HC Deb 07 March 1989 vol 148 cc739-41
3. Mr. Galbraith

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement about the relative priority, in terms of procurement expenditure, his Department gives to (a) the British Army of the Rhine and (b) warships for the Royal Navy.

10. Mr. Nigel Griffiths

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement about the relative priority, in terms of procurement expenditure, his Department gives to (a) the British Army of the Rhine and (b) warships for the Royal Navy.

Mr. Archie Hamilton

The balance of expenditure within the defence programme reflects the Government's defence policy as set out in successive statements on the Defence Estimates.

Mr. Galbraith

Does the Minister agree with Lord Carver that Britain should concentrate its commitment on British armed forces on the continent at the expense of the Navy, or does he agree with Sir Peter Stanford that the Navy has already shown its worth and should be given priority? Does the Minister agree that that unholy dispute within the military is the result of concentrating too many of our resources on nuclear weapons at the expense of conventional weapons? Is it not also due to the fact that the Government have neglected to undertake a proper defence review?

Mr. Hamilton

There is no need for a defence review. I agree with Lord Carver who, at the end of his recent lecture, said: It will not be, as it has never been, a choice for us between a maritime or a continental strategy, but a delicate judgment of how to apportion scarce resources between the two.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths

When Admiral Stanford asks where are the construction orders, how does the Secretary of State answer?

Mr. Hamilton

Construction orders will obviously follow. When it comes to ordering ships, we have not been backward in coming forward, and we have ordered a very large number.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my hon. Friend agree that when allocating resources, whether for the British Army of the Rhine or for the purchase of ships for the Navy, control of the skies must also be considered? Neither Army nor Navy operations can be much good unless we also control the skies. Is it not time that we advised the West German Government that, in controlling the skies, it is essential that our aircraft are permitted to operate at the same altitudes at which they will be required to operate during operational periods—particularly during a war?

Mr. Hamilton

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is sad that the Opposition's question makes mention only of the British Army of the Rhine and of the Royal Navy and does not include the demands of the Royal Air Force, which we take into great consideration when deciding our priorities.

Mr. Brazier

Does my hon. Friend agree that the question is a particularly silly one? There is no more certain way of decoupling Germany from the alliance than to run down our presence on the continent. Equally, there is no easier way of convincing the Americans that we are not fully supporting them than to reduce our forces in the eastern Atlantic. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) pointed out, it is impossible to reduce the capabilities of the British Army, Royal Navy or Royal Air Force without causing political damage, irrespective of any military damage.

Mr. Hamilton

That is absolutely right. If the suggestion behind the original question is that we should run down the Royal Navy to support the Rhine Army one must bear in mind the critical role played by the Royal Navy in guaranteeing our reinforcement in wartime and in its anti-submarine warfare capability.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

Does the Minister understand that the answers that he has given today, the answers that his officials gave to the Select Committee on Defence and, indeed, his answers to the House during the debate on the Royal Navy last week, have done nothing to allay the fear of many hon. Members that the surface fleet's frigates and destroyers are too few to enable the Royal Navy to fulfil its wartime or peacetime responsibilities and functions?

Mr. Hamilton

I think that the problem is that the Opposition refuse to believe that we are maintaining our commitment to about 50 ships. I must repeat what I said in the Navy debate—that I call 49 surface ships "about 50".

Mr. Rogers

Are not the fears expressed by two very senior officers merely a symptom of the fears felt throughout the armed services that insufficient emphasis is placed on our conventional weapons? Will the Minister undertake a defence review so that the fears of those officers can be allayed?

Mr. Hamilton

The only justification for a defence review is when we do not have the resources to meet our commitments. An extra £20 billion has been spent in real terms since 1979, and there is no shor tage of resources to meet our existing commitments.