HL Deb 27 October 1921 vol 47 cc99-110

LORD NEWTON rose to ask the Under-Secretary of State for Air what is the estimated additional cost of maintaining the Air Force as a separate service instead of placing it under military and naval administration. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in putting this Question, I quite understand that it will presumably not be within the power of the noble Lord to give me any exact figures, but I have put it down for the following reason. If I am not mistaken, in all other countries the Air Service is under the administration of the military and naval authorities. I believe that we arc unique in possessing an independent Air Service.

When I was discussing this question not long ago with a very distinguished personage, lie informed me, much to my surprise, that the cost of maintaining the Air Force as a separate service amounted to something like four or five millions a year. When I asked him how he accounted for this extravagance, he actually replied that the Government were driven to it by the Press. Now of all forms of government, government by the Press is the most objectionable; I cannot imagine anything so detestable as being governed by Press headlines. But what I do not understand is why, when this alleged extravagance takes place, it has not attracted the attention of the so-called "anti-wasters." It seems to me a very fruitful field for their activities, and I am unable to understand why hitherto this subject has escaped their notice. The only possible explanation that occurs to me is that it is the antiwaste "Press which is always clamouring for fresh expenditure in connection with aviation.

I do not profess to be an authority upon aviation, any more than upon any other subject, but I have often wondered what we really gain by maintaining the Air Force as a separate Service. If I am not mistaken, the strain upon the individual is so great that a flying man is unable to carry on his occupation continuously over an extended period. I do not know whether things have altered, but I have been given to understand that three or four years' continuous work is the utmost that can be expected from an airman. Things have very possibly altered now, but in any case, that is what I have been told, and it seems to me highly problematical whether it is a sound policy to recruit young men for a Service in place of which, after four or five years, another form of employment will have to be found for them. I should have thought that the more practical course would have been to recruit young officers for the Air Force from the Army and the Navy, to make such use of them as is possible, and then to allow them to rejoin their units. In the other case, it seems to me that the young man is in a blind alley, because it is extremely probable that it would be impossible to find further employment for him.

Seeing that the noble Lord who is going to answer the question is a real Under-Secretary, and therefore is, no doubt, fully cognisant of the work of the Department, and is not in the position of noble Lords who frequently have to answer questions of which they are totally ignorant, I venture to put a further question to him, and to ask if he can inform me—I am sure it will be a matter of general interest—what are the total numbers of the Air Force at the present moment, and what proportion of the members of the Air Force are actually flying men, as compared with men whose duties are carried out in other capacities.


My Lords, the Question of the noble Lord raises the whole subject of an independent fighting Air Force. That Question was discussed in this House about two years ago. I am not aware that it has been discussed since, but at that time, at any rate, the Government informed us that they were fully satisfied that this was the most efficient means of carrying on the Service for fighting purposes. There are, of course. many who disagree with that view, and, apart from the question of economy, I should like to ask the noble Lord opposite if he can inform us whether the Government are completely satisfied that this is still the case, in view of the experience of the last two years. There must have been a considerable field for experience in India, Mesopotamia and other places, apart from the customary peace training, both by sea and by land, and they have therefore a certain amount of experience to go on, other than war experience of the special kind, such as they had in the fighting in places like the Western Front. They have fresh peace experience by which they can judge whether that is still the case. I should like to ask the noble Lord if he can inform us whether the heads of the fighting Service, are satisfied that, not only what we may call the independent work of the Air Force is carried out with the maximum of efficiency, but also that what one may term the subsidiary work—subsidiary, that is, to the naval and military forces—is carried out to the satisfaction of the naval and military officers concerned.

On the face of it, of course, it would appear to anyone who is interested in these matters that an independent fighting Air Force is an extremely expensive thing, because you must have all the higher command, and you must have all sorts of other departments connected with the higher command and. working underneath them, together with all the complications of interchange of information between the different Services. This would appear to be a very expensive arrangement. It would also appear to be an extremely difficult thing to direct as regards all strategical and technical work. On the face of it, therefore, the argument would appear to be against it, and I do not believe that that conclusion is seriously controverted by the war experience, which was gained under very special conditions vial an entirely new arm. I would merely like to supplement what has been said by the noble Lord who put this Question, by asking the noble Lord opposite whether he can give any information on these subjects. as bearing not only on the economy and expenditure connected with the fighting force, but also as regards its efficiency and the satisfaction which it gives to the officers concerned.


My Lords, I am sorry I was not present at the beginning of this debate, but I have been asked to say a few words to your Lordships, Hid especially to the Minister representing he Air Ministry, on the subject of airships. Many of us who watched the development of airships during the war, and responsible officers who conducted experiments with airships, still think that some of this money which has been voted by Parliament should be devoted to subsidising airships, in much the same way as fast merchant raisers were subsidised before the war, as in the case of the "Mauretania "and other ships. Many of these officers, who have been directing experimental works, completing these airships and using them during the late war, still hold the opinion that for certain purposes an airship is much better than an aeroplane, and they are very keen that some portion of this money should be given to that side of the science, which, we know, is making great strides. In my county, we had a very great aerodrome at a place called Howden, which, I am sorry to say, has been, or is in process of being, done away with. I believe that Pulliam is the only station left.

Whatever the Government decide to do as regards these aeroplane services, we contend that voyages by airship, I mean commercial voyages, to far parts of the Empire, should be assisted in some way by a part of the money which the House of Commons has voted.


My Lords, I was not anticipating that on this Question, at any rate, any question with regard to airships would arise, but I might perhaps dispose of that point by saying briefly that it may be remembered that the whole of the future of airships is at the present moment sub judice. The Imperial Conference decided that the airships were not to be disposed of until such time as the Dominion Premiers had been able to consult their Parliaments, and we have, as vet, had no official intimation from any of the Dominions with reference to that matter.

With regard to the Notice on the Paper the noble Lord asked me one specific Question, and raised by implication a very large subject. He asked me specifically to give him the numbers of those officers of the Royal Air Force who flew, and he was courteous enough, so that I might not be taken at a disadvantage, to give me notice of his intention to do so. The answer it is not; difficult to give. With the exception of certain officers whose duty is wholly connected with ground duties, such as medical officers, chaplains, stores and accountant officers, who make up a total of 522, the whole of the officers of the Royal Air Force fly, and a total of 2,478 are actually required to keep themselves always in readiness to fly. I gather that the suggestion is that there is a large percentage of the senior officers whose duties never take them off the ground. The actual percentage of senior officers in the Royal Air Force is rather less than one to 3,500 men. It is often said that the proportion of those who fly to those who are required on the ground is unduly high. I can only assure the noble Lord that in the war it was found that it took eighty-six men to keep one machine in the air, and that that number we have now been able very considerably to reduce.

The noble Lord raised also a point about young officers who might fly for only four or five years. I think that that criticism is answered by the system of short service Commissions which has been introduced by the Air Ministry, and which has been attracting an extraordinarily good class of applicant., who at the end of his time will pass out a highly-trained specialist; and I anticipate that he, as a highly-trained specialist, will find very little difficulty in utilising that experience. With regard to the greater question which lies behind the actual words, I confess I should like to know, although I do not suppose I shall be told, who the distinguished person was who made that estimate of £4,000,000.


The noble Lord would be very surprised if he knew.


It is an interesting estimate, at any rate, and I wish to point out that by the wording of his Question on the Paper the noble Lord apparently contemplates that the Air Ministry should go back to the Army and the Navy. There is in it no provision whatever for many functions which the Air Ministry is at present carrying out. What, one may wonder, if that were ever to happen, would he the place of the Meteorological Office, which now covers the whole of the meteorological work of the United Kingdom. It is, I think, inevitable that both the Army and the Navy would require meteorological sections, and we should have three such offices, instead of one. The same thing applies, even more pointedly, to the Directorate of Research, which is the foundation stone upon which all flying must rest. The proposal also leaves entirely out of account the subject which we were discussing upon the previous Question—namely, the whole development of Civil Aviation, which has in the last two years meant a great deal of work in connection with International Conventions, which in no case could be relegated either to the Army or the Navy. That work, pre- sumably, would go either to the Board of Trade or to the Ministry of Transport. I mention those things at the outset to show that it is not quite so simple a question as tearing the Ministry in two halves and giving one half to the Army and the other to the Navy.

Now, the noble Lord pointed out that it was probably very difficult for me to give him any figures. I am afraid that is so. I think he must realise that to give him any close estimate of what such a change would mean would be quite impossible without a very great deal of calculation; without going to the Admiralty and to the War Office, and all the other Departments who would take over certain functions, and getting all those figures agreed with them. But I can answer, if not in figures, at any rate rather specifically, the point which the noble Lord has raised, although I must make one assumption at the start, because without that it is impossible to estimate at all. The assumption I must make is that the strength of the Royal Air Force would remain the same.


What is it?


Thirty thousand officers and men—I think 27,000 men amid 3,000 officers. If we were to divide the various functions of the Air Ministry itself, I will admit at once that there would be a certain saving. It is very difficult to arrive at what it would be but there would be a definite saving in the higher civilian staff of the Air Ministry. That represents not a very large proportion of the cost of the administrative staff, and the total cost of the whole of the higher civilian staff is £57,000 plus the Civil Service bonus. If we pass from them I think it may be admitted that a reduction would be possible of the lesser administrative staff dealing with routine work. I think there, again, we may admit there might be a small reduction. It is rather doubtful, but I think that it is admissible.

If, however, we leave them and come to the technical branches—to the research branches, the experimental side, and to the inspection work—I think there is no doubt whatever that so far from their being a saving there would be an actual increase. There would be duplication of a great deal of the work, overlapping, lack of co-ordination, and there might even be triplication. In the case of research I think there would have to be triplication. In the accounting branches it is estimated that it would make very little difference at all. In the recruiting and medical sides of the Air Ministry we might admit that there would be possible saving. The saving would, I am afraid, in no ease even remotely approach the figure suggested by the noble. Lord, and the highest at which it has been put is £35,000—and that I mention with extreme diffidence. It only means that, if such a change were made, certain officers in certain places would be saved, and those salaries might amount to about that figure. In the works and buildings department I think there would be a saving as far its some parts of the Headquarters supervising staff were concerned. It is certain that there would be none in the remote stations. It is sometimes hardly realised that the location of the Air units must very often be entirely different from those of military or naval units.

When we conic to the mechanical transport repair depots there would, in all probability, by reverting to the Army and the Navy, be an increase of cost. It is absolutely certain that there must be as regards the Navy, which is not in a position to undertake it at all. And, with regard to the all-important question in any Service of the training of the cadets, it is estimated that, supposing that, instead of going to Cranwell, as they do at present, the cadets for the Air Service went to Sandhurst and Dartmouth, the cost would be very greatly increased, because at Cromwell, in addition to their cadet training, they learn to fly, and under the other system they would have to be taught to fly. at sonic other place, which would, in all probability, necessitate another flying training school.

I have not laid any emphasis upon one factor which would be very great, and that is the actual cost of the operation of dividing the Ministry. We know how difficult it has been, and how long it has taken, to build up the Service as it is at present. It would be a matter of exceeding difficulty to dissolve it again, and it would take a great deal of time. The administrative difficulties and the rights of the officers at present would make for delay and cost; and if it was difficult to build up the Service when there was the hope of a Royal Air Force to look forward to, one can imagine how difficult it would be, and how utterly efficiency would be lost, in the dreary atmosphere of dissolving it again into two halves.

I have omitted also any question of what must happen to some of the Departments of the Ministry, which must, in any event, unless one is going to cease to fly at all, continue. I think it is unnecessary, after what has transpired in the debate upon the first Question on the Paper, to say very much about the set-back that such a step would undoubtedly mean to the whole feeling of progress m the air with relation to civil flying. To sum up, upon the actual question of the cost I think we can say that there would be financially a possible slight saving—it is, however, a doubtful saving—in certain directions; and that, in others, there would be a definite increase in cost. On the whole, so far as it can be estimated, it would be more costly than the Air Ministry is at present.

I was asked one question by Lord Vernon which it is possible to answer with great directness. I do not think there is any one connected with the Air Service who would not look forward with dismay to such a change as the splitting up again of the Ministry. Everyone connected with progress in the air, or interested in the air, would deprecate such a change.


What I particularly asked was whether the naval or military officers are equally satisfied?


I have not the same means of knowing the mental satisfaction or dissatisfaction of the other Services, but I shall come to that in a moment. I think there is no doubt that they do not look upon the air in at all the same light as those who have studied it. The figures for the estimates which I have given in some detail about the different Departments are all based upon the assumption that, if you did divide the present work of the Ministry into two component parts, its functions would still continue to be comparable with what it is doing to-day. I maintain that that assumption is utterly and wholly unfounded. It is based upon a view which I had thought almost obsolete—namely, that this new arm of the air has no greater rile to play in the future than to be kept in perpetual subjection to the Army and the Navy. One may fairly ask the question whether memories car i really be so short that we are already forgetting the story of the duplication, the waste, and the lack of co-ordination which drove us, even in the midst of the war, to face the difficulty of forming a separate Ministry. If noble Lords will turn to the first Report of the Air Board they will find there drawn up by the noble Marquess the Leader of the House a most damning indictment of the dual system as it existed during the war. The noble Marquess uses language of great strength, and speaks of the "waste of power, time, and money." You cannot afford to waste power and time in war, though you may be able to afford money; and when you come to peace-, certainly now—we cannot afford to waste money.

You find in the record of the growth of the Air Ministry, as it now is, how irresistibly there was forced upon us, as the war proceeded, the realisation of the power of the air, until it became obvious that the unification of the two Services was an essential element in our victory. The question of the noble Lord, Lord Vernon, suggests that the Army and the Navy are not satisfied because the air is not under their direct control. I would answer that question by another. Are we to suppose that if the air is kept permanently under the direction of the Army and the Navy, we shall ever have its resources fully developed or explored? The whole experience of the past rises up to, contradict such a supposition. I have no desire to speak in disparagement of what one may term the military mind—I had a great deal to do with it during the war—but there is no doubt that it is not possible for any one, however broad minded, whose whole training and mind is devoted to one form of progress or science, to realise what is possible or justifiable in another. Nor is it possible for any one, however broadminded, to be content to see a step-child gradually showing its power to do things which, as an older person, he had been accustomed to do for himself.

We are going to see more and more in the future the Air Force carrying out functions which in the past have been wholly carried out by the two older Services, and carrying them out at far less cost. I will give your Lordships two specific instances. There was a series of military expeditions in Somaliland which were not successful and which cost, in all, several millions of money. There was one expedition based upon a primarily air basis carried out in Somaliland in February of last year, which was completely successful in six weeks and its cost—though the figure is variable according as you include certain sums or not—was in the neighbourhood of £36,000.

Then, as a present example, arrangements are now in prospect for substituting primarily air control in Iraq as against primarily land control, and the estimate for that substitution is upwards of £15,000,000; that is to say, it is a saving of the entire cost of the whole Air Ministry for one year. I would invite your Lordships' attention to the fact that other countries are spending more and more money on the air, or rather, since I am not suggesting that we should spend more money at the present time, they are devoting more and more attention to its problems and realising more and more its potentialities.

The noble. Lord, Lord Newton, said, and it is very often alleged against the position of a separate Ministry, that no other country has one. That is perfectly true. Whether that is a good argument or not, whether we are to measure our progress as the British nation by the progress of the most backward or not, is open to question. Certain it is that we, at the moment, have the lead in air organisation in the world. But it is not true that we shall necessarily maintain that lead. The minds of other countries are moving, slowly perhaps but irresistibly, in the same direction. The most striking example, which is also the most recent, is in Greece, where in the operations actually now going on it has been found that the system of dual control has failed.

One may ask therefore: Are we to be invited to follow the argument that because we are the first we are to throw away our lead? I think every one agrees, at least every one hopes, that we arc entering now upon a long, it may be a very long, peace. What is going to happen during that peace if we neglect to institute research and develop the power of the air in every way we can? It is especially beholden to us, the British people, to maintain our position and lead in the air, because it does not seem always to be realised that for purposes of warfare we are less and less of an island and if, as one may trust, there will be no outbreak of war for a very long time, it is perfectly certain that when that outbreak occurs the greatest part of it, and the earliest part of it, will be in the air.

It is often forgotten how youthful the whole of the aerial development is, and one fears that some of the suggestions of strangling it arc clue to a sense of its youth —that it is an easy thing to crush. I would invite your Lordships to hear just a few words written by Marshal Foch upon the possibilities of aerial warfare— The military mind always imagines that the next war will be on the same lines as the last. That has never been the ease and never will be. One of He great factors in the next war will obviously be aircraft. The potentialities of aircraft attack on a large scale are almost incalculable, but it is clear that such attack, owing to its crushing moral effect on a nation, may impress public opinion to the point of disarming the Governments and thus become decisive. I think it may be taken as certain that in future, if we have to engage in a great war And if for any reason we have followed the course which is suggested by this Question, the first step that will have to be taken will be the restoration of an Air Ministry, and it will have to be taken too late, because nothing is more certain than that it will be the fiat days of the next war that will be decisive.

I have had to dwell upon the warlike side because, as I say, the Government must primarily consider the defence of the country. But I confess that I hate to use such words as the "next war" at all, and even to speak much of war, because anyone who has ever seen anything of it must always hold it in horror and detestation. I do not wish to state the case for a separate Ministry only, or even mainly, upon that ground, but rather on the much bigger, broader ground that the air is an element As different front the land as the land is from the sea; that it has a force, a power, a future of its own, and a spirit of its own; and upon those great questions so vital to such an Empire as ours —inter-ommunication, quick communication, and commerce. I hope that when these facts are considered, when the hard experience of the great struggle through which we have victoriously come is remembered, and when the immense potentialities of the air, absolutely still in their infancy, are duly weighed, we shall hear no more of any suggestion that we should revert to a system which is not only uneconomical in peace but would be followed with disastrous results on the outbreak of any new war.


My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord for what he has said? I entirely agree with the sentiments he has expressed, and may I say to the noble Lord who raised this Question that when he talks about the pressure of t he Press having established a separate: Ministry, I can tell him, from having been a member of the War Air Committee, that it was the inevitable pressure of circumstances, as the direct result of our inferiority in aircraft at the beginning of the war, which caused it to be established, and that the establishment of the Air Ministry led to our Air Forces at the end of the war being on the whole the finest, the most numerous, and the most efficient of all the Air Forces engaged in the war.