HC Deb 13 March 1984 vol 56 cc273-4
13. Sir Patrick Wall

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has to increase the number of escort vessels in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's east Atlantic area.

Mr. Stanley

I announced in November that two additional frigates will be retained in the Fleet until April 1985. We are continuing to assess the optimum balance to be struck between expenditure on surface ships and on submarines, and also between expenditure on ship numbers and on ship capabilities.

Sir Patrick Wall

Is my hon. Friend aware that both SACLANT and CINCHAN have said that we are so deficient in escort vessels that we cannot carry out our operational tasks? Will my hon. Friend remember the 50 American destroyers that we were given in the last war? Would it not be better to mothball old frigates than sell or scrap them?

Mr. Stanley

Of course I am aware of what my hon. Friend says about the views of the naval commanders to whom he referred. However, we shall have increased defence expenditure by about 20 per cent. in real terms by 1986–87. We have not yet taken a final decision on whether we shall create a standby squadron or put the ships that would go into the standby squadron into the running fleet.

Mr. Duffy

Is the Minister aware that only three destroyers and seven frigates are currently on order, that only six frigates have been ordered by the Government since May 1979, and that one destroyer and five frigates are to be withdrawn from the active fleet this year, and six frigates next year? Is he further aware that the result will be that by the late 1980s we shall have an operational fleet of only about 20 surface ships, not even the 35 to 40 operational out of the 50 that the Minister hoped would be available to the fleet?

Mr. Stanley

The hon. Gentleman must take into account the fact that as well as numbers of ships there is the crucial matter of the capabilities of the ships and their survivability. I hope that he will take into account the fact that spending on the Royal Navy in real terms is about £750 million more than it was when we came into office.

Mr. Sayeed

Will my hon. Friend note the effective trials of the Scads-Reliant-Arapaho project? Will he consider assisting the merchant fleet itself in the north Atlantic by increasing the capability of merchantmen to defend themselves?

Mr. Stanley

I assure my hon. Friend that that matter is under active consideration. I can confirm from my recent visit to the Reliant that the Arapaho concept is extremely valuable and will be of great use to us operationally.

Mr. McNamara

When will the Government reply specifically to the charges of the C-in-C Channel, Admiral Staveley, about the shortage of destroyers and frigates, particularly minesweeper-hunters, on which the admiral was not prepared to put a figure, for defence reasons? The Government are compeletely naked, because they are distorting their defence expenditure by puting the Navy's budget into Trident rather than into conventional warships.

Mr. Stanley

That is not correct, as can be seen from the figures for the percentage of the Trident programme in the defence budget. Of course, every operational commander could do with more assets. However, the central point that the House will want to take into account is that if we had the expenditure programme on defence that the Labour party promised us at the last election expenditure would be about one third down on what it is now.