HC Deb 22 March 1988 vol 130 cc184-6
4. Mr. Patchett

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what effect the Navy's operations in the Gulf have on its anti-submarine capability in the north Atlantic.

15. Mr. Flynn

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what effect the Royal Navy's operations in the Gulf have on its anti-submarine capability in the north Atlantic.

Mr. Ian Stewart

The Royal Navy maintains an active programme of training in all aspects of anti-submarine warfare in addition to carrying out its current tasks.

Mr. Patchett

Does the Minister agree that the Gulf operation has stretched the Royal Navy elsewhere? Would it not be better, perhaps, to order more ships for the genuine protection of our country's interests than to spend billions of pounds on Trident?

Mr. Stewart

The hon. Gentleman is correct that the activities in the Gulf entail a great deal of effort and involvement by ships of the Royal Navy, but we must always consider the balance of tasks and training, which varies over time.

In a fleet of about 150 ships we have about 50 destroyers and frigates. Today there are 49, but we expect by the end of the week to have 50, when HMS Sheffield is accepted into service in Portsmouth.

Mr. Flynn

The whole House will have been saddened by the unprecedented loss of life that has taken place in the Gulf in the last 24 hours. It is a reminder to us all of the courage of our seamen who are engaged there, but the fact remains that if our most capable ships are employed there, performing a role that is at best secondary for this country —defending the interests of foreign business men using our country as a flag of convenience—we are neglecting our primary role of patrolling the north Atlantic and carrying out an anti-submarine function there. Should we not seek an expansion of our fleet, because the abnormal military position is rapidly becoming the norm?

Mr. Stewart

I have explained to the House that we have a substantial destroyer and frigate fleet. Of course, in the Gulf it is necessary to concentrate more on air defence of ships as opposed to the anti-submarine capability. We must balance the need for training and exercises for a potential wartime role—which, I am sure, is not imminent—against immediate operational needs. The Navy, and, indeed, all the armed forces, must do that.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments on the courage of our service men in the Gulf. As I know from my visit there, it is a dangerous, difficult and uncomfortable place in which to work, and they deserve the support of the whole House.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend

Does my hon. Friend agree with the views expressed in Washington that, post-INF, the Soviets may redeploy their missile submarines to face European targets, or does he believe that the Soviets probably have more than enough submarines with a missile capability, including the giant Typhoon class, in these waters already?

Mr. Stewart

I do not want to speculate on the strength of the Soviet submarine fleet as currently deployed, but it is true that the Soviets have made substantial strides in updating their submarine capability by increasing the numbers, size and range of their submarines, so my hon. Friend's anxieties are not misplaced.

Mr. Sayeed

As the Soviet Union is launching a new submarine every 37 days, which reflects an increase in the building of submarines, may I ask whether we are matching this with an increase in our frigates or antisubmarine forces?

Mr. Stewart

As my hon. Friend will recognise, one factor in the Government's policy for the frigates and destroyers in our fleet is to enhance their anti-submarine and anti-air missile capabilities. Although the number of ships in the fleet has remained at about 50 for some time, there has been a marked uprating in the capability of those ships with the latest type 22 and type 23 ships, which are much more capable than their predecessors.

Mr. Douglas

Will the Minister tell the House truthfully how many of those so-called 50 destroyers and frigates in the fleet are operational?

Mr. Stewart

Taking the figure of 49, which is today's number rather than Friday's, there are six currently in refit, and the remaining 43 are therefore available either immediately or within a short period.

Sir Ian Lloyd

As well over 100 Western seamen have now lost their lives in the Gulf and several million tonnes of Western shipping has been destroyed or damaged a t the cost of billions of dollars, is my hon. Friend satisfied with the cohesion and effectiveness of the total Western response in the Gulf? Is this not piracy in the 20th century, and is there not only one cure for piracy?

Mr. Stewart

To answer the essence of my hon. Friend's question, I am satisfied that the Western presence has been coherent. I am sure that the presence of navies from the European members of NATO alongside those from the United States has led, after an initial period of exceptional activity, to greater stability at sea in that area. At the moment the land war is raging furiously, but I have no doubt that the co-operation between Western navies and their very presence in the area has contributed to that stability. Not only the British Navy but the other navies have played an important role in an area which is vital for the economy and stability of the whole world.