HC Deb 19 July 1982 vol 28 cc41-115

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Thompson.]

Mr. Speaker

Before calling the Minister, I should warn the House that there is a long list of right hon. and hon. Members with a deep interest in the Royal Navy. They can be called only if those who are fortunate enough to catch my eye at the beginning are mindful of their colleagues.

4.43 pm
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Peter Blaker)

This debate on the Royal Navy follows closely upon the brilliant operation by British forces to liberate the Falkland Islands. At every stage, our naval commanders and their men showed skill, courage and seamanship of the highest order. From the initial assembly of the task force in a matter of days, through the progressive tightening of the sea and air blockade of the islands to the vital battles for San Carlos beachhead and the final attack on Port Stanley, their contribution to the success of the operations was absolutely fundamental.

No finer tribute can be paid to our men and their ships than to say that their actions were in the highest traditions of the Royal Navy and Merchant Marine. I shall return to our maritime achievements in the South Atlantic at greater length later in my speech.

We are an island nation with a great and long tradition of maritime affairs. We still depend on the sea for our economic and strategic well-being. Some 95 per cent. of our trade goes by sea. We have the fifth largest merchant fleet in the world although, as hon. Members have pointed out in earlier debates, its size is diminishing, which is a cause for concern. For centuries the Royal Navy has been what was once rightly described as "the floating bulwark" of this island. It has provided the direct seaborne defence of the United Kingdom and has been an essential means of projecting British power in Europe and the wider world.

A strong Britain and a strong Royal Navy are essential now to the continued well-being of the NATO Alliance. The facts of geography mean that we are well placed to act early against a Warsaw Pact threat. In time of war, our ships, submarines and ship and shore-based aircraft would be deployed in and around the Norwegian sea and in the vicinity of the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom choke point to contain Warsaw Pact forces and to deny them the use of the open sea. They would also provide defence in depth against hostile forces which had pre-deployed, or which had evaded our forward defences, in order to protect the reinforcement, re-supply and economic shipping essential to the survival of our island and to the conduct of sustained operations in Europe. We would, of course, be fighting alongside our allies, and we welcome the United States' plans for increasing its own naval strength.

There is a vital national as well as Alliance reason for maintaining a strong navy. As the Falklands operation showed, we need strong naval forces to maintain the ability to project British power in purely national interests. For national and Alliance reasons, our naval forces must be as strong and flexible as possible. The question that arises is the best size and shape for the navy of the future, given the threat and the resources made available to us. We have to work within the financial resources that we have.

The Government came to office committed to give priority to defence, because we recognised that security was essential to our survival as a free nation. As a result, in the first three years of this Administration, the real increase in our expenditure on defence is expected to be about 8 per cent. We have announced our aim of increasing defence, spending by a further 3 per cent. in real terms in each year till 1985–86. This is surpassed among our major allies only by the United States. We are spending more in absolute terms on defence than France or Germany. Our defence expenditure per head and as a percentage of GNP is in each case the third highest in We Alliance.

When the Government came to office all three Services were suffering from financial overstretch. There was simply no possibility of paying for all the items in the programmes of the Services we inherited even with a 3 per cent. real growth in the defence budget.

Levels of pay, too, were inadequate. In April 1979, the Navy was 5 per cent. below its required strength. Wastage was running at 7 per cent. a year and recruiting was falling short of target by nearly 20 per cent. In 1979, six ships had to be mothballed because we did not have the men to man them, and other ships and aircraft could not he used because fuel, ammunition and spare parts were in short supply. Levels of training, exercises and activity had been pared to the barest minimum.

These were merely the short-term symptoms of a deeper problem—that of equipment cost growth which is discussed fully in chapter 4 of the defence White Paper. Defence is at the frontier of technological change, and our weapons and equipment have to keep pace.

Towed array sonar, the development of torpedoes into true guided weapons and the advent of short take-off and vertical take-off aircraft have pushed up costs with enhanced capability. A new type 22 with its advanced systems costs more than £130 million and is three times as expensive in real terms as its predecessor, the Leander. A Sea Wolf costs three times more than the Sea Cat, but, of course it has a better chance of achieving a kill.

Cost growth is not a new problem, but the pace of technological change has accelerated over recent years, taking defence costs with it, and shows every sign of continuing to do so.

There is a wider problem posed by technological advance. The power of modern weapons to find targets accurately and hit them hard at long ranges increases the vulnerability of major platforms such as ships and aircraft. This has been amply shown by recent events in the South Atlantic. In addition, the rate of consumption of missiles, torpedoes and ammunitition in modern warfare can be rapid. Nearly 8,000 rounds were fired by 4.5 in. guns during the brief Falklands campaign. We have to recognise those trends and exploit them. That means an alteration in the balance of investment between platforms, on the ore hand, and weapons and weapon stocks, on the other. That is a shift to hitting and staying power. It is no good having a large number of ships if we cannot afford to give them sufficient modern offensive and defensive weapons and sensors.

We will, in future, have fewer hulls, but our aim is to have a force level of about 50 destroyers and frigates. That will mean an ordering pattern of three new vessels a year when the type 23 is available to sustain force levels.

Mr. Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)

With regard to ordering patterns, will my hon. Friend refer to replacements for the losses in the Falklands? One order has already been placed, but there are three orders outstanding. Will he tell us about that during the debate?

Mr. Blaker

The order that has been placed is not a replacement for one of the four ships that were lost. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned that during the defence debate. We believe that it is right to assess the lesson of the Falklands when deciding what replacement orders to make. The short time that may be required to make that assessment will help us to make the right decision. If we rush, we may not get the right answer.

Mr. Neville Trotter (Tynemouth)

Will my hon. Friend assure the House that four ships will be ordered to replace the four that were lost and that they will not be part of the original plan for new ships? They must be additional ships.

Mr. Blaker

My right hon. Friend said that we shall replace all the Falkland losses, although not necessarily on a like-for-like basis.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

Will the 50 destroyers and frigates be on active service, or will some be in reserve? If some are to be in reserve, how many and at what readiness—a fortnight, a month, or longer than that?

Mr. Blaker

As we have said before, of the 50 ships, up to eight—I emphasise the words "up to"—would be in the standby squadron, which would be at 30 days readiness. It does not mean that eight would necessarily be in the standby squadron at any one time.

Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

Does the Minister mean that he is thinking of no more than 42 operational destroyers and frigates?

Mr. Blaker

When the hon. Gentleman reads what I have just said, he will see that I did not say that. He will see what I said and what I meant.

We shall be phasing out older and more manpower-intensive ships. Because we shall be ending the practice of mid-life modernisation, vessels will spend a greater proportion of their lives at sea and less in the dockyards. Therefore, their availability at sea will be greater.

I should make it clear, to avoid any misunderstanding, that it is not our intention to give up modernising ships. The great majority of our older frigates have already been modernised.

Although refits will be primarily intended to restore the material state of the ship, our aim will be to incorporate as many weapon and sensor improvements as possible. To that end we have started to devise ways of simplifying this kind of work. In the type 22 programme we have already begun to make use of advanced modular construction techniques, and have been moving towards easily replaceable weapon systems. We shall be developing that trend further in the design of the type 23 with the aim of making it easier to replace or update components throughout the life of the ship.

Sir Frederick Burden (Gillingham)

If the weapon system has to be changed on existing ships, they will have to return to the dockyards for the weapons to be replaced. The ships cannot be taken to the supermarket and the weapons taken off the shelf and fitted. They need proper attention. They must go into the dockyards to be equipped with the new weapons.

Mr. Blaker

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was about to refer to the motion in his name and the names of a number of his right hon. and hon. Friends. That motion, while welcoming the increasing number of SSNs, suggests that it is essential to keep Chatham dockyard in order to refit them. I very much respect my hon. Friend's views, and pay tribute to him for his straightforward and sturdy support for a fine dockyard at Chatham which has served the Royal Navy well for centuries. I doubt whether I shall persuade him of the Government's views, but I have to say again that, although we fully recognise Chatham's excellent record in SSN refitting, and other respects, we are convinced that the remaining dockyards will be capable of dealing with the planned SSN refitting load, and the other dockyard tasks. Devonport now has two SSNs in hand, and I have no reason to suppose, having looked at the matter yet again, that it will be unable to develop its skills and experience to cope with its SSN task. As my hon. Friend knows, a good deal of valuable expertise will go from Chatham to Devonport as staff, both industrial and non-industrial, are transferred there over the coming months.

Sir Frederick Burden

My hon. Friend has switched to submarines without answering my question about surface ships. Will he please answer that question?

Mr. Blaker

I thought that I had answered that question. If I did not, I apologise. Despite what my hon. Friend said, I am sorry to say that, according to all the advice that we have received, it will not be necessary for us to retain Chatham dockyard. Such is the state of our budget that we cannot afford to sustain and maintain assets which we do not require.

Mr. Keith Speed (Ashford)

Modernisation is extremely important. As there have been a number of statements from his Department, can the Minister make it clear that in future surface ships will have their radar, electronic counter measures, sonar, missiles and guns modernised, as and when necessary, to meet the burgeoning threat, and that if, during the modernisation, engines or hull components require repairing, that will be done in the dockyard?

Mr. Blaker

I stick to what I have said. My hon. Friend has in past debates made the point about the importance of the capability to modernise, even with our short-life system. It is our intention to modernise as necessary, in spite of the short-life system.

I turn now to HMS "Invincible". The House will know that it was always our intention to keep two carriers in service after 1985—HMS "Illustrious" and HMS "Ark Royal". Two carriers would have meant that only one was available during a period of refit. Following our experience in the Falklands, the Government have decided that we should keep a third carrier to provide for refits or accident and to ensure that two are available, at short notice, at all times. For that reason, we have informed the Australian Government that we wish to retain HMS "Invincible" and the Australian Defence Minister is now communicating our wishes to his colleagues in the Australian Cabinet. In place of HMS "Invincible" we have indicated to the Australians that we are prepared to make HMS "Hermes" available to the Royal Australian Navy on favourable financial terms, and we have also been discussing with them a package of helicopters—and maybe Harriers. My right hon. Friend expects to he able to say more on this subject as soon as we hear the result of the talks in Canberra.

Mr. Duffy

In view of what the Minister has just said about the retention of HMS "Invincible", what is the Department's planned capacity for Portsmouth dockyard? There will be an effect upon the employment level in the dockyard and intended redundancies.

Mr. Blaker

We shall be examining what is required as a result of that decision. I can say no more at present.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

I endorse the point that has been made about the uncertain future of people in the Portsmouth area. I want to ask about manpower in the Royal Navy. The signal that went out from the First Sea Lord, following the defence review, said that manpower in the Royal Navy would be reduced by about 10,000 and would continue at that rate. That is the central problem for all those who have the interests of the Royal Navy at heart. I and my hon. Friends cannot be happy about the Royal Navy's future unless the point is clarified and we are reassured.

Mr. Blaker

That is one point that we shall want to clarify. We are evaluating the Falklands campaign, and we cannot rush that. Among other things, we must wait for those who took part in the campaign to return. As my right hon. Friend said, we shall publish a White Paper with the conclusions later this year.

Expenditure on the construction of new ships, including their fitted weapons, has increased each year under this Government and in 1981–82 reached £680 million. That is the highest recorded total in real terms in the 19 years for which information is available, and nearly 50 per cent. higher in real terms than expenditure in 1978–79, the last full financial year of the previous Administration.

There are now 27 ships and five submarines on order or for which we have invited tenders, of which 20 relate to the period of this Government.

Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

Before the Minister skims over the statistics, some of which we have heard before, will he say when the orders were placed for the £ ½ billion more that this Government are spending in real terms on equipment than was spent in 1978–79? Were they not placed under the previous Government?

Mr. Blaker

Most of the orders paid for in this year were placed by the Labour Government.

Mr. Duffy

And next year and the year after.

Mr. Blaker

And they intended the orders to be paid for with post-dated cheques. The 1979 Labour election manifesto stated: We shall continue with our plans to reduce the proportions of the nation's resources devoted to defence, so that the burden we bear will be brought into line with that carried by our main allies. The Labour Government could not conceivably have paid for the shipbuilding programme that we are paying for had they put that policy into effect. They ordered no ships in their first year in office, but they ordered four in the weeks immediately before the general election. I leave hon. Members to draw their own conclusions.

We are devoting increasing resources to weapons. Since coming into office we have approved the full development or production of a wide range of programmes, chief among which are the Sting Ray lightweight torpedo, the Spearfish heavyweight torpedo, the Sea Eagle air-launched sea-skimming anti-ship missile, which is a whole generation in advance of Exocet and able, unlike Exocet, to distinguish between a ship and a decoy, and the Skynet IV communications satellite. We have also announced our intention of giving the Sea Wolf short-range missile defence system an improved capability against a very low level attack.

At the same time we are pursuing programmes already under way—the Sea Skua short-range anti-ship missile is now entering service as is the submarine launched anti-ship missile Sub-Harpoon, while, with airborne equipment, work is going ahead on the conversion of the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft to improved standards. In addition, Nimrods have been fitted with the anti-ship Harpoon missile and the Sidewinder, which will give some self-defence capability. We would not have been able to afford all these vital weapon programmes without the resources released by our review.

Anti-submarine warfare remains our chief maritime priority. For some years the Soviet Union has been introducing into service a range of quieter nuclear submarines armed with longer range missiles. The area to be covered at sea has thus widened, so we need a programme of work on improving our sonar capability. We are pressing ahead with developing and acquiring more modern sonobuoys dropped from aircraft and helicopters and are fitting some type 22 frigates and retrofitting a number of Leanders with long-range advanced towed sonars. The type 23 frigate will also be equipped with these towed sonars. As it has been designed for quietness it will be a very effective anti-submarine warfare ship.

We are also continuing to convert our Sea King mark 2 anti-submarine helicopters to the more advanced mark 5. The successor to the Sea King, the EH101, will also constitute a major step forward in anti-submarine warfare with its greatly increased range and endurance and complementary avionics and sensor fit.

Our objectives remain to advance as rapidly as possible to the type 23 frigate and in the meantime to keep our requirements for type 22s under review. We also want to keep up the momentum of the submarine programme.

Sir Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)

When does my hon. Friend expect the first type 23 frigate to be commissioned? The Select Committee discussed the matter. British Shipbuilders said 1986 and the Admiralty 1988. Since then the Secretary of State has advanced the date.

Mr. Blaker

The type 23 cannot be commissioned before 1988.

In little more than a year we have ordered or announced tenders for three type 22 frigates. We have also ordered a nuclear powered hunter-killer submarine and have invited tenders for another, the seventeenth. We hope to order the eighteenth in the series during the next financial year.

Sir Frederick Burden

Was the design for the seventeenth SSN hunter-killer under the programme of the previous Government or of this Government? If it is this Government's programme, how much has it increased over that of the previous Government?

Mr. Blaker

I said that we had ordered the seventeenth.

Sir Frederick Burden

That is not the question that I asked.

Mr. Blaker

I am not clear what my hon. Friend was asking then.

Sir Frederick Burden

I was talking about the SSN.

Mr. Blaker

That is what I was talking about, too. Perhaps my hon. Friend and I can discuss the matter in the lobby afterwards.

We have debated Trident several times in recent months. Nevertheless, it would not surprise me if the Opposition were to return to the subject today, implying that because they would cancel Trident more money would be available under them for our conventional forces. That is a claim that they cannot substantiate. The Opposition's goal, however it is hedged about, is a reduction of about one-third in our total defence expenditure. As my right hon. Friend has pointed out, over the period of Trident's introduction that would mean reducing defence spending by about 11 Trident programmes. Labour's objective would involve massive cuts in our conventional forces, equivalent to virtually eliminating one of the three Services entirely.

But, in addition, the Opposition say that they would cancel—

Dr. Oonagh McDonald (Thurrock)

Why is the Minister not up to date?

Mr. Blaker

I am right up to date. I am quoting from the latest documents.

The Opposition say that they would cancel our commitment to a 3 per cent. annual increase. That commitment is absolutely clear. It is not hedged about by provisos intended to confuse, as was the Opposition's other commitment. Even if the 3 per cent. increase were cancelled for only three years—which is the period for which we have committed ourselves—the cumulative effect would eliminate from the defence budget more than twice all the money that would be saved from cancelling Trident. Under the Opposition's plans it is a mathematical impossibility that more money could be available for conventional forces from cancelling Trident.

I am conscious that many hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall not mention the exercises in which the Royal Navy has been engaged this year. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be able to do that.

I return to operation Corporate. Although there were difficulties and setbacks in the operation to liberate the Falkland Islands, there was, above all, an extraordinary record of achievement at every level of the naval Service. From the very start this was shown by the speed with which the task force was mobilised, supplied for war and deployed. The first warships of the task force sailed within three days of the Argentine invasion. The professionalism, willingness and application shown by all those involved in preparing the ships for deployment was magnificent. The dockyards worked round the clock with ships' staffs and the naval support organisations to achieve the object of preparing the ships in time. The results were seen by the nation on 5 April as the fleet sailed, equipped and ready for operations.

The task of mounting and sustaining the operation at such short notice, at such a distance from the United Kingdom and with such success is a feat that has been widely acclaimed by our Allies and one which many would scarcely have believed possible had it been suggested before it happened. Nor can our readiness and resolve have gone unnoticed by the Warsaw Pact.

A total of 42 warships were involved in the operation and they deployed a wide range of capabilities and systems the combined effectiveness of which has been proved in battle. The high state of operational readiness maintained by the Fleet under appalling weather conditions and enemy attack was remarkable and a fine tribute to our ability to conduct prolonged operations.

The performance of the men of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines has been superlative. Ships' companies and others with the Fleet responded with courage and skill to the challenge facing them in stormy seas and under constant threat of enemy action. Their families and friends—and indeed the nation—have every reason to be proud of them.

We have already explained to the House that we do not propose to compare at this stage the performance of individual weapon systems. That will be evaluated carefully during the next few months, with other types of equipment and other aspects of the campaign, and will be covered in the White Paper to be issued later in the year. However, I can say that all our weapon systems scored successes and I would like to remind the House of the matchless record of the Sea Harrier and its pilots. They shot down at least 28 Argentine aircraft, without any loss to themselves, in air-to-air combat. Together with naval missiles they accounted for more Argentine aircraft than any other cause.

That the landing in San Carlos Bay was achieved without casualties to our ground forces was due in no small part to the air defence layers provided by the Royal Navy during the landing when our land forces were at their most vulnerable. The enemy aircraft activity over the beach head represented only the remnants of much larger attacking formations which had suffered severe losses at the hands of the Sea Harriers carrying out interceptions well to the West.

The ships on the gunline in Falkland Sound and just outside it bore the brunt of the close air attacks. The Argentines were obliged by our missile systems to attack at wave-top height in an effort to avoid our air defence. It is not surprising that a proportion of such attacks, pressed home with considerable numbers of aircraft and with much resolve, succeeded in getting through. The gunline ships, obliged to remain in confined waters to protect the military units, landing ships and stores ships, were less manoeuvrable than they would have been in the open sea and were unable to take full advantage of their weapon systems.

That was a price that we had to pay to achieve the landing at San Carlos. Five of our ships were damaged that day, including HMS "Ardent" which sank after being hit by bombs and rockets following numerous air attacks, but the cost to the Argentines was about 18 aircraft lost. As a result of the Royal Navy's effort, our objective was achieved and the entire force of about 5,000 men, with their weapons and stores, was landed without a casualty. That was a remarkable achievement.

I said something in a recent debate about the part played by the Royal Marines.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

Are we to have an assessment of the problems of fire going through the ships, and in particular of the poisonous fumes given off from the lagging and covering of cables which was the cause of deaths on some of the ships?

Mr. Blaker

That will certainly be part of the assessment to which I have referred.

The Royal Marines played a major role in recapturing South Georgia without loss of life, and on the Falkland Islands once again demonstrated their versatility and professionalism. Their "yomping" about 80 miles across East Falkland must now be a household word. The brigade successfully overcame Argentine positions at Mount Harriet, Two Sisters Ridge and Mount Longdon, the last taken by the Third Battalion of the Parachute Regiment operating as part of 3 Commando Brigade, before Argentine resistance collapsed and Port Stanley was taken.

None of the Royal Navy's operations in the Falklands would have been possible without the untiring support that they received from the men and ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and the Royal Maritime Auxiliary Service, which were crewed largely by civilians who volunteered for this dangerous task. They included, of course, the logistic landing ships.

From the Fleet Air Arm, as well as the Sea Harriers, over 150 helicopters were involved. Flying rates were intensive and in the worst weather conditions. Their high states of readiness, maintained for long periods, are a credit to the skill and determination of aircrew and maintainers. The House will need no reminding of the search and rescue operations carried out by the helicopter pilots who, as we all saw so vividly recorded on television, demonstrated conspicuous gallantry in Bluff Cove.

The House will wish me to say something about the role played during the Falklands operation by the Merchant Navy. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I paid tribute in the recent defence debate to its contribution, which was magnificent, and essential to the success of the enterprise.

It has long been our plan that in time of national emergency we would call on the resources of the Merchant Navy. The speed with which the vessels needed were taken up owed much to the contingency planning that has been carried out over the years, although the enormous distance involved and the formidable logistic problems that resulted meant that a different mix and number of ships had to be acquired, compared with the requirements for a war in the East Atlantic.

Over 50 ships were chartered or requisitioned from 33 different companies. They ranged from passenger liners, to tankers, repair ships and tugs. Many of them had to be adapted. For instance, helicopter decks had to be bolted on or gear fitted to enable ships to be refuelled at sea. The work was done in record time, thanks to the enthusiasm of the work force in the Royal dockyards and commercial yards involved. These ships and the RFAs transported over 105,000 tons of freight to the South Atlantic, including 420 tons of fuel and 95 aircraft.

I cannot speak too highly of the courage and dedication of the crews who went to the South Atlantic. They had to operate in conditions vastly different from those to which they are used. At times they were in great danger. As the House knows, the "Atlantic Conveyor" sank after being hit by an Exocet missile with the tragic loss of her master and several of her crew. The tanker "British Wye" was bombed but miraculously escaped severe damage or casualties. That was by any standards a splendid contribution from the Merchant Navy.

There will certainly be lessons to be learnt from the Falklands operation. In particular, we shall wish to consider with the Department of Trade and the General Council of British Shipping the question of the installation of defensive equipment on board those merchant ships earmarked for taking up from trade, or at least preparatory work—

Sir Frederick Burden

My hon. Friend will agree that that is a little belated when it was stressed a long time ago, not least by myself, that there should be immediate consultations with the British merchant shipping organisations about the part that they would play and what defence they would have in carrying out their obligations in war.

Mr. Blaker

I was about to come to that. I had a long and useful meeting with the general council in April and our officials have begun preliminary discussions on the subjects raised. A comprehensive presentation is today being given to the general council and the shipowners on the role played by merchant shipping in the operation. That will set the scene for the future work to be continued under the shipping defence advisory committee, the principal forum for discussion on these very important matters.

The Falkland Islands campaign has been one of the most remarkable military actions in modern times, conducted by all three Services and the Merchant Marine. As its result not only are the Falkland Islanders once more free, but small countries breathe easier around the world. The Royal Navy has been involved in the campaign from the first hour. Even now it cannot drop its guard. Throughout that time the Royal Navy and the Merchant Marine have been the vital underpinning of the whole campaign. Of the quality of our ships and their armament and our naval aircraft we shall learn much from the studies which will be conducted over the next few months. I believe that they have served us well. What is beyond debate is the quality of the men of the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines and the Merchant Navy who took part in the Falkland Islands campaign. Their conduct has been superb and has earned the admiration, respect and gratitude of the British people.

5.20 pm
Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli)

At the beginning and again towards the end of his speech the Minister paid fulsome tributes to the Royal Navy, the Merchant Navy and the various other arms of the maritime services and praised them for their brilliant efforts on the Falklands. The Opposition endorse all that. But we are not really worried about the Royal Navy. We are worried about Ministers and Government policy. That is why we are practically having a second debate today on the Royal Navy.

The last two-day debate on the White Paper concentrated to a great extent upon the Royal Navy and upon maritime strategy. We believe that the Government's policies towards the Royal Navy are very damaging and will cause considerable damage to our maritime defences. The Government's naval policy is a shambles, and the Falklands campaign and the speeches made by Ministers only highlight that shambles and compound it every day.

The Minister said that the Government were prepared to save "Invincible" and have three carriers. We welcome that, but we should like to know why. A defence White Paper was published, without any reference to the Falklands, on the basis that nothing had changed in the strategy and that the real threat was from the Soviet Union in the Eastern Atlantic. Presumably, on the basis of that strategy, it was thought that two carriers were sufficient. It was thought that it did not matter that one carrier was in dock or being refitted for about four months of the year because the other one would be sufficient in the East Atlantic.

If the basis of the White Paper is the same, why do we need three carriers, much as we welcome the third one? What has changed? Has the strategy changed? I think that we should be told by the Minister what is the real basis in strategy terms—or is it merely that the Government saw that they had made a mistake and now are afraid to sell "Invincible" to the Australians?

The Minister tried to twist and turn and to present figures to show that the conventional forces of the Royal Navy were not being cut at all and that the Royal Navy was quite as strong at it was when it was inherited from the last Labour Government. But everyone knows that that is not so. We know that the Royal Navy is weaker and that it will be weaker still by the end of the decade.

As Opposition spokesmen have said before, we believe that the conventional forces of the Royal Navy are bearing the brunt of most of the cost of the Government's original decision to buy the Trident I missile system. The Minister dealt with it, and it is necessary to come back to it and to set the whole of the cuts in the context of Government policy. The Trident I missile system was to cost about £5 billion, and most of the cuts in the Royal Navy were to pay for it. But now the situation has changed. Because of the exigencies of American defence policy—not from choice, but because the Government are tied into American defence policy—the Government have been forced to buy the much more expensive and more lethal Trident II. On the Government's own estimate, taking this year's prices that is likely to cost about £8 billion. The Opposition think that the figure will be £10 billion at this year's prices.

Not only do we have this exorbitant cost—the cost of the Trident I has been accounted for, but the cost of the Trident II has not yet been accounted for—we also have so much of this expenditure going across the exchanges and being spent in the United States. It does not even come to the British economy. There may perhaps be some setoff, but 45 per cent. of the cost of the Trident II will go across the exchanges to the United States.

What is more, much of that cost is totally outside the Government's control. I cannot see how they can give precise figures for the cost of the Trident II. There is the cost of the exchange rate, for a start. If the dollar value of the pound falls, it will cost more. The Government have no control over that. The pound may rise, but it may fall. The cost is entirely outside the control of the Government.

Then we have the actual expenditure in the United States. When we debated the Trident, we were told that there was some kind of ceiling upon the expenditure in America—the 45 per cent.; the £4.5 billion, if the Opposition's figures are correct—but apparently that ceiling is to be index-linked for inflation. Again I ask the Government how that figure will be worked out. What kind of inflation are we to build into that £4.5 billion which is to be spent in the United States? Are we talking about American inflation, British inflation or some strange concoction of the two?

How are we to assess inflation? The Minister talked about technological change in the defence industries. Sometimes he talks about defence inflation. I am not sure where defence inflation stops and technological change starts. What are we to build into this figure of possibly £4.5 billion in dollars spent in the United States without any benefit to the British economy? How are the Government to be able to control that figure? How do they know what the figure is to be? If it is indexed to the defence inflation of the American armaments industry, the sky is the limit because it is difficult to assess it and there is very little control over it.

I make no apology for coming back to the Trident. The Royal Navy is already paying for the Trident I and in my view the Secretary of State and his Ministers have a duty to the House and to the country to say how much more in future will have to be cut from our conventional foces—the Royal Navy, the Army or the Royal Air Force—to pay for the doubling of expenditure on the Trident II.

The expenditure may fall a little later, towards the end of the decade. Perhaps the Secretary of State feels that it will not be his problem. In his more optimistic moments, probably he is hoping to be at the Treasury by then. In his more pessimistic moments, it may be that he sees himself growing daffodils in Cornwall. Whether it is to be the Treasury or the daffodils, he should now tell the House clearly from where the money is to come, what expenditure will have to be cut, and whether the Royal Navy will have to be cut again to pay for the Trident II.

The Minister tried to pretend that the Royal Navy was not being cut by too much and that in any case the last Labour Government's plans were unrealistic.

Mr. Antony Buck (Colchester)

Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the nuclear issue, does not he appreciate that it seems to many of us that precisely the same reasons actuated the Government in going for the Trident as caused the right hon. Gentleman's Government to participate in the updating of our nuclear deterrent, the Chevaline? It would have been very difficult if the Argentines had had a low-grade nuclear weapon and we had had nothing in our own control to deal with it.

Mr. Davies

We have had a debate on the Trident and the feasibility of having nuclear weapons. I am making the fair point that the Government should say from where the extra cost of the Trident II is to come. The 1981 White Paper was laid before the House before the decision to buy the Trident II.

Mr. Bill Walker (Perth and East Perthshire)

Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Atlantic is a two-way street? All his arguments against a possible escalation of costs for the Trident or any other weapon purchased from the United States works the other way on stuff that we are selling the United States.

Mr. Davies

I cannot see 45 per cent. of the costs of the Trident coming back from the United States.

I move on to the state of the Royal Navy which was bequeathed to this Government by the last Labour Administration. In our last debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) pointed out what the position was. He said that 96 major warships and submarines other than Polaris were in existence when the Conservative Government took office. By April of this year, before the Falklands crisis—there have been some changes since then—the figure was down to 86. Despite the recent announcement, we shall see a further decline by the end of the decade. Of the 27 major warships that have entered service since 1979 or that will enter service over the next five years, only four have been ordered by the present Government.

The Minister confirmed that the figure of destroyers and frigates—major warships—will now be 50, of which 42 will be operational. We are now to have three aircraft carriers, but apparently we shall still only have two dockyards.

The Minister also mentioned weapons and new equipment. Before the Falklands crisis, I do not remember any urgency over ordering the light-weight Sea Wolf system which would have been so helpful in the Falklands. Now apparently it is a splendid weapon, but there was not much urgency before. Then there was the Sea Eagle, which apparently is far superior to the Exocet. Nothing much was done about that, either. But immediately after hostilities ended, the Secretary of State appeared on television standing in front of a Sea Eagle saying what a splendid weapon it was. Why was not it a splendid weapon before the Falklands campaign—[HON. MEMBERS: "It was."] Then why did not the Government order it?

Mr. Blaker

It was ordered before.

Mr. Davies

It was ordered after a great deal of dithering by the Government.

The true explanation of the Government's policy on the Navy was clearly set out in an editorial in The Times of 21 June, which said: The severity of Mr. Nott's proposed cuts in naval strength is concealed by the fact that the fleet will rise in strength for the next two years, mostly as a result of construction orders placed by the Callaghan government. There is some sleight of hand here in ministerial explanations,"— that, I assume, is the understatement of The Timesbecause the strength of the fleet will be bitten into severely after 1985". That did not come from the Labour Party; it came from an editorial in The Times.

The truth is that the Labour Party bequeathed to the right hon. Gentleman and his Ministers a task force which could be put together with extraordinary speed and which could sail 8,000 miles to the edge of the South Pole. If the Government's cuts are allowed to go ahead, I doubt whether the right hon. Gentleman will bequeath to his successor the same inheritance.

It has been rightly said that one of the reasons for the invasion of the Falklands was that the Government sent General Galtieri all the wrong signals. I am sure that most people would agree with that. One of those signals was the decision to withdraw HMS "Endurance". I believe that another signal was the decision to reduce the strength of the Royal Navy and cut he dockyards. Perhaps the junta in Buenos Aires is parochial, but there is nothing parochial about the Argentine foreign service, and when Mr. Costa Mendez made his assessment of the likely consequences of an invasion and whether Britain would react I have no doubt that the well-publicised reports of the cuts in the Royal Navy led Argentina to the conclusion that Britain could not and would not react to a Falklands invasion.

The Minister said that three days after the invasion the Government sent some warships down there. Why did they not send submarines on 19 March? We saw the reports in The Observer last week and the previous week.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Nott)

They are all wrong.

Mr. Davies

Well, they have an authentic ring about them. The Secretary of State may say that they are all wrong, but can he confirm that the Cabinet Committee or the Ministry of Defence was never asked to send submarines to the South Atlantic before the invasion? If he can confirm that, he should come to the Dispatch Box and say so. It is no good his shaking his head from a sedentary position. I have considerable doubt about the Government's position. The decision to withdraw HMS "Endurance" was a clear signal, as I think all would agree.

In the debate in this chamber on 6 July, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) asked when HMS "Endurance" would be coming back from the South Atlantic, in view of the length of time that her crew had been there. The Under-Secretary of State said that he was not in a position to give an answer at that time. Now that hostilities have terminated, I hope that the Minister will make a statement. The crew's families are anxious, because the ship has been away a long time. I hope that the Minister will at least tell us that "Endurance" will be back in sufficient time for her captain to give evidence to the inquiry, because I am told that he has an interesting tale to tell. It was recently reported in a newspaper, and I have no reason to doubt the truth of the report, that the captain had said that All the signs were there. We could see it was going to happen: why could not everyone else? I understand that "Endurance" took an interesting official film of the events that took place around South Georgia. Perhaps we could have a look at an unedited version of that film in the Library one of these days.

We believe that the cuts in the surface fleet of the Royal Navy have been made for purely financial reasons, not because of a deep-seated analysis of defence and naval strategy. Indeed, the keeping of "Invincible" confirms that. Despite that, the Secretary of State has sought on a few occasions to give a different impression. He sought to cover the cuts with a veneer of intellectuality. In the debate in the House on 7 July last year on the 1981 White Paper which led to the cuts, he tried to give the impression that there was a strategic view of how a war with the Soviet Union was likely to start.

The most favoured scenario appeared to be that the war in central Europe would be a short war, so that reinforcements by sea from the United States could not arrive in time. I quote what the Secretary of State said on that occasion: If the Soviets attempted to smash a way through on the central front with their overwhelming conventional superiority, there might be a war that was nasty, brutish and short". He went on to say that if the central front did not hold, no reinforcements from the United States would be possible over the succeeding months. Further on, he said: In the defence review,"— that is, the 1981 defence review— therefore, we looked first at our ability to hold such an attack … it would be a blitzkrieg of immense conventional force".— [Official Report, 7 July 1981; Vol. 8, c. 277–78.] The Secretary of State could be right. On the other hand, he could be wrong. If there were such an attack, it could get bogged down in central Europe. A land attack might not happen on the central front; it might happen somewhere else. It is quite possible that hostilities would not take place on land at all, but at sea. So a war in central Europe might not be the most plausible scenario. It is not too fanciful to suggest that, in a period of international tension, the Soviet Union might declare a large area of the North Atlantic a total exclusion zone.

Mr. Nott

I have never said or predicted that a war would necessarily be a short war, although those sentiments have often been put in my mouth. What I have said is that if the Soviet Union were successful in the early days of the war in fighting its way through to the Channel, reinforcements might well prove to be too late.

Mr. Davies

Yes, but in that speech the Secretary of State did not deal with any other scenario. If he was fair, he would have said "On the other hand, there are other scenarios". He was concerned to make a case—a rather superficial one—for the cuts in the Royal Navy which were imposed because the Government had to buy Trident 1. If he wanted to discuss that matter, he should have discussed it in depth instead of saying what he did, and nothing else at all. I say again that it is perfectly possible, in a time of international tension, for the war to start at sea, not on land, and for the Soviet Union to declare a part of the North Atlantic a total exclusion zone.

In the debate on 7 July, the Secretary of State quoted from the writings of a Soviet general. I seem to remember a previous debate in which he dealt with some of the thoughts of the redoubtable Admiral Gorchkof. I know that the Secretary of State is not best pleased with admirals these days. There are a lot of them about, and most of them seem to live in the letter columns of The Times. I quite understand how he feels. If Soviet military strategy is still his bedtime reading, I suggest to him a book by the redoubtable Gorchkof called "The Combat Path of the Soviet Navy". Perhaps I might give one quotation from it: Napoleon's failure to invade England was due to his one sided strategy which stemmed from his preoccupation with operations in the land theatres and his lack of understanding of the Navy, his disregard for its capabilities in war and thus his inability to use it in a struggle with a maritime power". The huge build-up of the Soviet Navy over the past 10 years which often worries Conservative Members and the Secretary of State—

Mr. Nott

The right hon. Gentleman would hardly expect any admiral to say anything else.

Mr. Davies

I quite understand the right hon. Gentleman's dislike of admirals, and obviously he will not listen to anything that any of them say any more. However, perhaps he should pay some attention to why there has been a build-up of the Soviet Navy. There has been a build-up, not because the Soviet Union was initially concerned with what the Americans call projecting power over the world—what we would call showing the flag—but because of a belief, taken from Russian history, that the Soviet Union cannot win even a land war against a maritime power. The admiral may be right, or he may be wrong, but that is one reason for it. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman should not dismiss all admirals, even if he dismisses most British admirals.

Our main criticism of the Government's policies is that by cutting the Navy the right hon. Gentleman is tilting the balance of strategy too far towards a continental strategy and away from a maritime strategy, thus losing the flexibility which would be vital if war were tragically to break out.

I turn now to the number of major warships, frigates and destroyers, mentioned by the Minister. He said and confirmed that we should have about 50, and that without the eight which were not operational we should have about 42.

Mr. Blaker

Up to eight.

Mr. Davies

I shall say 42 and the hon. Gentleman can say "up to eight". Those 42 ships will not be committed to NATO. There will probably be two in the Gulf and with the war between Iraq and Iran getting worse—

Mr. Duffy

And two on passage.

Mr. Davies

That upsets my mathematics. I shall stick to my original figures. For the sake of argument, I shall say that there will be two ships in the Gulf, one or two in the Mediterranean, one in Belize and the Caribbean, and one in the Far East. I shall be conservative, and say five ships. That reduces the number of ships committed to NATO to 37. The number was 42 but with five engaged in out of area activities we are left with a total of 37. That was the position before the Falklands invasion. Although the Government have not told us, I have read in the newspapers that five frigates and possibly more will be needed in the Falklands. If that is the case, the number of ships committed to NATO is down to 32.

When the Government announced last year the cuts in the number of frigates and destroyers many of our allies were worried, especially the United States. The Government had to try to convince the United States that there would not be a gap in our defences. I do not believe that the United States is convinced. If we are now down to 32 ships, there is a larger gap in NATO's maritime defences. If the threat is coming from the Soviet Union, how will that gap be filled? Will it be filled by our allies? Have they said that they will provide more ships to fill that gap? Will it be filled by building more ships? I have not heard that. Or will the Government take a chance again, as they did in the Falklands? We ought to be told something—perhaps not today, but certainly in the autumn—about how the Government will fill the gap in their NATO defences since they must keep frigates in the South Atlantic and perhaps in other parts of the world.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

The right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) is making a case with which I agree for a stronger Navy, but will he in turn make it clear what his party would do if it were in Government about increasing the size of the Navy? Bearing in mind that the Government have now cancelled a number of the cuts that they proposed earlier, what size surface fleet does the Labour Party advocate?

Mr. Davies

We believe that the Government should restore the cuts that they made in the Navy and restore its strength to the level that they inherited from the Labour Government. We do not believe that the Government can do that because of Trident II. That is why we believe that Trident II should be cancelled. I should return to that point later.

We should not forget also—the Minister referred to this matter—that the task force could not have been sent to the South Atlantic without the enormously efficient back-up that was provided by the Merchant Navy, by the dockyards and by the naval stores and depots. As the House knows, the Government either requisitioned or chartered 50 ships of the Merchant Navy, all of them manned by volunteers. Without them the task force could not have been sent and the fact that they were able to be brought together so quickly is a great tribute to all involved and also to the foresight of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East and the Labour Government—as mentioned in a previous debate—in setting up a Merchant Navy register.

We were also fortunate that we still had a merchant fleet. With the growth of flags of convenience, it has steadily declined over the years. It has been estimated that if the decline continues at the present rate, and had the Falklands crisis occurred at the end of the decade, there would have been very few British merchant ships left to send. Ships registered in Panama and Liberia cannot be requisitioned for war and men cannot be asked to risk their lives for a flag of convenience.

The Goverment should give serious consideration—again, in all fairness, the Minister mentioned this—to establishing a proper maritime strategy for Britain. That cannot be the sole responsibility of the Ministry of Defence. It must take into account other Departments—the Department of Trade, the Department of Industry and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Such a policy, if properly co-ordinated, would not only assist our defence but would also provide decent conditions of service for our merchant seamen, who have been shabbily treated over the years, and would provide help for our shipping and shipbuilding industries.

The Government could make a start—the Minister expressed the same sentiment—by ensuring that the replacement for the "Atlantic Conveyor" is built in a British shipyard. It would be a national disgrace and an insult to the men who died on that ship—the Minister mentioned the captain and the others who died—if the new ship were built in a foreign yard. The Prime Minister is fond of calling upon trade unionists and others to show what she calls "The Falklands spirit". Perhaps she could now call upon the board of Trafalgar House to show that Falklands spirit and build the replacement in Britain. After all, we all know that over the years Trafalgar House companies have done quite well out of the public purse, either in tax avoidance schemes or in Government subsidies.

The future of the dockyards is a major part of the defence review. If it were not for the skill and efficiency of the dockyards and the naval stores, the task force could not have been sent and it could not have been kept operational in the South Atlantic. Despite that—we have heard it again today—the Government are going ahead with the ultimate rundown of Portsmouth, despite the postponement for a few months. They are still planning to close Chatham and Gibraltar. There are also a number of naval stores such as Llangennech, in my constituency, and Deptford, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin), which also played a major part in the Falklands campaign by ensuring that replacement parts were sent to the Falklands quickly and promptly. We call upon the Government to halt and reverse the closure of these dockyards and stores and to instigate another inquiry into the problems of the dockyards. Chatham and Gibraltar should be kept open and the rundown of Portsmouth should be cancelled.

The Falklands campaign has shown the crucial need to maintain the fleet in a state of operational readiness. If the closure plans go through, that ability will be gravely impaired. Indeed, the more the question of the dockyards is debated in the House and outside, the less convincing—the Minister was not convincing today—is the case for the closure of the dockyards. If Chatham is closed, there will not be the necessary capacity of expertise to refit our hunter-killer submarines and to keep them in a proper state of readiness. Since the Government are placing so much faith in those submarines—I do not quarrel with that—as the core of our naval defence, it is extraordinary that they should want to close the one dockyard that has the capacity and the skills to keep the nuclear-powered submarine fleet in an efficient and proper state of readiness.

To a great extent, Portsmouth and Gibraltar are the victims of the Secretary of State's decision to build disposable frigates and to forgo to a considerable extent what is described as mid-life modernisation. The Secretary of State put the matter clearly in a debate on 25 June 1981. I believe that it is worth quoting. He said: Secondly, we can maintain our surface fleet at its present full strength only through a continuous programme of rents and major mid-life modernisations, requiring a huge and costly dockyard infrastructure. Typically it can now cost up to £70 million to modernise an old "Leander" frigate, which is actually more than our target cost for the new type 23 frigate."—[Official Report, 25 June 1981: Vol. 7, c. 389.] It is indeed, and the figures have changed a great deal since then. The target cost was about £60 million. It had to be less than £70 million.

Those figures, with their slide rule accuracy, are very suspect and have become more suspect since. What a coincidence—a type 23 frigate costing more than the mid-life refit of a "Leander"-type frigate. I am told that it has never cost £70 million to refit a "Leander"-type frigate. Perhaps that figure was at last year's prices but the figures look extremely shaky when they are analysed. The position has become worse.

In a debate on 1 July the Secretary of State said that the type 23 frigate would now be upgraded. He said that it would now cost around £90 million at September 1981 prices".—[Official Report, 1 July 1982; Vol. 26, c. 1064.] Around £90 million at last year's Ministry of Defence prices is about £100 million at this year's prices Now we are being told that the new type 23 frigate will cost close on £100 million, What will be the corresponding cost of refitting a "Leander" frigate? I do not suppose that it will be £100 million.

The idea that £100 million-worth of frigate could or would be thrown away like some paper plate is ridiculous. As I understand it, the composition of the figure has changed. The idea of planned obsolescence—that ships should be allowed to become obsolete without refitting—is ridiculous. The Government should reverse their policy of planned obsolescence. They should keep the dockyards open and provide the Royal Navy with proper refit facilities as most other navies do.

We have a defence policy which is "unbalanced and over-extended"—that was said by the Secretary of State in his statement. Since then the Government have decided to buy Trident II and have fought a costly war with consequences that we still do not know entirely. The policy now is even more unbalanced and even more overextended. The Government should cancel the Trident project, restore the Navy cuts and give serious consideration to a maritime strategy extending beyond the limits of defence policy itself.

As Britain is an island close to a continent it is inevitable that our defence, foreign and economic policies should, to some extent, reflect that fact. However, over the past generation the balance has tilted too far towards continental considerations and it is time that it was redressed. Our defence, foreign and economic policies should again reflect the fact that we are an island and not a continental nation. As it seems that the Government do not have the will or the inclination to redress the balance—in my opinion, they will make it worse—the next Labour Government will have to do so.

5.52 pm
Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)

The numerous occasions on which my hon. Friend the Minister of State was interrupted by hon. Members on both sides of the House—with typical courtesy he invariably gave way—illustrated the deep anxieties that are felt in all quarters of the House about the strength of the Royal Navy. The Falkland Islands campaign has undoubtedly brought them to wider notice.

As my hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) have said, we should be proud. The Armed Services of our nation, which are manned entirely by volunteers—they had admirable support from our civilian Merchant fleet and from many other quarters—achieved a memorable success. It was refreshing to find all concerned operating in a spirit of "Let's get things done" rather than in, alas, what has become the habitual British approach of asking "Why should we not do this?"

In the inhospitable waters of the South Atlantic our country and our people, against all odds, and not for the first time in our history, defended principle, freedom and our heritage against a treacherous assault, and did so with splendid success. We should all rejoice in that.

It is not inappropriate in a Navy debate to say how brilliantly the Army and the Royal Marines operated. Who could have foreseen that with so few casualties they would be able to conquer an entrenched enemy on more than one occasion comprising about 10,000 soldiers? It was an essay of courage, daring and skill.

A cynical Foreign Secretary of the past once remarked that the Army was a projectile to be fired by the Navy. That, of course, is absurd, but it brings me to the point that I wish to make. Without a strong maritime capability the Falklands operation would have been impossible. This debate should not be, as it has been a bit over the past half hour or so, a discussion about who ordered what ships and when, significant though that may be in the party battle. What matters to the nation is the Royal Navy's future. We must ensure that it is at all times adequate for the demands that may be made of it.

We have it on the authority of Lord Hill-Norton, former head of the Navy and Chief of Defence Staff, that if the Falkland crisis had come three years later Britain would not have been able to muster the task force that it needed. What are we doing and what must we do to disprove that apparently informed assertion?

I do not agree with the right hon. Member for Llanelli that the Government do not have a clear strategy. It seems to be entirely clear. I accept unhesitatingly the first emphasis of the Government's defence plan. The West has no choice but to strengthen its collective defence in the face of the fearsome aggressive Soviet threat. The decision to modernise our strategic nuclear deterrent is right.

Certainly our first responsibility is the defence of these islands. However, we are running grave risks in the way in which we are proceeding. Some of the decisions that we are making seem to be possibly mistaken. I hope to show how they can and might be changed.

In the Falklands campaign it took about 18,000 men in ships to land 9,000 troops. There were nearly 100 ships involved, including 1 million deadweight tanker tonnes. Also involved were the QE2 and the "Canberra", the only large passenger ships that were available. We must not forget how valuable the ships of the hydrographic fleet were which took part in the exercise—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am glad that that assertion meets with the warm endorsement of the House.

I shall now give some more general statistics. The analysis that I am about to quote is a private one. It is astounding that official statistics are not available. On any one day in the year probably 10,000 ships of the world's merchant fleet are at sea. About 40 per cent. of them, or 4,000 ships, are in European waters. Many more are en route to or from European waters. It is estimated that about 500 tankers are en route to Europe on any one day.

What are the conclusions that one can draw—without detail—from these statistics? Whether we speak of the defence of British people overseas or on these islands, the defence of our Allies, our interests or our trade, the ability to bring food and raw material from outside, sometimes from many thousands of miles away, we need a strong, mobile and adequate Navy with a world-wide capability.

I warmly welcome the intervention that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made a few moments ago, which was especially significant. We are awaiting the publication of a new White Paper, which will be available in about four months' time. I hope that in it we shall have a clear analysis of the United Kingdom's defence requirements and not merely a statement of what can be afforded as a sort of compromise between the Treasury and Defence Departments.

Apart from our defensive-offensive nuclear capabilities we need the ability, in conjunction with our Allies, to keep the United Kingdom and Europe provisioned, fuelled and furnished with material, plus the ability to land and supply British and Allied forces anywhere in the world. We need to discuss much more than we habitually do the most costeffective method of realising these objectives. To those who say "We cannot afford it" I reply "We cannot not afford it".

In using such terms as the "Eastern Atlantic", drawing imagined and arbitrary lines across the world's oceans and in talking of convoys from a certain point in mid-Atlantic, arbitrarily chosen, to home waters, we risk developing a Maginot-line mentality. That seems to me to be deadly dangerous.

At the outbreak of war in 1939 Germany had fewer than 60 submarines. In 1943, at the height of the submarine battle and when the United Kingdom so narrowly escaped disaster, Doenitz commanded 139. There are 450 in the Soviet fleet today, one-third of them nuclear-powered.

By 1945, at the end of the war, the Allies had about 5,000 escorts. Today NATO could mobilise about 250. That is all. We have little in the way of a fleet of distant-water trawlers in reserve, and a trivial number of minesweepers. It is worth remembering that in 1939 the fishing industry contributed 450 deep-water fishing vessels in support of the Royal Navy. Today there are only 16 deep-water fishing vessels. They are supposed to be out in two years' time. There are a mere 58 middle-water vessels, all about 20 years old.

Like it or not, we are in the numbers game. We need many more ships—not just a few. The question is, how? I believe that this is feasible. In days gone by we had at least six rates in our line of battleships. In the last war we had the same. My naval service was short and undistinguished. I first served in a Woolworth carrier, as it was called, which was a converted merchant ship. It was a fifth-rate ship, so to speak. But what a job those Woolworth carriers and other ships like them did.

I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that we need to reintroduce that concept now. By so doing we could easily save money. Not all our ships have to be gold-plated. Not all have to carry everything. Not all have to be first-rate. We shall never build adequate numbers of mine countermeasures vessels, for example, if each costs £35 million, as the Hunt class does, according to the White Paper. The same goes for offshore patrol boats, which cost £14 million. The same certainly goes for the so-called cheap frigates. The type 23 will cost over £100 million.

Another aspect of the same point is that the capacity of some of our expensive ships—carriers such as "Invincible"—is pretty tiny when all is said and done. It carries a mix of 16 or 17 different aircraft. We could do just as well with converted merchant ships, at vastly less cost. Ships such as the "Invincible" cost £350 million. In the United States the new carriers cost 10 times this sum. But a very large cargo carrier costs only some £25 million. Cheaper ships are assuredly practical. They are one way, perhaps the only way, to achieve a better balance in the Royal Navy.

It is heartbreaking to observe the inadequacies of the fleet and the muddle between different types of ships. Heartbreaking also is the abandonment of such essential aspects of naval strength as coastal forces and maritime early-warning radar, which in the Falkland Islands nearly proved fatal to us. The proposal that the fleet, wherever it may be, will be safeguarded in future by 34 land—based Nimrod aircraft is absurd, as is the concept that the fleet will always operate below cover to be supplied by shore-based aircraft. It is a scandal that we had no early warning facilities in the Falkland Islands campaign. I hope that that is one thing that my right hon. Friend will put right.

There are other aspects of design. We shall no doubt learn the Falkland Islands lesson about the location of control rooms, flammable material, the extraordinary inadequacy of damage control arrangements and the like.

I should like to make another point about design to my right hon. Friend as he has been courteous enough to listen to the debate. Three years ago my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) and t discussed ship design with Ministers at the Ministry of Defence. The concept of building only narrow ships is wholly wrong. Broader-beamed ships are entirely possible today with modern hull formations and would give a vastly better platform. Not only that, but they could accommodate without disadvantage such as aluminium superstructures many of the heavy weaponries which today must be put at a higher level than in the past.

I hope that my right hen. Friend will consider going out to private tender for certain naval shipbuilding essays in the future. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement will recall that when he was a member of the Public Accounts Committee, and I was its Chairman, we visited the installation at Bath. It is after experience on the spot that I make that recommendation.

Our fleet was at sea for 90 days. That was a tremendous strain on the men and on the material. Both came through splendidly, but how that emphasises the need for adequate bases all over the world, such as Gibraltar, Ascension Island and Simonstown.

We must have an adequate strategic dockyard capability. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will recall this, too. The Public Accounts Committee went to see the nuclear refitting capability at Chatham. We saw the work that was being done on frigates. We reported to the House on those matters. I speak of what I have observed at first hand as Chairman of a Select Committee. In my view, the problem with the dockyards is a problem of management. All the evidence is there for everyone to see. There have been delays and overruns of costs—a lamentable record. However, that is not a reason for closing the dockyards, if we run the risk of there not being adequate capacity to refit ships in the future in line with the strength of the fleet. That is a reason for introducing new management. That is the tack that I recommend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to pursue.

We should reintroduce the seagoing heavy repair facility, which we have apparently abandoned. We needed that badly in the Falkland Islands. We still need it.

My next point has been acknowledged to some extent by my hon. Friend the Minister of State. I warmly welcomed what he said. If the Royal Navy is the front line of this nation's defence, the Merchant Navy is not the second, but it stands at the side of the professional fighting service. Since the war I have watched the British merchant fleet decline in size. That decline took place notably in 1981, when we lost 6.3 million deadweight tonnes. In the past six years we have lost two-fifths of the whole fleet. The fishing fleet has also declined. It is time to cry "Halt" to that process. We can debate in detail what might be done to bring about a practical halt, but a halt there must be.

Let us be realistic. In the South Atlantic we won a brilliant victory, although disaster was never far away. That is the truth. It is the reality. Against a more competent enemy, particularly an air force under better direction, our ship losses would have been far greater. The Government's task is to see that the practical lessons of that experience are learnt and acted upon. The responsibility of all of us on these Back Benches, especially those who, for many reasons, love and respect the Royal Navy, is to insist on nothing less. I see no reason why we should not have a Navy that is wholly adequate for the tasks which the nation might see fit to vest upon it, provided that we adopt a radical and determined new approach to our duty. I hope that that ambition will come out of the White Paper in four months' time.

6.9 pm

Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

The right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) made many interesting suggestions about the future of the Navy. I am not entirely convinced by the argument that we should use a great many of what he called fifth rate ships. One of the many lessons of the Falklands affair is that such ships are extremely vulnerable, and without a sophisticated weapons system the Navy will suffer heavy losses.

One of the most famous naval bases in the world is in my constituency. Although the great ships at present in Scapa Flow are tankers rather than naval ships, it has been a naval base for a thousand years, and might be again. Moreover, many men from my constituency have joined the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy. Many still go to sea as fishermen. I suppose that there is far more knowledge of the South Atlantic and of South Georgia in the Shetlands, from the whaling days, than anywhere else in Britain. Indeed, the captain of our latest carrier, the "Illustrious", is an Orkney man. Therefore, I have connections with the Navy.

On the whole, my constituents have extremely good relations with the Navy arising from the days when the Navy ran Scapa Flow. We had one slight setback owing to the incredible meanness of the Admiralty in refusing compensation to a man whose boat was sunk. It is notorious that only at the top of the Services does a slightly mean spirit sometimes intervene.

I, too, have unbounded admiration for the courage of the Navy in the South Atlantic. I pay tribute to the Navy's skill. It has always been a highly skilled Service, and today it has to keep up with the most advanced technology. It is astonishing that the Navy managed to mount the task force and keep it in the South Atlantic in the middle of winter when so many easier jobs are bungled in this country. The Falklands affair also showed that deterrence is much cheaper than retaliation. That is a lesson that many people might learn with advantage.

Despite some comments made today, I emphasise that the main task of our naval forces, as of our military and air forces, is the defence of Europe, the waters adjacent to Europe and the people who rely on NATO. That may mean going far afield, but to divert attention to out of zone tasks, such as the Falklands, would be to draw the wrong lessons. These will always be secondary. If we are too impressed by the need to keep forces available for expeditions all over the world, we shall commit the sin, of which generals are sometimes accused, of preparing for the last war over again. We must be careful to gauge the circumstances of modern warfare as they are likely to arise in different instances.

The importance of the submarine cannot be overestimated. Therefore, I am glad to hear that the hunter-killer programme is continuing. I understand that the present programme of 17 is to be increased to 18. However, I hope that they will not be delayed by the Trident programme. I have heard a suggestion that there could be a delay in the latter stages of the hunter-killer programme because it will be necessary to build submarines for Trident. I hope that that is not so. In common with many hon. Members, I have doubts about Trident and its expense. It would be wrong if it were to delay the rest of the submarine programme.

As regards the surface ship programme, the Minister is right not to be dogmatic about the lessons of the Falklands campaign until it has been fully investigated. I am glad that an investigation is in hand.

I am not entirely clear whether the 30 or so frigates and destroyers—I am not sure of the exact number—which may be available to NATO will operate in waters in which they can survive. We need more information about the performance of surface vessels in the South Atlantic.

There is also the curious aspect of the carriers. Until recently we were assured that two carriers would be sufficient. I understand that that decision has been reversed and there will now be three carriers. What is the purpose? Is it to protect the shipping lanes in the North Atlantic and to sink submarines? What is the extra carrier for? What is the primary role of carriers?

I refer now to the interplay between ships and aircraft. The Harriers appear to have scored remarkable successes, but is it true that the Argentine aircraft were not fitted with weapons capable of dealing with aircraft? Is it true that they were fitted with anti-ship weapons only? If so, that throws a completely different light on the aircraft battles. Further, if the Argentine bombs had exploded, would we have lost six more vessels? That, if true, is an extremely important point to take into account. We may underestimate the acute danger of ships operating far from land-based aircraft. However, there is insufficient time in this debate for us to explore all aspects of naval affairs.

One lesson from the Falklands affair that we have learnt is how capable and courageous our Navy is, and that must give great heart to everyone in the country. We would not be doing any service to those who lost their lives if we drew the wrong conclusions. Therefore, I welcome the serious inquiry into the whole matter.

I cannot believe that the Argentines were misled by the cuts in the Navy. I believe they were misled by statements made by Ministers. What Ministers have said about the Falklands is on record and on tape. I am sure they were more damaging than any cuts in the numbers of surface ships. Lessons need to be learnt. We must keep our minds on the main task of the Navy and not be misled into diverting our resources to situations which may never arise.

Having said that, I again pay tribute to the Navy, and, in common with every hon. Member, I am convinced that we must keep it in good shape.

6.16 pm
Mr. Antony Buck (Colchester)

I welcome the opportunity of speaking after the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond). I shall leave the Minister to reply to the specific questions raised by the right hon. Gentleman, save for the fact that I was slightly surprised that he questioned the purpose of the carriers. They demonstrated their utility and value in recent events. Therefore, I welcome the intention to have three carriers.

One cannot win when arguing with the Opposition. It is right that originally the intention was to have three carriers. My right hon. Friend was wrong in proposing that there should be only two. However, without much help from the Opposition, we have converted the Minister to agreeing to the original decision that there should be three carriers. Therefore, let us be united in rejoicing that there will be three.

I am entitled to say that, but I am not sure that, with few exceptions, Opposition Members can do so. They have great plans for expansion. Yet at the same time they intend to reduce expenditure on the Services to the lowest NATO average. They will pay for this by cancelling Trident. I am something of a "matchstick man". I am not very good at dealing with the number of noughts involved in defence expenditure. However, I do not believe that cancelling Trident will enable the Opposition to do all the things that they suggest. I recommend the Opposition to carry out a close study of my right hon. Friend's document in this respect. The last document dealing with the United Kingdom Trident programme states: So far as the impact of the defence budget is concerned we estimate that the Trident D5 programme will cost on average around 3 per cent. of the defence budget over the period during which it will be introduced into service. The document then analyses that.

The Opposition cannot restore the dockyard cuts and increase the conventional Navy and Armed Forces everywhere by cancelling Trident. That cannot be done. My right hon. Friend will finally dispose of their arguments when he replies to the debate. It comes ill from the Opposition when one considers the state of morale which they left in the conventional Services. I represent a garrison town and, with the co-operation of the Ministry of Defence, I have been privileged to visit many of Her Majesty's ships. When the Conservative Party took office the morale of our Services was at an all-time low. I know of that from my constituents and from the ship visits that I have made.

I have never believed that Conservatives have a monopoly of concern about defence matters. However, I blame the Labour Government—

Mr. Denzil Davies

indicated dissent.

Mr. Buck

It is no use the right hon. Gentleman shaking his head. So far as I recall, in those days he was not much concerned about defence matters. He is a newcomer to this scene and is perhaps now trying to keep the Labour Party robust. I have known the right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin) for a long time, and I assure him that when we came to office morale in the Forces was at rock bottom.

One expects minor moaning and grumbling in the Forces—they would not be in a healthy state otherwise—but the moaning and grumbling got worse, as was demonstrated by the outflow of key personnel, particularly in the middle bracket, such as petty officers, chief petty officers, fleet chiefs and so on. Exactly the same happened in the Army. The Conservative Government are therefore entitled to considerable credit for the fact that, even before the Queen's Speech, they dealt with Forces pay and stopped the drain of key personnel—the "lifeblood of liberty"—from the Armed Forces.

A Navy debate is always a fascinating occasion. I welcome the opportunity to make a relatively short contribution. My happiest time in the House was that all too short period when I was the Minister responsible for the Royal Navy. My period as Minister was truncated because Labour won the election, but I got to know the Navy moderately well and visited every type of ship and most major establishments. I never worked so hard in my life and never enjoyed myself so much. During that time we at least ensured that morale and pay were kept high. My admiration for what I saw of the Royal Navy knows no bounds. I have been able to keep in touch by visiting ships and meeting the Armed Forces, and my admiration for the Royal Navy has increased. It has escalated even more because of the splendid way in which the Falkland Islands affair was conducted.

Many people deserve credit for what happened in the South Atlantic. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been criticised. I quarrel with him about the original decision to move the guard ship HMS "Endurance", but other than that I commend the way in which he and the Government conducted the affair. It took considerable political courage to dispatch the task force. How different things could have been had it not gone so well!

The Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend deserve considerable credit for having had the courage to take that decision. I am not sure whether Labour Ministers would have taken a similar decision. They may have been influenced by Labour Members below the Gangway who are absent this evening. It is a time for national pleasure that everything went so well, in spite of the fact that there was national distress that the incident should have occurred.

We are to have an inquiry. I am sceptical about that. I have recently visited the United States, and people there find it incredible that, in spite of the fact that we have just scored a major victory, we torture ourselves by inquiring into how it happened. There should, of course, be an internal inquiry into the practical defence lessons to be learnt, but I am sceptical about a longer far ranging inquiry. To my mind, the Falkland Islands dispute occurred for the simple reason that a Fascist dictator embarked on an external operation to take his people's minds away from their internal sorrows. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, therefore, deserves considerable credit for the way in which the task force was dispatched.

Mr. George Robertson

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the relations of the 255 Service men who died in the South Atlantic in the discharge of this courageous affair, as well as the country at large, have a right to know why the Government were forced to take such action and who was responsible in the first place?

Mr. Buck

That is a strange attitude. The Second World War occurred because an evil man called Hitler led an evil regime in Germany. We did not have an inquiry into how that war came about. I believe that an inquiry into the Falklands incident will be of little avail. I believe that it occurred because of the evil intent of a Fascist dictator, and we took action to deal with that.

As a result of the Falklands conflict, a Foreign Secretary, who was respected on both sides of the House, resigned because, presumably, he did not advise the early dispatch of the task force. Personally, I am sceptical of the real value of an inquiry of the kind now envisaged. However, it is to take place and, reluctantly, I go along with that decision.

Mr. Duffy

In that event, how did the Labour Government, faced with a similar threat in the autumn of 1978, survive it without going to war?

Mr. Buck

It appears the the Labour Government dispatched a task force, but that no one knew about it. I do not see how they can claim credit for dispatching a force, because, if no one knew about it, it could not have had any influence on the behaviour of the Argentines. I know that the hon. Gentleman has great concern for Navy affairs, but in this case I believe that he is indulging in intellectual gymnasticism.

I have paid tribute to my right hon. Friends. I also pay tribute to our Service chiefs, who directed this affair with great skill and effectiveness. We were lucky to have had Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Terence Lewin, as chief of defence staff. He is a man of enormous perspicacity and dedication. In Service terms, he is ecumenical in character. His whole approach is on a national and inter-Service basis. I do not think that I am in breach of the Official Secrets Act when I say that, during my short spell as Minister responsible for the Navy, he was instrumental in organising the manning of the maritime Harrier. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces will be aware, at that time some of the air marshals were frightfully upset about the fact that the Royal Navy seemed to be going back to having fixed wing aircraft, albeit VSTOL. Some admirals were concerned that the whole show should be organised by the Royal Navy and that no part should be played by the Royal Air Force. Admiral Lewin, then vice chief of the Naval Staff, and Air Chief Marshal Smallwood—"Splinters" as he was affectionately known—sorted out the problem in no time at all. As a result, primary training on the Harriers was and is carried out by the Royal Air Force, which had larger numbers, and command and control at sea was the responsibility of the Royal Navy. It was a successful and sensible mix.

That is the character of Admiral Lewin. He sorted out that intractable and difficult problem straight away. The most outstanding part of the overall success story of the Falklands has been the operation of the Harriers, and both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy should be proud of that.

We should also pay tribute to others, such as the Commander of the Fleet and the First Sea Lord, who guided the operation in a most successful manner.

It is invidious to single out a group, but, as the smallest component in our armed force, I should mention the Royal Marines. We are indebted to them for their expertise in the field and to that of General Moore who led the armed forces on the ground. The right hon. Member for Deptford nods agreement. I am pleased that we did not truncate the number of Royal Marines, as was intended at one time.

We have lost many ships—too many. They must and will be replaced. I hope that my right hon. Friend will say what is to happen about replacing HMS "Fearless" and "Intrepid" which, although their lives are to be extended, should be replaced in due course because of their age. A decision must be taken. The utility of this class of ship was amply demonstrated during the Falklands campaign.

I turn to what some would have us believe is a side issue—our nuclear deterrent. I quarrel with Labour Members who say that a lesson of the Falklands campaign is that we should contract out of a nuclear deterrent. I take the reverse view. One has only to adjust the Falklands scenario slightly to see how valuable it is for us to have a nuclear deterrent. Although a second-class power, Argentina is nevertheless powerful and it could well have chosen to develop a low-grade nuclear weapon. In a few years, a second-class power such as Argentina could well have a nuclear weapon, albeit not sophisticated. If we did not have our own nuclear weapons, we should be in grave difficulties.

Mr. John Silkin (Deptford)

In the Trident debate on 29 March, I said: If the United States thought that we would use Trident this week, anywhere—in the South Atlantic, for example—in a way which might involve the United States, would we be allowed to use it? Of course we should not."—[Official Report, 29 March 1982; Vol. 21, c. 24.] Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree with that?

Mr. Buck

I profoundly disagree. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will say whether he thinks I am right. The essence of the Nassau agreement, on which the understanding with the United States originally rested, was that Polaris—which was the subject of the Nassau agreement—was to be routinely deployed to NATO, but that, in a matter of supreme national importance, we would have the right to deploy it by ourselves. My right hon. Friend will confirm that position about Polaris and that the understanding is to be extended to Trident. My right hon. Friend is indicating agreement, so the right hon. Member for Deptford is wrong. I am surprised that, as the principal Opposition spokesman on defence, he should be wrong on such a fundamental issue.

It is important that we make it clear to the nation that a campaign such as that in the South Atlantic shows that it is useful and right for us to have a nuclear weapon under our control. Far from the Falklands providing an argument against our having a nuclear deterrent—Trident—events have made the case for an independent nuclear deterrent stronger than ever. The effectiveness of our hunter-killer submarines was made clear by the fact that the Argentine fleet dared not put to sea. I hope that the dockyard capacity that is to be retained will be sufficient to deal with the slightly larger numbers of hunter-killer as well as Trident submarines.

It is a pleasure to speak in a Navy debate. What has happened shows that we can, as always, be proud of the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines and all our Armed Forces. However, I am a little worried about the structure of the Royal Marines, because it is a small and distinguished corps. It produces outstanding officers. There should be a further avenue upwards so that the commandant-general can go on to become a member of the Admiralty Board or possibly chief of the defence staff. There should be further opportunities to help the career structure of Royal Marines officers because they richly deserve it.

We pay tribute to the Royal Navy. We should make certain, together with some Labour Members, that the Government remain loyal to their pledge to ensure that the Royal Navy remains the third most powerful but, as it always has been and I hope always will be, the best Navy in the world.

6.36 pm
Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, North-East)

This is the first time that I have spoken since you moved to your new post in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and, as a fellow West Country Member, I am pleased for you. The hon. and learned Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck), who is a mild enough man in private life, delivered a machine gun-like speech. He was very belligerent, although I do not complain about that.

Bristol is still a great port, although not a naval port, and the area has made considerable contributions over a long period to our weapons systems industries. As I do not always speak in defence debates, perhaps I might be permitted a reflection about the past two world wars, as they are called. I do not remember much about the First World War, but I remember a great deal about the Second World War. Unlike the Falklands conflict, those wars were fought largely but not entirely, of course, in the seas and skies around and above the United Kingdom or across the Channel and fighting men and civilians were directly involved together.

Incidentally, I cannot understand why the hon. and learned Member for Colchester was so worried about an inquiry into the Falklands conflict. As he said, the Foreign Secretary, who was regarded even by his political opponents as talented and competent, resigned. When a Foreign Secretary and other Ministers resign in such circumstances, it must mean that something is wrong or is thought to be wrong. Far from the resignation of the Foreign Secretary being a justification for not conducting an inquiry, I should have thought exactly the opposite to be the case, but I do not wish to take that matter any further now.

The difference between the last world war and the Falklands conflict is that dangers in the Falklands were being accepted and risks were being run by proxy at a great distance. The obligation of the nation and the House to determine the true size of and the right balance between the Armed Forces and, above all, the equipment that is appropriate to the task in hand is therefore the greater because the Armed Forces were acting as a proxy on behalf of the nation.

Then arises the parallel difficulty to find the necessary money when all the pressures of a democracy in so-called peacetime are for higher standards of living, both private and public. It is understandable that an increasing number of people, especially the younger generation, ask how we can always find money for war, for tanks, battleships, planes and bombs but not for peace, for schools, hospitals and houses.

Nobody asked how we paid for the war between 1939 and 1945 because it was obvious—the nation's standard of living was reduced to the bare necessities. As the Americans found in Vietnam, wars and possible wars are harder to finance when only part of the nation is directly involved. It would be shocking and shameful if, in the light of the Falklands experience, Britain depended on the courage, determination and professionalism of our forces to make up for the deficiencies in equipment. Much of the equipment that was sent to the Falklands was good, especially the short take-off Harrier aeroplanes and the Sea Wolf missiles. Nevertheless, there were serious deficiencies. I remember raising in an Adjournment debate the fears of experts at British Aerospace Filton near Bristol that Sea Wolf might not have a future, which seems absurd now.

One serious deficiency was the sending of a modern fleet to war without its own long-range radar eyes. There were other deficiencies in the ships' defence systems. The cost, weight and available space in a ship often means that only a few missiles can be carried. There is bound to be a relationship between the size and design of a ship and the missiles that it carries. The easy solution for an attacker is to use several planes in an assault on the ship. The Argentines did that. Their pilots showed great courage but the air losses involved in such a strategy were considerable. However, aeroplanes are extremely cheap compared to the cost of battleships. I hope that the Ministry is now thinking about that challenge.

Extraordinary circumstances led to the loss of HMS "Sheffield". The Exocet missile that hit her was nor seen, in spite of her electronic equipment. Reports said that it was seen only by those on the deck a matter of split seconds before it struck. It was not seen by the radar. If it had been, presumably a Sea Dart intercepting missile could have been dispatched. That matter should also be thoroughly investigated.

Apparently, due to the bad timing of the Exocet's fuses—to describe it primitively—the missile did not explode inside the "Sheffield" but the driving motor burned so fiercely that oil was ignited and the rest of the ship caught fire. The destruction of the ship by fire in those circumstances is not easy to understand until one remembers that electric cables in those ships have a type of plastic insulation that is highly inflammable. I have had experience of those matters as a power supply engineer. There is a vast amount of cabling in the control system of a modern warship.

I am told that when a discarded ship is used for target practice it is stripped of its cabling to save money. Presumably the cabling is sold for scrap. I should have thought that the cabling installation should be left on the ship to see what effect the sham battle has on it.

The list of deficiences could be extended and the Falklands experience has revealed the problem of how to pay for an up-to-date Navy that is fully and properly equipped. That problem cannot be answered without a new assessment of our role in NATO. Either NATO must assume a new world role in the South Atlantic, or Britain's special sea-going capability should be recognised within NATO.

I cannot believe for a moment that the Americans, especially under President Reagan, would welcome NATO involvement in the South Atlantic. I am aware that the present American Administration gave Britain useful backing in the Falklands, but it is still full of the idea that it must be on the friendliest terms with Latin America in spite of the questionable regimes that flourish there. I cannot believe that the Americans would welcome NATO involvement in South American waters.

As has already been said, just because a war incident has recently occurred, it must not be assumed that it will happen again in the same circumstances. The Falklands conflict may yet prove to have been a one-off event. It is obvious, however, that the United Kingdom's naval forces will now have a responsibility in the South Atlantic for a long time to come.

I have come to the conclusion that Britain must strengthen its conventional forces in all directions. I am not alone. Many eminent people who know far more on this matter than I or even the Government Front Bench know have come to the same conclusion.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies), who opened the debate so well, spoke as if there were a difference between wars fought by Britain at a distance, to which we were perhaps more suited, and wars fought on the Continent. From my knowledge of history, I cannot remember many European wars in which we have not been involved in one way or another, so there is not necessarily any contradiction between the two responsibilities. We must strengthen our conventional forces in all directions—on the European Continent and on the high seas—to deal with what once again appears to be a world role. Certainly it is greater than that of any other NATO power except the United States.

To meet the cost, I think—I put it no more strongly—that less emphasis should be placed on nuclear weapons. As my right hon. and hon. Friends have said, the Trident project should be reviewed. I do not suggest that we should not retain some nuclear capacity, but I doubt whether we can carry the cost of both. Of course, mistakes can be made with nuclear weapons—whether they be srategic or tactical weapons—by those responsible for operating them, but I am yet to be convinced that any nation will risk mankind's destruction by being the first to use strategic nuclear missiles. If nuclear war occurs, I think that it will arise from the escalation of tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield.

So I suspect that there is no escape from the need to modernise and strengthen our conventional forces, particularly at sea, and to adjust our nuclear contribution to defence accordingly. I have mentioned eminent people outside the House who understand and have experienced such matters. Lord Carver strongly emphasised that point in a recent letter to The Times. Henry Stanhope, The Times defence correspondent, put my argument very well indeed in a recent article entitled Now Nat has to take on the task force. He said: But the biggest argument over the next few months is likely to be centred on Trident. Support for the Government's decision to buy the D-5 missile to replace Polaris in the 1980s has been looking thin for some time. The recent demonstration of firepower by our conventional forces will have encouraged, however irrationally —I give away the word "irrationally"— the argument that they, rather than our nuclear forces, should benefit most from Britain's stretched resources. I merely say to those Ministers responsible for the Navy and to others in the ministerial defence complex that they should not be so sure of themselves in this matter as they now seem to be. They should not always look to manifesto percentages. I appreciate that they can quote with some mathematical exactitude the outcome of my party's election statements. Nevertheless, they are I hope political realists and know that there is always a gap between what is said in manifestos and what has to be done by Governments. That applies to Governments of all parties, by the way.

There is a great deal more to that nuclear versus conventional argument than the Government seem to think, and they might be glad of it in the end, because it is they who have to supervise the accounts and defend the bills when these come in for the taxpayers to meet.

6.54 pm
Mr. Geoffrey Rippon (Hexham)

I am sure that all hon. Members fully associate themselves with the remarks of the Minister of State about the epic nature of the Falklands operation and his tribute to the skill, courage and professionalism of our Armed Forces. I do not think that it is possible to add to the tributes that have rightly been paid to the achievements in the South Atlantic in the past few months.

I shall not deal in any way with matters that are properly before the committee of inquiry that is now sitting. I also agree that many detailed points about the lessons to be learnt from the Falklands operations, at least with, regard to sophisticated defence equipment, are best left until we have the statement in the autumn.

Meanwhile, as the Secretary of State himself has recognised, some matters are already clear and go well beyond the conduct of the Falklands campaign. Events in the South Atlantic did not create the doubts about the proposed cuts in the Royal Navy. They merely confirmed them. Like all Conservative Members who have spoken so far, I welcome the change of heart already shown by the Secretary of State. The "Invincible" is not to be sold. When I first heard the suggestion that it might be sold, I thought that I might earn myself a few necessary Brownie points by supporting the Government, so I asked what I thought would be a helpful question inviting the Prime Minister to deny the ugly rumour. The House can imagine my astonishment when it was confirmed. The "Endurance" is also to continue in service, more Sea Harriers are to be provided, three destroyers that were to be disposed of are to be retained and new orders are coming forward.

So far so good, but all that is not enough. I hope that when the Minister winds up he will have regard to some of the interventions that were made in my right hon. Friend's opening speech to the effect that many of us feel that the new orders should come forward quickly and should not be delayed until the autumn White Paper.

I agreed with the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies), who opened for the Opposition, in his hope that, in all circumstances, the replacement of the "Atlantic Conveyor" should be built in the United Kingdom. I suggest that it should be built on Tyneside, as was the original vessel.

The Secretary of State has shown some of the wisdom of hindsight in the past few weeks, but others showed the wisdom of foresight. The speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed) to his constituents at the Tenterden Conservative Association meeting on 15 May 1981 in particular repays careful reading. I could not understand why the views that he expressed were not Government policy at that time. Certainly it is now clear that they should have been Government policy and that they must become Government policy. We all know that there is no justice in politics. If there were, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford would be on the Government Front Bench today.

In the 1979 election manifesto, the Conservative Party said that one of the principal tasks of a Conservative Government would be To strengthen Britain's defences and work with our allies to protect our interests in an increasingly threatening world. Not all the proposed naval cuts have yet been withdrawn. I hope that this stage will be reached. It must be seen, looking back, that a proposed cut of something like 12 per cent. in naval manpower, amounting to 8,000 to 10,000 men, could not conceivably be described as strengthening our defences. The loss of the aircraft carriers could not be described as strengthening our defences. Like all Conservative Members, I welcome the decision to have three carriers, so enabling two always to be on mission. The right hon. Member for Llanelli and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) asked why they were needed. I would have thought that this had been made clear on frequent occasions. We need them to screen American strike carriers in the eastern Atlantic where they have a major role. We need them to protect our merchant ships. We need them to fulfil our commitments to Norway. One is needed to provide a flagship using comprehensive command equipment and communications systems for a task force operating east of Suez. They have many roles that have been explained by Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Hill-Norton, and others in the past. I am very glad that the Government have changed their mind.

Mr. Grimond

This is also clear to me. I follow the right hon. and learned Gentleman's argument. It seems strange, however, that the carriers were not necessary three or four months ago but have now become necessary. That is the point.

Mr. Rippon

I do not dissent from what the right hon. Gentleman says. I am sure that they are necessary. I am glad therefore that the Government have changed their mind. The role is clear. That has been made evident by others more competent to speak on the matter than myself.

It is clear that the proposed loss of 17 destroyers and frigates with their embarked helicopters—we are, happily, to have more helicopters—could not be explained as strengthening our anti-submarine capability in the Atlantic. So far so good. A number of lessons have been learnt for which many Conservative Members are grateful. My right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), in a powerful speech, referred to technological change, as did the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. One of the hardest lessons learnt in the South Atlantic is that the anti-aircraft missiles and anti-aircraft defence systems were inadequate. We also lacked an effective airborne early warning system.

In the changed circumstances, the Secretary of State, I hope, will see that the Treasury is not allowed, as it has done so often in the past, to delay the development of modern weapons although the need for them has been established. I used to have some responsibility for dealing with matters related to guided weapons and electronic counter-measures. These are, I suppose, protected under the 30-year rule, and I must not say much about them. But the biggest item in much of our defence expenditure is, I believe, the cost of Treasury delay. A battle with the Treasury has to be fought over and over again. The Treasury never gives up. It always comes back. It has done more, probably, than any single organisation to undermine the defence and economic strength of this country—much more than the Foreign Office.

I must not, however, be diverted. The prime characteristic of modern weapons is that they are highly lethal. They are now approaching the stage where, if a target can be seen or detected, it can be hit. Herein lies the growing importance of electronic countermeasures to which the Soviet Union has for a long time given high priority. I know that my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement is seized of the importance of the matter. He talked frequently about it when the Conservative Party was in opposition. Against this background, it cannot be disputed that naval strategy and tactics, including convoy techniques, have to be reviewed in the context of the detection and tracking of surface vessels and their vulnerability to a growing range of target—locating and sea—skimming missiles.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton has already said, the emphasis in the future must be placed to a growing extent on the development of a number of smaller ships in larger quantities. This must be accompanied, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State himself has recognised, by an increasing number of submarines. On the issue of submarines, I am glad that the Government are reviewing the position of Portsmouth dockyard. I believe, however, that my right hon. Friend should also re-examine the future of Chatham. I have read all the powerful speeches on this subject by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Sir F. Burden). My hon. Friend is not merely making a constituency point, although the closing of any dockyard or defence industry has great repercussions on the economic life of an area. My hon. Friend's argument is essentially a national one.

The closure of Chatham will remove a nuclear submarine refitting yard, which is essential, I believe, to the further expansion of the nuclear submarine force. It will eliminate essential conventional facilities and a command support base critical to our reinforcements routes to Europe. I agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton had to say about the importance of bases generally.

The House should know, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham told the House on 22 July 1981, that Admiral Sir William Pillar, then Chief of Fleet Support, who therefore had to choose his words carefully, had told the Select Committee in 1980 that he would not pretend that a proposal to close the Chatham dockyard facilities would be without risk. I do not believe that we should take that risk.

The House will recall that the then Secretary of State for Defence gave in August 1980 a firm commitment—there is no other way to describe it—that the four home dockyards would be required and maintained and that there was more than sufficient work to keep them occupied for the foreseeable future. I welcomed warmly the defence White Paper of 1980 and the policies enunciated by the then Secretary of State for Defence. I could not, and did not, do so last year. It was rumoured, although, of course, I know nothing of these matters, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs was removed from the Ministry of Defence because he would not bend the knee to the Treasury's demands. I can only say that I hope that my right hon. Friend is now in a stronger position to carry on this battle with the Treasury and his weaker brethren in the Cabinet. They are the wets on this matter.

The danger is that, by cutting naval forces and their support facilities, we are adopting what is in effect a short war policy; that is, a war of only a few days. I noted with interest the intervention of my right hon. Friend in which he remarked that he was not saying that all the danger existed on the central front in Europe, that he was not saying it would only be a short war but that it might be. What worries me is that the thrust of our defence strategy now is on the basis of a short war. That is dangerous.

I support the Trident programme. I do not believe, however, that it can be regarded as an alternative to adequate conventional forces. The Opposition think differently. One has to face the fact, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) said, that over the longer period the cost of Trident is 3 per cent. of our defence budget. One danger of dealing with the Treasury is that it likes the nuclear option because it is cheaper—not because it is more expensive. In order to achieve cuts in next year's budget, the Treasury allows expenditure that it hopes to stop at a later date.

The Secretary of State, in his forward—the only up-to-date part of this year's defence White Paper—says: The events of recent weeks must not, however, obscure the fact that the main threat to the security of the United Kingdom is from the nuclear and conventional forces of the Soviet Union and her Warsaw Pact allies? The critical question is where that threat lies. In my view, which, I think, is shared by some of my hon. Friends, the threat is global. It is no longer confined to NATO's central front. The greatest danger lies in the areas of vital interests such as the oil-producing regions of the Middle East and the raw material sources of Southern and Central Africa. We may not be able to amend the North Atlantic Treaty to abolish the now meaningless boundary Imitations represented by the Tropic of Cancer, but the remorseless march of events, such as the growth of the Soviet blue water navy—the extent of which is enormous, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton pointed out—Afghanisatan, and the anarchy in Iran, mean that the Alliance is inevitably committed to defending its interests worldwide.

We cannot do everything, but I believe that we are right, by history and geography, to make the maritime role our priority. Whatever contribution we can make to the central forces in NATO, it does not override the priority that we owe to ourselves and the United States of America in the eastern Atlantic.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who deals with procurement matters is one of the members of the Government who showed great wisdom and foresight in Opposition. I should have liked to write this into the record as one can in the United States of America, but I can only commend his pamphlet published by the Conservative Political Centre in 1976, called "Towards a new Defence Policy", in which he says: If we fail to realign our defence effort to the challenge that is now being presented, then we will pay the price at some stage in the 1980s. We in Britain have a lot to lose. Our offshore resources could be attacked, the vital sea routes on which we depend for half our food and raw materials could be cut, (The Russians already have more than three times the number of German U-boats that paralysed Allied shipping in World War II) and Western Europe could be 'finlandised' without, paradoxically enough, the use of the much vaunted military machine on the central front". I gave my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary notice that I was going to quote him, as is proper on these occasions. Later, he said: If it is agreed that Britain should significantly increase its naval presence and maintain the RAF contribution in Germany, the next question is to ask whether there is any particular magic about the number of 55,000 men stationed in BAOR. He points out our treaty obligations, about which we know, the fact that we have lost our support costs, and suggests that we might renegotiate the position with West Germany and our allies. If we have to make some reduction, it should be there rather than in our maritime force.

No less penetrating is the book my hon. Friend wrote with Mr. James Bellini entitled "A New World Role for the Medium Power", an extract from which is published, for those who wish to read it, by the International Institute of Strategic Studies in "Survival" in September-October 1977. He describes how the post-war record in defence planning has been one of defence options sacrificed for non-defence reasons". He goes on to explain that, while economics play their part, it frequently happens that the Treasury argument is translated into a bogus strategic reason.

Of course, we have to put a price on defence. How do we do that? Here again, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, and I hope that his view remains the same as when he said: The difficulty about defence expenditure is that no one can ever say what is the correct level. While it is not being suggested that Britain has at the moment no defences, we are not by any means adequately defended and the public would be horrified if they knew the real truth. Any responsible Government should aim to get its defence expenditure up to a level where it feels happy with the ability of its forces not only to deter but to contend with a threat, and then hold expenditure steady allowing for inflation. There is no sensible way in which such a task can be approached within an arbitrary percentage of GNP or even a global cash figure. Other spending departments will howl and cabinet ministers in any government will fight their departmental corners, but defence is not about spectacles, or teeth, or schools, or roads, or pensions or housing, it is about survival. I believe that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is right, and I hope that he will prevail in those battles against some of his less forceful and sensible colleagues.

The Conservative Party and Government cannot claim to be strengthening our defences if all they are doing is to maintain the Labour Party's commitment to a real annual increase of 3 per cent. If there has to be a guideline, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley), who spoke in one of the earlier defence debates, that it should be 4 per cent. That is not a figure plucked out of the air; it is the considered view of the Supreme Allied Commander in NATO, General Rogers. I believe—I think this is confirmed by the response to the Falklands crisis—that the British people will be ready to bear whatever cost is necessary to ensure that we are adequately defended.

As the Prime Minister said in a notable speech in Brussels on 23 June 1978—I have kept this fading copy for all these years: Our first duty to freedom is to defend our own. Defence must be our first consideration. As we have seen in Britain and elsewhere, there are always politicians ready to neglect defence in favour of other expenditure which is more immediately rewarding and which they suppose will therefore be more popular. I believe that such politicians underestimate those whom they represent. I think so, too.

7.16 pm
Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

I wish to associate myself at the outset with those right hon. and hon. Gentlemen who have paid tribute to our Servicemen in their magnificent victory in the Falklands. I never doubted the outcome, because I have been fortunate enough in recent years to encounter the professionalism and morale that I believe characterise our Servicemen to as great a degree as can be found in any Services in the world.

Some of our American friends, including some of their most distinguished commanders, believe that no other country could have shown such a high level of professionalism and morale. That, allied to the tactical direction of the forces by the commanders, in whom we were most fortunate, were the decisive factors. It is sometimes difficult to believe, after reading the press, that we had such a distinguished victory, one that in global terms was worth more than 100 World Cup victories. Some of the press is niggardly towards our Service men—from the task force commander, Rear-Admiral John Woodward, through his captains in the various ships, General Moore, Brigadier Thompson, the individual marines and paratroopers, to members of the mercantile marine. If we continued to acknowledge their feat for a long time, we should still not have paid them the tribute that they deserve.

I have argued repeatedly in the defence debates, in which I have been fortunate enough to be called, that we are not sufficiently aware as a country even now that we are a member of an Alliance, and that the most sensible and cost-effective policy for that Alliance is to employ resources on the basis of a division of tasks. We do not specialise enough. It is clearly more sensible for countries such as West Germany, which have abundant expertise in the geography of Central Europe, to concentrate on the central front.

The right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) and the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) argued that the role for the United Kingdom, with its maritime edge, is to maintain the lead at sea. It cannot be said too often that Britain is ideally placed to do that, adjacent to the Greenland—Iceland—United Kingdom gap. We would bear the brunt of North Atlantic operations in the early stages of a war. We could do more. We could provide defence in depth against a maritime threat and support for the northern flank of Norway, as well as preserving the sea lanes for communication, reinforcement and supply. But in his 1981 defence review the Secretary of State took steps that will leave Britain dangerously deficient at sea by the end of the decade.

NATO's sea power, which exists primarily to keep open commercial sea lanes for the world, is tightly stretched. British naval losses in the South Atlantic of four ships sunk and 12 damaged can only add to the burden. But the Secretary of State has chosen this time to cut the fleet. In the financial year 1982–83 the strength of the Royal Navy will continue to decline. One SSN, three destroyers, one frigate and two mine countermeasure vessels, all ordered by the Labour Government, will join the fleet. But 17 ships, including one SSN, two destroyers and four frigates, are listed for sale or scrap. The right hon. and learned Member for Hexham has been the only speaker to mention that so far. In the past fortnight, we have been told that three destroyers—"Bristol", "Glamorgan" and "Fife"—will be retained. But they cannot be run on beyond four or, at the most, five years; for example, their missile systems will be inadequate.

But the Russian naval forces that we face have in the past year increased the number of anti-ship missiles with a range of over 120 miles from 130 to 350. As The Economist observed, those missiles make Exocet look like a dinky toy. The number of major surface ships in the Soviet fleet has dropped by one to 52, and it has improved its missile capability dramatically. Its force of hunter-killer submarines available for service in the East Atlantic has risen from 83 to 85, while the total in NATO's navy has dropped from 71 to 43. There is a growing belief that some of the Soviet SSNs will soon be deployed in the South Atlantic. A Soviet SSN base in West Africa which has haunted our thoughts for many years may soon become a reality.

Although in part the reductions in Western strength represent the diversion of American naval forces to the Gulf, there is no escaping the fact of the increasingly desperate plight of NATO's naval defences. Poignantly, it is only in carriers that NATO continues to enjoy an edge over the Warsaw Pact; yet the Secretary of State also sought to make cuts in our carrier strength. He has now had second thoughts. But as recently as 23 February., when we had spirited exchanges from both sides of the House with the Secretary of State about the importance of our carrier strength End the fact that it should be in excess of the two, he stated: I do not believe that any Government of either party would order ASW carriers today —[Official Report, 23 February 1982; Vol. 18, c. 735.] If the Secretary of State believes that he can palm "Hermes" on to the Australians he is in for a surprise. He might get away with the lease of an Invincible class carrier. He should put in hand another Invincible order with Swan Hunter. That is the news that both sides of the House wish to hear. We are united in the belief that we need more than two carriers. But we shall only gel them if we honour our obligations to the Australians and to our Navy. Perhaps we can do a package deal with the Australians if we get the order for another Invincible class carrier.

I am not merely taunting the Secretary of State for changing his mind about the carrier. He is beginning to retreat a little—he will have to retreat a good deal more—from his 1981 defence review. Why did he persist with too much of it in the form and content of the 1982 estimates? Why is he still intent on cutting our naval strength even in face of the ever-growing Soviet maritime threat? Why is he abandoning naval yards such as Cammell Laird on Merseyside, Swan Hunter on Tyneside and Vosper at Southampton? They have served Britain well for generations.

The Secretary of State has sought to conceal the facts to still the doubts increasingly voiced on the Conservative Benches. I cannot see any orders for surface ships, certainly in the forecast period, that will take up the capacities of yards other titan Yarrow on the Clyde and Vickers at Barrow. I cannot see where Swan Hunter, Cammell Laird and Vosper will be employed. We need more information than we have been given this afternoon. Where will the orders for three ships a year that the Minister mentioned go?

By dint of selective quotations in party handouts, to which the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) referred in the previous defence debate, the Secretary of State tried to show that last year's defence review had given the Navy more money, better capability and so on. That will not do. Like the defence review, that PR exercise was a con trick—a catalogue of half truths. On 7 April, the Secretary of State stated: we cannot be criticised for cutting back the conventional Navy when it is far larger today than it was when we took office, and so it will be in the late 1980s."—[Official Report, 7 April 1982; Vol. 21, c. 1050.] That is not true for the reasons that my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) laid bare in a powerful speech.

New ships are entering service, but, as the Secretary of State admitted to me in the House last month, almost overwhelmingly, and for the reasons that my right hon. Friend described, that is as a result of orders placed by the Labour Government. That is precisely why we were able to deploy for the Falklands so quickly and effectively. We were living on the fat of the pre-1981 defence review, thanks to the Labour Government.

The Falklands campaign typically demonstrated the flexibility of maritime power, by its presence and the wide range of options that it offers diplomacy. Without waiting for the official technical assessment of the campaign, many important implications for the Royal Navy have emerged. Some have been discussed; I wish to refer to others. In combination, on balance, they further invalidate the 1981 review. The more important points that emerge from the tentative assessment of the campaign include the vulnerability of surface ships to mass saturation air attacks. However, it should be borne in mind that the damaged ships stood up to punishment remarkably well and most stayed afloat.

There must be more emphasis on battle and sea worthiness and less on comforts. We must look more closely at Soviet experience and even at 1939–1945 German experience. Ships last about twice as long as their weapons and electronic systems. It is, therefore, cheaper to refit ships than to build new ones. I hope that the Defence Secretary will consider that.

We must not forget the urgency of airborne early warning. We need a better balance between the active and passive effects of early warning and ASW sonar. There is the vindication of the Sea Harrier concept and the need for more effective surface-to-air missiles and associated fire-control systems. We must remember the requirement for naval point defence weapons. Ships must be provided with close-in defence against anti-ship surface-skimming missiles. A gun system such as Seaguard and not merely Phalanx is as necessary as Sea Wolf. Sea skimmers will not remain skimmers, as evidenced by the mode of the Sub-Harpoon.

There is the need to revise warship construction methods and use of materials to reduce fire hazard. Firefighting techniques and equipment must be updated. It is difficult to accept that only recently the Government considered closing HMS "Phoenix", our damage control centre. We must have confirmation of the value of naval gunfire support for shore bombardment. There is a need for more than a single 4.5 inch gun on most ships and more anti-aircraft guns on all ships.

We must remember the requirement for shipborne and airborne jammers and anti-radiation missiles for use against aircraft, ships and ground-based radars. Is it true that only two to three weeks before the Falklands crisis the Navy turned down a jammer which could have integrated with electronic warfare equipment? The present equipment is not capable of a quick reaction.

We must remember the great importance of well-trained special forces such as the SBS and the SAS. We must have confirmation that the Royal Marines retain their amphibious role, as well as that of helicopter assault, and that the Royal Navy has its armed amphibious ships to permit that. The significance of the joint operation of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force from carriers must be accepted. The value in flexibility of the mercantile marine and the need to persuade the United States to go ahead with the Arapaho project must be accepted.

If we act on the lessons of the Falklands and correct the specific deficiencies in the Royal Navy's defences, British ships will be less vulnerable. The Navy will then survive a fiercer air war than was fought over the Falklands. It could operate alone on the doorstep of most countries and could even operate effectively against the Soviet Union in places where Russian aircraft fly at extreme range in limited numbers. I am talking about the Royal Navy acting alone and not in its NATO role.

The Falklands conflict confirms, rather than undermines, the invaluable role of sea power in projecting military force in unpredictable places across vast distances. That confirms the confidence that I expressed in the House at the outset of the crisis in the Royal Navy's capability to do precisely what it did—and it did it brilliantly.

That is what the Navy did on its own in the vicinity of the Falklands and what it can do elsewhere. In the Navy's more likely and assigned NATO role the Service is indispensable. Its nuclear-powered submarines will exercise an outstanding deterrent effect against surface warships. Invincible class carriers, working ahead of major United States carrier battle groups, will fill a key ASW role in countering the Soviet submarine threat. The Falklands conflict has demonstrated that the Sea Harrier-light carrier concept is sound in the NATO context. But will Britain be able to muster the requisite number of surface warships to fulfil her obligations in the North Atlantic and out of the area?

It is not enough for the Defence Secretary to justify his 1981 defence review on the ground that the arrival of shore-based high performance aircraft with precision guided surface skimming missiles, as well as nuclear powered submarines with almost unlimited mobility and concealment, has profoundly altered sea-air strategy. It is not enough for the Secretary of State to tell us, as he did this afternoon, that he is not dedicated to the notions of short war. Some of us are convinced that he is.

We take nothing away from the Secretary of State when we say that, but we recall all his utterances in the House and we believe that we know our man and what goes on in his mind. I am in no doubt that he is a short war scenario man, a submarine and maritime patrol aircraft man and a Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap man. He believes that he can bottle up the Soviet Navy. He may be right, but I believe that that is a high-risk strategy and that we should not put too many of our eggs in one basket. Therefore, we should have more surface ships.

At that point my right hon. and hon. Friends divide from the Secretary of State and I know of no one on his side of the House who supports him in his belief that we can cut our surface strength and invest more heavily in sub-surface strength and maritime patrol aircraft. It is not enough for the Defence Secretary to continue too far with his 1981 defence review on the ground that the sea-air strategy has changed.

As Vice-Admiral Sir Ian McGeoch warned in a letter to The Times a fortnight ago, the power of surface warships to fight both aircraft and submarines should not be underestimated, nor should it be overlooked that come what may, the shipping which has to be protected moves on the surface". It is not enough for the Secretary of State to claim that he is going sub-surface. He has ordered only two submarines in three years. He would do well to squeeze one more out of existing capacity before it is commandeered by Trident.

The Defence Secretary's goal should be a balanced and interdependent force of escort vessels and other surface units, as well as nuclear-powered submarines and maritime patrol aircraft—all capable of providing ocean operations support groups in a NATO context. Increasingly it appears that we shall have to allow for the possibility of providing for that in an out-of-area role.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Paul Dean)

I remind the House that I have a long list of right hon. and hon. Members who hope to speak. Short speeches will mean that fewer hon. Members are disappointed.

7.40 pm
Sir Paul Bryan (Howden)

I shall devote my short intervention to the role of the Merchant Navy, a service which should be ranked on a par with the other three Services in that in a time of war all four are equally interdependent.

I declare an interest, although a very indirect one, in that I am a director of an insurance company which is owned by a shipping group, the C. Y. Tung group.

At the beginning of the Falklands crisis, the nation—indeed the world—was astonished not only at the speed with which the naval task force was assembled and dispatched but at the ease with which we appeared to be able to assemble a large supporting armada of merchant ships of the most varied type—passenger liners, tankers, minesweepers, tugs, ferry boats, roll-on/roll-off ships, general cargo ships and specialist ships—and all these in addition to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. The speed with which these ships were modified for war with the addition of heli-decks and so on was remarkable and a tribute to the work teams.

After the Falklands conflict, Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, the commander-in-chief of the Fleet, said: I cannot say too often or too clearly how important has been the Merchant Navy's contribution to our efforts. Without the ships taken up from trade, the operation could not have been undertaken, and I hope this message is clearly understood by the British nation. After the many newspaper articles and television features on the adventures of the "QE2", the "Canberra", the "Atlantic Conveyor" and the scores of merchant ships in the war zone, the British nation has undoubtedly got the message. What we in the House want to know is the Government's reaction to the message.

Over the coming months, surely there must be an all-embracing review covering an up-to-date examination of the strength and makeup of the Merchant Navy, the need for protection in times of war, the use of merchant ships to support and augment the fighting fleet, the defence characteristics which should be built into or added to the merchant ships and the means of paying for such, the manpower issue and the liaison arrangements on various levels to ensue a continuing exchange of knowledge and experience. We hope that the White Paper that we shall be getting shows that all these factors have been investigated deeply.

The reduction and the rapidly changing makeup of our Merchant Navy and of the other NATO merchant fleets make one doubt whether our Merchant Navy would have the capacity in a few years' time to carry out again the brilliant operation which we have been admiring over these past months.

A main point of worry must be the decline of the merchant fleets available to the West in time of war. At such times, one cannot depend on ships from Greece or sailing under flags of convenience. Such ships may not in practice prove to be available, and undoubtedly there would be crew problems on those ships.

The United Kingdom merchant fleet has declined since 1975 from 50 million tonnes to 29 million tonnes—a loss of tonnage of more than 40 per cent. Within that figure, we have lost a number of cargo liners and other ships which would have been most valuable to the country in time of war.

We are also losing trained seafaring power. In 1975, Merchant Navy officers numbered 41,000: in 1982, 28,000. In 1975, United Kingdom ratings numbered 38,000: in 1982, 26,000. All the betting must be on this decline continuing and very probably continuing at the same disastrous speed. Surely we have now to think of this problem not merely in terms of economic or employment aspects of the shipping industry but in this role of the fourth arm of defence.

The danger of the Merchant Navy becoming incapable of carrying out its role in time of war has been threatening for years. On the figures that I have just given, we have a right to hear from the Government either a reassurance that the matter is less critical than it appears—and one will need a lot of supporting evidence to be convinced of that—or an assurance that the Government recognise the imminent danger and shortly will be announcing practical measures to meet it.

There is also an urgent need, in the light of the decline of merchant shipping in most of the countries of NATO, to reassess the likely need in time of war for shipping to carry essential civilian needs, apart from the supply of warlike stores and back-up. In pages 17 to 19 of the White Paper, under the heading "Uses of National Resources", we read of the need for detailed consultation between the shipping industry and the Government about types of merchant ships particularly wanted in time of war with defence features built into them which could be built mainly with industry's money but with some help from the Government. May we be told how these talks are proceeding?

We should also remember that the continued progress towards containerisation presents special problems in time of war. A few well-directed missiles could quickly put out of action the West's main container terminals, such as Rotterdam, Felixstowe, Tilbury and so on. We should then have to rely on emergency anchorages, smaller ports and special means of discharging cargo. Some work has been done on this problem by the industry in conjunction with the Government, but probably not fast enough nor with sufficient funds devoted to it.

I consider that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence was right not to produce a new White Paper in the light of the Falklands experience. To be of use, this experience must be studied in detail and without haste. But, apart from lessons to be learnt from experience, the Falklands crisis has rubbed our noses in problems which we knew to be there but were unwilling to face.

Among those problems is the decline of our Merchant Navy and our shipbuilding industry. For all the reasons with which we are familiar, that decline will continue unless the Government intervene in some way.

In shipbuilding, the Government intervene already, for they subsidise the losses of British Shipbuilders. The extent to which we are willing to let shipbuilding decline or run down and the categories of shipbuilding that we are willing to lose have not been decided. There is no policy. Many of us were surprised to learn a few months ago that our yards can no longer build a luxury liner. At what level shall we retain our capacity to build warships?

The confusion in the public mind is illustrated by the row over the replacement of the "Atlantic Conveyor". Lord Matthews is accused of a lack of patriotism for his failure to pay out some millions of pounds above the market price to get the ship built in a United Kingdom yard. If the ship can be built in the United Kingdom only with a subsidy, there is no doubt that the Government, not the company, should be called upon to pay. That is exactly what would happen in Germany or France.

As for British shipping, the Falklands episode has shown that it is not merely the size of the merchant fleet but its composition which is all important. As its size diminishes, its composition becomes even more critical.

I finish by repeating the fear that we must all have in the back of our minds. If in seven years' time we are called upon for a "Falklands" operation and if by then we have lost another 40 per cent. of our fleet, as we have done in the past seven years, what position will we be in to face such a situation?

7.48 pm
Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

A year ago, when the House debated the cuts in the Royal Navy, there was great apprehension in the Royal Navy and in the Royal Marines. The Royal Navy faced a larger percentage cut than it had ever faced, other than in the 1920s, and the Royal Marines were anxious about what would happen to them when their assault ships were phased out.

We have now had a considerable change of heart. Four ships in the Royal Navy will be retained—HMS "Endurance", HMS "Invincible", HMS "Intrepid" and HMS "Fearless". Those retentions are welcome, though they have very serious implications for the future shape of the Royal Navy.

A great deal has been said about the withdrawal of HMS "Endurance". It was perhaps the most costly decision of the last defence review, because I remain of the belief that that was a fatal trigger in convincing the Argentines that we were not serious about our commitment to the Falkland Islands.

We must learn a lesson from the ability to deploy naval forces. They are a deterrent. They do not always need to be a declared force. The virtue of HMS "Endurance" being in the South Atlantic is its political presence. It is not a major fighting vessel. The grave danger of reducing naval hull numbers and, perhaps more important, not fulfilling what I believe is the utmost priority, which is increasing the availability of submarines, is that one cannot meet the demands of preparatory deployment.

The lesson of the 1977 episode was that sending the hunter-killer submarines was a preparatory deployment. It did not have to be declared. It did not have to be known by Argentina. It had to be ready to be used within an hour's notice in case of an invasion. If we are to deploy worldwide, because of the distances travelled, we have to make preparatory actions and be ready to deploy our naval forces, and then frequently find that they are not needed. That requires numbers.

In fairness to the Secretary of State, it must be said that he took the decision to retain HMS "Fearless" and HMS "Intrepid" before the Falklands Islands incident. The decision on HMS "Invincible" should be seen in the context of the commitment to "Fearless" and "Intrepid". One of the justifications for the third in the class is that it is a useful addition to an amphibious lift capacity. We saw that in the effectiveness of the Sea Harriers in supporting the land forces.

We must look on the amphibious capability as a major specialised commitment by the United Kingdom. I hope that as a result of the Falklands exercise the Ministry of Defence will not return to the old chestnut about whether there is a future for the Royal Marines. If there was ever a full justification for the Royal Marines, it was the Falkland Islands. We wish to hear no more of the inter-Service rivalry and the question mark over the Royal Marines. They have earned, as they have so often in the past, not just our affection, but our admiration, for their determination, courage and skill. We have rightly paid great tribute to the Special Air Service, but no one should forget the contribution made by the Special Boat Section of the Royal Marines. When that story is told, I am sure that it will strengthen the need for that capacity.

In my view, the amphibious capacity cannot be justified only in the context of Europe and the NATO defence policy. Our decision to have an amphibious capacity is a contribution to a world-wide deployment. That is right, although it is a costly commitment. The justification for HMS "Invincible" can be made on that score.

The way in which the decision on HMS "Invincible" is being made is, in my view, quite disgraceful. After all, the Government told us that they intended to sell it to the Australians a year ago and we have been given no real justification for the reversal of that decision. Nor has there been any serious discussion about what many people believe would have been a more serious option, namely, to let "Invincible" go to the Australians, carry on with HMS "Hermes"—frankly, it is not an attractive option to offer "Hermes" to the Australian Navy—and build another through-deck cruiser, which could be available to replace "Hermes". The great advantage of that deployment would be that we would have a modern compatible "Invincible" with the Australian Navy, able to be deployed in the South Atlantic, and the capacity, with a warm friend and ally, to have three of those vessels at sea at times, and always two.

It is time that we looked at the Royal Navy and the Australian Navy operating together. Never has the generosity and firmness of the Commonwealth been more apparent than during the Falklands campaign. There was the amazing offer by Australia to rescind the previous contractual arrangement. We owe it to our Australian friends to demand more justification from the Government for not taking that more attractive option. It would have the merit of another order for a through-deck cruiser for Tyneside. It would also have the merit of providing a major capacity in the combination of Australia and ourselves. It would give us a useful deployment in an area where we ourselves can never permanently deploy, now that we have rightly come out east of Suez. I hope that we shall be given more justification by the Government for their decision. If the Australians suggest that option, I hope that it will be given serious consideration.

Of course, there will need to be an increased dockyard load capacity. Three extra big ships will need refitting. That requires a decision about Portsmouth. I personally believe that it would be better to have Portsmouth as a dockyard, not just as a fleet maintenance base. It could expand to meet that capacity.

We have not been told what is to happen to the dockyards. If they are to be reduced, there will need to be improved productivity. We need to be told how that increased productivity is to come about. A decision will have to be taken on whether there is to be a dockyard trading fund. Will we start to treat the dockyards as an integrated industry, or will they have to continue to operate within the rigid bureaucratic framework of the Government's industrial Civil Service, with all the problems of running a major industry? Or will they be given the right to manage? Will the three dockyards, Rosyth, Portsmouth and Devonport, be developed into a modern effective industry?

With that there must be a commitment on wage levels. Dockyards should be in a position to compete and attract the skills that are needed there. They must attract, particularly for nuclear refitting, men of considerable skills who can undertake shift working and working in difficult conditions. The present wages and productivity arrangements in the industry are not satisfactory. I want to know more about how the Government intend to improve productivity. It may be necessary to have some overload to get increased productivity. Many of the procedures need streamlining. Above all, greater independence is needed for dockyard management. That management should not constantly have to refer back, not just to the Ministry of Defence, but endlessly to the Treasury, to be compared with the whole of the Civil Service.

We have had no satisfactory explanation why the Government have not announced immediate orders for type 22s. The decision to replace was welcome, and perhaps in winding up the debate the Minister will tell us why immediate orders were not placed for the four replacements. It may be better to have fewer destroyers and more frigates. I am still worried, as I was a year ago, because 42 frigates and destroyers are insufficient to meet the overall deployment needs. I hope that we shall be given figures of the average out-of-area deployment commitment for frigates or destroyers over the past 10 years, and how the Government intend to meet their NATO commitment with the likely pressure for out-of-area commitment on historic evidencee. There is no evidenc that in the next 20 years there will be fewer demands for out-of-area deployment. If we are to have only frigates, I for one would settle for that.

I share some of the Secretary of State's scepticism about the vulnerability of surface ships, particularly the large ones. They need to be gathered around a grouping of ships in which the "Invincible" class is the fulcrum. They are very vulnerable when they are not deployed in a group.

The real problem which the Government have never faced is that a great deal of their economies could have been justified if they were changing the balance within the Navy. Some of the reductions could have been justified if we were to see an increase in the hunter-killer submarine build rate, but we are not. In fact we are seeing a slowing-down in that rate. We have never yet had a satisfactory explanation of what is to happen to the hunter-killer submarine build rate if Vickers is completely taken up with the Trident submarine programme.

I am opposed to that programme, but I face the reality that it might go ahead if the Government stay in office. It would be extremely damaging if we were then to pay that price, which will be heavy in many other aspects for our conventional forces, and also be forced to reduce even further the number of hunter-killer submarines. How do the Government intend to maintain the hunter-killer submarine build rate?

It is no use talking about the eighteenth submarine when the initial ones are now becoming very old and are having to be phased out. There must be a continuing programme of building hunter-killer submarines if we are to maintain that rate. I believe that 20 submarines is an absolute minimum. All of this is expensive, and it is true to say that in the single Service debates, there is a danger that we do not face the questions of choice.

I am prepared to face that choice. I am prepared to ask questions about the intermediate surface ship, that is, between the frigate and the "Invincible" class. We should make a decision on the matter in the light of the evidence from the Falkland Islands. I do not want to prejudge the matter. We should see whether the benefit of having the Sea Dart is so strong that we feel it is necessary, or perhaps we can find a way of having some area defence missile deployed on frigates. After all, we are moving into new missile technology and we do not necessarily have to use the same technology as before.

Some serious questions in terms of the military aspects will obviously arise as a result of the Falklands inquiry. Many of us will want to examine those carefully. The Government have a responsibility to commence the build-up of the Navy at the earliest possible moment following the sinkings off the Falkland Islands.

It is not enough to wait for another four months. That is an economy measure, but the Government are not admitting as much to the House.

I have another point to make. It is a small matter, but it has been mentioned by a number of speakers. I hope that as a result of this successful combined operation—Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy—we shall see a more flexible attitude in the Ministry of Defence to senior appointments. For example, it is a tragedy that General Moore is being retired. I have felt for some time that some of the exceptional Royal Marine senior officers have never had the recognition that they deserve. I look forward to seeing the day when we have a Chief of Defence Staff who comes from the Royal Marines. When I look at the number of distinguished commandant generals that we have had in the past 20 years, I can think of at least two who would have merited being appointed Chief of Defence Staff. We have a right to demand a fresh examination of this matter.

Tribute has been paid to the present Chief of Defence Staff. I should like to add to that tribute. He is an outstanding officer. We were extremely fortunate to have a naval officer as Chief of Defence Staff during the Falklands crisis. We owe him a great debt. The Government owe him an even greater debt for loyally accepting the cuts in the Navy over the past year. He must have been bitterly opposed to them, yet he put his loyalty and commitment to the Armed Services as a whole first. It is right that the House should pay tribute to his outstanding period of office and, once again, pay tribute to what was by any standards a remarkably successful venture.

I use the word "venture". When we examine the results of the analysis we will discover how close to the knife-edge we were during many of the weeks of the Falkland Islands war. It serves to re-emphasise, if it needed to be done, that some of the decisions of a year ago which resulted from Treasury pressure, and which have been proven in the harshness of war to be wrong, are decisions which we cannot ever again allow to be imposed on such a narrow basis. The House has a responsiblity, which goes across the parties, to refuse to approve the Government's proposals when it thinks that things are going wrong.

In retrospect, all of us must recognise that we ought not to have allowed the previous defence review to go by unchallenged. In a sense, we were to some extent diverted by the argument over Trident. That is a major argument, but the imbalance in the conventional forces, and the imbalance between the three Services, which was the basic flaw in the previous defence debate, went by unchecked. The fact that the Chief of the Naval Staff exercised his right to go to the Prime Minister as frequently as happened during the previous defence review ought to have been taken more seriously by the House.

8.5 pm

Sir Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)

At the beginning of his speech the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) spoke about the ships in the Royal Navy whose retention has already been decided upon. He expressed the view that has been expressed on both sides of the House today, that more of the ships detailed for the scrapheap in the 1981 cuts should be reprieved. He also said that that will have a considerable effect on the Royal Navy in terms of cash and manpower. I believe that the House should discuss this matter in some detail in November.

The right hon. Gentleman also said that the Royal Navy was a deterrent. That is important. It exists to prevent world war three. Surely that is an insurance worth paying.

Finally, I welcome the tribute that the right hon. Gentleman paid to the Royal Marines and his remarks about the possibility of Royal Marines officers gaining high appointments. We have had one high appointment—AFNORTH—in recent years. The officer appointed to that post filled it with great distinction. Indeed, that is recognised by the Norwegians and all the NATO nations. One must hope that similar jobs will become available to Royal Marines in future.

The Government made a good start when they came to office in 1979. They started immediately by increasing Services' pay and restoring morale, which had become very low. However, last year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced serious cuts in all three Services—that must be emphasised—but the Royal Navy suffered worst of all. The Secretary of State has been unfairly blamed for that. The responsibility lies with the Treasury, not with the Ministry of Defence. The Treasury provides the cash. The Secretary of State fought a good fight to obtain all that he could for the three Services. One example has already been mentioned. He managed to find money to reprieve the scrapping of HMS "Fearless" and "Intrepid" before the Falkland Islands campaign took place. It is obvious that that campaign could not have taken place without those two ships.

My right hon. Friend also managed to save certain weapon systems which have proved vital and will prove even more vital in future—Sea Eagle, lightweight Sea Wolf and the Sting Ray torpedo.

I wish, first, to deal with the effect on the Royal Navy of the 1981 cuts. It is agreed on both sides of the House that the primary role of the Royal Navy is anti-submarine warfare in the North Atlantic. That is what the Royal Navy is designed for. I know that I carry the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) with me when I say that the Americans were appalled by those cuts. He and I have had a chance to talk to members of the Armed Services Committees of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. We were told quite clearly that the Americans could not replace those ships in EASTLANT, that they had further commitments in the Indian Ocean, and that we were not pulling our weight.

This year I have also had the opportunity to talk to members of the Armed Services Committee of the Senate, as a member of this House's Select Committee on Defence. They strongly expressed the view that our antisubmarine forces, especially frigates and destroyers, should be maintained at more or less their present level. They were highly complimentary about the Falkland Islands operation. They hope, as I hope, that that will make all the difference and that we shall not implement anything like the cuts that were announced last year.

The hon. Member for Attercliffe and I attended SACLANT'S Exercise Sealink in Annapolis about four or six weeks ago. It was obvious that SACLANT and the senior naval officers present were extremely worried about the lack of frigates and destroyers in NATO's forces against the vast Soviet nuclear submarine fleet. This is a matter of great importance to Britain, which has twice nearly been defeated by the submarine, and of course, to NATO as a whole.

I take up a remark made by the right hon. Member for Devonport about SSNs. The right hon. Gentleman has always been keen on SSNs. I remember that he put emphasis on the SSNs when he had ministerial responsibilities for the Royal Navy. As I understand it, the Government were planning to have a force of 18 SSNs—one more than the previous Labour Government. However, the Government are scrapping "Dreadnought". That means that the total SSN force will be 17, which was the force that was planned many years ago. There will be no increase. Yet we were told, when the defence cuts were announced for the surface navy, that they would be balanced by an increased SSN force. That has been shown to be a mirage. There was talk also of an increased number of maritime patrol aircraft. There will be an increase of three, because I understand that three aircraft are being taken out of mothballs. Other aircraft had to be used in the AEW role.

As the hon. Member for Attercliffe said, antisubmarine warfare is team work. It needs surface vessels, helicopters, MPA and SSNs. All those ingredients are vital in what may eventually become the third battle of the Atlantic.

Sir Frederick Burden

I do not know whether my hon. Friend has read the report of Admiral Cox on operation Ocean Safari, in which he described the Russian diesel electric submarines as "dangerous". Conventional submarines are extremely dangerous as well as SSNs.

Sir Patrick Wall

I accept what my hon. Friend says. However, I believe that we should concentrate on SSNs and leave the Dutch, the Germans and others to concentrate on conventional submarines. I do not believe that we should do both. I am not happy about some of the plans that are being made to try to do both.

Having seen the facilities at Plymouth, I am concerned about the refuelling capabilities of our yards for SSNs. If we are to have 18, I do not believe that refuelling will be able to be carried out only at Plymouth. It is ridiculous to expect the Government to maintain the same number of dockyards now as in the days when we had a vast Royal Navy. I accept that certain yards must go. However, the refuelling capacity at Chatham, which is the most modern in the country, is vital and should, if possible, be retained, even if the rest of the dockyard has to go. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Sir F. Burden) will agree with me about that.

The second role of the Royal Navy is outside the area of NATO operations. I shall not say much about it as it has already been covered. The Falkland Islands campaign has already been described as a one-off operation. Nevertheless, I remind the House that we depend to a large extent—the dependence of NATO in Europe is even greater—on Persian Gulf oil and Southern African minerals. The supplies of these materials have to be protected. The possibility of amphibious operations, and certainly convoy protection, outside the NATO area has to be borne in mind. It is being borne in mind by SACLANT, and that is another reason why we should retain adequate escort forces in the Royal Navy.

Since the Falkland Islands operation, there have been certain consequences. Both sides of the House have congratulated my right hon. Friend on retaining HMS "Invincible". Many of us have said repeatedly over the past two years that two decks are essential. Indeed, it was one of the lessons learnt in the Second World War. If one deck is damaged and there is no other vessel available, the aircraft have to ditch. It is essential to have two decks. If we want two carriers to be operational, we must have three. I am glad that this has been decided.

I am worried about the time that it will take to build the type 23 frigates. The Secretary of State told us today that the first type 23 will be commissioned in 1988. That is a long time ahead. I should like to see the building time reduced. In its evidence to the Select Committee, British Shipbuilders said that the building time could be reduced by two years. I am glad to hear that the Ministry of Defence is considering something like the Meko system which has been implemented in Germany, which enables ships to be built more quickly. I hope that the Ministry will pursue that line as rapidly as possible. Much more must be done to maintain the number of frigates and destroyers in the Royal Navy. A ship should not be scrapped until it is replaced.

The additional expenditure involved should not be at the expense of Trident. I believe that is the only weapon system that the Soviets fear. I understand from talks in the United States that the offset that has been offered for the D5 will be carried out. It seems that the American Administration are genuine when they say that British firms will be able to contract on an equal basis with American firms for certain aspects of the programme.

Increased expenditure on the Royal Navy should not be at the expense of the Army. We know that BAOR is being cut to 55,000 men. It should not be cut any further. If further cuts were implemented, we would lose NATO command jobs, which are important to our prestige. It is my opinion that BAOR's equipment is not up to standard in many respects. I shall not develop that argument, but I observe that the ACPs are elderly and that the Select Committee is worried about the lack of air defence for both our armour and thin-skin vehicles.

Similarly, I do not believe that increased expenditure on the Royal Navy should be at the expense of the Royal Air Force. The air defence of Great Britain is essential. The need for Nimrod 3s—the AEW Nimrods—was demonstrated clearly, during the Falkland Islands campaign. I hope that the Minister who is to reply to the debate will tell us what is being done about providing the naval form of AEW with a capability, such as was provided by Gannets, which could now operate from smaller carriers. When the Navy is deployed out of range of land airfields, is it possible to put some form of AEW in helicopters? This would not produce the type of AEW that we have in Nimrods. However, such a system might have been good enough during the Falkland Islands operation. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer this question.

The House has to accept that we must spend more on defence. I accept that our defence capability must be linked to our economy, but I believe that the Treasury should be persuaded to give a higher priority to defence. I repeat that the real danger will come in the next five years.

The Soviet leadership will change in the near future. The Soviet economy is declining. The Soviets cannot feed themselves. The cohesion of the Soviet State is at risk. When the new leadership conies to power, it may have to choose between aggression and disintegration. Only by strong forces in this country and in NATO as a whole can the Soviets be persuaded that aggression will not pay.

I hope that the Treasury Minister will bear that in mind. Most of my colleagues in the North Atlantic Assembly agree with this. I repeat that lie danger will come in the next five or six years. I believe that the Prime Minister, whose single-minded leadership, supported by some of the finest troops in the world won the Falkland Islands campaign, will still give top priority to defence.

I now refer to procurement or what has been called RSI in the language of defence. RSI has been discussed this year, and for mar y years, with the armed services Committees of both the Senate and Congress. I am convinced that the Americans want to share with this; country and with Europe a better division of defence procurement. Of course, there is a powerful industrial lobby in the United States, which acts against joint procurement. However, I believe that the decisions on the AV8B and the VTXTS, the naval trainer based on the Hawk, are very important and good guides for the future.

I see from the photographs that the "Illustrious" has been fitted with Vulcan Phalanx. That is a good weapon, but it is nowhere as good as Sea Wolf. Sea Wolf proved itself in the Falklands. I understand that it brought down an Exocet. I hope that the Minister will confirm that, if possible.

The trouble with Sea Wolf is that it is too heavy. Therefore, it can be carried only in type 22 frigates, which are large ships. However, a lightweight Sea Wolf will be available in the near future in vertical, double or quadruple launchers. I believe that it is a world beater. I hope that the Government will do everything possible, now that the radar problem has been solved, to get this system at sea as soon as possible. It is clear that our ships are under-defended against air attack.

I recall that in the early part of the Second World War, HMS "Nelson" had six 4.7 in. anti-aircraft guns. At the end of the war, those ships were covered with every form of gun—Chicago cannons, oerlikons, and so on. The same will happen now. We have just fought the first war of the missile age. The lesson that must be learnt is that ships must have long-range as well as short-range protection against missiles, particularly sea skimmers.

Sea Wolf can offer such short-range protection. It can offer it in containerised forms. It can go in merchant ships. It could go in the RFAs, which should also be fitted with chaff dischargers, which would have saved the "Atlantic Conveyor", had she had them.

The Arapaho project has been mentioned. It is a way of expanding the Royal Navy cheaply. Container ships can be used as anti-submarine carriers, operating helicopters and Sea Harriers.

There are only 16 deep-water trawlers and 58 middle-water trawlers left, all of which could be immensely important as auxiliary minesweepers. The House must remember that the Soviets are the world's leaders in minelaying and that our ports could be closed.

Sea Dart did a fine job. It made Argentine aircraft fly low because they knew its envelope. As a result, they were put in the range of Sea Wolf. It brought down a number of Argentine aircraft. There should be better radar, which would allow it to deal not only with long-range but with low-flying targets.

We should not forget the value of the gun. The gun was used more than any other weapon in the Falkland Islands. I hope that the type 23 frigates will have some form of gun that is bigger than a 20 mm.

I am sorry that during the Falklands operation we did not manage to discover the two elusive German-built Argentine submarines, because I should have liked to have seen Sting Ray demonstrated operationally. I believe that the submarines would have been sunk with Sting Ray, which is undoubtedly the foremost torpedo in the world.

As I have said on previous occasions, I believe that, jointly with the United States, we should develop heavyweight and lightweight torpedoes based on Sting Ray's guidance system and American propulsion. That has been discussed with Members of Congress. They realise that it would save much money for the American taxpayers. Every effort should be made in that respect so that the Americans can drop their ALWT programme and join us in a programme to provide heavyweight and lightweight torpedoes for the whole of NATO.

I conclude by paying my tribute to the forces in the Falklands campaign. I pay tribute to the Army and to the RAF, but in this debate particularly to the men of the Merchant Navy from the "Queen Elizabeth" to the Hull trawlers and tugs that joined in the operation. I pay tribute to the RFAs and the ships' companies of the Royal Navy which took such a battering in that campaign. Above all, the House would expect me to pay tribute, as have others, to those who went in first and came out last—the Royal Marine Commandos and the Special Boat Section. Our finest troops—probably the finest in the world—took part in the Falkland Islands operations—Paratroops, Guards, Gurkhas and the Royal Marines. In that company the Royal Marines acquitted themselves with their usual distinction.

8.25 pm
Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

It is customary and traditional in Service debates to pay tribute to the dedication in the previous year of all our Armed Forces. In the normal course of events we do so, but the past few weeks and the conflict in the South Atlantic have increased our debt to the Armed Forces, especially the Royal Navy. The tributes that have come from both sides of the House are all the more fulsome as a result of the evident bravery, courage and sheer professionalism displayed by our Armed Forces in the successful discharge of their task.

It is right for us to use these occasions to make such comments and to draw lessons from events. I do not share the scepticism of the hon. and learned Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) about the inquiry into the events that led to the task force setting sail. Lives were lost in the South Atlantic, and there was a military and financial cost. Although some would say that we have gained valuable experience, I do not believe that we need go that far and pay that price to obtain the military experience that our forces might need.

It was slightly less than tasteful for the hon. Member for Haltemprice (Sir P. Wall) to say that he would have liked our forces to have found the two Argentine submarines so that they could obtain operational experience with the Sting Ray lightweight torpedo. I am profoundly grateful that the two Argentine submarines were not found. I am even more grateful, of course, that the two submarines were not used by the Argentines. I have heard the hon. Member for Haltemprice speak on many occasions, and I am sure that he did not mean exactly what he said.

When we consider the lessons learnt from the campaign we shall accept, with sorrow, that it had to be mounted in the first place. If the committee of inquiry with its eminent, if elderly, gentlemen reaches the root of why our forces had to go to the Falklands and why 255 of our young men in those forces had to die, its service to the country will be discharged.

It is important to make a number of other points in this debate on the Royal Navy. When we debated the Navy estimates the praise given by the Secretary of State to the Royal Navy and its role in the Falklands was less than enthusiastic. I intended to say that the praise was grudging, but perhaps I should not go that far. I have read his speech twice and the compliments he paid to the Royal Navy were less than it deserved. Had it not been for the Royal Navy, none of the experiences in the Falklands would have been possible.

We may argue that if General Galtieri had moved 12 months later there would have been no task force to send. However, what is self-evident from the operation is that without the capital ships, especially the two aircraft carriers, and without the Royal Navy in the strength and force that it was able to put together in a short space of time, nothing would have happened. General Galtieri would have marched in and next April would be celebrating the first anniversary of the taking of the Malvinas. The Royal Navy's position was absolutely pivotal, and I hope that Ministers will give due credit to that fact.

Support has been grudging, and I say that not without some evidence. The most glaring evidence of that grudging compliment to the Royal Navy has, as other hon. Members have said, arisen in relation to the replacement of the four ships that were sunk. Without a doubt, there is genuine concern in all parts of the House about replacements for those ships. HMS "Sheffield", HMS "Coventry" and the two type 21 frigates were sunk in the South Atlantic, yet the Secretary of State simply announced a fortnight ago: Over the next few months we shall be considering ship replacement orders following the Falklands operation, but in the meantime I have decided to order, within the already planned programme". As the Minister has already confirmed this afternoon, the apparent replacements are already provided for within the programme. Therefore, the continuation of the life of the "Fife", "Glamorgan", "Bristol" and the ordering of the type 22 frigates is simply a short-term expedient presumably to lead us to the point where the Government are ready to make the ordering possible.

It seems strange that in the defence debate the Government were able to announce that all the helicopters lost in the Falklands would be replaced and that extra would be ordered. They were able to announce that all the Harriers that were lost would be replaced and that additional Harriers would be ordered. However, they are unable to give the orders to the shipyards to bring the Navy's already depleted forces up to a level that would again make it credible.

I do not need to underline to the House the desperate plight of many of our shipyards. A decision on the replacement of four ships is urgently needed, not just to bring the Royal Navy up to strength but to ensure that our capability of rebuilding a future fleet is real and credible.

Another aspect of this matter is the Government's propaganda machine in relation to the Royal Navy. I have been intrigued and interested—at times even annoyed—to see the same phrases pop up in speeches around the country, in newspaper articles and now in speeches from the Government Front Bench. The same comments appear almost word for word.

The hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker) and I did a large number of broadcasts together on Radio Scotland during the Falklands conflict. We almost became the Morecambe and Wise of the airwaves. It was incredible that on most occasions the hon. Gentleman seemed to be reading the same script. The same script has been used by the Secretary of State. In the defence debate a fortnight ago, the right hon. Gentleman said: the facts are that we are spending nearly £500 million more in real terms on the conventional naval programme than the previous Government in the year before we took office. We shall still be spending more on the conventional Navy, at the peak of Trident expenditure, than when the Labour Party was in power. In that same debate, the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces said: He should note that in this financial year we are spending £½ billion more, in real terms, on the conventional Navy. I cannot repeat that too often".—[Official Report, 1 July 1982; Vol. 26, c. 1063–1124.] Indeed, he cannot, because the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport, (Dr. Owen) came across the Honiton Division Conservative Association, Newspoint, which stated: Talk of running down the Navy is nonsense … There will be more major ships and submarines operational in 1985 Man there are today. A massive modernisation programme of the fleet is in hand. All that may be a coincidence. Individual Conservative Members may have received revelations in a blinding flash leading to the synchronised statements telling those facts to the public. Otherwise, a briefing has been issued by the Government on which Conservative Members are relying, and they do so to their cost. In one of the photocopy rooms in the House one of my colleagues came across a document, the words of which bear a remarkable resemblance to those used by Conservative Members. The document is headed "The Royal Navy—Naval Budget". It says: Talk of savage cuts in the Navy is nonsense. This financial year we will be spending £½ billion more in real terms on the Navy than was spent in the year before we came to office. It continues in words identical to those used by Conservative Members all over the country and now in the House.

I shall examine in detail some of the assertions in the briefing. The first is that £½ billion more in real terms will be spent on the Navy this year. Of course it is true, but that expenditure is a consequence of ordering by the Labour Government. The Conservative Government are parading a boast—Conservative Back-Benchers are joining them—about expenditure committed by the previous Government instead of by this Government.

The secret briefing says: There will be more major ships and submarines operational in 1985 than there are today. A massive modernisation programme for the fleet is in hand involving the construction of over 30 new ships which includes over 50 per cent. of the destroyer force. A fortnight ago I asked how many of these ships had been ordered and how many ships were due to be delivered to the Royal Navy by 1987. The Minister said that 11 ships were accepted into Royal Navy service between May 1979 and June 1982—the first period since the Government came to power—all of which were ordered by May 1979. By 1987—a long time away—there will be a further 14 ships entering the service of the Royal Navy. Of those 14 ships, 10 were ordered before May 1979. Thus the strength of the Royal Navy's new additions is dependent on decisions taken by the Labour Government. Only four out of the 25 ships that will come into service during the Conservative Government were ordered by them.

One of the most contentious issues to have been raised is the date—1985—that Conservative Members have been parroting as well as the £½ billion more claimed to be spent in real terms by this Government. The Government say that more major ships and submarines will be operational in 1985 than today. However, on the same day as the previous question that I put also asked for a simple comparison between the number of ships in the Royal Navy, excluding submarines, and Royal Fleet Auxiliaries in service now with the exact number in service in May 1979. The answer that I received from the Minister was that in 1979 the Government inherited 154 major warships and that the number now in service is 139. Of the ships ordered under the Labour Government that are coming on stream, only four were ordered by the Conservative Government. They say that we shall have more ships by 1985. That is because of the prudent ordering policy of the previous Government. So the Conservative Party or Ministry of Defence briefing that has been used throughout the country to defend the Government's record on the Navy is a boast based on the orders of the Labour Government.

Why have the Government taken 1985 as the magical date for more ships? The answer is self-evident. There will be fewer ships after 1985. We would not have had the three ships that have now been reprieved—HMS "Fife", HMS "Glamorgan" and HMS "Bristol"—because, as the Secretary of State said in a previous debate, they were to be paid off in the mid-1980s. After 1985 we shall begin to see the depletion of the Royal Navy when the Conservative Government have taken credit up to that time for the ships ordered by the Labour Government.

I have genuine feelings of pride about the Navy and about the courage and professionalism shown by all the Armed Forces, but I wish to inject an element of caution because it is not all sweetness and light or good news. Naval personnel will be made redundant. Dockyards will be shut and civilian dockyards, whose capacity is militarily as necessary as many naval dockyards, will die unless they get orders soon. Although we should recognise our achievement, we must also be aware of the dangers in which we put ourselves if we choose to believe propaganda rather than facts.

8.41 pm
Mr. Neville Trotter (Tynemouth)

Debates on the Navy are annual events, but this debate is held against a different background. It has been our custom for years to discuss a peace-time Navy, but this year the Navy was tested in the crisis and horrors of war only a few weeks ago. It is a great achievement that the Navy came through that crisis with its flags flying and with a magnificent victory. The names Falkland Sound and San Carlos will go down in our naval history on the roll of honour in the same way as have many other parts of the world.

Many lessons will be learnt from the campaign, but it is too soon to go into the details of any necessary changes in the design of ships or weapons systems. However, what can be said is that the operation was brilliant in its conception and execution. I was fortunate enough to attend SACLANT's "Sealink" conference a few weeks' ago. It opened on the day on which our victory was announced. SACLANT said that the United Kingdom did everything right in the campaign, and that is praise from a well-qualified source. Almost every hon. Member has paid tribute tonight to the skill, ability and competence of those who took part in the campaign.

It is ironic that it was the Labour Government, when the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) was Secretary of State for Defence, who decided that never again would Britain take part in an operation; never again would we take part in an operation without air support from land bases; never again would we take part in an operation alone; never again would we rely on mobile repair facilities; and never again would there be an opposed landing. It is thus hard now to hear the Labour Party posturing as the party of the Navy. No one did more damage to the Navy than the right hon. Member for Leeds, East.

The policy of the main Opposition party is to cut defence spending by 11 times as much as will be spent on Trident. We hear much waffle and nonsense from the Opposition about the way in which they would build up the Navy, but the question that they do not answer is where they would find the money. Are they in favour of the argument of their former Prime Minister that we should pull our soldiers out of Germany? I doubt it, because the consequences would be very serious.

Lessons will be learnt about the construction of ships in the light of which we shall no doubt examine the type and number of ships to be constructed. There is no doubt that the capability of ships to survive damage must be examined carefully.

When I was in the United States I had the opportunity to examine some of its latest ships. The Americans face exactly the same problems as do we. They have also built superstuctures in aluminium. Because they are also trying to obtain more comfort for their crews they have filled cabin and deck spaces with combustible materials. They also have the problem of plastic insulated wiring that burns easily.

I was reminded by a constituent of a fire on a type 42 destroyer when it was being built at Swan Hunter on the Tyne a few years ago. One wonders what action was taken as a result of that fire. The problem is certainly not confined only to our ships. It certainly also confronts the American navy.

Mr. Dalyell

The hon. Gentleman mentions his visit to America. Will he confirm or deny that he also went to Buenos A[...]es on a trading mission, part of which concerned me selling of arms?

Mr. Trotter

The hon. Gentleman is not absolutely right. I was not selling arms. I visited Argentina and the Falkland Islands at the same time. I also saw the Argentine navy. It is a pity that it showed no belligerency at that time. I put recent events down to a change of personalities. President Galtieri was not in charge when I went there. If there had been any suggestion of belligerency, I should have made it clear that Britain would fight to protect her rights. Unfortunately, the issue did not arise. It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman did not point out his views on arms sales to his Prime Minister when the right hon. Gentleman signed a contract with Argentina for two type 42 destroyers just before the 1970 election.

Hardly any attention has been paid in the debate to the fact that progress is being made on no fewer than three new types of vessel. At last the new conventional submarines of type 2400 are to be put out to tender as are the new mine counter-measure vessels for the Royal Naval Reserve, while the type 23 frigates are to proceed. We warmly welcome those developments. I hope that some work will come to shipyards on the Tyne. I have some sympathy for the suggestion that the Australians might be persuaded to buy a new "Invincible" type carrier that is built at Swan Hunter's rather than HMS "Hermes", wonderful ship though she is. I should like to think that they will get longer life from a new ship built on the Tyne than from the "Hermes", however well she has been maintained.

Perhaps my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement will say a little about the need to replace some of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels which performed so well in the South Atlantic. Tyneside has built almost every Royal Fleet Auxiliary since the last war. It is important to replace some of those valuable ships in the next few years and that work should go to the Tyne.

I hope that some of the necessary repair work on the returning ships will go to merchant yards around Britain. I shall not be too parochial and suggest that they should all come to the Tyne. Nevertheless, it should be mentioned that there is a serious problem on the Tyne at the present as a result of the lack of civilian repair work.

The Navy faces the problem of a rapid increase in the real cost of constructing new ships. One can argue all night about the figures, but more is now being spent than ever before on new ships for the Navy. An average of 44 per cent. a year more has been spent in real terms in the last three years than in the five years of the last Labour Government. It is sterile to argue who should take the praise. It is a fact of life that building a sophisticated warship takes many years. It is obvious that in any five-year period practically all the new ships that are put into commission will have been ordered by the previous Government.

I am delighted that we are to keep all three of the Invincible class of carriers. That is the right decision. Success in the Falklands would have been impossible without aircraft, especially the Harriers. The Falklands conflict has been a wonderful success for those controversial aircraft. It had been argued by some that the Harrier would not be a success in action. It has now proved itself in most difficult circumstances. I agree that it is a tragedy that any equipment has to prove itself in combat.

We need the largest possible quantity of ships, but we must also have quality. As I have said before, survivability is extremely important. Although our nuclear submarines kept the Argentine navy bottled up in port, without our surface ships the entire operation would have been impossible. That applies to nearly every conceivable maritime operation. The Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic has said that he has only 50 per cent. of the ships that he needs to perform all his tasks, and our General Council of British Shipping believes that there are too few escorts available in the Atlantic. All that is a powerful argument for maintaining, if not increasing, the number of ships.

On the other hand, the cost of sophisticated equipment, especially to deal with the threat from missiles, is extremely high. We should not forget that the threat at sea today comes basically from missiles. The Argentine air force flew with great bravery and did much damage with old-fashioned bombs. In future, however—and this applies to many of the world's forces, not just to the Warsaw Pact—the main threat will be from missiles whether launched from aircraft, from surface ships or from under the sea by submarines.

We must be careful that our expertise in anti-submarine warfare, which is much valued by our NATO allies, does not lead to a position in which our ships cannot defend themselves against missile attack and would thus be in danger of being sunk before they could attack the submarines. The main threat on the horizon is that the whole of the Soviet navy is built around the anti-surface ship missile—long-range, fast, numerous and in the near future sea-skimming. They are fired from supersonic Backfire bombers, enormous Oscar submarines and the new giant nuclear-powered battle cruisers of the Kirov class. They practise saturation attack, against which a sophisticated and expensive air defence system is needed, which brings us back to the problem of how many ships we can afford.

The Americans are bringing new Aegis class cruisers into service for that air defence role, at a cost of £500 million each. It is hoped to miniaturise this system in a few years into a new destroyer costing between £200 million and £300 million. In due course, the United Kingdom will also have to consider a type 24, as it were, of similar sophistication.

If one visits the United States navy today, one is impressed by the number of anti-ship missiles carried on board its surface ships. The Americans are bolting Harpoons on to almost all of their ships. In explosive power, those weapons are almost twice as deadly as Exocet. In about a year, the much longer range Tomahawk will come into service. It will be widely used in the United States navy and its warhead is four times as deadly as Exocet. Those missiles will not be used against us, but the lesson is there. There is no doubt that our potential enemies will develop or acquire something similar.

Of course, it does not matter what equipment the Navy or any of the Services has if the calibre of manpower is not right. The record here in personal terms can only be described as superlative. Those of us who have been in the South Atlantic know about the weather there. I went there in what was described as the summer. There was no snow, but there were gales, rain and fierce wind. They are terrible conditions in which to operate and all credit is due to our men who were so successful in their task both at sea and ashore.

The volume of the air attacks on our ships was enormous. It must have been a terrifying experience, particularly for those members of the Merchant Navy who so readily went to the South Atlantic. There were 52 ships, from the QE2 right down to tugs, with a total of 3,251 crew, including 56 brave ladies. The "Canberra" found herself used as an assault ship. I would not be surprised if its crew were less cheerful the second time that they went into San Carlos Sound with the bombs falling all around them—nor am I surprised that the captain felt that the ship was a large target especially as the weather that morning was apparently lovely. The ferry "Elk", which usually runs from my native North-East, went into San Carlos Sound with 2,000 tonnes of ammunition on deck. As the captain commented, if anything had hit her the crew would never have known what it was.

One cannot pay too high a tribute to the members of the Merchant Navy who went so readily into action. I echo calls for the strength of the Merchant Navy to be maintained. Its decline is most worrying. I spoke to the United States maritime administrator, Admiral Shear, recently. The same lesson has been learnt there. The ships that we operate in peace time are essential in war time. Without them operations such as that to the Falklands cannot be mounted.

There has been comment about the fleet auxiliaries. An example is the "Olmeda", a tanker which spent 96 days at sea without anchoring and refuelled ships 186 times in the storms off the Falklands. It was a great achievement. One must also mention the landing ships including the "Sir Gallahad", which was tragically lost. To see some of her Chinese crew, who bravely sailed into those waters, attending a service on board one of the ships when the Welsh Guards were singing a hymn in Welsh brought home to me the debt that we owe to our Chinese friends from Hong Kong who manned these ships. I do not think that they understood the Welsh hymn any more than I did. It was nevertheless a moving occasion.

It is worth recording the words of two of the officers in command. Commander Nick Tobin, of the "Antelope", which, sadly, was sunk in action, reported Not one man turned away or failed to do his duty. Everyone on board acted in the most marvellous manner. Commander Alan West, of the "Ardent", sunk after 17 attacks, reported, Conditions in the fires were terrifying but the men were marvellous. They all did superbly and were a bloody good team. That could be said, I think, of everyone who went to the Falklands. They were indeed superb and a "bloody good team" of which we can be very proud.

I believe that the House owes a duty to the country and to our Services to ensure that we maintain our capability to react successfully in a similar manner in the future. It is impossible, I believe, for this to be achieved on the limited amount of money currently being made available. I do not blame the Secretary of State. My right hon. Friend was given an impossible task. I do not believe that we should come out of Germany. I do not believe that anyone else will defend the skies above Britain. It is only through the possession of our own nuclear weapons that we can prevent the prospect of a Hiroshima in this country.

It is not the fault of my right hon. Friend that he has had to take unpalatable decisions. I believe, however, that the people of this country in their present mood are prepared to see more money spent on defending themselves. Hon. Members talk glibly about increasing defence spending by 3 per cent. although that in itself is an achievement, for many countries in NATO fail to meet that target. We are talking, however, of 3 per cent. of about 5 per cent. of GNP that is spent on defence. Seen against the national income this increase represents an infinitesimal sum. We are adding only 1/600th of the total of our annual national resources. I do not believe that this amount is adequate in an imperfect world when we face a serious threat, not least at sea from the Warsaw Pact. It is wrong that we should be spending no more in real terms on defence than we were in the 1960s when the country was much less wealthy. This is a priority that must be reassessed.

Our maritime capability and power has been proved in the Falklands. It has shown that our resources normally available to NATO can be moved, through the flexibility of sea power, to action literally at the other end of the world. That is a contribution that we can and must uniquely continue to make to NATO. There will be future challenges in far-off places, the location of which we cannot at this time determine. The success of our action in the Falklands has been perceived all over the world and not only in Third world countries where potential aggressors will be encouraged to lay off. I believe that our success and the failure of aggression have also been perceived in Moscow. It will make the likelihood of all-out war between East and West less likely but there will be challenges in far-off places when we least expect them. We must be prepared to face those challenges in the same way as we did in the Falklands, even if that means spending more money.

8.59 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

I am jarringly and screechingly out of tune with the consensus of the debate, and not only with the Government, but with some of the things that have been said from the Opposition Front Bench. I wonder what would have happened if my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) had made today's speech and gone to himself in a previous incarnation as a successful Treasury Minister in a previous Labour Government, or if he were to make it and go to himself as Chief Secretary to the Treasury in a future Labour Government.

We should spend less on the Navy; we should concentrate on our obligations to NATO in the North Atlantic; we should eschew a world-wide role and spend anything that we save on investment in the railways, the National Health Service and many other things. If we take the attitude that what we have we hold, candidly, defence cannot be pruned; but if we say, as I and many of my right hon. and hon. Friends do, that we must prune defence, then we cannot in honesty say that what we have we hold.

From 3 April I was consistently against the sending of the task force. I am for NATO in the North Atlantic, and I am astonished that we appear to be shaping the Fleet and gearing its use to the Falklands. That is what the retention of HMS "Invincible" is all about. Never has a tail wagged a dog in such a way as the defence policy of this nation is being wagged by the Falkland Islands problem. It would appear from the debate that the view of many hon. Members is that we should have a semi-permanent, if not permanent, commitment in the South Atlantic. I dissent from that view.

With regard to the Navy there is another issue. After the awful night that we heard that HMS "Sheffield" had been struck and the Secretary of State for Defence announced the tragedy on that unforgettable occasion, should we not have learnt that possibly 5,000 years of naval history had changed more than a little? If an Argentine Exocet could do that to HMS "Sheffield", what about the more sophisticated equipment in the hands of the Russians? The question has to be asked: what future do surface ships have in naval warfare? Is it wise to have a great spending programme on surface ships?

I heard the Minister talk about British power in purely national terms. He then talked about equipment cost growth, and fairly said that a type 22 now costs £130 million, or three times the real cost of the "Leander" that it succeeded. He talked about the accelerated costs of recent years. That is absolutely true. He said that costs showed every sign of continuing to accelerate. That referred to the rise in real costs. I say to hon. Members on both sides of the House that the bills that are being run up for a Treasury of either a Labour or Conservative Government are enormous. I wonder whether, in paying those bills for capital ships, we are not preparing for the

By the middle of May a few of us were asking a cacophony of pertinent questions. Was Britain prepared to restructure the Fleet in such a way as to keep a portion of it 8,000 miles away for the foreseeable future? Why was the Royal Navy task force sent south without adequate air cover? I ask those questions not with hindsight. I interrupted the Prime Minister with such questions at the time. Was it thought that the original Harriers packed into "Invincible" and "Hermes" were sufficient to maintain standing patrols and to prevent Exocet-carrying Etendards approaching close enough for a lethal strike against "Sheffield"? I recognise the bravery and skill of our Navy, but those questions must be asked.

Why was there not adequate airborne radar surveillance? Why was Sea Wolf, which is the most effective available missile to counter Exocet, not in place on the destroyers? Why was the destroyer that had to be placed on radar control under-equipped to protect itself from a missile strike? As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) said, similar Soviet destroyers positively bristle with defensive weaponry. By comparison, "Sheffield" was naked. I do not ask these questions pejoratively. Hindsight is marvellous. There may be adequate answers.

I interrupted the Minister to ask what it was about the materials used in British warships that it needed only one missile hit to turn the ship into a blazing inferno which had to be abandoned. Are other ships as fire vulnerable as "Sheffield"? If so, what would have happened had a super Etendard got the promised wing tanks from the United States, extended its range and penetrated with air-launched Exocets the defensive screen to find a way into a carrier's hangar deck full of Harriers and fuel? It was a close run thing. Thanks to the American Customs, vital parts were embargoed at the last moment at an American airport. We must be grateful to the Americans for that.

Why did a significant number of deaths occur through fumes from melting insulating material covering the miles of cabling in a modern warship? The danger of poison and fumes was foreseen. Why did the Navy not act? We should know the Navy's justification, if it does not accept the criticism. I am not the only hon. Member to raise the question.

There are hardly less acute questions for the naval air strategists. Was it safe to rely on dog-fighting aircraft like Harrier when the stand-off success of the super Etendard suggests that there was little occasion for classic air dog fights? Has not stand-off weaponry, coupled with improved communications and intensely accurate targeting, transformed modern warfare? That relates to my question about the future building programme for surface ships. Was not the sinking of "Sheffield" the turning point? Never again can a capital ship be deemed relatively safe and protected from air-launched surface-skimming missiles.

The Minister of State said that there will be a thorough evaluation of the campaign and that it cannot be done until everyone has returned. It should be the subject of a day's debate in the House and a full report.

This is probably not the time to raise the question of weaponry and exports in detail, but some people are worried about exports and end-user certificates. People are worried that the Nelson eye is being turned to the end-user certificates. Shakespeare said "Now thrive the armourers". All round the world the tag "Falklands tested" means a lot, not only for British weaponry, but for French and other weaponry. The bravery of our Service men is not in doubt, but on 2 April how many hon. Members in the House who favoured the dispatch of the task force thought that we should lose four navy ships and much else?

I have some specific questions to ask. This is the time to pose a question formulated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) and a number of others. Why was it necessary to give the orders to fire the torpedoes that sank "Belgrano"? There might have been an operational reason. Perhaps her escorting destroyers were carrying surface-to-surface Exocets. We have never been given a full explanation. The commander of "Conqueror" returning to Scotland said that he was given superior orders from Northwood. I can assume only that the orders came directly from the Prime Minister.

The President of Peru and many others claimed that the sinking of "Belgrano" was also a deliberate sinking by the British of the Peruvian peace negotiations, which might have been successful. There is a case to answer. I hope that the inquiry will put its mind to that.

Some light must be thrown, one way or another, on a Sub-Committee meeting of the War Cabinet of 19 March. Adam Raphael of The Observer said that submarines were asked for. I do not say that he is right, that the Foreign Office is right or that the Ministry of Defence is wrong, but I can see no reason why we should not be given a factual statement instead of having to rely on innuendo.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli rightly asked about the statement by the captain of "Endurance". I hope that he will receive an answer to his pertinent questions. I ask another pertinent question. It is said in the press that divers are going to the bowels of "Sheffield" to recover sensitive equipment. There should be a denial, if one can be given, that the sensitive equipment involves nuclear depth charges. If nuclear weapons were brought into the Western hemisphere there may be a serious breach of the agreement by Western hemisphere States that the nuclear weapons of any other country shall not be brought in. That is important, and the matter should be cleared up. I prefer to believe that none of our ships was carrying nuclear weapons. If that is so, the Government should say so and put and end to the speculation.

Much of the truth should come out when the Committee under Lord Franks reports. I have asked the Prime Minister questions about that Committee. The House was not told the Thursday before last, when we agreed to the Franks Committee, that Lord Franks had the appalling burden of having to go into hospital for a cataract operation. Is it fair, reasonable or sensible to ask a man in his seventy-eighth year, however distinguished, with the problem of cataract which needs rest, to go through the complex papers involved? Distinguished blind lawyers and others operate well, but not to be able to read and to have to start having papers read to one in one's seventy-eighth year is not reasonable in terms of the chairmanship of an investigative committee of this importance. I hope that this week the Government will come forward with a statement either to say that Lord Franks is fit for the job or to suggest who his successor might be.

It is well known to my colleagues that, unlike most of them, I think, alas—I take no joy in it—that we are at the end not of the Falklands crisis but of phase one. In no way will any foreseeable Government of Argentina ever surrender their claim and, heaven help us, the threat of hostilities, if not actual hostilities, is likely to go on for the lifetime of the youngest among us.

This raises the issue of how we supply the Falkland Islands when no other Latin American country is likely to act as a substitute. This means convoys, and we ought to be given a clear estimate of the costs of it all. I find that they are mind-boggling. I can only speak for myself and for some of my colleagues on the Opposition Back Benches. I do not presume to speak for other people. But for a nation that cannot find the investment for its railways, that cannot pay its hospital service workers properly and that cannot do many other things, it is a gross misjudgment of priorities to go forward with the kind of naval expenditure for which most hon. Members have asked.

9.17 pm
Mr. Bill Walker (Perth and East Perthshire)

I am sure that the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) will not be surprised when I say that I agree with very little of what he said. I do not doubt his sincerity. That is acknowledged by all Scots. But he will acknowledge in turn that many Scots still feel that Scotland should be an independent nation, although we have learnt to live with the fact that we are not. There is nothing odd about the Argentines claiming that the Falkland Islands are theirs. We have learnt to live with that for a long time. But that does not mean that we shall face hostilities again in the South Atlantic. One of the lessons of history is that rarely is a course repeated.

This is the first debate of this kind in which I have been fortunate enough to be called. That being so, I take this opportunity to congratulate the members of the task force and all those in the United Kingdom, both civilian and Service, who contributed to the victory in the Falklands and other parts of the South Atlantic.

I want especially to pay tribute to 45 Royal Marine Commando from Condor in Arbroath in Scotland. I do so because at weekends, wearing my RAFVR uniform, I fly from that base, and therefore I have a particular affection for the members of 45 Royal Marine Commando and I sorrow for the 15 who failed to return.

I do not doubt, and have never doubted, that there were bound to be some foul-ups both in the mounting of the task force and in the execution of the battles. I also believe that some individuals would be tempted to exploit these if there were any. However, we should all remember who won in the South Atlantic. Democracy won. The rule of law won. Freedom won. We should never cease to repeat that, because that is what the 255 who gave their lives made their sacrifice for. They did not give their lives for any of the jingoism that we have heard so often. They gave their lives so that our children and future children in the Falkland Islands could enjoy what we hold so dear.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on producing his White Paper. In common with many hon. Members, I do not find that I agree with everything in any White Paper. I should be surprised if I did. But I believe that this White Paper is based on a realistic assessment of the nation's defence priorities and seeks to create viable defence capabilities within the limits of the funds available. That is the nub of the matter—within the limits of the funds available. I believe sincerely that there are insufficient funds available. I support the view that it should have been not a 3 per cent. but a 4 per cent. increase. That would have removed many of the problems that we have discussed.

I do not want to stray too far into the possible lessons of the Falklands conflict. That subject will be covered fully by the comprehensive and detailed study being carried out at the Ministry of Defence. However, I cannot let the opportunity pass without commenting on a few of the obvious lessons that are to be learnt and the possible deficiencies which became apparent in the task force.

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Dr. McDonald) referred in the earlier debate to the 1957 White Paper of the Labour Government. I remember that White Paper vividly, because in it the RAF was expected to fly rockets in the future. As I happened to be serving in the RAF at about that time, I had a particular interest in the matter, and I did not particularly fancy flying rockets. The hon. Lady should get her facts right. I agree that the problem was put right, but it was put right by successive Conservative Governments, not by Labour Governments. In 1964, when the Conservative left office, the new Labour Government cancelled the TSR2 and left the Air Force with an enormous problem. In fact, they did greater damage to the Air Force than the 1957 White Paper ever did.

Now the Labour Party recommends that Britain's defence budget should be reduced to equal that of our European Allies. That could be achieved only by the reintroduction of national service, and the Labour Party should say so. That is what is done by the rest of our NATO Allies. That is how they achieve the figures. The countries that were selected by the Labour Party achieve their budgets by having national service.

There is another lesson to be learnt from the Falkland Islands campaign. Without airborne early-warning radar, hostile aircraft using modern weapons can inflict considerable damage on ships of the fleet. Even old-fashioned iron bombs can still do considerable damage. The question that we must ask is: why did the carriers lack that capability? Again, we should look at the Labour Party's White Papers. The White Paper issued by the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) removed that capability from the Navy. He decided that Gannets would no longer be required. He decided that the Royal Navy would no longer be required to operate out of the area covered by land-based Royal Air Force aircraft. It was decided that there would be no flotilla and no squadron east of Suez and in the South Atlantic. That decision was taken at a time when the Navy no longer had the capacity for early warning radar. The blame again lies with the Labour Party.

There is another lesson to be learnt from what happened in the South Atlantic. Our existing surface warships may not be adequately equipped to cope with surface-skimming missiles. People may say that it is all very well to say that with hindsight, knowing the success of Exocet. I recommend those people to read my amendment No. 2 to the early-day motion 283 of 2 March 1982 of my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Sir. F. Burden) on HMS "Invincible". In that amendment I drew attention to the deficiencies of surface ships and, in particular, to the shortage of weapons systems to deal with sea-skimming missiles. I tabled that amendment a long time ago. I still believe that carriers in the North Atlantic are an embarrassment to us until we can defend them, and it is nonsense to pretend otherwise. Anyone who thinks that because one can send carriers to the South Atlantic and fly Harriers from them against the enemy there and in the conditions that existed there, and imagines that those conditions would recur in the North Atlantic, ignores the fact that Soviet land-based aircraft and submarines have the capability of launching sea-skimming missiles which could inflict considerable damage on our ships.

What is the answer? What matters is not the number of hulls, but the equipment on board. That is why my right hon. Friend's priorities are right in going for weapons systems, not hulls. Once weapons are in service, they can be mounted on civilian ships. Indeed, Harriers can also be mounted on civilian ships.

Mr. Speed


Mr. Walker

I cannot give way to my hon. Friend, because I wish to speak briefly on probably the most important matter—Trident. Trident is a highly emotional subject in Scotland. The base will be in Scotland. It is an area about which the Scots are worried, partly because of the misleading information that we hear largely from the Opposition Benches. Indeed, in the speech of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang), in which I intervened, he claimed that Trident was a first strike weapon, designed to knock out the Soviet's capability.

I intervened to ask the hon. Gentleman how Trident would knock out SS20s. He showed his ignorance by suggesting that I did not know what I was talking about. The truth is that he does not know what he is talking about, because he has not realised that the SS20 is a mobile missile and that to try to use Trident at sea to knock out mobile missiles without the exact location being known makes no sense.

We in Scotland recognise the need for our nuclear deterrent.

Mr. George Foulkes (South Ayrshire)


Mr. Walker

The hon. Gentleman did not win any of the debates on the 14 Sunday mornings. He should not make such comments from a sedentary position.

We require Trident. I welcome Trident, and I welcome the White Paper.

9.26 pm
Mr. Denzil Davies

By leave of the House. I shall be brief partly because the Under-Secretary of State has many questions to answer, many of them from the Conservative Benches.

This is the third debate on defence in two weeks in which I have spoken. I am sure that Lady Bracknell would have had something to say about it, but I cannot remember the quotation.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) has been slightly unfair to the case presented by the Opposition in the past two debates. We have certainly never suggested that we should seek another world-wide role. Indeed, my point was that the best contribution Britain can make within NATO—I take his point about NATO—is a maritime one. Our criticism of the Government is that they have moved away too far from that idea and, by cutting the Navy as they have, they have reduced that type of flexibility and have reduced NATO's maritime defence capabilities. On expenditure, we pointed out in the previous defence debate that, as a result of the Falklands, the cost of Trident II and the various other decisions, defence will be taking next year, if not this, 5½ per cent. of Britain's gross national product—if not a declining, then certainly a static gross national product. I entirely appreciate what my hon. Friend said. We quite rightly took a chance in sending the task force to the South Atlantic because that task force was not geared, despite the heroism, the efficiency and the success, to that type of operation. The carriers were not real carriers. They were anti-submarine ships and were not designed primarily for that role. That is why it was a difficult operation which succeeded but could have gone tragically wrong.

Trident has been referred to in the debate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin) said—the point was made in the previous debate by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan)—that Britain cannot fight a war, certainly not a nuclear war, without American approval. Whether we argue that Trident is independent or not in a theatre sense, and whatever the treaties may or may not say, in practice it would not be possible for Britain to fight a nuclear war against the Soviet Union—that is what we are discussing—without American approval, if the Americans decided not to commit their own nuclear weapons. I shall leave it at that.

Mr. Buck

Trident could have been highly relevant to the Falklands issue. If the Argentines had gone for nuclear weapons, it would have been important for Britain to have independent control of a nuclear capacity. That is covered by the Treaty of Nassau and the new arrangements for Trident, and is important in this debate.

Mr. Davies

I do not want to pursue that issue now. We do not have enough time to do so. We can return to it on another occasion.

It is no good the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) saying "It is all the Treasury's fault. It does not matter what percentage of GNP we spend on defence. We must have the right amount of defence." That is the impression that he tried to give. He knows that there has to be a central Department in every Government to control expenditure. He knows that there has to be a balance of priorities between defence, social services and other public expenditure. It is silly to say that defence is more important than everything else and that we should not worry too much about the percentage of GNP that we spend on it.

Several of my hon. Friends have spoken about hunter-killer submarines. They have said that if we build Trident submarines at Vickers there will not be sufficient capacity. Apparently the Government do not intend to provide other capacity. It is argued that we shall not have the capacity to continue to build the hunter-killers and there are misgivings. Is the Minister satisfied that the hunter-killer programme can continue if the Government go ahead with Trident II, bearing in mind that the only yard that can build for both projects is Vickers?

I think that the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) was fair and right when he said—perhaps I would not agree with the phrase that he used—that part of the problem at the dockyards is that of management. I do not want to put ideas in the head of the Government, but one of the difficulties is running a commercial operation within the structure of the Civil Service. There are other trading organisations within the Civil Service and one example is the Royal Mint.

We are orthodox in the way in which we consider these matters. I am not saying that these organisations should be taken out of the Civil Service. Indeed, there are advantages in retaining them within it. None the less, it is difficult to structure management and run these organisations within the Civil Service. The French do it flir better than we do, but they have a different set-up. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we should re-examine the way in which we run these organisations. Having done that perhaps we shall be able to reduce dockyard costs and run the yards more efficiently without having to adopt the ridiculous policy of closure.

The Government have tried to suggest that the consequences of the Falklands campaign are not especially important. That is not right, because money will have to be spent on them and many of the relevant factors have been mentioned in the debate. Mention has been made of HMS "Invincible". If it had not been for the Falkland Islands campaign, "invincible' would have been sold to the Australians. Why have the Government decided to upgrade the type 23 frigate? I do not argue against that decision, but it must be the result of some of the lessons of the Falklands.

I ask rhetorically—I accept that the Minister may not be able to answer this question now—how the Government propose to replace the two frigates and two destroyers that were lost off the Falklands. Will these ships be replaced by type 23s, type 22s or some other sort of warship? There is a need for airborne early warning systems against low-level air attacks to give defensive fighters sufficient time to meet attacking aircraft. Unfortunately, money will have to be spent—I think that the Government intend to do this—to protect warships against sea-skimming missiles and aircraft. I am told that, despite the complications, a gun is sometimes as effective against such attacks as other weapons. I am sure that the Government are considering that.

There will be a need to revise warship construction to reduce fire hazards when a ship is hit. We shall also have to consider helicopter safety, especially during night flying and flying in difficult conditions in poor weather. It will be for the inquiry to decide whether improvements are necessary.

The 1982 defence review should never have been published. It is wholly irrelevant. The 1981 defence review will have to be rewritten. It cannot remain as it is. That is not because of the Falkland Islands conflict, but because it has highlighted the major errors in that review. We can all learn from hindsight. That review will have to be looked at again.

Defence strategy is not just a technical and intellectual matter. At the end of the day, defence must reflect—everyone must live with this—the geography, tradition, history and realities of the country in respect of which that defence is created. It cannot be otherwise. The Government have tried to struggle against that. They are fighting a losing battle. They might as well accept the fact that this country must have a maritime defence policy, not struggle against it and change their course. The sooner they do so, the better.

9.36 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Geoffrey Pattie)

We have had an interesting debate. It was right, in the interests of more hon. Members being able to speak, for the time taken by the wind-up speeches to be curtailed. However, that poses a problem. I shall do my best to refer to all the speeches that have been made.

No sooner was the Falklands conflict successfully completed than the retired senior officers who had been commentating on the progress of operations switched their attention to proclaiming, usually in the correspondence columns of the national press, that their former service had been exclusively responsible for the victory. While I accept that once one retired officer has sounded off, the others feel honour bound to have their say, I cannot believe that this sort of debate is other than pointless.

The Falklands campaign was a joint operation in every sense of that term. Ascension Island was an essential base. Royal Air Force air movements peaked at 400 a day—that compares with an average of 750 movements a day at Heathrow—and played a crucial role in rapid re-supply with air drops to the task force, not to mention RAF Harrier pilots, maritime reconnaissance, in-flight refuelling and all the purely Royal Air Force aspects of the operation that will no doubt be highlighted in the Air Force debate later this week.

The Army contribution was vital in terms of achieving the land victory, but I think everyone is agreed that if we had not been able to put together a task force of sufficient strength the operation would have had no hope of success, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) said in his powerful speech. I also believe that if the task force had not possessed its own organic air it would not have been able to carry through its task.

Although anyone can appreciate the basic role of the task force as the carrier of the troops and their supplies, the ships were also essential to the command, control and communications aspects of the battle. The ships gave essential fire support to troops going ashore and by attacking the runway at Port Stanley. Ships provided protective screens against Argentine submarines and took a heavy toll of attacking aircraft.

All of these factors have to be taken into account, because only surface ships could have carried out these tasks, and talk of them being "vulnerable" is over simplistic. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word "vulnerable" as meaning susceptible of injury, not proof against weapon". I should like to know what weapon system is not vulnerable in modern warfare.

The key question is to ensure that our surface ships have weapon systems that give them the best possible protection rather than getting into abstruse debates about the future of the surface ship.

The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) raised a series of questions. One was about fire. There have been criticisms that our ship designs do not pay sufficient attention to fire safety. For example, some newspapers have pointed to the presence of certain combustible materials on board ship. I can assure the House, however, that the Royal Navy has for long been well aware of the hazards of fire on board and has devoted much effort to minimising the risks from combustible materials. But many combustible items on board ship do not have readily identifiable replacements. Three-quarters of the combustible element of a ship is necessarily comprised of fuel, ammunition, and lubricants, which plainly cannot be disposed of. We devote much effort to protecting them as best we can.

Reference has also been made in the press and elsewhere to the contribution of aluminium to ship fires. That was highlighted in the debate. It is well to remember that HMS "Sheffield", as the hon. Member for West Lothian emphasised, was an all-steel ship. Only one class of warship, the type 21 frigate, has an aluminium superstructure. One of the hon. Gentleman's questions was dealt with extremely effectively by my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker) when he reminded the hon. Gentleman that the reason why there was no adequate airborne early warning was a decision taken by the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) when he was Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

Is it still proposed that HMS "Phoenix", the damage control centre, should be closed? Is that not an extraordinary proposal at a time such as this?

Mr. Pattie

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) also referred to HMS "Phoenix". There has been a persistent misunderstanding about the future of damage control training following the proposed closure of HMS "Phoenix". The intention is, and always has been, to retain all the training simulators and other practical training equipment on the "Phoenix" site. Only the theoretical and classroom training will be moved to the nearby HMS "Nelson", thereby saving on manpower. The full range of damage control training will continue, modified or even intensified in the light of any lessons from the South Atlantic.

I have spoken entirely in terms of the task force, but we must not ignore the crucial role of our nuclear submarines, which effectively swept the sea clear of Argentine warships by their very presence. The vital role played by the surface ship in the task force is not meant to imply that no questions have been raised as a result of the Falklands conflict on matters such as warship design, outfitting and weapon fits. Many hon. Members have raised such questions in the debate.

Over the years, modern technology has led to a major reduction in weight of many equipments, several of which are close to the centre of gravity of a warship. Steam turbines have given way to much lighter gas turbine diesel installations; gun systems with ammunition have given way to missiles; older computers are now replaced by microprocessors; and heavy cables are replaced by the data bus. In total, these produce considerable weight savings below main deck level.

If a vessel is to retain its stability, given similar hull forms, such weight reductions low down in the ship must be matched by savings in higher placed weights, generally weapons and over-water sensors. The Royal Corps of Naval Constructors at Bath is dedicated to the long narrow hull on the basis that speed is a function of length, even though length will increase size and cost. Many other navies take this long and thin view, but that does not necessarily mean that the traditional philosophies are sacrosanct for all time.

There are signs that the school of thought that lays greater emphasis on beam width and, therefore, on unstable payload may be about to come into its own. My right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton made an interesting point on this topic. The Government believe that it is necessary to encourage much fresh thinking. Similarly, we need radical assessments of potential fire hazards and the compatibility of modern weapons systems.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton went to the Lord Hill-Norton point by asking whether we could refute his Lordship's claim that, had the Falklands crisis occurred three years or so from now, we would not have been able to meet the challenge. I attempted to meet that point on the second day of the defence debate, when I said that we would then be losing four ships out of 42—with the "Invincible" decision, it is now three—and I asked the House rhetorically whether it seriously believed that, by the end of 1984, we would not be able to mount an operation similar to that mounted in the South Atlantic this year with three fewer warships than we now possess. The answer to Lord Hill-Norton should be along those lines.

My right hon. Friend spoke of his wartime service on Woolworth carriers and, as he will remember from our service on the Public Accounts Committee, condemned the danger of gold-plating. He also extolled the virtues of the Arapaho project and reminded the House of the great importance of merchant ship conversions. He also drew attention to the urgent necessity of having airborne early warning. As my right hon. Friend said on another occasion, the Searchwater radar has been tested in a Sea King as one possible method by which we might try to achieve early warning cover.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton asked whether we intended to reintroduce a sea-going heavy repair capability. Some time ago we disposed of HMS "Triumph", but during the Falklands operation a sea-going heavy repair facility was provided rapidly from commercial sources. We are examining this facility keenly to see whether we can use it more permanently.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) spoke cogently and reminded the House that when we came to office in May 1979 the morale of the Armed Forces—exemplified by the low retention rate, and the queues of people waiting to get out of the Services—was at rock bottom. The Armed Forces will take years to put those shortages right. We are still suffering from the shortages of skilled men in the junior ranks as well as at senior NCO level that we inherited from the Labour Government.

Mr. Duffy

Opposition Members have examined the period that the Minister described and checked with Service men who were leaving at the time. We found that they were leaving partly because they were attracted to jobs outside that do not exist now.

Mr. Pattie

One must ask why they were attracted away from the Service to those jobs if they were satisfied with their lot. It has often been said, and rightly, that people do not join the Armed Forces to become rich, but they do at least like to feel that their contribution to society is properly valued.

It was scandalous when we came into office to find that, contrasted with comparable jobs in civilian life. Armed Forces pay had deteriorated by more than 30 per cent. No matter what equipment we have, that is a crippling legacy. The hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) asked whether it was true that during the Falklands campaign we relied upon the courage and training of our forces to remedy the defects of our equipment. The answer is "No". We had to rely very much on that skill and motivation, but not in order to remedy defects of equipment. That worked extremely well.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester spoke about replacing HMS "Fearless" and HMS "Intrepid". As those vessels are planned to continue in service for many years to come, the question of their early replacement does not arise.

Mr. Palmer

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that there were no deficiencies in the equipment that was supplied? That cannot possibly be true.

Mr. Pattie

The hon. Gentleman is reading something into what I did not say. I did not say that there were no deficiencies. I believed that I had summarised to his satisfaction what he said in his speech. He suggested that we were relying on the courage and training of our forces to remedy the defects of our equipment. I said that, as a general proposition, that was not true.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) was kind enough to refer to my modest publication of 1976. He did not tell me that he would act as my literary agent, although I fear that we are now on the remainder desk. Perhaps I could quote the opening section of the book: An incoming Conservative government will have as its main task the restatement of certain facts of economic life, facts which have been too long removed from the awareness of a public fed on a diet of increasing expectations. This is going to be a profoundly uncomfortable process for everyone. It is at times of economic retrenchment that defence budgets in democracies are at their most vulnerable. All the spending departments are cut and squeezed and it becomes harder for those, with little sympathy for defence, to see the benefits to the people in defence expenditure. Any Government which has to take account of public opinion, must be engaged frequently in exercises of resource allocation. Where defence is concerned, such allocations must take into account external considerations, that is treaty obligations and alliance commitments as well as domestic considerations which relate in essence to the perceived nature of the threat. On page 16—[Interruption.] I am responding line by line to the points raised. This part is worth hearing: The main possibility of 'finlandisation' would seem, therefore, to be the strangulation of the sea lanes which supply Western Europe. There would seem to be overwhelming arguments for increasing the naval presence in the Eastern Atlantic and the Channel, although whether, in the case of the Royal Navy the present mix of surface vessels is the right one, is another matter. The concentration on 'ships of high quality' could be a mistake if the increased vulnerability of large surface ships is accepted. More smaller ships and more submarines could be the order of the day. My right hon. Friend's advice to the House and to Defence Ministers about the costs of Treasury delays was masterly. I hope that the Treasury paid the same attention to what he said as I did.

My hon. Friend the Member for Howden (Sir P. Bryan) made a valuable speech and drew our attention to the vital importance of the Merchant Marine. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State must draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade to that important speech.

Sir Frederick Burden

Not only my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) but others have said that in the present circumstances Chatham dockyard should be kept open to ensure the future of our nuclear hunter-killer submarines. Will my hon. Friend now give an undertaking that no more redundancy notices to workers in that section of the yard will be issued, at least until we debate the White Paper in the autumn?

Mr. Pattie

My hon. Friend knows that I can go no further than what my right hon. Friend said about that matter in his statement to the House.

The right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) rightly praised the Royal Marines. There can be no doubt about their future or their place in our Forces' structure for all time. The right hon. Gentleman asked about HMS "Invincible". Hitherto, with our pressing demands on the defence budget, which we have explained to the House many times, we have taken the view, with both carriers normally available for service two-thirds of the time, we cannot retain the third. That was the basis of my right hon. Friend's White Paper, Cmnd. 8288, last summer. We should have preferred to reserve our position until the full Falkland assessment was completed some time in the autumn. Not unreasonably, the Australians asked for an indication of our intention. We have given it.

The right hon. Member for Devonport asked about the dockyards and whether a special fund would be devised. He also raised important questions that have dogged people who have studied the dockyards—I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed), who made an excellent study of the dockyards—such as the problem of skill shortages, how one can attract people to the docks and the vital importance of allowing the dockyards to manage themselves. If they remain an extension of or as some type of outpost of the Civil Service, those problems will always remain.

The right hon. Members for Devonport and for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) and the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) asked about reordering and why we cannot have immediate orders. The right hon. Member for Devonport asked the question and then went on to answer it. He said that we should possibly place less emphasis on destroyers and more on frigates. That is a reasonable point of view. It is precisely that point of which we must be certain. It is reasonable to take account of the lessons of the Falklands before coming to a final decision. That is why none of the orders will be unreasonably or unnecessarily delayed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) did his usual excellent job for the Tyne by extolling the capabilities and virtues not only of the yards on that famous river but by saying that they stood ready to receive further orders or repair work.

When he opened the debate, my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces said that I would refer to some of the exercises in which the Royal Navy had engaged in the past year. I shall honour that remit. The Royal Navy has been engaged in NATO and multinational exercises in the Eastern Atlantic, the Norwegian Sea, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. It has also been engaged in exercises Ocean Venture and Ocean Safari, which were designed to demonstrate the ability of Western maritime forces to keep open lines of communications in the Western Atlantic. In the latter operation, more than 19,000 personnel, 83 ships and 200 aircraft from eight countries, including France, took part. The Soviet navy also participated, albeit as an uninvited player. It followed the proceedings with a keen and, I trust, admiring interest and gave our vessels useful practice.

The Royal Navy has continued throughout the year to maintain a patrol of two warships in the Indian Ocean, although, following a recent and generous offer by the New Zealand Government, one of them has been replaced by the Royal New Zealand Navy Ship "Canterbury".

The right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) returned to the matter of the "Endurance". I shall quote from the part of the letter that refers to the return of the "Endurance" which my hon. Friend the Minister of State wrote to the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan). It said: As I am sure you know, it is a long-standing practice not to give advance information about ship movements; and the need for caution has been reinforced by the uncertainty of Argentine intentions, even if Argentina has effectively announced the de facto cessation of hostilities. Although, as you pointed out "Endurance" has been in the South Atlantic longer than any other ship in the Task Force, I do not feel justified in making an exception in her case. As you can imagine, we are receiving an enormous number of inquiries about return dates from the families of personnel serving in ships in the Task Force and in Army units. What I can say, and I hope this will give the families some comfort, is that the intention is that 'Endurance' should return to the UK as soon as possible and I hope to be able to be rather more definite by about the end of the month. That is not long, and I hope that the reply will be accepted.

The right hon. Member for Llanelli in his opening speech returned to Trident—whether we should have it, how the expenditure should be controlled, and so on. Of course, he is entitled to make virtually the same speech whichever branch of the Armed Services is under discussion. Whether we are discussing the Navy, the Army or the Air Force, he always comes back to Trident.

Mr. Denzil Davies

The answers are always the same.

Mr. Pattie

Yes, the answers are always the same. The right hon. Gentleman simply will not accept them. Nevertheless, the answers are always given. On cost escalation, the right hon. Gentleman knows that allowance is made for escalation due to exchange rate movements, inflation, and so on—

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.


Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Before the House begins to debate the procedures that relate very much to the rights of Back Benchers, may I draw your attention to the fact that in the debate on the Navy Estimates on which 317 minutes were allowed, and making no criticism whatever of the selection by the Chair, and remembering particularly the requests made by yourself and the Deputy Speakers for brevity, out of 17 speakers, 10 were Front Benchers, Privy Councillors or former Ministers? The Front Benchers took 102 minutes and the Privy Councillors and former Ministers 106 minutes, leaving a small residue to the Back Benchers who had sat throughout the debate and did not have the opportunity to catch your eye.

Mr. Speaker

I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I do not know how those whom he mentions can do it when they look at the faces of their colleagues who are waiting to speak.

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the fact that, when right hon. Members are called because they are Privy Councillors, they should not take advantage of it by the length of their speeches.

  1. BUSINESS OF THE HOUSE 915 words, 1 division
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