether she will indicate whether it is the policy of the Scottish National Party to introduce conscription so that the Scottish Forces may be as viable as those of the small nations to which she referred.
§ Mrs. Ewing
Not all small nations have conscription. The Minister anticipates my remarks: I am delighted to answer, for it is a fair question. We are opposed to conscription. Scotland has never made a negligible contribution to the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom. We have contributed many men, in battle and out of it, to the Armed Forces, out of all proportion to our size. The reason for that, for hundreds of years, has been the lack of employment in our country. Let us not enter that avenue.
If the Minister thinks that enough of the population of Scotland would not be delighted to serve in the Armed Forces of Scotland, he does the people of Scotland a great injustice. I do not think that the Scottish people who read the reports of this debate in Hansard will be impressed if the Minister is trying to ridicule us.
1742 We do not want conscription in any shape or form. We have discussed this matter as a party. That is fixed party policy. We are totally opposed to conscription. We do not think that it will prove to be in the least necessary in Scotland.
The hon. Member for West Lothian spent most of his speech dealing with matters concerning the SNP. I was intrigued by his choice of song. However, there is another song that he might have sung if he had thought about the matter carefully:Sic a parcel of rogues in a nation".It is strange to me that the hon. Gentleman should worry about a song. A song is only as good as the people who sing it. If a song goes round a country, it does so because the people like it. Although it is often said that the Scottish National Party wishes to break up the United Kingdom, this is our policy: Commonwealth status, loyalty to the Crown. That has been the fixed policy of the SNP since 1966.
We are not breaking up the United Kingdom. We want a sovereign Parliament to secure social and economic justice for Scotland. With that goes all the responsibility. We are not only after the rights. We want responsibilities. We want the responsibility of playing our part in the alliances that are obviously sensible for the North Atlantic. We want the responsibility of helping with the kind of idea to be discussed by the EEC this week. I hope that may lead to a good plan. It has the support of all the parties in the EEC. We want the assets, the rights, the liabilities and the responsibilities.
As the hon. Member for West Lothian is so worried that we shall gain our independence, I remind him that Bernard Shaw said:Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.Of course, responsibility may exist in a changed situation. It is an exciting situation. According to the polls, the young people of Scotland cast the majority of their votes for the SNP. They are not afraid of responsibility, change, or of facing up to the negotiations that will undoubtedly be necessary.
1743 But if we are told that an independent Scotland must take its share of the national debt—Scotland did not have one in 1707—that is reasonable. But we must have a share of the gold in the Bank of England, if any is left. We must also presumably take our share of the rolling stock. The oldest of the railway rolling stock is in Scotland. We must have our share of the matters to which our taxpayers contributed under the heading of the Armed Forces. The young of Scotland do not find anything difficult in those ideas.
At one time the majority of Scottish Members of Parliament favoured an excellent Bill. I understand that the draftsman was that excellent Secretary of State, John Thompson. His Bill would have ensured that the Parliament in Scotland had total financial powers, together with common arrangements for defence and foreign affairs. Those matters were to be subject to the right of veto.
That Bill enjoyed the support of the majority of the Scottish Members of the Labour Party. Many men gave their lives to that party believing the party promises to implement a Bill of that kind, or one similar—my father included. What happened? When my late brother-in-law was the official Labour Party candidate, he had that type of pledge on his election address until 1957.
If the Government wonder why the Scottish National Party is making inroads in the industrial West, they should ask themselves whether this is happening as a result of their fear to face up to the excitement of a dynamic Scotland—which would be a good example and of great assistance to the flagging spirits of England. We often have a bad relationship with England. We trot out grievances. I know that that annoys hon. Members. But many grievances must be aired. We are here to do that.
However, instead of a surly lodger, the United Kingdom may have an excellent neighbour and an extra vote in the United Nations, which would reassure those who are worried about the Russian domination of many African countries and the voting blocs at United Nations. The United Kingdom might benefit from several votes in a bloc from these islands in the interests of Western democracy.
1744 None of those ideas terrifies or frightens the people of Scotland. If they frighten Members of Parliament, this is the reason. For years we have asked whether we could put our views over on television, in the same way as the Liberal Party, the Communist Party and other political parties do. Until this year we were refused the right to use the media. The people of England are taken by surprise to find that, lo and behold, the Scottish National Party is on the verge of winning 39 seats at the next General Election. If the English are taken by surprise, it is not our fault.
§ Mr. Critchley
The hon. Lady left out the strongest argument for an independent Scotland. If Scotland became independent there would always be a Conservative Government in England.
§ Mrs. Ewing
I remember that the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) said that if Scotland became independent, he would live in England.
We have seriously tried to draft a detailed defence budget. It is not easy, because one cannot get enough information, because of the Official Secrets Act, about our own defence budget. Therefore, any attempt that we make cannot be as accurate as we would wish.
What we can do is consider the number of squadrons that a country like Norway has, work out the land mass of Scotland, and see what the needs are. We have tried to do this and my party has produced a paper on the subject. It is an ideas paper, not party policy. We intended to air this on Saturday at our council meeting when this debate was scheduled for next Monday. Through no fault of ours, the debate has been advanced. So I do not offer this as party policy but at least the paper shows the way in which we are thinking.
The paper is called "A Defence Budget and an Independent Scotland". I will put it in the Library and send copies to the Minister and to the hon. Member for West Lothian. With so few hon. Members wanting to take part in this debate, perhaps it would be a good idea if I read it out, but that would take some time.
The paper highlights Scotland's strategic position. This is known to people from the EEC countries. They take seriously 1745 the possible result of the next election as it affects Scotland. I talk to them, and I know that the Germans, the Dutch, the Luxembourgers, the French, the Italians and the Danes take the matter very seriously.
These people are already talking in terms of Scotland, if it wishes to stay in the EEC, having parity with Denmark. They see nothing ridiculous in that. The very fact that many hon. Members embraced the European concept as fiercely as they did makes a nonsense of thinking that there is anything illogical about an independent Scotland, loyal to the Crown, within the commonwealth of nations.
The fact that oil was found at the bottom of our garden does not particularly concern me. I have been a member of the Scottish National Party since 1946. I stood for Parliament in 1967 and oil was not being discussed then. The coming of oil only leads one to say, "All this and Heaven too." It has arrived in our bit of the North Sea, according to international law.
§ Mrs. Ewing
That is a bogy man, particularly since we shall win that seat at the next election. We have said that Shetland will have as much autonomy as she wants. We have so much oil in that part of the North Sea that it does not matter.
§ Mr. Kenneth Lewis
The hon. Lady says that the Shetlanders can have as much autonomy as they want. Does she accept, then, that they will also be able to have their own air force, army and navy? If the oil belongs to Shetland, they will probably be better able to afford those forces than Scotland will.
§ Mrs. Ewing
There is that. It would be up to Shetland entirely, but that is the policy of my party. [Laughter.] Hon. Members who sit and laugh do not know what they are laughing at. Are they laughing at small countries? Are they laughing at the Isle of Man or at Guernsey? Hon. Members should be careful not to laugh at what a large proportion of the Scottish electorate want.
1746 The defeat in the Iceland settlement was a perfect example of what happens when a London Government with no imagination try to say "No" to the rights of small nations. I should have thought that that was a sobering reflection for them—that little Iceland, with its vital interests at stake, could achieve protection for its fishing communities which this House will not allow us to achieve.
That brings me to the subject of fishery protection. The House seems to find it amusing to think of a Scottish army, navy and air force. But what defence have we at the moment for our fishing industry? As an MP for a fishing area, I know that if there is one phrase which arouses fisherman to wrath it is "fishery protection". Rude oaths follow if one says those words to fishermen. The phrase "fishery scientist" is the only other one which seems to cause the same reaction.
The fishery protection vessels are not there when they are needed. Armadas are invading our waters from Russia, Poland and Bulgaria. They are taking the lot from the bottom—they are not conservationists—and we are losing a valuable source of protein.
§ Mr. Hooley
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I understood that the House was debating the RAF. I am finding it difficult to follow the relevance of the hon. Lady's argument.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)
Order. In an Adjournment debate it is possible and permissible to go fairly wide, so long as one confines oneself to the Services in general.
§ Mrs. Ewing
I do not find it odd to think that the RAF has a rôle to play in fishery protection. In a recent trip to a fishing base in my constituency, I noticed some of these armadas. While the RAF is doing its job, fishery protection could be combined with it. So my remarks are distinctly relevant; I am not straying from the subject of the debate. Obviously there is a rôle for ships in fishery protection and I do not say that the RAF would usurp that rôle. In fact, we need far more. The present vessels are never there when they are wanted. The RAF has a rôle to play.
1747 Students of politics will take note of the fairness of the hon. Member for West Lothian in saying that there is a distinct possibility of my party winning a mandate for independence at the next election. I was gratified by his agreement that such a mandate would be 36 seats. Negotiations would then happen and they would happen quickly. There would be a queue of applicants. As someone who represents over 4,000 members of the RAF, I know how many have said that they would opt to stay in Scotland because, having come from England, they have learned to love it.
I must refute one other statement by the hon. Member for West Lothian, who I am glad to see has returned. He accused us of being anti-English. I would counsel him to take care. The people of Scotland will not like to hear that he has said that. It is not true.
§ Mrs. Ewing
To be pro-Scotland is not to be anti-England. To believe in the aspirations of one's own people to run their own affairs is not to be anti-anything: it is to be pro-something.
I am also proud of Scotland's racial record. I have no racial attitudes at all towards any person. Scotland has a proud history. We have absorbed thousands of Irish people. We are the only Western country which did not persecute the Jews. We took in members of the Polish army, waves of Italians and Flemings and waves of English people. The English people who chose to come and settle down in lovely places like Morayshire are voting for the Scottish National Party.
§ The Under Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Harry Ewing)
Would the hon. Lady—
§ 7 p.m.
§ Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)
This debate is supposed to be about the Royal Air Force, but since you have ruled, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this is 1748 a fairly wide-ranging debate, perhaps I may recall to the House an incident that occurred in Scotland a week last Monday when two people were arrested outside the French consulate in Edinburgh in possession of explosives or arms, one of whom, I gather, was a very prominent official in the SNP.
§ Mrs. Ewing
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I believe the hon. Member is once again out of order, for if there is such a matter, obviously it is sub judice.
§ Mr. George Reid (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)
I find that difficult to understand, because undoubtedly those involved have been twice remanded in court in Edinburgh, and I hope the House will accept my word for that. It would be unfortunate if the House were to get into a delicate point in the case at this time.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
In view of what the hon. Gentleman has just said, if there is in fact some charge laid against certain persons, obviously it would be well if the matter were not pursued.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I am just pointing out that one was an official in the party of the hon. Gentleman who rose on that second point of order. I leave it at that. But it is no good the Scottish nationalists saying at one and the same time that they seek to live peaceably with English and other people when they are inciting that kind of activity. I leave it at that and we shall let the courts judge this matter in due course.
I would ask the hon. Lady—though I am not inviting her to interrupt, because I shall refuse to give way if she gets up—a question about the problem of Service men and housing. I pose the proposition that most of the RAF people in her constituency, I guess, are English people. Will they be allowed to go on 1749 the lists of Scottish local housing authorities? It would be very interesting if we could get an acceptance of the principle that Englishmen, Irishmen and Welshmen now serving in the RAF in Moray and Nairn will be allowed to go on the housing list in Moray and Nairn if they choose to live there.
I presume the hon. Lady would accept that in relation to the other welfare problems, and on the relationship between the pay and lodging allowances of Service men—whether it be in the RAF or any other branch of the Services—this was the principle agreed several years ago. The same grievance arises with nurses. It is not unique to the Armed Forces and if they have a grievance, it is one which has been accepted for several years. I do not know whether official representations have been made to the Department about this but certainly other individual Members may have done so. I have done so myself. The problem is not unique to the Forces.
Perhaps I may make a passing reference to what was said by my hon Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), who had an outside engagement which he had to attend. He has now returned. Nobody could accuse him of absenting himself from a debate in which he takes part. I would say to him and other hon. Members that the policy of the SNP ought to be spelled out and publicised. Perhaps the Government might help by providing White Paper facilities for that party. Alternatively, the Government themselves might produce a White Paper on the implications of separate Scottish forces. I believe that the Scottish taxpayer should know exactly what is involved.
I give the House just one or two examples. A few weeks ago there was a leak in The Scotsman about the official defence policy of the SNP. For instance, Rosyth Dockyard, which happens to be in my constituency and employs about 6,000 people, will have its strength reduced, according to the document, from 6,000 to 1,500. The dockyard is the biggest employer in the whole of that part of Fife and its labour force is to be reduced by 75 per cent. under the SNP policy. Moreover, the main function of the yard is the servicing of the nuclear submarines which are part of the NATO nuclear defence.
1750 The SNP says two things which are mutually contradictory—that Scotland will remain members of NATO but that it deplores—and the noble Lady has called it morally indefensible—relying on nuclear weapons. So the nuclear element will be removed from Rosyth.
§ Mr. Hamilton
No. The hon. Gentleman must read more carefully what we said—if he can read at all. We never said we would unilaterally withdraw facilities. We said we would seek agreement with the Warsaw Pact to reduce our NATO commitment.
But it is no responsible moral posture to say one is against the nuclear deterrent and at the same time seek to hide under the nuclear umbrella of NATO. It is no strong moral posture to say "We are against nuclear weapons if they are under our control but as long as they are under NATO financing and provided by the United States of America, we shall accept their protection". This seems to me a highly immoral posture.
§ Mr. Stewart
I was not for one moment implying that the Government were to remove the nuclear bases on moral grounds, but was suggesting that they would get to them before we did on a future cut in expenditure which may not be so far off.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. The actual expenditure on the nuclear element of our defence forces is very marginal, only a very tiny fraction of the total defence expenditure. If the hon. Gentleman were to take a casual glance at the figures, they would tell him that.
When the hon. Lady talks of the massive Scottish contribution to the United Kingdom defence forces, she is right, of course. The Black Watch made a great contribution in the last war. My own brother was a member of the Black Watch. He happened to be an Englishman; and I suspect many of the Black Watch and all the regiments in Scotland are predominantly English and Welsh 1751 people. So it is a nonsense to talk in purely nationalistic terms about who makes what contribution in what war at what particular time.
Ian Smith uses the same argument of Rhodesia. The white people in Rhodesia say "We made a great contribution to the Western defence forces in the last war". The great Rhodesian contribution was mostly a black Rhodesian contribution rather than a white one. But one does not want to get into that kind of racial argument into which the hon. Lady was leading us, into which her party is leading us and on which her hon. Friend the Member for the Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) decidedly led the SNP conference last week. It is quite clear they wanted a completely independent, separate and different relationship from that which now exists within the United Kingdom.
The figures that were leaked to The Scotsman indicated that under the SNP plans—and I do not know how the nationalists came to arrive at these figures —they were to have an army, which would cost £140 million—not £150 million or £130 million. I do not know where that figure came from. There was to be a tank force in Germany out of this and there was to be a navy with a budget of £77 million precisely—not £76 million or £78 million. There was to be an air force at cost of £130 million which would guard the Scottish-controlled North Sea installations.
I want to ask my hon. Friend: what kind of air force would one get for £130 million? It is not going to be enough to provide fisheries protection and protection for North Sea oil. Presumably, there will be a Scottish—a tartan—contingent in Europe as well to be found out of the £130 million. Supposing Shetland decided that it wanted independence and would take control of the oil and have its own air force, do Ministers think it feasible that the Shetland air force could protect the oil against the air force operating from Edinburgh? This is a serious proposition. These are possible alternatives which might develop if the SNP gets its way.
§ Mr. Dalyell
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Shetlanders have made absolutely clear that they do not want to go 1752 independent, but want to retain their relationship with London and Westminster and have nothing to do with Edinburgh?
§ Mr. Hamilton
We have said enough to demonstrate the nonsense of these arguments and remote possibilities.
After their mauling yesterday, the Opposition seem to have gone into purdah today. They chose the subject of this debate and there have never been more than half-a-dozen of them here at any time, though I concede that the quality has made up for the quantity. Seldom can the predominantly Tory Press have been so harshly critical of a Tory performance as they were today about yesterday's pathetic pantomime from the Leader of the Opposition.
The right hon. Lady popped into this debate for two or three minutes, probably to see whether it was still going on. She has the impossible task of trying to satisfy the Tory skinheads in the shires and suburbs by making terrifying noises about the Marxist State which is alleged to be just around the corner. When I look at my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and his predecessor, I do not think there is much danger of a Marxist State being established while they are around.
§ Mr. Goodhew
This is a defence debate, though one would not think so from the Scottish side-show now taking place. The hon. Gentleman knows that my right hon. Friend was well received by the Armed Forces when she spoke about the Russian threat. I hope the hon. Gentleman will talk about that and what is required to match it.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I am about to come to that. The hon. Gentleman has anticipated me by a few seconds.
In addition to trying to placate the people in the shires and suburbs, the Leader of the Opposition must also convince uncommitted voters that she and her party have credible alternative military and civil policies to those being pursued by the Government—not least in defence. It was noticeable that in the right hon. Lady's pathetic speech yesterday, which had such a drumming in almost every newspaper this morning, she did not say a word about defence 1753 expenditure. She said we had to cut extensively and immediately everywhere except in defence. She was the darling of the defence forces wherever she went. It is easy to become the darling of the defence forces if one promises them everything they want.
Many years ago I visited our forces in Singapore at a time when my party was on the point of saying that we were to withdraw from that area. My colleagues and I were nearly thrown overboard by the naval establishment in Singapore because we were saying "You are getting out, my boys. We have no rôle here. We cannot afford it." They thought we were public enemies number one.
The Leader of the Opposition has not made noises like that. What made her the darling of the forces? Did she promise them increased expenditure? If so, how much and in what directions? We have not yet heard a single word from the Opposition about how much more cash they would spend on the RAF or how much less would be spent on housing, health and education—which is what this exercise is all about.
The article by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) in the NATO Review has already been quoted. It seems to have been popular reading. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is a genuine supporter of his leader or only a nominal supporter, but talking about her in this article, he said:Having said publicly that the first duty of Government is national security, and that she would 'strengthen' Britain's defences, she had to carry the Shadow Cabinet with her at a time when the growth of public expenditure is threatening not only to drive the country to insolvency but to stifle our liberties as well.This needs to be spelt out in detail. It is no good generalising on these matters.
§ Mr. Critchley
I should like to think that the hon. Gentleman has read the whole of my article, but I suspect he has read only the opening paragraphs, which have already been quoted. Were he to read the whole article, he would see laid out various ideas and suggestions which I believe a Conservative Government should follow.
§ Mr. Hamilton
It is boring enough to have read the article once. I do not want 1754 to bore the House by reading it again. I have read the whole article. It lays out in fairly general terms the relationship between defence policy and foreign policy and says what a complete washout Tory leaders have been on these subjects over the years.
I would read out the article, but it would be very damaging to the hon. Gentleman's promotion prospects and I want to protect him as much as I can. However, I can think of little worse than being promoted to the Front Bench opposite, so the hon. Gentleman had better be careful. Just let him keep writing these articles. That will keep him safe from promotion to the Front Bench.
There are some general propositions which will meet with the approval of the House. One of the reasons for the lack of interest in this debate is that very few of us have the knowledge and authority to make contributions of any great value which are likely to influence the decision makers. In fact, Ministers are spokesmen for others. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for State read a brief, and probably he did not understand it. It was probably written for him by someone else. Those people are elsewhere, and we are in no position to challenge them on, for example, technical or financial grounds. As Back-Bench Members we can do little more than philosophise and generalise.
In recent years I have noticed that the Ministry of Defence has sought to influence us by a mixture of glossy propaganda pamphlets—they come through the post and are delightful material—and terrifying allegations about the Soviet Union's capacity. That capacity was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George).
§ Mr. Dalyell
Perhaps my hon. Friend will allow me to say that on this occasion he is chasing the wrong bird to shoot at. To my knowledge my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved), the Under-Secretary of State, has been a hard-working member of the defence group for 10 years. It is good that someone who has worked in a special group should be promoted.
§ Mr. Hamilton
The Under-Secretary of State is a great friend of mine, but he was promoted primarily because he was campaign manager for the Prime 1755 Minister, not for his record in the defence group. Any one who believes what my hon. Friend has just said would believe anything.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I think my hon. Friend knows that. It was evident from his speech that that was so.
I revert to what I was saying, and I refer to the document which I received from the Ministry dated 11th May 1976, the NATO Bulletin for commanders and public information officers. I am neither a commander nor a public information officer, but it came to me. It provides a summary of Soviet military production of all kinds and makes terrifying reading.
A totalitarian Government can always get away with far more military expenditure than a democratic State. In this country one of the most unpopular things to advocate is expenditure on any form of defence, but in the Soviet Union, or in any other totalitarian State, the State can impose its will.
Such States do not have this sort of debate. They would not tolerate the activities of my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) and his pacificism, which we all respect. My hon. Friend would be put in a salt mine or in some other such place in the Soviet Union. However, we tolerate that sort of debate, and that attitude imposes limits on what a democratic government can do and what they can get away with.
I was talking on those lines to some responsible NATO officials in Brussels a few weeks ago. They said precisely what my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South said this afternoon—namely that the West knows very well that the Soviet Union is building up its forces.
When the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition made her statements about the Soviet Union a few months ago she was saying nothing novel. We all know what is going on. Our dilemma is not to contract out but to try to the best of our ability to meet the threat that is clearly posed by the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. We cannot contract out.
It is all an argument of how much the United Kingdom can afford and in which directions it can afford it. I be- 1756 lieve it would be immoral for us to make no contribution to the NATO effort. I think we are all agreed on that. The argument between the two sides in the House is the size of the contribution and how it is directed towards our naval forces, air forces and ground forces.
I am in no position to judge whether the Government's decisions on these matters are right or wrong. All I say is that the British people are confused and angry when they see their local hospital, school or road being allowed to go into decay and decline when £4,000 million or £5,000 million a year is going into defence expenditure. It is extremely difficult to persuade them that that is the right priority, but that is not to say that we as politicians should not attempt the exercise and should not try to convince them that we must pay our insurance policy.
That is what it is. It may mean doing without some other things. The family that takes out a family insurance policy very often does without immediate benefits for the sake of future contingencies. That is what we are talking about in this debate.
I speak as no expert. I started my Service career in the RAF and ended up in the Army, and was no good to either Service.
§ Mr. Hamilton
No, that is a realistic assessment of my military career. I believe it behoves any Government, whether it be Labour, Conservative, or whatever, to look to our defences within the context of collective defence within NATO and to try to educate our people into the need for keeping our guard, always accepting that totalitarian regimes can outbid us and outspend us. What we cannot made up for in expenditure we must make up for in quality. We have to do the best we can in the context in which we are living, and hope to God that the peace will be safeguarded if only by a mutual fear of the nuclear deterrent.
§ 7.28 p.m.
§ Miss Janet Fookes (Plymouth, Drake)
I do not wish to pursue the line whether it would be a good or bad thing to have a totally Scottish RAF and other totally 1757 Scottish Armed Services. As I understand it, if there is a weakness in NATO it is the attempt to make various sovereign States work together. I cannot see that the Alliance would be strengthened by having yet another independent State included, especially one which has set aside as immoral and not to be touched any aspect of nuclear deterrence. Apart from the Scottish nationalists, the only people who would have any joy out of that would be our potential enemy—namely, the Soviet Union.
I turn to the RAF, which is supposedly the subject of our debate. I thank the Minister for arranging visits to two RAF stations in which several colleagues and myself took part. We visited RAF Marham and RAF Coningsby. There is tremendous value in arranging such visits, as they give the opportunity of first-hand information from the professionals and a chance to see some of the planes and equipment about which we are talking.
It always saddens me on such occasions to note that the Conservatives always vastly outnumber Government supporters. Rarely does one see Left wingers, for example, the very people one would like to see take part in these visits and see things for themselves. They are the people who stay away. It is rather like headmasters and schoolteachers who say that the very parents they most want to see are those who never turn up at parent-teacher association meetings, open days or any other invitations. We must ask why certain Members are so coy about seeing these things face to face.
I think it was the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) who is no longer in the Chamber, who inquired whether we could not make more use of simulators. If the hon. Gentleman had been on any of these visits he would know that they are very much in use. For example, RAF Marham has two simulators for the Victors and Coningsby has a simulator for the Phantom. So I could go on. We have made great strides in this direction. It is something of which we should be proud, but he, apparently, knows nothing whatever about it.
Let me turn to the question of cuts and future cuts. We had assurances in the past when we had our big defence review—the review to end all reviews—that this was it and that we were now 1758 geared to our requirements. Scarcely was the ink dry on the paper before we were getting further cuts, and cuts beyond that. Therefore, Opposition Members are entitled to express their fears about future cuts. I wish that I could believe the headline in Labour Weekly—which I could just manage to see by peering over someone's shoulder—Why further cuts cannot be made".Let us hope that for once the Secretary of State is right, that they cannot be made, but past experience is not a happy omen. The professionals at RAF stations and elsewhere are extremely worried and say categorically that they have trimmed off every bit of fat and that there is no further fat left to trim. I trust that there will no longer be a temptation to make further cuts, whether in the support services or elsewhere.
Perhaps I may say one word about the support services. They are extremely important, especially in keeping aircraft in a condition to fly. On my recent visit it was pointed out that to keep one Phantom or any advanced aircraft flying for one hour represented 45 hours of work and maintenance on the ground. That is alarming. If there is a temptation to cut further, the likelihood is that our aircraft will not be operational in the way that they should be. It is no good our counting up the number of planes we have for different purposes and saying that is sufficient if, in fact, they are on the ground and cannot be got airborne or cannot be got airborne without risk.
I make no pretensions to any expertise in this matter, and on that I agree with the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton), although I may differ from him on many other matters. It is difficult when one does not have any expertise, and there can be very few hon. Members who have it. We have to accept the observations which are made to us by the professionals and experts. When they say that these aircraft, being so highly powered, are more difficult to keep flying safely than are civil aircraft, which are not under the same strain as military aircraft at the peak of their performance, we have to accept it.
May I turn to what may appear to be rather more mundane matters but which I believe are of importance? For 1759 obvious reasons I shall touch only lightly on this, but there is cause to look again at the security of RAF stations, not from enemies without but from enemies here in England who might seek to penetrate them. We have on our RAF bases tremendously expensive equipment and planes, and I hope that the Minister will look very carefully at the arrangements that are made to guard them from sabotage by the IRA or any other group that may have an axe to grind in bringing them to a standstill. It is not such an obvious threat, perhaps, as the one which we constantly think about, that of the Soviet Union and its satellites.
RAF stations are concerned about the possibilities of conventional attack as well as nuclear threat. It is interesting to notice that they are embarking on a campaign of camouflaging the stations by using khaki-coloured paint on buildings which house the various vehicles in use. They are experimenting with colouring the hard-standing, the runways, to make sure that from the conventional point of view they are not obvious. I gather that even now they tend to cut the grass in several lengths and in several different ways so that there are not vast expanses of plain grass which give the game away in conventional terms. I believe that some stations even have animals grazing, although there might be considerable disadvantage in that. That is done to try to give the appearance of farmland rather than an air station.
I suggest to the Minister that it might be prudent and useful, both for the purposes of camouflage and in the interests of agriculture, to consider using the grass areas, which can be fairly large, for agricultural purposes. I was not the one who thought of camouflaging RAF stations. It is already being done. I merely suggest this as an addition to what is already being done, not on my initiative.
I turn to a different matter entirely—the question of morale, which has already been dealt with by hon. Members on both sides of the House. As housing has been dealt with at some length I shall not repeat the arguments. I simply wish to support the points that have been made. When people are of necessity on the move and where constant uprooting is necessary, it is important to see that there are 1760 satisfactory arrangements for buying houses and for resettling Service personnel when they leave the Services. It is not strictly germane to the RAF, but I see many of the problems which occur when naval personnel leave the Service because of my constituency interests. I hope that the Minister will take seriously the detailed points made by my hon. Friend in this connection.
There is another aspect of morale which has not been touched on, and that is the "professional" side. I get the impression from talking to officers and men on my visits that they are almost on the defensive, not against outside enemies but against public opinion and the politicians' opinion of them. They strongly believe that they are doing an important job, that they are guarding the freedoms of the country, but that, outside that and outside the immediate locality where they have made contacts, their rôle is not understood and they are not appreciated.
That is hardly surprising when one hears the strictures, especially from the left-wing element of the Labour Party, about the wickedness of spending on defence so much money which could be spent on more worthwhile projects. I shall not rehearse the arguments. We know them only too well.
It is forgotten by people when they talk about defence that they are to a large extent talking about men and women in the Armed Services and their families, who take it to heart when ill-informed comments, almost malicious at times, are made. These people believe in what they are doing and they need far more support than they receive from the public in general and from politicians in particular. I am sure that they are ready to accept that in times of economic stringency they cannot have everything they want. They are realistic enough to recognise that. A little appreciation of what they are doing would do a great deal to boost their morale, and I hope that when the reports of debates such as this get back to them they will be heartened by those of us who greatly admire the work they are doing and wish them all God speed with it.
§ 7.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)
I thought that at one stage this debate 1761 had become a theological dispute between the dour and humourless John Knox from West Lothian and a monstrous regiment of women from Moray and Nairn. Perhaps now I could get back to the Statement on the Defence Estimates 1976 and refer quite briefly to a specific section of that statement—page 46, paragraphs 62 and 63 on military aid to the civilian community given by the RAF in various parts of the world.
I am glad to see that RAF aircraft were used to carry out aerial surveys in countries as far apart as Kenya and Brunei. I was also glad to see that they assisted with the evacuation of 5,000 refugees from Angola to Portugal last year, and that helicopter flights were used in Hong Kong for mercy purposes. This is an admirable record. I want to develop this theme because I think we could become a little more sophisticated in the use of the military services, and particularly the RAF, in giving aid in cases of natural disaster.
The radio and television have brought home to all of us in vivid fashion the misery caused to human beings as a result of great floods, earthquakes, typhoons, and sometimes the failure of rain, which produces a desperate famine, as happened a year or two ago in the Sahel district of West Africa.
I was very interested in the fact that the Church of England conference convened in November 1972 looked specifically at the possibility of creating a disaster relief force on the basis of the transport aircraft and trucks available in such proliferation in the Western Alliance and in NATO.
One could ask immediately why should there not be an international responsibility in the same way as there are international bodies for other matters? As the House knows, a United Nations disaster relief office exists in Geneva, and stores are available in Denmark under United Nations control to help with these problems. But the UNDRO in Geneva is simply a small administrative group and not an operational group designed to draw together the efforts of countries to help out in these natural disasters. It does not possess the aircraft, boats or lorries which are needed on the ground. Therefore, what is needed is a fairly sophisticated organisation to carry out 1762 transport, not merely in the sense of transporting food, medical supplies, and tents and so forth, into the country in which the disaster has occurred, but also to get it from the port or airport up country in the most difficult and complex conditions.
Perhaps I may quote one or two examples of the difficulties which have arisen. In 1973 floods of the Indus river in Pakistan disrupted communications and the Pakistan director of relief operations said that the first priority was for helicopters and flat-bottomed boats. This was despite the fact that Pakistan Armed Forces are far more sophisticated and much better equipped for transport than those of many other countries.
Then there was the terrible drought in West Africa in 1973, and there again, food and medical supplies piled up. They were airlifted to Dakar and other places but the shortage of transport was too great to get them up country in lorries or by air to the places where people at that time were actually starving. One of the European Commissioners at the time, M. Lardinois, asked why the countries of NATO could not produce an airlift of 40 aircraft. He is still waiting for an answer. No attempt was made at joint reconnaissance or stockpiling, and as a result thousands of people died for lack of the food or relief which might have been taken to them in other circumstances.
In Ethiopia in 1974 there was a disastrous drought. I quote from a report in the Guardian on 20th March 1974 which said:There are not enough lorries and four-wheel drive trucks available to transport from the ports into the interior the minimum amount of grain to keep people alive. The Government of Ethiopia have estimated, and the leading agencies agree, that at least 100 lorries are required urgently from abroad. So far 20 have arrived. It is as certain as catastrophe can be that if more trucks do not arrive now, many of those now wholly dependent on relief will die of starvation this summer.Then last year we had the disaster in Guatemala, where again helicopter facilities for transporting relief and goods would have been of the very greatest assistance.
I am suggesting that within the RAF, in concert with our allies in NATO, we might possibly earmark and specially train a transport force using aircraft which could not only transport relief 1763 goods but could carry lorries and flat-bottomed boats which would then be available on the site to transport relief supplies up country where they were directly needed. Not only do the Armed Forces actually possess the aircraft, lorries and jeeps which are needed, they have the highly qualified skilled men—the drivers, sappers, and signalmen who would be able to man the aircraft, and also man the receiving end of the line and handle the trucks and boats.
The possibility exists, both in our forces and in NATO, to create a disaster relief force which would be equal to meeting the sort of disasters which we have seen occurring in different parts of the world in the past five or six years.
Some people might say that to have such a force built up in NATO could add a particular tone, flavour, or cachet which was not acceptable to the people of the country in which the disaster occurred. I think that is a very doubtful sort of argument. In a minor disaster there might be some quibbles by the Foreign Office, but in the case of a major disaster it is inconceivable that people who were dying or who were threatened with starvation, famine, death, flood, or earthquake, would, in fact turn down relief which amounted to the difference between life and death on the grounds that it came from NATO rather than from somewhere else.
I hope that my hon. Friend will use his influence in the Ministry of Defence and with his colleagues within NATO where there is a great deal of sympathy for this idea. The establishment of such a force would give the alliance itself an extra prestige and standing in the world. It would do so if it were known that such a force were available, and that aircraft, lorries and boats were there, not only for the defence of the Western countries against attack, but in a civilised humane rôle which could be exercised in the various continents throughout the world for the relief of suffering and to help men and women in times of disaster in countries which had nothing at all to do with Western Europe.
§ 7.49 p.m.
§ Mr. Julian Critchley (Aldershot)
It is a sad measure of our national decline 1764 that we should spend five or even 10 minutes this afternoon discussing the possibility of an independent defence policy for Scotland. When it was described by one lady Scot as being Scotland's adherence to NATO on the one hand and its abhorrence for any alliance which relied upon nuclear weapons on the other, one can only come to the conclusion that such sloppy thinking is the consequence of a political party which is run by failed schoolmasters.
I should like to join everyone else in congratulating the Under-Secretary on his elevation to his new post. He is a robust member of the Manifesto Group and it is good to see him in his new position. If one can offer him any comfort it is that he will have to sit through only one such debate as this in a year. He showed us all a copy of a newspaper which most of us had never seen called Labour Weekly and he stressed on more than one occasion that the motive behind the Government's cuts in defence was to secure economy. That is our motive for cutting defence, but the motive of the Labour Party is a blend of economy and appeasement—not to the Soviet Union but to its own left wing.
The Manifesto Group has failed on the intellectual plane because it has not been prepared to take the war into the camp of the left wing of the Labour Party in order to determine and demonstrate exactly what it is that the left wing wants. We need a another John Strachey, who in 1962–63 wrote a superb pamphlet which destroyed the unilateralists' case. The Minister of State for Defence has brains, I hear it rumoured that he has more brains than anyone else in the Government. Perhaps he could put his pen to paper and carry out that task.
Some of the Labour left wingers, but not very many, are pacifists. Most of them are neutralists, who want a neutral Britain in the context of the cold war. We must now ask whether a neutral Britain would make war more or less likely. Would the fact of Britain leaving the NATO Alliance and thereby upsetting the balance of power upon which our peace has depended of itself make war more or less likely?
There is a second question which no one ever puts to the unilateralists and neutralists. What sort of neutral Britain 1765 are they seeking? Is it a neutral Britain which is armed, such as Sweden is armed, or disarmed? If they are seeking an armed neutral Britain outside NATO, perhaps on the Swedish model, they must appreciate that it would cost us more money than our present defence arrangements.
The advantage of NATO is that we share defence costs with others. If the Left Wing wants a neutral Britain which is also disarmed, that is a prospect that I find utterly appalling. But we do not know what it wants. This is another example of those who believe in collective security, on both sides of the House, letting their opponents get away with sloppy thinking by not asking them to spell out the foreign policy objectives implicit in their hostility towards defence.
My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) spoke about the choice being between red or dead. I admire my hon. Friend because he at least in our party is capable of debate, but he is wrong in suggesting that that is the choice. If I were offered the choice, I should prefer to be red than dead, and so would any rational human being.
§ Mr. Critchley
The whole point of my argument is that those who favour collective security and defence strive to avoid ever being in the position of choosing between being red or dead. That is what collective security and NATO is all about—avoiding being placed in the position of choosing between suicide or surrender.
§ Mr. Tebbit
Unless those who are in the Services—and the rest of us who stand behind—are willing to say that we prefer to be dead than red, it is inevitable that we shall be red, because our opponents are perfectly willing to be dead rather than let us stay free.
§ Mr. Critchley
I take my hon. Friend's point about the people who join the Services. They have made a choice already, at least in the sense that they are prepared to lay down their lives for their country. On the other hand, if one of us were a Prime Minister or member of a Cabinet of whatever party and we were faced with the political situation in which this country was threatened to use nuclear 1766 weapons against a conventional Soviet attack in order to repel it, I suspect that the more rational among us would choose surrender in preference to suicide. Otherwise we would be destroying the lives of millions of people, and not just our own.
I have a simple and optimistic faith in human nature which is that, however hideous the ideology to which one might have to bow, in the long term the human spirit would triumph. But this is a nightmare situation. The whole point of politics is to avoid the position where the only choice lies between suicide and surrender.
I want to ask the Minister a number of questions in the vain hope of getting answers. I asked a number of questions on the debate on the Royal Navy, but I did not get a single answer. I felt that it would be unkind to write a letter to ask for the answers, but I shall try again this evening to get some.
Soviet air power in the Warsaw Pact area is improving in numbers and quality. One significant measurement is that its radius of action has increased in recent years from 300 nautical miles to 600. Another advantage of the Warsaw Pact air forces is that they have access to a far larger number of airfields than the NATO forces.
I welcomed the setting up in June 1974 of the Allied Air Forces Command Europe at Ramstein in Germany which is the new headquarters and which coordinates the Second Tactical Air Force in the north and the Fourth Tactical Air Force in the south. This new headquarters is long overdue. Will the Minister tell us how the new system is working out?
I understand from discussions with air force personnel in Central Europe that there are three interpretations of the command arrangements which started in June 1974. There are those who believe that the highly centralised control of operations at the AAFCE relies on sophisticated communications direct to individual squadrons, and that the headquarters of the allied tactical air forces have a subsidiary rôle. A rival philosophy is that operational control should be concentrated at the headquarters of the two air forces, the Second and the 1767 Fourth—leaving the Supreme Headquarters to act solely in a co-ordinating rôle.
Believe it or not, a third doctrine is that there should be an enhanced wartime rôle for the national operational commands, that is the national squadrons, which come under the headquarters of the Second Air Force or the Fourth Air Force. Those people who hold that view believe that the NATO headquarters are far too remote for the effective use of air power. Has the NATO Military Committee had this under review and what has been its findings? How successful, or otherwise, has been the new command which was set up in June 1974?
The numbers game is always appearing in defence debates. Allied air forces in Europe, including the 460 aircraft of France, all those stationed in the United Kingdom, and all available United States reinforcements, are superior to those of the Warsaw Pact in numbers and quality. However, there are several serious snags. These include, first, the small number of allied airfields, which are available. Of the 30 allied airfields, most of them are in the north, in the region of the Second Tactical Air Force.
The second snag is that, following 1967 and the withdrawal of France from the military organisation, we lost 21 French airfields. What arrangements are there for the reactivation of those fields and what about the overflying rights of NATO aircraft over French air space? This would be extremely important if there were to be any crisis in Europe and any particular theatre needed to be reinforced.
The US air force reinforcements are due to join the Fourth Tactical Air Force based in the southern part of Germany. Indeed, 80 per cent. of all allied air strength in Central Europe will, in theory at least, belong to the Fourth Tactical Air Force.
The point is that although most of the reinforcements will come from America, and will head for the Fourth Tactical Air force, the great majority of airfields are in the north, in the area of the Second Tactical Air Force, and the French air fields might well be denied American reinforcements. What happens then?
§ Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)
Is it not possible that some of the American rein- 1768 forcement squadrons would be based in East Anglia rather than in the area of the Fourth Tactical Air Force?
§ Mr. Critchley
That is obviously so, because in present circumstances, and assuming that certain of our forward airfields might have been destroyed had hostilities begun, clearly the major problem would be to send the reinforcements to any base which could accept them. But if this is just a matter of reinforcements before the outbreak of hostilities, they might go to the United Kingdom, Belgium, or elsewhere but there is a grave shortage of air fields in NATO Europe.
A further snag is the whole problem of interoperability of aircraft between the two tactical air forces and even between air fields occupied by units of the different nationalities within the same tactical air force. Yet another snag is that there are strong differences in tactical doctrine. For example, the American air force, that is, the Fourth Tactical Air Force, favours the high level approach following suppression by ECM, while the European components of the force favour a low level attack. The US alone has the 407L radar control. There is also a lack of standardisation among those allied aircraft already in service. There are 24 different sorts of aircraft—if one includes modifications, 39 —flying, all with four different rlesô
This restricts the ability of aircraft to operate in and out of airfields other than those assigned to squadrons of the same nationality or to accommodate aircraft of the same type. We have non-standardised ammunition, non-standardised bomb racks. Oxygen, some fuels, and other items are not available when aircraft visit a strange airfield. What in war time is needed is a re-arming capability, and this does not exist at the moment.
The tactical air forces should be able to concentrate wherever a major attack threatens or occurs. The air forces of the Warsaw Pact are able to do that through standardised equipment, but allied air forces are incapable of so doing. It is logistically impossible.
While aviation fuel has been standardised within NATO, nozzles and rapid fuelling equipment have not; nor have aircraft munitions. Allied air forces are tethered to their own national air fields. They are unable to be re-armed 1769 or repaired at other airfields, unable to concentrate where or when required, and unable to go on with the battle should their own airfields be knocked out. One estimate given by a person in authority is that only one third to one half of the 2,800 allied aircraft at NATO's disposal could be brought to bear in any conflict.
Will the Minister say something to allay some of the anxieties that I have expressed about the deficiency of the allied air forces in Central Europe?
§ 8.7 p.m.
§ Mr. John Dunlop (Mid-Ulster)
On behalf of my colleagues in the United Ulster Unionist Party I would offer our congratulations to the Minister on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box today. I wish him a relatively peaceful and useful tenure in office. We hope that his rather attractive name will characterise the feelings we shall have for him in this House as time goes on.
One cannot help but doubt the oft-repeated denials of the Government and their Ministers in Northern Ireland that a process of economic withdrawal is being exercised in Northern Ireland when we are confronted with the calamitous news that the RAF Aldergrove and RAF Sydenham are to be closed down permanently. What makes it more serious is the claim that this will effect a saving at the present time of financial stringency. The whole process of servicing and repairs to the complicated American aircraft the Phantom is to be transferred to St. Athan from Aldergrove. Yet at Aldergrove the tools and equipment, the skilled technicians and the work force, the vast hanger space and runaway facilities are all there and have been used successfully over the years. In addition a loyal and highly productive work force has always been available. The economics of the proposal is highly questionable. There will be the cost of training personnel at St. Athan to cope with the Phantom aircraft—and how long will that take? Secondly, who will service and repair the intricate flight control system? It will be a time-wasting and expensive process of sending it to the makers or some other specialist firm. All this procedure has in the past been done under one roof, and in one unit, at Aldergrove.
It is concerned that possibly only one other such unit exists in the United 1770 Kingdom. How can we reconcile the payment of £4,745 to a junior Air Force technician compared with £3,696 payable to a civilian craftsman at Aldergrove—a difference of over £1,000? We cannot see where the saving comes in there.
My hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) has told the House of two visits that he made to Aldergrove to inspect the computer system which controls the entire operations there. It controls the planning, the progress of aircraft servicing and the monitoring of unit costs. This complicated process made it one of the most effective in the RAF from the point of view of cost. How long will it take to establish such a system at St. Athan? What will the cost be?
My hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South received a letter not long ago from Mr. William Bailey, the AEUW convenor at Aldergrove No. 23 Maintenance Unit. I do not want to bore the House with the whole of that letter, but I should like to draw the Minister's attention to one paragraph:We are still awaiting the meeting with Mr. Roy Mason and we believe that the only thing holding it up is the date of the meeting, and we believe it will take place within the next fortnight.That letter is dated 26th May 1976. I hope that the Minister will take note of and bring that letter to the attention of his right hon. Friend and make it possible for this man and his anxious companions to meet and put their case before the Secretary of State.
The same dark cloud hangs over RAF Sydenham which is situated in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig). Again, a highly technical, skilled and loyal work force is to be thrown on the scrap heap as well as the second-to-none facilities at Sydenham, creating a state of unemployment which leaves no hope in that area of re-employment for the workers concerned.
People argue that St. Athan is preferred because of its work on the Buccaneer aircraft. RAF Sydenham handled that contract for 13 years, but it was taken from it. Station commander after station commander paid tribute to the efficiency and productivity of the workers there. It is a tragedy and a monstrous injustice that this station, which has such a long 1771 and proud tradition with the RAF, should be closed down and that no hope should be offered to those thereby deprived of their jobs.
Will these savage cuts save money? They will serve only to exacerbate an unemployment situation which is fast approaching 20 per cent. in Northern Ireland.
Ulster Unionists at Westminster once more record not only their disappointment, but their wholehearted and active disagreement, with the policy of Her Majesty's Ministers in this and other areas in the affairs of Northern Ireland.
§ 8.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Pattie (Chertsey and Walton)
I was encouraged by the Minister's attitude at the start of the debate because of the way in which he responded to various points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow). However, I am somewhat disadvantaged to see that he is taking a break—a no doubt well-earned break, as he has been on the Front Bench continuously. I hope that his hon. Friend —one of the Whips—will take an occasional note, because I wish to raise with the Government some detailed points. I do not necessarily expect the Minister to respond to all of them tonight, but I hope that this important subject—the Royal Air Force—will be continued in correspondence after the conclusion of the debate.
In my view, the Secretary of State for Defence has done the entire country a great service by producing the revised estimate of Soviet defence spending, not only in actual numbers of roubles, which do not mean a great deal to people in this country, but in forming a reasonably precise estimate of the proportion of GDP at between 11 per cent. and 12 per cent. But the level is not the end of the story. This expenditure has been growing, as the Secretary of State showed in his recent White Paper, by 4 per cent. per annum in real terms. That trend, as much as anything else, concerns many hon. Members on this side of the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Woking quoted from the speech by the Chief of Air Staff, Sir Andrew Humphrey, who said that the rate of Russian build-up at the moment meant that they would 1772 have the capacity to replace the entire Royal Air Force front line every six months. He also said—this is almost as significant as the other quotation—that the Soviet Union is spending more on research and development than the entire Western World put together. That is the critical element. It is even more critical than the sums of money which are being spent or the numbers about which the White Paper has been eloquent. We are outnumbered by 2.3 aircraft to one on the central NATO front.
Bad though that is, there have been certain consolations for NATO forces in the sense that, for example, we have always been able to feel that our training techniques were superior to those of the Warsaw Pact forces. Therefore, numbers are not everything. Our weaponry has also tended to be more sophisticated than that of the Warsaw Pact air forces. I suggest that these two factors are likely to change for the worse.
A recent issue of Flight magazine revealed that it had been given estimates that Soviet training techniques could be lagging by as much as 10 years behind the technological advances being made in operational equipment here. There is no doubt that the Soviets have that problem. It is all very well for them to break into a more sophisticated area, but they must keep their training techniques abreast of that technology. There is no cause for the West to feel in any way complacent. We may feel that we have superior air crew proficiency, but I am sure that within the next decade that advantage will be lost.
I should like to emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking in his excellent speech about the need to maintain adequate operational flying hours in training. We understand—again from sources such as Flight magazine—that Russian-trained MiG pilots have said that in pure training terms the Warsaw Pact air forces tend to be more regimented and less flexible than the NATO air forces and that the pilots in their operational squadrons fly fewer hours per month than the NATO target. I understand that the NATO target is 20 to 25 hours per month. The Warsaw Pact air forces tend to average between 10 and 15 hours per month but they tend to spend more of their operational flying 1773 life with the same units and, therefore, with the same type of aircraft. In that context, it could be argued that familiarity breeds additional competence. In either event we shall not have training advantages for more than a few years longer.
In regard to equipment, it could be argued that our advantage is probably almost at an end. Various Soviet aircraft have appeared in recent years, aircraft of a highly sophisticated nature. The Backfire-B swing-wing strategic bomber will be a serious threat in both long range anti-shipping and conventional strike rôles. The SU 19 is a variable sweep strike and interdiction aircraft which is capable of sufficient development potential to take in the entire United Kingdom. The Mig 25 Foxbat is likely to become the Russian standard long-range fighter. and with aerial refuelling it could interdict military air traffic 300 miles off the coast of Ireland.
I hate to strike a discordant note when there have been so many congratulations to the Minister on his appointment, but I had hoped to hear the Minister address himself to the strategic rôle of the Royal Air Force. He did his best in his speech to underline the concept of a Royal Air Force that was ready to respond and to reinforce, but the main problem in today's world is that speed of technological change is so great and the new weapons systems so complex that they take a long time to develop. Therefore, fundamental questions must be asked. It is not enough to say that the Royal Air Force is ready and willing and no doubt will be able to fulfil its task.
First, I wish to ask the Minister whether any attention has been given to the balance between, say, a larger number of less expensive and less sophisticated aircraft as stand-off weapon launching platforms, or whether we should put the emphasis on a smaller number of highly sophisticated aircraft capable of carrying a large weapon potential? This is an important question in terms of NATO.
What is the RAF's view of satellite system technology for target acquisition and guidance of technical missiles? Can tactical power at a distance be achieved with greater accuracy with cost-effective missiles rather than with aircraft? I 1774 should like to know the RAF's official view on those matters.
Furthermore, what is the RAF's view of the whole cruise missile concept? Does the RAF believe that future technology will allow the advent of a cruise missile with a zero CEP that could destroy targets without resorting to nuclear warheads? Does the Royal Air Force have a policy about the relationship between manned aircraft and precision air-launched guided missiles in the 1980s? I am sure that it has, but that has not emerged in this debate.
Let me ask about some specific items of equipment on which I hope the Minister will concentrate his mind as matters about which the House would like to know more. For example, is the SRAAM missile now at the feasibility stage? Could the House be told when the development of that most important programme is likely to eventuate?
What is to happen to the Bloodhound replacement? Have we any news on that score, particularly as we appear to be sliding into some kind of de facto situation where the Government believe that it is already too late to make a change. Surely we should have had a decision before now.
Have the Government any plans about the new air-to-surface anti-shipping missile? I have noticed that in regard to the MRCA the Germans plan to use the Cormorant missile. What do we intend to do about our missile?
In regard to aircraft, I have two points to put to the Minister. It is obvious that the Jaguar requires enhancement to all-weather status. When is this likely to happen? I believe that it needs to be carried out. When is the Jaguar to have its up-rated engines? Again, there is the problem of a certain lack of power. If it is delayed for an indefinite period, this will only increase the cost. The Minister may care to give the House some news about the 403 Jaguar Harrier replacement. Possibly some of my hon. Friends will deal with that mater in their contributions.
Electronic counter measures are hardly ever talked about in these debates, for the good reason that they are totally secret. I am concerned because I understand that our techniques in that area appear to be far behind those of our 1775 NATO Allies. I should like at some stage to be reassured by the Government that we are not neglecting this extremely important area because there is no point in developing the missile unless a first-class ECM is developed with it.
Simulators have been mentioned in this debate. This is an extremely important area for British exports and we have a corner on the market and some excellent firms working on this project in this country. I should like to feel that in future the Government will make any future sales of British equipment conditional on the British simulator going with them. One could drive a bargain of that kind. There have been cases of foreign-produced simulators being developed for inclusion in British produced weapon systems.
It almost appears that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) and I have achieved a tacit agreement not to talk about the advance warning and control system. All I shall say about that matter is that I hope that by this time next year it will have been consigned to history—and a good thing too, in my view.
I see that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force has now returned to his place, after a well-earned breather. I have put some sizable points to the Government and if the Minister is unable to reply tonight I hope that he will write to me with the information for which I have asked. There is concern on these matters on both sides of the House. We should like to be given a good idea of the policy of the Royal Air Force for the 1980s.
§ 8.26 p.m.
§ Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)
A great deal of what the hon. Member for Chertsey and Walton (Mr. Pattie) said in his remarks is common ground across the Chamber in a debate such as this. The questions which he put to the Government are questions to which we should all like answers.
I shall return to the subject of AWACS, which is a matter on which I take a different view from the hon. Gentleman. I strongly support the efforts of the Secretary of State for Defence to try in Brussels to achieve a common view in the alliance on this important matter.
1776 I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman ask the Government about the RAF's view on the cruise missiles and the new technologies that might make manned aircraft outdated. There is a difficulty in asking whether the RAF has a view. I suspect that all the Services tend to take a biased attitude in these matters.
It is just like asking the Royal Navy whether we should have anti-submarine through-deck cruisers. Clearly, personnel in the Navy are used to large ships and automatically in favour of them. There may be good arguments for through-deck cruisers as there may also be for manned aircraft, but we must remember that Service personnel who have been used to manned aircraft have a somewhat biased view.
I am anxious, therefore, to know from my hon. Friend that within the central staffs of the Ministry of Defence a view is taken which is able, where necessary, to override these traditional Service attitudes, which might otherwise bias a decision in a traditional way and away from what may make the most sense for our defence needs in the 1970s, and more particularly in the 1980s.
To return to the general question of an airborne early warning system, this is probably the most important procurement decision which will be confronting the Government—and, indeed, all of us in the NATO Alliance—in the next 12 months. We in this country are in a particularly difficult position. Unlike our allies in Western Europe within NATO, we have an alternative aircraft in the Nimrod, which is an excellent aircraft. But in spite of this, from all I have heard, I hope that the wish—which it appears my right hon. Friend has been supporting —that we should find together a solution using the AWACS system will be worked out.
It would not be enough merely to have British, American and perhaps German participation. It would be worth while only if all the European members of the alliance, together with the United States, were prepared to contribute together. If that is not possible, I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will try to see whether we can persuade our other partners in the alliance within Western Europe to acquire Nimrods to 1777 fulfil this rôle. But I believe the best option would be the common purchase of the AWACS system.
§ Mr. Pattie
Will not the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a great danger with projects such as the one he is talking about that the arguments tend to be polarised into those in favour of standardisation and those who want to follow a British-produced system, and that we could be pushed into buying AWACS simply because it would be in the guise of an all-NATO purchase? Is the hon. Gentleman satisfied that the system, never mind where it is produced, really does the job that we need in this country?
§ Mr. Roper
I agree that there can be argument about the efficacy of the, system, but it seems to me that the capacity of the Boeing AWAC system is greater than that which is possible under the Nimrod. I made it quite clear that if the Boeing system is not acceptable to the alliance as a whole, I hope that other countries in Western Europe will acquire Nimrods so that we may have some degree of standardisation on one aircraft to do this job. But there will be controversy as to which is the preferably system for us and for the alliance as a whole.
I turn now to the remarks of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) and the very interesting comments he made upon the problem of the air forces in the central front. He is the Chairman of the Committee on Defence Questions and Armaments of Western European Union. He will be very well aware, as I am, of a recent report covering a good deal of the material he discussed, which has recently been before that Committee and on which he was able to draw in making his remarks.
The hon. Member was drawing attention to the differences which exist in operating concepts between the two allied tactical air forces in Central Europe, and to the numerical imbalance which exists, and which might be accentuated under present augmentation plans between the aircraft available to the Second Tactical Air Force and the Fourth Allied Tactical Air Force in any conflict. What he said drew upon a good deal of the history in this area which has not altogether been fortunate.
1778 But I think the hon. Gentleman overstated the extent of a problem which the inherent flexibility of modern air power and the establishment of the Allied Air Force (Central Europe) Headquarters is doing a great deal to improve. For example, there are within the Fourth Allied Tactical Air Force quite a number of units which could operate in a very similar way to those in the Second Tactical Air Force. It would be wrong to assume that there is only a very limited capability for aircraft from one allied tactical air force to operate into the areas of operation nominally allocated to the other. The idea that there is such a contrast in philosophies between the aircraft of the Second ATAF and the Fourth ATAF is commonly thought of but is no longer altogether true.
The fact that there are aircraft of the Luftwaffe operating in both the Second and Fourth Allied Tactical Air Forces effects, I believe, a useful bridge. This is not to say that serious problems do not exist, but we must realise that the ideal is not always immediately attainable.
In trying to move towards standardisation, we have to consider whether this is always the best way to use the limited funds at our disposal. I know that on these occasions the argument is brought forward—and it has some validity—that there are some advantages in having a variety of operating concepts because this serves to compound the problems facing the enemy. Suddenly to change to common aircraft and to standardise overnight would cost substantial funds, which are not available.
We have to remember that until further standardisation of aircraft is achieved, which will inevitably be a long-term process, excessive pre-stocking of weapons and equipment would be required to achieve full interoperability between airfields; and that effectively to pre-stock in every airfield in the central front all the ammunition and supplies required would mean the diversion of massive resources.
Maybe more should be done and I hope that the Minister will be able to say what progress has been made by ourselves and our allies in increasing the opportunities for interoperability. It would, however, be unwise to put too 1779 much effort into short-term solutions at the expense of other no less urgent priorities. We should carry out a comprehensive study on flexibility in the central region. I hope that when that is done we can have decisions within the alliance so that action is taken.
The hon. Member for Aldershot referred to standardisation. We should look also at the brighter parts of the future instead of just dwelling upon the multiplicity or aircraft. The introduction of the Jaguar, which is operated by Britain and France, the introduction in the future of the Tornado, and the decision taken by Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway to purchase the F16 suggests that we are moving, at least in some directions, towards standardisation in the alliance.
The hon. Member for Aldershot suggested that there were three different philosophies about the level of command and control within the allied forces and he questioned whether these should be at headquarters level, at Allied Air Force Control Europe at the tactical air force level, or at the level of squadron. Whichever is chosen it is important that coordination be maintained between die land and air forces at the level of the principal subordinate commander. Whatever option is taken, there must be coordination between the army groups and the allied tactical air forces if there is to be adequate support for our ground forces in the field.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the use of the 407L system, which is a ground-based radar system. It is, however, possible for any aircraft with normal two-way radio communication to use that system. It is not a piece of airborne equipment.
As I discovered when I prepared my study for the Western European Union, there is much opportunity for further cooperation among our air forces in Central Europe. It is most important to improve methods of co-ordination and control. That is why I said that the most important thing is to reach a firm decision about the system of airborne early warning and control which I hope has made some progress at the meeting attended by the Secretary of State yesterday or today.
1780 I hope that the Minister will be able to give us a reassurance that progress is being made here because this is essential to the maintenance of effective air defence in Europe.
§ 8.40 p.m.
§ Mr. David Walder (Clitheroe)
The Royal Air Force needs, particularly at this time, reassurance from the Government. Because of its nature, it has always been a sensitive Service. To illustrate that, I shall give an example which may appeal to Labour Members. One of the most disastrous White Papers was the 1957 Sandys White Paper, so-called, which predicted the demise of the manned aircraft. That had a disastrous effect on recruiting of aircrew into the Royal Air Force.
As I think the hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper) suggested, there has always been a rivalry for aircraft between the RAF and the Navy. Therefore, any suggestion from a Government that the RAF is likely to be neglected is bound to affect recruiting into that Service.
In these circumstances we cannot avoid looking at the programme of the Labour Party Executive, which contains only one item of public expenditure saving that I could find. Needless to say, that is the £1,000 million which it says can be saved on defence. I understand that the Government have denied that that can be done, and I welcome their denial, but I shall be reassured only when I see what happens when that programme goes to the Labour Party conference.
That sort of suggestion receives publicity. There are suggestions that, for example, the MRCA should be cancelled, that there should be a reduction in the RAF's tactical rôles. The morale of the RAF and recruiting are bound to be affected.
It is no denigration of the functions of the other two Services to say that the RAF is a highly-specialised, highly-technical Service. Let us examine the balance between us and the Warsaw Pact nations. In the old days people tended to say that the Warsaw Pact nations had larger conventional forces, more infantry soldiers, more tanks and all the rest but that the West had the technical superiority. If that argument is still true, a great deal of that technical superiority must rest with the RAF. If there were 1781 any possibility of war in Europe it must be the one Service to be in the first stage of any warlike operations. It would provide our advantage vis-à-vis the Warsaw Pact nations.
The Defence Review sets out figures for the RAF reserves, but they are really bogus. There are no reserves for the RAF in the proper sense as there can be for the Navy and the Army. It is an instant Service in its operations.
As there are no reserves, the RAF's need is inevitably for the most modern and most effective aircraft. One has only to talk to serving officers and men to realise that that is the issue that worries them, the area in which they seek reassurance from the Labour Party. They may get it from the Government, but at the same time the party behind the Government is producing suggestions which inevitably reduce morale and cast doubts on governmental promises.
I end with a quotation. It was written by an American admiral, Admiral Mahan, at the turn of the century. He puts the problems before a democratic Government—and I think especially this Government—in a nutshell when he says:Whether a democratic government will have the foresight, the keen sensitiveness to national position and credit, the willingness to ensure its prosperity by adequate outpouring of money in times of peace"—we have seen a great deal of outpouring in times of peace, but not especially in this direction—all of which are necessary for military preparations is yet an open question.It is indeed an open question at this moment. He adds,Popular governments are not generally favourable to military expenditure, however necessary, and there are signs that England tends to drop behind.That may have been the tendency of our nation. It is always a temptation for the Labour Party.
I would explain, however, to hon. Gentlemen opposite that when the quotation refers to "popular Governments" it does not mean well-liked, merely elected—and that, as hon. Gentlemen opposite must know, is always a chancy business.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)
The winding-up speeches are due to begin at 9.5 p.m. Three hon. Members still wish to take part in the debate. I think that they may all be accommodated.
§ 8.48 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman Tebbit (Chingford)
I noted what you said, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall be brief so that the other speakers may be accommodated.
The Royal Air Force will always be associated in the minds of those old enough to remember, with the Battle of Britain and the Few. As usual, when defence is debated, we are once again the few. We may only hope that the quality of the few today is as great as it was in those days.
The hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) in welcoming the Minister to the Front Bench—I also extend a welcome—commented that his hon. Friend was appointed to the Front Bench not so much as a result of his interest in defence as because of his skilled management of the campaign to ensure the election of the present Prime Minister to the leadership of the Labour Party. If that is indeed so, what perils we have avoided in the fact that it was not the Lord President of the Council who succeeded to the leadership, because, if we think about it, the Front Bench would have looked pretty odd in this debate.
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
To put the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest, my promotion was probably due to two factors. The first was my long-term interest in defence, and the other, without doubt, was my good judgment and common sense in supporting the Prime Minister from the beginning to the successful conclusion of the campaign.
§ Mr. Tebbit
I congratulate the Minister on both counts.
The hon. Member for Fife, Central made one other interesting observation. We know that the hon. Gentleman is a stalwart within the Labour Party on matters of defence. He compared defence with an insurance policy. That is a great mistake. Defence is not an insurance policy. The existence or otherwise of an insurance policy makes no difference to the likelihood of the eventualities under consideration taking place. The lack of 1783 adequate defence makes it absolutely certain that war will break out.
The credibility of the Air Force as a defence force depends primarily on the MRCA, and especially the attack version, with its ability to penetrate deep in poor weather at low levels behind the enemy lines. We expect that the ADV version will be available for interception as well. As to whether it is capable of seeking out and destroying a MiG 25—which has been observed at Mach 2.8—we hope that the Minister of State was right when he assured me that it could. We hope that his words are never tested.
If we are attacked, the course of the battle in Central Europe will depend primarily on what happens to the Warsaw Pact tank forces as they begin to roll forward. That means that the crucial rôle of the Royal Air Force and its allied air forces will be to destroy tanks in Central Europe. In that battlefield situation one of the key airplanes must be the Jaguar because of the numbers involved—200 eventually for us and 100 for the French. My fear is that with the performance of the Jaguar, which is reputed to be about 730 knots at low altitude, and 1.4 Mach at high altitude and with its—for these days—relatively poor thrust-weight ratio, before many years are out it will be easy prey for the depredations of aircraft such as the MiG 23 in its single-seat fighter rôle. The Secretary of State shakes his head. I hope that he is right. But after experience of air war outside Europe, he would be unwise to believe that an aircraft of that performance can look after itself in the years ahead. We do not want to find ourselves operating with a Sepecat Fahey Battle in any combat in the early 1980s.
The most important aspect of today's debate, therefore, is to have some understanding in this House of the Government's intentions towards what is broadly being called Operational Requirement 403, which I understand to be a fighter which can dominate the battlefield scene. That fighter we must have if the Jaguar and other aircraft of similar performance are to have a credible rôle in attack on the battlefield. We know that the Harrier can well keep out of trouble because of its unique performance characteristics, but others we worry about.
1784 If we are to look ahead we should look at the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton (Mr. Pattie) on the possibility of the RAF being armed with cruise missiles. If we accepted what is generally talked of these days we would assume that the cruise missile will have a substantial range, that it will move at about 0.6 Mach at very low level and be air-or sea-launched against its target. A question I wish particularly to put to the Minister—and I know he wants to have a word with the Secretary of State concerning these matters—is whether the United Kingdom is in any way constrained from putting cruise missiles into service by any agreement which we have already undertaken or by any agreement envisaged in current talks concerning limitation of armed forces—because sooner or later we shall have to use that type of missile.
Finally, despite the welcome we all give to the hon. Member for Erith and Cray-ford (Mr. Wellbeloved), and despite the friendly bluster with which he so successfully emulates the Prime Minister—and we like them both for it—and despite all that he has said, the gap between our capability for defence and our potential enemies' capability for attack has never been wider or ever been growing at such a rate. The costs and capabilities involved, the time factor and the amount of money being spent on research and development by our potential enemies mean that we shall have to move very quickly and take decisions very soon if that gap is not to become so wide that it can never be overcome.
We rely, of course, on our American allies, but if we are to do so it is no good saying that there is some magic limit of percentage of gross domestic product that we may spend. If our allies spend more per head defending their population, and even use compulsory military training for their populations, we can have no credibility while we sit back and say, "What it is worth to defend a German is too much to pay to defend an Englishman".
§ 8.55 p.m.
§ Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)
If the House will allow me and the hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) will forgive me, I wish to take the last minute paying testimony to the RAF and the Navy for the wonderful, sterling work they have done in the cod 1785 war. If I were to let this opportunity pass, I should never be forgiven by my constituents in Hull and elsewhere on the Humber. They have felt more than thankful when they have heard what has been done, by the Nimrod in particular, in surveillance, in watching and taking care of their men in these dangerous, dark and difficult waters of the Arctic.
On one occasion a boarding party of Icelanders, whom I almost regard as modem buccaneers, attempted to board Maar vessel "Primella". The mere presence of a Nimrod in the area was sufficient to deter them.
I thank the House for giving these few moments to put on the record the thanks of the people of North Humberside and Hull.
§ 8.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)
I thoroughly endorse the tribute paid by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) to the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force and particularly to the pilots of the Nimrod squadron who did such wonderful work. Whatever one may feel about the outcome of the cod war and the Government's part in it, one can only pay tribute to the wonderful job done by our Services in extremely difficult conditions.
I apologise for missing about an hour in the middle of the debate. My old corps, the Royal Marines, is celebrating the birthday of its Captain General by beating retreat on Horseguards. That is my excuse.
It is nonsense to claim that NATO is not worried about our defence cuts. The Under-Secretary has been a member of the North Atlantic Assembly and he knows as well as I do that NATO is extremely concerned especially at our lack of maritime aircraft—which is a reference to the cut in the number of Nimrods —and the effect of Government action on the mobility of our forces, particularly helicopters and the Belfast squadron.
That squadron is our only heavy load carrier. Are the planes to be put in care and maintenance or, like so much of the transport fleet, sold for scrap? They are the only aircraft we have which can carry self-propelled guns or light tanks. Our amphibious force, which will be required on the northern flank in any emergency, 1786 will be severely hampered without this capacity.
In time of war, even the United States has to take over the civil air fleet to send in reinforcements. We have a much smaller air force, so we shall obviously have to take over civil airliners to transport troops to Norway, or wherever they are required. Are preparations being made to ensure, for example, that our airliners are given larger doors so that stores can be loaded easily?
In the last war the Admiralty paid merchant ship constructors subsidies so that they could fit stronger decks to take 6-inch guns aft or anti-aircraft guns. Are we considering paying aircraft manufacturers a subsidy in order to make aircraft adaptable for RAF use in time of war?
We have a world-beating aircraft in the Harrier. We were in danger of repeating what happened with the Comet and the hovercraft which we invented and then passed to the Americans to develop and sell throughout the world.
We have, perhaps, just avoided that situation with the Harrier but when I was at an American air base recently, a pilot who had been testing the American Harrier said to me: "You Limeys are absolutely mad. You have a world-beating aircraft that we cannot touch, and for the sake of a few million you have not fully developed it. We have had it for just over a year and have slightly altered the wings and the position of the nozzles and have got 20 per cent. more lift from the same aircraft". There is a big lesson to be learned there. We must see our successes through to final development.
I hope that our position is now safe. We have the sales to the United States Marine Corps, but perhaps the Minister can tell us what has happened to the order for up to 400 aircraft from the Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy. These are very important and we should like to know when a final decision will be reached.
Perhaps the Minister could also say what has happened about the sales of Harriers to China. Clearly, these aircraft are extremely valuable and I should like to see them sold to the Chinese. I believe it would do a great deal to increase flexibility and money backing for our aircraft industry.
1787 I understand that the Sea Harrier is to be flown by the Royal Navy and the RAF. That is a good thing. I ask the Minister an important question—namely, whether the Royal Air Force pilots who operate the Harrier in Germany will also be capable of operating the aircraft from the decks of Her Majesty's ships and merchant ships. Has he also considered having sufficient reserves of both Harriers and helicopters? That is a vital consideration because in time of war the main menace facing this country would be the Soviet nuclear submarine fleet. A large number of container ships and oil tankers could easily be converted to carry antisubmarine helicopters and Harriers, but it is not much good converting them if we do not have the aircraft.
I hope that that matter will be thought through by the Ministry of Defence as this involves both the Admiralty and the RAF, but it is one of the cheapest and best ways of affording adequate protection for our shipping in time of war.
The only other issue I have time to put before the Minister is that of AWAC, I support what has been said by the hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper). I believe that the system is of great importance. The decision on whether NATO will go ahead with the project has been deferred until December, but my understanding is that, as late as last March, the view had been taken in the United States that unless there was an agreement to fund $15 million for the long-lead programme, which had to be taken by May, the project might collapse.
May I take it that the $15 million has been funded so as to allow the final decision to be taken next December? This appears to be a matter of fundamental importance and I hope that the Minister will give me an answer tonight. The Americans have funded 10 aircraft themselves. Three are in production and they are hoping to build another 24. They hope that at least 20 will be bought by NATO, each aircraft costing about $40 million. That is a lot of money, but they are basically unique and there will be considerable savings in ground stations and ground radar.
I was influenced by the fact that every NATO commander-in-chief, including SACLANT, said that this weapon system should have the highest priority of all. I 1788 hope that it will be operated and funded as a NATO force, not as a British force or a German force. That in itself is worth paying for so we have a NATO force. I agree that if for one reason or another—probably it would be a financial reason —the project falls through we shall have Nimrod as a fall back. I believe that Nimrod is not big enough to develop in the same way as it is intended to develop the Boeing 707 which is the basis of the US AWACS.
Finally, I pay tribute to RAF Leconfield in my constituency. I do so because by the time we have the RAF debate next year the RAF, after many years, will have left Leconfield. It has had a close association with Beverley, and was given the freedom of the borough. When the RAF leaves Leconfield—and we are sorry that it is going—the Army will take over. We are glad that Her Majesty's Forces will still be there. The RAF has set a fine standard in the East Riding and I pay a sincere tribute to its officers and airmen.
§ 9.4 p.m.
§ Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings)
I have three brief points to raise. The first is the Royal Air Force capability to take part in United Kingdom air defence. I am very worried that we have now only one-fifth the number of aircraft that we had in the Battle of Britain when we face a force 10 times as strong as that which opposed us then from across the Channel.
I am worried that the facts about the strength of the RAF should be withheld from the public. Is it true that this country is defended by only two Lightning Squadrons numbering 24 aircraft and five Phantom squadrons numbering 60—a total of only 84? Even if we add operational conversion units of another 24 aircraft, we still have only just over 100 currently available for our air defence. That is totally unacceptable.
If I am challenged—"Would you be willing to vote for public expenditure cuts while calling for greater defence expenditure?"—I am always willing to take a trade-off of withdrawal of social security benefits for strikers. There is no excuse for not having the required air defence of this country.
I was horrified to learn in reply to a Question on 27th May that 23 Harriers, 1789 56 Lightnings and 15 Phantoms had been destroyed beyond repair in RAF service. Nearly a quarter of the Harrier force and the Lightning force has been destroyed. In the defence programme at the moment there are no plans for the replacement of these aircraft, which are essential for our defence.
It is unacceptable that we should be unable to afford to replace aircraft which are destroyed. The RAF has sometimes been unable recently to carry out demonstration flights for foreign visitors because it did not have enough money for fuel.
My second point relates to the Airborne Warning and Command System, AWACS. I may be a lone voice in this place, but I must preach against this system on the ground that the philosophy is wrong.
§ Mr. Warren
I am not surprised that RAF air marshals say that they want an aircraft for this purpose. They said that when the TSR2 was cancelled and went running off after the F111. They always will do so. Good luck to them for taking that attitude. That philosophy is all right for the United States with a large continental land mass and for the Russians, who are already operating an AWACS aircraft—the TU126. It is all right for a continental defence posture.
But we cannot afford to put our air defence system in the sky so far forward that it can be struck down and would be an immediate objective for a Soviet first strike. MiG 25s are now operating, if not over this country as I am told by the Ministry of Defence, very close to it. They are certainly operating over Norway, Denmark and West Germany. They are prepared to put those in the sky so that the Russians would have our vital air defence system taken out in the first strike.
We should remember that the only reason that the Germans did not win the Battle of Britain was that they failed to recognise what radar was doing to defend this country. If they had thrown the weight of their attack against our radar defences, that would have been the end of it for the gallant Few of the RAF. As I hope I have shown tonight, the Few are even fewer today.
1790 The question is not just whether the philosophy is right. I am worried by the way in which our whole attention has been diverted to what we should buy. This is an old American game. Four nations in Western Europe have just been through this and bought the F16—a super aeroplane, but one which does not fulfil the NATO requirement which is called for from these nations.
A competition was run by the Americans on that aircraft as it has been run on the Boeing E3A and the winner buys the only aircraft available. The cost is enormous. My hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) must have slipped his tongue when he said that it was $20 million. I have heard estimates of the cost of AWACS varying from $50 million to $135 million.
§ Mr. Warren
I am grateful. In a presentation in the House recently, Boeing talked about a cost of $50 million, Hawker-Siddeley is talking about $80 million and people in other companies have talked about $135 million. This is all about an aircraft whose philosophy should be in doubt; it should not be a question of what kind of hardware we should buy.
This does not mean that I do not recognise the need for an air defence system, but we have the capability. If we say that we must have an early warning system in an aircraft, the Ministry of Defence already has eight which are gathering dust at Woodford in Cheshire. We have been through this before. Is it the job of the British taxpayer to pay for the workers of Woodford and Manchester or for the workers of Seattle? We must make up our minds. Whatever the value of the pound, the dollars must be bought by the sweat of other British workers while the workers of Woodford and Manchester are on the dole.
We must face the philosophical argument about the need for the system and then decide, if the system really requires an airborne observation post of the kind described, where we should get it. With the European capability, we are foolish to turn away from that opportunity.
1791 The last point I want to make is about the question of future transport requirements of the RAF. I am told that there are no operational requirements for the replacement for Hercules transports in the RAF. I asked the Ministry to look at Europe in this context and the way in which the French and Germans are thinking of re-opening the Transall line. The Americans are moving in with the YC14 and YC15 aircraft, and this is an opportunity for the United Kingdom to get on with projects rather than waffling around nationalising, which will not save jobs.
NATO has a rôle to lead the British aerospace industry and that of Europe into the new field of transport which can be provided. I am calling for more imagination and appreciation of what can be done for the RAF by the Ministry.
§ 9.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Victor Goodhew (St. Albans)
I welcome the new Under-Secretary of State to his job. We all know his interest in defence matters over many years. We accept that having taken part in defence debates over a long period the hon. Member deserves to have his chance to do something about this subject.
Under Labour, defence debates follow a depressing pattern. It is a pattern so uniform that one always has a feeling of deja-vu. There is always the assurance from the Government Front Bench that despite successive cuts, our Armed Forces are becoming more and more effective. On the other hand, however, with the occasional notable exceptions, we usually have a string of Labour Back-Bench speeches calling for greater cuts in defence expenditure. Fortunately we have been spared this tonight. Perhaps it is because there is no vote, and because it is a Thursday.
On this side of the House we fully understand the pressure which is put on defence Ministers in a Labour Government by their left wing. We do not understand how anyone who is closely in touch with defence matters can consistently give way to that pressure. It is all very well for the Government to spell out the threats with which we are faced. They have gone to some lengths to do just this in two White Papers in the last two years. But if in the end they ignore the extent of the threat and make cuts which are based on financial calculations 1792 and considerations, as opposed to military ones, it makes a nonsense of the entire defence policy, and confidence in that policy is steadily eroded.
We all know that this country is living beyond its means and is getting further and further into debt, and that cuts in public expenditure are vital if we want to return to a healthy economy. If I, for instance, should find myself in such a position, or getting into such a position, I would start by cutting out my luxuries. I would then move on to non-essential expenditure, however desirable it might be. However, I would not cut out my insurance policies, as the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) has rightly said. Yet this is exactly what the Labour Government do every time they make arbitrary cuts in defence expenditure. This is the answer to those who chide us for being inconsistent on the question of Government expenditure. We have made this claim over and over again and we are glad to know that the hon. Member for Fife, Central agrees with us.
§ Mr. Goodhew
At least he is against cutting out our insurance policies. he shares that with us.
The Royal Air Force has suffered immensely damaging cuts under this Government. It seems to have been singled out not for severe surgery but for what looks like rough butchery—[Interruption.] It is extraordinary—[Interruption.] The moment I get to my feet the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr) comes into the House —I do not know where he comes from—and interrupts from a sedentary position. I hope that since I have given time to other hon. Members and am left with limited time for my own speech he will remain silent.
It is extraordinary that the Royal Air Force should be singled out for this sort of treatment when one realises that it has the unique rôle of supporting both the other Services. The Army is entirely dependent on the RAF for the rapid deployment of men, weapons and equipment, whether overlong or comparatively short distances. It also needs air cover and support in any land battles. Similarly, the Royal Navy cannot have a credible maritime strategy without the surveillance provided by the RAF.
1793 The need for air power is becoming greater as the years go by. First there is the strike capability, which is an essential part of both our nuclear and conventional deterrent. This surely must be kept at a credible level, and we have had discussion about the MRCA in this respect. I am glad to welcome the wholehearted commitment given by the Minister today to the future of the MRCA.
There is then the transport capacity. This is more difficult because the Government have reduced it by 50 per cent. in the defence review. I know that there has been a withdrawal from east of Suez, but surely the transport fleet is vital for reinforcement in Germany in time of war. The former Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force made a remarkable statement in last year's debate. He said:Members have expressed fears, in the wake of the Defence Review, that our transport forces may be inadequate. As I said earlier, even after the extensive reductions the United Kingdom will still have the largest transport fleet among our European allies, and that the transport fleet will remain capable of carrying out its priority NATO tasks. An hon. Member raised the question whether, in an emergency, we could reinforce BAOR on a large scale. I must tell the hon. Member that, frankly, for a long time large-scale reinforcement of BAOR has depended on the availability of a civil airlift, and the position after the Defence Review is no different from what it was before".—[Official Report, 24th June 1975; Vol. 894, c. 367.]It cannot be "no different" from what it was before when the Government have reduced the fleet by 50 per cent. Ministers are being misleading if they talk like that.
We come now to the need for the airborne early warning aircraft. Here there is a difference about whether one should go for the Boeing AWACS, or whether the Nimrod conversion is the answer. The Boeing AWACS seems to be at a very high price, and there are Nimrods available which could easily be converted and replace the ageing Shackletons and Gannets.
We then come to home defence. It is vital in war time to be able to secure one's home base because everything else falls apart if one cannot do that. In peacetime there is the need for interdiction of Soviet aircraft which are constantly probing towards the British air space to see how good our capability is. The next 1794 rôle is the protection of our transatlantic routes, both air and sea. The Minister mentioned the Soviet Backfire aircraft, a wide-ranging aircraft of very high performance with stand-off missiles. This may well be the principal attack weapon against shipping rather than the submarine fleet which is at the moment a great menace.
Lastly, we come to surveillance, whether of our oil rigs or gas installations in the North Sea or of submarines within our waters—
§ Mr. Goodhew
I wrote it myself. If the hon. Member does not like it he can go back to where he came from.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I must ask the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr) not to interrupt from a sedentary position.
§ Mr. Goodhew
This last capability is essential even in peace time. We have had mention of the vast Soviet fleet of 330 operational submarines, 130 of them nuclear powered, and we all know that one of these nuclear powered submarines is being completed every five weeks. These are posing a permanent threat to our sea routes and it is against this background that I find it quite incredible to believe that the RAF can afford to lose 25 per cent. of its Nimrod aircraft. I am astonished that the Government are still prepared to make this cut of 25 per cent. in our vital maritime reconnaissance aircraft.
We have the NATO commitment in the Eastern Atlantic and we know perfectly well that it is a big responsibility. Hon. Members in this House have heard from some of the other NATO countries that they view with anxiety our ability to cover this commitment in the Eastern Atlantic. We know from our White Paper about the withdrawal from the Mediterranean and we wonder how far it has gone if at all, and when it will take place.
Personally, I am astonished, as are other hon. Members, to find that when one looks at the maps in the White Paper they still finish at the Tropic of Cancer. I wonder why it is, after Angola, that the Government are not facing the 1795 fact that we cannot look upon the Tropic of Cancer as the limit of the interests of the NATO countries. When we have the imposition of a minority Government by Cuban mercenaries, armed by Russia, taking place in an area of such importance in the world, we cannot sit back and say that NATO is not interested.
Since the White Paper it has been discovered that Soviet defence expenditure over the past decade has been some 60 per cent. more than estimated That means that the quality of their aircraft, and the quality of their other weapons, is much higher than we have probably estimated. Has the Government had second thoughts about the size of our own forces? We read in the Labour Weekly of the Labour Party National Executive's desire for £1,000 million cuts including the abolition of MRCA altogether. I am glad to have had the opportunity of reading the Secretary of State's answer. He has given a pretty robust one in the latest issue.
He admits that we are well down the list in respect of the amount of money we are spending compared with our NATO allies but he goes on to say that, if we made massive cuts, we would risk unravelling the NATO Alliance and destroying the security which we gain through it. He stated.The effect on our financial credit and our economic and trade relations would be incalculable.That is the answer to hon. Members who suggest that one should think first of the economy and last of defence, which some hon. Members opposite are inclined to do.
What are the Government going to do for the future? What are their intentions? We are told that the RAF has been tailored to fit its rôles in NATO and the home defence at this moment. Can the Under-Secretary assure us that there will be no more cuts in the light of this? Each time we are told it is now just right, but each time we find it is followed by cuts. We have had the White Paper about MBFR. Can we be assured that, having had the unilateral cuts in the RAF to such an extent, we shall not have the RAF featuring in MBFR?
1796 We have talked about cuts in spares. Is there sufficient back-up for the front line?
We worry about the airfields which are being given up. Has NATO a use for them? Many of the NATO squadrons are far too close to the front line for comfort. On airfields which we are using, are we going ahead with hard shelters for the aircraft up to NATO standards? This is an urgent matter.
We have been told about the cutback in fuel and the resultant lowering of flying hours. Those to whom I have spoken say that we have just about reached the limit and that no further cuts can be accepted.
Turning to the use of expensive weapons, one wonders how the Service feels about them. I am unhappy about the situation. I believe that, if men work on simulators all the time, when they come to handle expensive weaponry to fire their one or two shots a year they are likely to be highly nervous. I know from a recent visit to the Royal Artillery School at Larkhill that the chaps using Blowpipe have to fire two rounds a year. They get so up-tight about the idea of firing such expensive weaponry that their first shot is useless, and they get back to their normal form when they take their second shot.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army (Mr. Robert C. Brown)
The hon. Gentleman is doing the men less than justice.
§ Mr. Goodhew
I am not doing them less than justice. This is what they say. The hon. Gentleman has probably been to Larkhill. I hope that he has talked to the officers there.
§ Mr. Goodhew
I have talked to other ranks as well.
I turn now to some of the human issues raised by hon. Members which are important to the morale of the forces.
The first is the education of children. Many Service men want to send their children to boarding school. It seems that some local education authorities will not give grants for that purpose. Yet members of our foreign service get these grants. Should this be the responsibility 1797 of local education authorities or of the Services. I hope that the Minister will tell us what he feels about that matter. It is worrying to parents. We cannot expect a Service man to give of his best when he has additional family and financial worries.
We have talked about tax relief on mortgage interest. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will tell us that he will be getting down to this matter with the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. It is ridiculous to say that a man who is living in married quarters in Germany is living in his principal place of residence. His real home is back here. He certainly should not suffer the loss of tax relief on mortgage interest whilst he is stationed abroad at the behest of his commander. That is an additional unnecessary burden on men in our Services.
We have heard about capital gains tax. The Under-Secretary will be glad to know that a sailor has won his fight on capital gains. he does not now have to pay the £500 that was being demanded by the Inland Revenue for having sold his house because he had let it whilst he was posted elsewhere.
We have heard about the problem of local authority housing. The hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mrs. Ewing) seemed worried at one stage that, because there are bases in her area, the local authority would have to take on the housing of too many people. The hon. Lady suggested that Service personnel should be allowed to apply to have their names put on housing lists in any places they wish throughout the country to relieve her constituency. Later she said that an independent Scotland would bring Englishmen and Welshmen roaring into her beautiful country and constituency to live there. I do not know how she thinks they will be housed if others cannot be housed now.
§ Mr. Goodhew
Turning to airmen's quarters, the barrack blocks which I see as I go around do not look very different from those which I entered as an air- 1798 craftman second class on 1st September, 1939. I hope that it is appreciated that they require urgent modernisation.
One other matter that worries me relates to the officer intake. It appears that immediate promotion to flight lieutenant rank is given to those who are university graduates entering the service, whereas non-graduates enter as pilot officers. I remember that after a while I graduated to one thin ring on my sleeve. If it is possible to make the selection to promotion to squadron leader on merit on the basis of the man as a member of a team regardless of whether he has had a university education, why is there this discrimination at the outset of his career? When it comes to selection for squadron leader, does the person who came in as a graduate with flight lieutenant rank and with a number of years' seniority in that rank stand a better chance than the man who came in at the same time and who has had the same years of service but who it not a university graduate? The Prime Minister spoke yesterday about the disadvantages of not having a university education. Therefore, I hope that we shall not discriminate against those in the Services who have not had a university education.
I should like the Minister to tell the House how the manpower reductions are progressing. We understand from recent statements that redundancies are expected to be less than the 4,000 originally stated. May we be told something about the retraining of transport air crews, who have been among the forerunners of those who have been leaving the Service? In view of the present difficulties facing the civil airlines, with the collapse of some organisations, those personnel will have little opportunity to continue in posts which in the past they have served on a civilian basis.
Last year in a similar debate the then Minister responsible for these matters answered a very few questions in reply to the debate and said that he would merely write letters to hon. Members concerned. I know that these matters are difficult, but I hope that since the Minister in opening the debate had a carefully prepared brief to read, he will now be able to devote his reply to answering some of the many questions which have been put to him.
1799 Before closing, I should like to pay my tribute to all those who serve in the Royal Air Force and in the Women's Royal Air Force. I have visited many RAF stations, and many hon. Members will know that those visits tend to restore one's faith in human nature because one encounters such a fine breed of person. They are people who are prepared to serve their country willingly as volunteers and they display great spirit.
High-ranking officers, including the Chief of the Air Service, have given sombre warnings about the need to strengthen and rebuild air defences. This is vital to the security of this country. I am encouraged to see that those senior officers, unlike the present Government, not only spell out the threat but face up to the implications of such a threat for the Royal Air Force. We welcome the new Under-Secretary of State in his post and we wish him well. We hope that he will lend an ear to what is being said by those high-ranking chiefs in the Service who have spoken out so courageously in the interests of this country.
§ 9.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
With the leave of the House, I should like to try to reply to the many points raised in the debate. First, I wish to thank all those who have been courteous enough to welcome me in my new post. I appreciate their kindness and the gentle way in which they have dealt with me in this debate.
I have a shrewd feeling after 10 years in the House, when I glance around and see familiar faces, that my winding-up speech may not necessarily be as courteously and as nicely received as my opening speech. But as the day passes in this place I know myself how much one needs to take refreshment in order to survive a long ordeal.
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
I should have thought, Mr. Speaker, that any impartial observer of the scene who has already witnessed the last few moments would be in no doubt as to my allusion in my last few remarks.
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
If I may put the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) at rest, in no way do I refer to him. Since he came in I have not heard him make any abusive or intemperate remarks to me. But if he wants to intervene at this stage, I shall be delighted to give way.
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
Every little helps.
I turn now to the more serious aspect of the debate. The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) referred to an incorrect answer that he had received. I have taken steps to check. I think that he was referring to the Harrier accident of 19th January this year. The hon. Member is correct about that Harrier accident. It involved two aircraft, and this fact was acknowledged in an answer on 26th January. I hope that he will accept the apology of the Department for the error.
The hon. Gentleman also queried the position of Nimrods in the Mediterranean. The fundamental reappraisal of all our defence commitments during the defence review led us to the conclusion that we should withdraw from certain non-NATO commitments. Thus it was announced in the statement on Defence Estimates last year that while we would retain our membership of CENTO, we would no longer declare any forces to that organisation.
It was also explained that the Canberras and Nimrods would, when military facility agreements there expired, be withdrawn from Malta by 1979. But, as the hon. Gentleman himself said in his speech when he made the suggestion, there ought not to be a need to repeat the contents of last year's White Paper in debates of this nature.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the Jaguar and Harrier replacement, as, indeed, did the hon. Member for Ching-ford (Mr. Tebbit). Both the Harrier and Jaguar have only recently entered service and should not need replacing for some years to come. It is right, however, that we should be entering into studies of the operational requirements which will exist when they come to the end of their useful life. This, obviously, is being done, but it is far too early to suggest 1801 what the precise nature of any replacement aircraft will be.
As the hon. Member for Chingford said, the Air Staff Target 403 is now going through its conceptual stage and will shortly be going into more detailed definition. I cannot at this stage give the hon. Member any precise details, because precise details do not at this moment exist. But I can assure him that the Air Force Board and the Ministry of Defence are well aware of the need to find a replacement in the late 1980s, in all probability, for the Jaguar and Harrier, and that steps are being taken now to ensure that the right consideration goes into it.
§ Mr. Dalyell
Will the Minister confirm that a separate Nimrod squadron at Lossiemouth is absolutely impracticable?
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I have a note or two on his very interesting contribution, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton). I was hoping to deal with that in a moment.
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
I do not want to give way too many times, because I have a lot of questions to deal with in the time available, but if the hon. Gentleman assures me that it is an important point, I shall give way.
§ Mr. Tebbit
I am grateful to the Minister. I would not wish to interrupt him otherwise. As he seems to put the operational date for the AST403 well into the 1980s, will he say what he thinks will be the fighter to maintain superiority over the battlefield around the year 1980?
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
I will not go into the details of that matter. The AST403 is at the conceptual stage and it would be foolish for a non-professional member of the Ministry of Defence Air Force Board to go into those details.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Macfarlane) raised a number 1802 of important points about morale in the Air Force. I am glad that he emphasised that because the men matter even more than the machines and organisation.
The hon. Gentleman asked me about proposals for assisted house purchase. A limited scheme is in operation and we have repeatedly examined the possibility of introducing a more radical way of helping airmen to buy a home when they leave the Service. One could scarcely discriminate between some members and others and an overall scheme could only be introduced at enormous cost to the Service vote, at least in the early years. I have therefore no good news for the hon. Gentleman on this matter, but I am entirely sympathetic with his view.
I will give further thought to it and if it is humanly possible to devise a scheme, we shall do that. I should be misleading the hon. Gentleman if I held out any great hope that I shall be more successful than my predecessors, who have given the matter careful consideration in the past.
The hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mrs. Ewing) spoke about Service men who leave the force and then have to find a house for their families at the end of their service. I agree that it is not easy for a Service man. He must be encouraged to register his need for a house with a local authority as early as possible if he wants council accommodation.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment issued a circular a year ago emphasising to local authorities the difficulties which men face in securing houses when leaving the Services. The circular asked local authorities in particular to request registration without insisting on residential qualifications, but not all local authorities have accepted the spirit of the Secretary of State's circular. It is incumbent on all hon. Members to try to encourage the local authorities in their areas to accept their responsibility for men who have served their country in the Armed Forces.
§ Mr. Henderson
Has the Secretary of State for Scotland, who is responsible for Scottish housing, issued a similar circular?
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
It is normal practice for the Secretaries of State for Wales and Scotland to issue circulars of that 1803 nature in conjunction with the Department of the Environment. I cannot give a categorical answer, but that is normal practice.
My hon. Friends the Members for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) and Fife, Central and the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn raised many interesting and fascinating questions about the possibility of Scotland having its own armed forces. I am sure that they would not expect me to get deeply involved, during a technical debate on the Royal Air Force, in the wider, but none the less important issue of the political future of Scotland. I have received a letter on that subject from my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian and it is receiving careful attention in the Department. Indeed, the Minister of State has now taken over the heavy responsibility of co-ordinating the replies from the three Service Departments and no doubt he will be in touch with my hon. Friend in due course.
I say to the three hon. Members from Scottish constituencies who have spoken in the debate that in the Ministry we appreciate the long, valuable and loyal service of the many Scots in the three branches of our Armed Forces. We hope that for centuries ahead the United Kingdom will have the benefit of their services in the defence of this country on a basis of mutual security.
The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) asked about the London Air Traffic Control Centre at West Drayton. As indicated in the Defence White Paper, we have started on a programme of planned improvements to the United Kingdom air defence ground environment, including provision of new radar as well as tracking and data handling. The hon. Member for Hastings (Mr. Warren) chuckles. He came into the debate very late. I hope that if I can gallop through all the serious points I shall be able to deal with his as well. The tracking and data handling equipment is to be financed in part from NATO infrastructure funds.
These improvements will ultimately make us independent of the London Air Traffic Control Centre. The new system will consist of elements which if necessary can operate independently of each other and provide overlapping cover.
1804 Plans are also in hand to improve our airborne AEW protection, thus offering the possibility of a greater degree of all round radar protection by the co-ordination of inputs from ground and airborne radars. Further radar protection will be available when the air-defence variant of the MRCA enters service. With its powerful air intercept radar, this aircraft will provide radar cover up to long range from our shores. The aircraft will be capable of operating autonomously without ground control.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), in a very thoughtful and well-researched speech, asked what savings had resulted from the use of simulators for flying training. They are an integral part of the training of pilots and crews on all advanced modern aircraft, such as the Jaguar. While they greatly reduce the number of flying hours required in the aircraft as pilots undergo flying training or operational conversion for new aircraft, the question of cost comparisons does not arise. But I appreciate my hon. Friend's constructive interest in this important aspect of our training philosophy.
My hon. Friend also gave statistics comparing the military strengths of the Warsaw Pact and NATO, and fairly put the position as his researches had disclosed it. But not only has the numerical strength of the Warsaw Pact air forces increased enormously in recent years, as my hon. Friend recognised, but the latest Warsaw Pact aircraft have a greatly improved range and payload capability compared with their predecessors. The latest generation of Russian-built tactical aircraft can carry at least twice the payload at least twice as far as could the earlier generations of Soviet planes. That means, among other things, that the Warsaw Pact's capability of delivering weapons on targets in the United Kingdom from bases east of the East-West German border has more than doubled in the past five years.
Therefore, it is not just a numbers game. It is more a question of ability, capability and capacity. In that respect, we face in Western Europe and in the United Kingdom a new threat based upon an ability of the Soviet Union now to reach these shores, to penetrate our air space, and to deliver massive weapon 1805 loads on the soil of the United Kingdom. Any hon. Member or member of the public who had doubts about the MRCA programme should ponder on that fact. We have an absolute responsibility to ensure that we have a capacity to defend the airspace over this country.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes) made an interesting contribution. Time does not permit me to deal with all the points she raised, but I thank her most sincerely for the effort that she and many other hon. Members put in when they visit Service establishments. I am particularly mindful of the valuable effect that visits by hon. Members have on the RAF. The men and officers look forward to contact with Members of Parliament.
It is a two-way street in which we may learn more about the Armed Forces as a result of the information we gain in these visits. Equally, if not more, important, Members of Parliament may begin to understand the problems that confront Service men. They may see that the Armed Forces are comprised of men and women from all walks of life, and that the class barriers which may have existed years ago have now been completely eroded. On my visits I meet many commissioned and non-commissioned officers and junior ranks who come from good, working-class homes. I say this to my hon. Friends. They neglect those people at their peril.
§ Mr. William Hamilton
I presume that the Minister referred to the morale of the Armed Forces. He will recall that I gave him warning about an individual case in which I was interested but which I omitted to mention. Will the Minister indicate what is being done about it? He will recall that Corporal Clark served in the Royal Air Force for 14 years. His wife left him and he now has sole charge of two young children. He wishes to leave the Service, but the Royal Air Force is solidly saying "No". That is not the way to keep up morale.
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
I am glad that my hon. Friend intervened. I take this opportunity to thank him for his kind words when he addressed the House earlier. I assure my hon. Friend that though he had doubts about my ability to read a brief, I have his letter in which he refers 1806 to the case before me. I read the departmental brief carefully. I understand it.
After careful consideration, due to changed domestic circumstances since accepting a further offer of re-engagement, Corporal Clark is to be exceptionally allowed to revert to his former 12-year engagement, and his discharge date from the Royal Air Force will be 5th July. I am delighted to give that information to my hon. Friend. I hope that he will convey it as quickly as possible to his constituent. he may be slightly late as the means of communication in the Royal Air Force are speedy.
A number of hon. Members raised the problems faced by Service men as a result of the operation of the Rent Act and Finance Act. I am aware of the impact of the Rent Act 1974 and the Finance Act 1974 on Service men who are buying their houses on mortgage but who are prevented from occupying them when posted away. Others in civilian employment which requires frequent movements are in a situation similar to that of the Service man house-owner. The issue has been repeatedly raised with me during my visits to Royal Air Force stations.
We have taken steps to ensure that Service men are safeguarded to the extent possible under the terms of the Act. Any questions about amending the Acts are matters for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. I shall be happy to supply information about the effect of the two Acts upon the Royal Air Force to my right hon. Friends if they require it.
§ Mr. Onslow
Will the Minister give the undertaking which I requested in the debate on the Army—that an effort will be made by all the Services to collect the information through the official channels available to them and to present it in a coherent and well argued form to the Department of the Environment as part of the review which the Department is undertaking of the workings of the Rent Act?
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
I shall certainly convey that request to the Secretary of State for Defence, who has the overall responsibility for the three Departments.
1807 In answer to my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) and Walsall, South let me say that NATO can play a great rôle in disaster relief. I shall not go into the detailed reply that I have before me, because of pressure of time, but I shall give my own brief evaluation of the situation. A great number of problems confront the RAF as a result of reductions in Support Command and transport arising from the defence review, but if it could be arranged through NATO—a committee of the Military Council is considering the whole question of NATO being involved in disaster relief—I am sure that the Ministry will bend over backwards to try to ensure, subject to operational ability, that the RAF plays a part in such relief.
I am sorry that I was not present to hear the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. Dunlop), but I can assure him, as I assured his hon. Friend, that I am absolutely aware of the difficulties and the anguish caused by the decision about Aldergrove and Sydenham. There is nothing that I can personally do about that, but I shall ensure that the Secretary of State's attention is drawn to his request.
I shall consider the many points raised by the hon. Member for Chertsey and Walton (Mr. Pattie) and see whether I can do anything to assist.
I want to spend my last few moments on the subject AWACS. This is a major project. A number of NATO nations could be involved in this new airborne warning system to replace the Shackle-ton in the early 1980s. We are currently examining the possibility of participating in that NATO force. I believe that it will 1808 represent a major step forward in terms of standardisation if it is a NATO solution. I welcome the comments by hon. Members who support this concept. I have discussed it briefly with the Secretary of State and I can tell the House that, whatever the outcome of the AWACS solution, we intend to reserve our national position on this important issue.
I was less sympathetic to the point of view of the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew). I am mindful that my right hon. Friend has spent the last two days commuting back and forth, first to the Eurogroup and then to the NATO Defence Planning Committee, because of what I consider to be a pretty irresponsible piece of behaviour by the Opposition in not ensuring that Her Majesty's Government's business can be conducted throughout the world at important conferences because of their petty political partisan attitudes. If they are concerned about the defence of the United Kingdom, the best contribution that the Opposition could make would be in ensuring that my right hon. Friend and other Defence Ministers can go about the world trying to ensure co-operation between this country and the rest.
If I may de-escalate again in the last few seconds, I would say that I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) for his tribute to the RAF and the Royal Navy in respect of the cod war. The hon. Member for Hastings can rest a little more reassured tonight. Had he been in the House when I made my opening speech—
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.