HC Deb 31 March 1982 vol 21 cc415-22

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

11.36 pm
Mr. Keith Speed (Ashford)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the rather strange circumstances surrounding the all too short life and the apparent demise of HMS "Speedy". The termination of her life is in unseemly haste and for no reason that I can determine. HMS "Speedy" was not named after myself, but she has a number of illustrious predecessors, including a frigate that was with the fleet in the eighteenth century.

HMS "Speedy" is a 119-tonne jetfoil that was built by Boeing in Seattle and fitted out by Vospers of Portsmouth with much British equipment aboard. She was ordered by the previous Labour Government for evaluating the offshore oil and fishery protection roles and other roles where the Royal Navy could use her unique capabilities of high speed and extreme manoeuvrability. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy), who was the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy in the previous Labour Government, will confirm strongly the latter capability.

HMS "Speedy" was launched in Seattle by Mrs. Margaret Jay, the wife of our then ambassador to the United States, in June 1979. She was commissioned into the Royal Navy in the summer of 1980. Her operational evaluation in what is called the offshore tapestry role—that is, fishery and oil rig protection—was planned for two phases. Phase 1 was to identify her main strengths and weaknesses in the offshore tapestry role. Phase 2 was to investigate in greater depth the tasks that phase 1 showed to be the most interesting.

In the event, phase 1 was restricted and phase 2 was never carried out. No practical examination has been made of non-tapestry tasks—for example, her use as a fast attack craft, in patrolling separation lanes, as a security ship and fast resupply vessel of men or materials plus her possible use in the mine countermeasure role. I believe that the evaluations were restricted and not proceeded with for financial reasons. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will deal with that when he replies.

At the beginning of February the story appeared—first on the tapes and subsequently in the national press—that HMS "Speedy" was to be sold or otherwise disposed of because North Sea weather conditions had proved too severe for her. Having been to sea in the Firth of Forth in gale conditions, I saw her proceeding at speeds of up to 42 knots, which no other surface craft could have achieved in such weather.

Having cut short the various evaluations, I find the reason given by the Ministry of Defence strange, to say the least. Boeing has it in writing—as far as I know the letter is neither private nor classified▀×in a letter from the Ministry of Defence, which it received last December, only a couple of months before her disposal was announced, that the sea-state and weather limitations of the craft are certainly no worse than that advised by Boeing at the time that we bought her. Indeed, our experience is that the operating envelope can be slightly extended beyond the limits predicted by the company. Therefore, I ask the Minister, has "Speedy" failed to meet any of Boeing's or Vosper's specifications?

On the evaluation point, I had several interesting hours in her in rough weather and was launched from her in a searider in pretty hairy weather conditions. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell me, before the decision was made to dispose of "Speedy", how many other Ministers and flag officers have been out to sea in her, and the date of those trips.

After personal discussions with the entire crew, it seemed to me that the "Speedy" has been popular with the crew of all rates and ranks and I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm this. As my hon. Friend will know, she has done exercises with the German Navy in he Baltic. It would be helpful for the House and the public to know the reaction of the German Navy to her.

In view of the reasons given by the Ministry of Defence in February when her disposal was announced, perhaps the Minister could also tell the House what the limitations were that prevented foil- and hull-borne operations and the launching of searider craft, and whether these are less than those claimed by her builders at the time of purchase. As my hon. Friend and the House will appreciate, a craft of this kind can ride, once she achieves a certain speed, up on the foil, and below a certain speed, she rides like a normal boat upon her hull.

While I was Minister responsible for the Royal Navy I did not envisage that "Speedy" would be evaluated for the offshore tapestry role and that would be the end of the story. Like my predecessor who ordered her, I expected an evaluation into a variety of other roles, making use of her unique capabilities, that include speeds up to 50 knots and turning rates of about 6 degrees a second, which are fantastic by any yardstick.

I should be grateful if the Minister would tell the House what other roles have been evaluated and with what results. I do not believe that there has been any time for such evaluation to take place. If that is so, that makes her disposal now all the more extraordinary. It would also be useful if the House were told what other high-speed craft are available for target training on other Royal Navy ships, particularly now that it has been announced that the hovercraft trials unit is also being wound up.

My hon. Friend will appreciate the importance of this, because our conventional frigates, destroyers and corvettes need to have high-speed craft to train. Many potential adversaries in many parts of the world have these high-speed craft and are unlikely to be accommodating enough to lend us their craft so that we can train using them as targets. Traditionally we have always had high-speed craft of our own. However, we are in the process of scrapping them or winding up the unit.

Finally, and in some ways most important, as the Minister will be aware, Boeing has recently offered to pay to run on "Speedy" for an agreed period so that these various evaluations and trials can be completed. My understanding is that the only cost that would then fall on the Ministry of Defence would be the manpower costs of her 24-strong crew, who presumably have to be paid for anyway, as it is unlikely that they will all be declared compulsorily redundant. The offer has been rejected out of hand. I cannot believe that we know all that there is to know about this advanced, high technology vessel and her method of operation.

The United States Navy is bringing into operation craft similar to "Speedy" and probably considerably larger, called PHMs. I went to sea in one last week. They are armed with missiles and a 76 mm gun and incorporate the high speed and extreme manoeuvrability of "Speedy". The United States Navy believes in such craft. So do some of our allies and many of our potential adversaries.

There are too many disturbing questions that must be answered, in fairness to the manufacturers, the crew of "Speedy", the Royal Navy and our defence effort. At the end of the day, the overriding constraint may have been financial or possibly a prejudice against the Royal Navy. I hope that I am wrong. We are once again, as with HMS "Invincible" and the hovercraft unit, baling out of a high technology area where we have much developing experience, as I am sure my hon. Friend would agree.

I hope that even at this late stage, Boeing's offer, which is both imaginative and generous, will be accepted and that the future of "Speedy" in a number of roles can be properly and fully evaluated. I hope that Boeing's offer is not being rejected on administrative grounds or on grounds that it will be too difficult to unscramble the drafting procedures of the crew. I am sure that the computers at HMS "Centurion", which deal with the drafting procedures, are flexible enough to cope. If the crews are asked whether they wish to volunteer to be re-drafted to "Speedy", the drafting officer will receive an overwhelmingly affirmative reply from both officers and men.

I hope that even at this late hour my hon. Friend can give a positive answer at least to that proposal, which will mean very little additional expenditure by the Ministry of Defence or out of the defence budget. It will mean that this imaginative vessel, which has already done well, can be further evaluated. If the answer is still "No", we must all draw our own conclusions. Her premature disposal would seem to be almost an act of spite or of burying one's head in the sand. I am sure that my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would not wish that.

What of her future? I believe that "Speedy" and craft like her have a future in all maritime nations. She has proved herself so far and should be allowed the chance so that we can examine her in the various roles that I have outlined tonight.

I have posed some searching questions, for which I make no apology. I look forward to my hon. Friend's reply and I hope that what appears to be the far too short life of one of the latest acquisitions of the Royal Navy can be extended, and that HMS "Speedy" can continue along the lines and traditions of her eminent predecessors and serve with distinction in the fleet for many years to come.

11.47 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Jerry Wiggin)

My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed) has quite rightly drawn attention to the useful work done by his near namesake, HMS "Speedy" during her service in the Royal Navy. I am grateful to him for providing me with the opportunity this evening to say something about the results of her operational evaluation during the past two years, as well as to put the record straight about the reasons for the recent decision to pay her off.

HMS "Speedy" is a militarised version of the 117-tonne Boeing jetfoil passenger ferry and was ordered by the Ministry of Defence in 1978. The Royal Navy wished to evaluate the suitability of hydrofoils for military use, principally in the offshore protection role. After her fitting-out was completed by Vosper Thornycroft Ltd. HMS "Speedy" commenced her operational evaluation in 1980.

The opportunity was taken to operate HMS "Speedy" in as many different offshore environments around the British coast as possible in order to establish for which tasks she was best suited and how she performed in varying operating conditions. That programme was designed not only to gauge the operational potential of HMS "Speedy" herself but to provide a demonstration of the usefulness of hydrofoils in general, HMS "Speedy" being rather smaller than military hydrofoils such as the American Pegasus class.

During her operational evaluation HMS "Speedy" was thoroughly put through her paces as a fishery protection vessel. She showed that in favourable operating conditions she was capable of carrying out the majority of the tasks performed by the ships of the fishery protection squadron. In this connection my hon. Friend will recall that during his time in the Ministry of Defence HMS "Speedy" successfully intercepted and arrested with her speed a Spanish trawler fishing illegally within British limits off the South-West Coast and escorted her to harbour.

My hon. Friend will also know that, by its very nature, a ship of a hydrofoil type and of this size suffers from a number of deficiencies. First, she is relatively incapable of towing, certainly not any vessel of substanital size. Secondly, a hydrofoil is not good at "loitering", a task that she is often required to perform when involved in fishery protection work. By that I mean with the foils below the water and out of use and at speeds at which she could not plane.

Thirdly, and very much the overriding factor, she is not able to operate in sea states much above the top end of 5. In the sea areas in which we have been operating our fishery protection vessels, I am led to believe that this sea state, and worse, prevails for about 25 per cent. of the time.

It is true that the forte of HMS "Speedy" was shown to be her ability to operate at very high speed in the right weather conditions. This conferred obvious operational advantages. She demonstrated that during a normal sortie she was capable of covering a much larger area than conventional vessels in the same time. Compared with aircraft, while the area covered per sortie was less than half, she was capable of collecting a similar amount of information about the number of fishing vessels and was able to identify positively a greater number. She could, of course, also be used to carry out boardings.

Another feature, especially valuable in this context, has been the capacity of HMS "Speedy" to arrive on the scene suddenly and with little forewarning, and so catch illegal fishing vessels red-handed. This has had a useful deterrent effect.

There is no doubt, therefore, that HMS "Speedy" was capable of making a positive contribution to the offshore patrol task, but I again stress that that was only in favourable operating conditions. There were severe limitations on the performance of HMS "Speedy". She was generally unable to operate on her foil by day above sea state 5 and at night above sea state 4, when the operator was unable to gauge the wave pitch. This limitation did not apply when she was hull-borne, although as in any small boat the going tended to become a little rough in high seas and she was unable in such conditions to maintain the high speed of which she was capable when foil-borne and which was her most useful characteristic.

In this context, I remind my hon. Friend that on the first occasion he planned to visit her some defect made the ship inoperable, and although on the second occasion he is perfectly right to say that the wind was about force 8 or 9, the sea state was such that in the end it was the captain's judgment that it was about the maximum operating conditions for her. I do not claim to be anything like the expert my hon. Friend is, but I further understand that, particularly in the fishery protection role, when the weather is worse than that it is easiest for those who would contravene our fishing regulations to operate. In sea states of 6, 7 and 8 it is necessary to be able to apprehend a foreign vessel, or even one of our own, that is breaking our rules. This ship was unable to do that.

A matter that is not so widely known, although I am sure my hon. Friend is aware of it, concerns the ship's extremely limited endurance. She carries sufficient fuel for only about 10 hours of foil-borne running, at about 45 knots. That gives a total range, out and back, of approximately 500 miles. In terms of coastal responsibilities for offshore fishing protection, that is a considerable limitation on her operating capacity.

The operational evaluation of HMS "Speedy" has provided the Royal Navy with a thorough understanding of the vessel's potential. It has also given a useful insight into the military application of hydrofoils in general. I know my hon. Friend wishes that that evaluation could continue. However, it has effectively been taken as far as it usefully can. Enough was learnt about strengths and weaknesses of HMS "Speedy" over the period during which she was in operational service with the Royal Navy for a reasoned judgment to be formed on the craft's longer-term utility.

The trials particularly served to show that, while HMS "Speedy" might be a useful addition to the Royal Navy's capability, she could not completely replace any of the existing class of offshore patrol vessels. It would have created problems for the captain of the fishery protection squadron to have a craft in his squadron limited in both endurance and to a particular area, when he required flexible operating capability to cover the waters around the United Kingdom for whose policing he was responsible. Therefore, it was concluded that the expense of further trials was not justified.

I assure my hon. Friend that that decision has been reached as a result of the professional advice of the Navy. I certainly resent the suggestion, and I am sure he did not mean to imply, that decision-making is based on prejudice against one or other of the Services. Within the overall allocated budgets, the Navy has to make certain decisions. As I understand it, the professional advice of those responsible is that, given the limitations that I have described, a conventional vessel—despite the lack of speed—gives an all round better return for money over a given period.

Against that background it was decided to dispose of HMS "Speedy" as one of a number of measures designed to bring the naval share of the defence budget down to target in the financial year ahead. I have no shame in saying that. Debates on this subject are well known and we shall have an opportunity to debate the matter again when we consider the defence White Paper. This decision represents only a minor adjustment to the broad decisions taken in our reappraisal last year of the defence programme. However, given the pressure on the defence budget, we can maintain only elements of the programme that are essential.

It is right that I should emphasise to the House that the decision to pay the vessel off does not stem, as was alleged, from design shortcomings. It is simply that the evaluation has been taken sufficiently far for the potential of HMS "Speedy" to be assessed. She showed that, in favourable weather conditions, she was capable of putting up an effective performance. It is also fair to say—1 agree with my hon. Friend on this—that her limitations in bad weather turned out to be less than her manufacturers had originally predicted.

My hon. Friend referred to the offer made by Boeing. There were two factors in our rejection of this offer. First, that it came extremely late, after postings had been arranged for the crew and plans had been made for the laying up of the ship. Secondly, the offer was, of course, for only a limited number of operating hours. It was felt—I believe rightly—that once a decision was taken it would not have been of any profit to the Navy to continue with this work.

Mr. Speed

My hon. Friend the Minister said that the offer was made for a "limited number" of hours. Can he be more specific? My understanding is that it was clearly not an open-ended commitment for ever and a day, but that the offer was on an agreed basis between his Department and Boeing, so that the evaluations could be properly done. There was not a specific limitation on the number of hours laid down by Boeing.

Mr. Wiggin

I do not believe that there is any secret about this matter, but I have not seen the letter. It may be commercially in confidence. I do not know.

Mr. Speed

I assure my hon. Friend that there is nothing confidential about this matter. I have checked with Boeing so that I would not embarrass my hon. Friend or anyone else. There was nothing confidential about the hours.

Mr. Wiggin

The answer to my hon. Friend's question is that the offer was for 200 hours' worth of work. We did not feel that in those circumstances it was right and proper to accept that offer.

The ship is to be offered for sale in the first instance. While it is true that to date no purchasers have come forward, we are still hopeful that her disposal will attract some interest in various parts of the world. Only today we received some inquiries.

My hon. Friend asked about the reaction of the crew to the decision to dispose of the ship. We have no evidence that service in HMS "Speedy" has been in any way unpopular. On the contrary, all those involved seem to have enjoyed the novel and unusual experience.

My hon. Friend asked how many Ministers and flag officers had been to see the ship. My hon. Friend, when he was the Minister responsible for the Royal Navy, was the only Minister to have been to sea in HMS "Speedy". I understand that some flag officers have been to visit her and two have been to sea in her. I do not wish to delude my hon. Friend —one of those was the chief medical officer.

I think that it is reasonable to say that those who have been closely involved with the ship's operation have also been closely involved in this decision. I have no reason to doubt that the professional advice is the best possible judgment of those who were asked to consider the matter.

HMS "Speedy" did some exercises with the German Navy and successfully carried out all the trials for which she was programmed. However, it is not right that I should be the mouthpiece for the German Navy, although I understand that there is a widespread feeling among experts in NATO that that ship is on the small side for such work and that if hydrofoils are to have a future, a larger version will be needed.

With regard to target practice, I understand that infinitely the cheapest way of providing targets to represent fast-moving vessels is to use helicopters.

I sympathise with my hon. Friend's wish to see the Navy continue to operate HMS "Speedy". I know that he has taken a close personal interest in the vessel. She has provided the Royal Navy with some useful lessons. I do not believe that we can be taken to task for not wishing to investigate modern technology. The Navy has seen fit to operate that ship for a limited period and to carry out, as far as is practicable, work in our own waters of a realistic nature. Nevertheless, it has been proved to the satisfaction of the seamen concerned that the present state of the art is not sufficiently advanced for us to make use of such vessels at present. Given that fact, the course has been finished and the ship is available for sale.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Twelve o'clock.

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