HL Deb 22 October 1953 vol 183 cc1314-24

3.8 p.m.

VISCOUNT TRENCHARD rose to ask whether Her Majesty's Government realise that a large economy could be secured by unifying the air forces of this country, as in 1919, and what steps Her Majesty's Government propose to take to appoint an outside committee so that a way can be found to shorten the time between the design al aircraft and their entry into service with the Royal Air Force; and to move for Papers. The noble and gallant Viscount said: My Lords, the Motion which stands upon the Order Paper in my name is in two parts. One part is concerned with the suggestion that the Royal Naval Air Force, or the Fleet. Air Arm, as it is now called, and the Royal Air Force should be unified, and so revert to the position which existed in 1918. The second part of the Motion is drafted with a view to seeing whether a committee can be set up to inquire into the time taken between the coming off the drawing board of the design of an aircraft, and the entry of the machine into the squadron.

Six months ago a Motion on the Defence White Paper was introduced in your Lordships' House by the noble and gallant Earl, the Minister of Defence. On the same day I had a Motion on the Order Paper. I had thought that the two Motions could be debated simultaneously, but I was in error. I had sent a copy of the notes to which. I was going to refer to the noble and gallant Earl. They concerned especially two points—aircraft carriers and the unifying of the Air Forces. I feel certain that the noble and gallant Earl will remember this matter. I also sent a copy of the notes to the noble and gallant Lord, the Secretary of State for Air, Lord De L'Isle and Dudley. Neither the noble and gallant Earl nor the noble and gallant Lord referred to these two points. The Government did not answer them. That may have been the result of my putting clown this Motion at the same time as the Motion relating to the Defence White Paper, and so the fault may have been mine, or it might have been that the Government considered it inadvisable that that question should be raised at that time, and so did not wish to answer it. But I feel that it is more than ever necessary to raise it, and I make no apology for bringing it forward again. I want to get an answer to my question, for the subject is vital to-day. Things have so changed since the end of the last war that mistakes made now will come home to roost when it is too late to do anything. I would ask noble Lords, if they have questions to put, to postpone them until they make their own speeches, as I am making this speech without notes. If I have the permission of the House, I will try to answer queries in winding up the debate.

For a moment, let us look at the evolution of the defence of this land in the past. In the very early days, local land forces, which afterwards became the Army, defended this country. Then the circles of defence were pushed further outwards, and ships had to be employed; and this maritime force, in time, became the Navy. The circles of defence were pushed out further and further, and upwards and outwards, and the Air Force became predominant. The Air Age has arrived. May we be our age, and, like our forefathers in the centuries before us, may we be worthy of our age down through the history of the future! When ships first went to sea in defence of this country, sometimes—and this continued until the time of Charles II—they were commanded by soldiers. When the modern Navy was formed, there was no doubt whatever that its power was the key to the means of defence of these lands. It was, rightly, given priority and prestige down through the centuries; and if it had not been given those, we should never have built an Empire and held it together.

The Navy did not ask for the abolition of the Army when it became the predominant Service; nor, in its turn, did the Air Force think of the abolition of the Navy when it became predominant. There is often a criticism of the Air Force implied when it is said that the Services should co-operate. But of course they co-operate. In war they cooperate a thousand per cent. It is the nature of the British race to fight as a team in emergencies or excitement; but in peace, or when the match is not on, it has been the fashion for Englishmen to have their own opinions on how to work the team. During the last debate on this question, several noble Lords seemed to base their remarks very much on the lessons to be learned at the end of the last war, particularly with regard to the sea war. Can we conceive that the next war is going to be anything like the war up to 1945? The atom bomb is now a fact, and the hydrogen bomb is almost a fact; aeroplanes fly faster than sound every day, and have doubled the distance they can travel and the height they can reach. If we are to base our plans for the next war on the last war—well, I will not go on.

I have said in this House, and many other noble Lords have said it, too, that the aircraft flown from carriers are bound to be inferior to the aircraft flown from shore. That has not been contradicted, not even by the two noble Lords who spoke for the Government in the last debate some nine months ago, when this was said by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Dowding, and others. The sea lanes must be kept open: and if they are not kept open, we perish. There is no doubt about it; and no sensible man would say anything else. But the sea lanes cannot be kept open by aircraft carriers—the most expensive, vulnerable and dangerous means of defence we can have to-day. Are we going to put all these wonderfully trained men, and all these wonderful machines, in aircraft carriers? That is the last thing we should do. If these carriers go to sea, they are going to sea to be sunk.

I know that it is easy to say all this, and very hard, in peace time, to plan for war. There are always differences of opinion. But to-day we must make a decision. We must override great personal authorities and great personal characters, great organisations, great sentiment and great traditions, or we are sunk. I say to your Lordships that if we base anything on the last war, and go into this war as unprepared as we did in 1939, if the enemy are ready to hit us in our land and we are not ready to hit them in theirs, the second Battle of Britain will be fought over our heads with the atom bomb and all that that means. The Battle of Britain had to be fought in the last war because we had nothing ready, in spite of the representations made by many, myself amongst them, who wanted Britain to have the power to hit the enemy first. As I tried to say in my remarks on the evolution of war, in the past the Royal Navy has kept war at a distance. In the 1914–18 war, warfare was largely kept from our shores, but in the last war there was the Battle of Britain over our heads—a battle which, in spite of everything, we won, with all the glory that the Royal Air Force and our young pilots deserved. And to think that now we are not prepared to hit the enemy! We cannot drop an atom bomb on the Allied countries close to us, and unless we are prepared to hit the enemy on his ground, we are going to have another Battle of Britain—I speak feelingly on that point. It is vital that we have efficiency and economy—I do not mean the tactical efficiency: good training, good gunsites, good airfields and good air schools, but the right organisation and ideas of what air policy is.

I come now to my next point, which I believe is the most illuminating of all—namely, what is the third dimension or the third element, call it what you will? We heard a great deal about this during and at the end of the last war. It has always been maintained by the Army and Navy, rightly—and even sometimes the political heads have said it, so that it has almost been thought a commonplace phrase—that the offensive is better than the defensive. That is something you cannot get away from. Surely, the Magi-not Line showed us that. With the Army and the Navy it is vitally important. The Army derive some help in defence by putting up barriers. And there is the sea; land does not extend all over the world. The Army can put up a barrier somewhere, and the Navy can do the same: they can mine a stretch of water, and put in a Fleet to stop ships coming through some narrow channel. But, in the third dimension, the air goes upwards to infinity, and extends all over the world. Every 1,000 feet may make an attacker invisible from the other side. The attacker will always get through.

I have said, as have others, that the bomber will always get through; and this is much more likely to-day, with machines travelling at over the speed of sound. How can we hope to have a defence against such a machine? And the position will be much worse in the guided missile age. The gap between offence and defence will be enormously widened. With all the guided missiles, and new developments, defence will be a thousand times more difficult. I have sufficient faith in my fellow-countrymen to believe that, if we as a nation were prepared with all these new weapons, we should not use them. But can any noble Lord sitting in this House to-day say that he would trust the powers of evil in parts of the world? I believe that if our enemies are prepared with these weapons and we are not, that will be the end. But if each side is prepared in the same way, then we have some chance—although it may be a remote one—that both sides will see sense and that neither will use these deadly weapons. A strong air service offers the only chance of bringing this about.

To return for a moment to the carriers, if there were no carriers there would not be the slightest justification, as I see it, for a Fleet Air Arm. We want all the strength we can muster, in this great strategic reserve, to prevent war, and if there were no Fleet Air Arm all those large ships at sea, and all that is necessary to maintain a big ship at sea—all the dockyards, the oil installations, the dockyard labourers, the mechanics and machinery, all the cruisers and destroyers—could be used for other purposes; and there are many other purposes. We should not need the great air staffs all over the world, and at the Admiralty. Think of the flying training schools and the mechanical training schools and all that could be saved. I quoted large figures last time, and I believe that if an inquiry into this matter were set up, it would be found that a very large saving is possible.

Believe me, my Lords, I am sincere in all this. I feel more keenly than I can say the danger that the great glory of the Battle of Britain may obscure the ideas of a great many of our fellow men who may think that a similar victory would be possible again. We had to fight that battle, because we had not the other weapons. I hope that people will realise what the Air Age means. It may be sad that we have come to it, but it is a fact. I hope that people will realise that we have time, if we face this fact now. What I am asking is for a small committee to be set up to consider the pros and cons—and I recognise that many arguments can be adduced against what I am saying. I have tried to be fair, and not to make a "rough-and-tumble" case of it; and I have refrained from being amusing—if I could be—because this is too serious a subject. I would ask all to remember that the Navy has been the sure shield of this Empire down the ages, but that the air forces can now be its guardian angel.

I come now to the second point of my Motion, which I hope is not controversial, but which I regard as equally important and vital. With our designers, who are the best in the world; with our workshops, which are second to none, and our magnificent mechanics, if only we could shorten the time that it takes to get a new machine from the drawing boards into the squadrons, we should without doubt once more be a great nation and on top of the world. I do not want anybody to think that I am attacking the Ministry of Supply—I admire them for what they have done—or that I am attacking any aircraft manufacturers or the workmen in the factories. But in my long experience, in the air and in other walks of life, I have found very little that cannot be improved enormously, if one sets about it in the right way. I should like to give your Lordships a small example from one experience of mine. When I became Chief of the Air Staff many years ago, it took something like fourteen or fifteen months to get a damaged engine repaired and in service again at the front. I set up an inquiry of a few men from the aircraft factories to see into this delay. In four months they came back and reported to me two reasons which accounted for 51 per cent. of the time taken. Those were promptly rectified, and we got the engines back in about eight to ten months. If this matter is inquired into by aircraft people who know about aircraft, they may find that it is money that is the cause of the shortage of machines, or it may be shortage of labour or of manpower—it may be all sorts of things.

I am sure your Lordships will forgive me if I refer back for a moment to the other part of my Motion, as this is an important point. In 1918, the Air Force was set up by the unification of the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps. General Smuts, a great soldier and statesman, was the sponsor—and Mr. Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of the day, was one of the backers. There were many committees, presided over by great people in this country. I think I am right in saying that Lord Salisbury was one and Sir Eric Geddes another. I was Chief of the Air Staff for nearly twelve years, and during that time there were at least ten inquiries into this question. The reasons for the inquiries then were childish compared with those that exist to-day: they are much greater to-day than they were then. All those great men believed in the value of an inquiry, and I ask that there should be an inquiry both into this question of unification and into the delay before new aircraft come into service. I beg to move for Papers.

3.32 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure your Lordships will wish to join with me in congratulating the noble and gallant Viscount, Lord Trenchard, on his speech. We all know the difficulties under which he performs his duties as a Member of your Lordships' House, and we admire him for the way he does it. We are always interested and attentive to hear what he has to say, because we know that the views he expresses are those which he feels and holds in deep sincerity, and views which are derived from long years of experience. As the noble and gallant Viscount said in his speech, the Motion falls into two parts. The first part is really this: Why do not the Government reunite the Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Air Force, as it was in 1919, thereby saving a great deal of money? The argument is that the aircraft carrier is obsolete, an easy prey to shore-based aircraft, and that the aircraft it carries are not so efficient as shore-based aircraft, Your Lordships will remember that during the period in between the two world wars this whole question of Naval Air, and of whose responsibility it should be, was gone into. Many committees were appointed, as the noble and gallant Viscount has already said. In 1937, the In skip Committee examined this problem and came to certain conclusions on which the Government of the day took decisions which are in operation at the present time.

The result was as follows. In 1939, the responsibility for the operation and administration of shipborne aircraft was transferred to the Admiralty. To be perfectly fair, I think that our experience in the last war has shown the correctness of this decision. We cannot ignore the experience and the lessons we learnt in the last war, though I recognise that the next war, when it comes, or if it comes, is likely to be considerably different, depending on the time when it comes. But if war should come to-morrow, I do not think it would be very different from the last war, except that this time we should have the atomic bomb—at least, the atomic bomb will be in the battlefield. The reasons which led to the present division of responsibility between the Royal Air Force and the Admiralty are well known. The arguments for and against are known, and I shall not repeat them. Noble Lords who follow me in this debate will have ample opportunity of stating their own views on this subject.

But I think that the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, goes far beyond suggesting that all aircraft, whether carrier-borne or shore-based, should be operated by the. Royal Air Force. In effect, the noble Viscount suggests that there is no need to have anything but shore-based aircraft. I do not believe that, either in this country or in any other maritime nation, he would find much support for this view at the present time. When I say, "the present time," I mean now, at the present stage of aviation. Of course, when we look ahead we recognise that the whole pattern of our defence may well look different from what it does to-day. Whilst we must look ahead, and plan accordingly, we cannot afford to ignore the present, with its obvious vital short-term requirements.

In this connection, I should like to mention that when the noble Viscount spoke to us in April of last year, he suggested that something like £100 million a year would be saved by reverting to the old plan, whereby one Service covered all air operations. I am not clear as to the basis of this figure. I am satisfied, however, that nothing approaching this figure would be saved. It must be obvious that, even if the R.A.F. could take over the present air functions of the Royal Navy, its present strength would have to be greatly increased, and we might find ourselves spending as much extra money on the R.A.F. as we saved on the Royal Navy.

The noble Viscount also draws our attention to the carrier-based aircraft, which he claims is not as efficient as shore-based aircraft. It is true that naval aircraft have been of lower performance than shore-based aircraft, but the efficiency gap will, I hope, be gradually closed with the coming into operation of a number of new developments. This inferiority in performance which the noble Viscount alleges is one of the reasons why he regards the carrier as now obsolete, and he implies—in fact, he said as much—that if war comes the carriers will be sunk. It is quite true that the air threat at sea is a serious menace, as we learned to our cost in the last war. Enemy land-based bombers have a combat range of hundreds of miles, which can take them over vast sea areas to attack our shipping. But this threat cannot be met and countered by shore-based fighters, except over a comparatively small area of coastal waters, because of the short range of the modern fighters.

Therefore, it seems to me quite essential for the protection of our Fleets, and our merchant shipping in convoy, that they should have their own local defence at hand. Especially is this the case when these ships are far out to sea and out of range of shore-based fighters. At present, this protection can be provided only by the carrier. It may interest noble Lords to know that during the war, when our convoys were provided with air escort, the sinkings fell to negligible proportions. I sincerely hope and trust that your Lordships will appreciate that I am speaking of conditions which face us now, at the present time, if war should come in the immediate future. The future will undoubtedly see many changes caused by the introduction of new weapons and new techniques—nobody will deny that. But at this stage I feel that it would not be wise to consider a major reorganisation such as that proposed by Lord Trenchard until we see more clearly what effect these new weapons are going to have on the design and pattern of all our fighting forces in the future.

I turn now to the second part of the noble and gallant Viscount's Motion. He is rightly concerned about the time it takes to get aircraft from the drawing board into squadron service. This time tag is one which everyone would like to see reduced—there is no clash of views in this respect. It may be that time could be saved if the whole economy of the country were turned over to a war basis. But we should not be realistic if we suggested that such a solution is possible in present circumstances. The noble Viscount's criticisms, however, seem to arise from a misconception of the problems facing development and production of modern aircraft. It is not the case that production can proceed at full speed once a new type of aircraft has got off the ground and landed again successfully. At the prototype stage, an aeroplane is unequipped with all the mass of equipment that it will have to carry: it is merely a flying shell for testing the airworthiness of the design. A long period of testing and development is necessary to see whether the aircraft, fitted with all its operational equipment which it must have, will be satisfactory as a fighting weapon.

The highly complicated technical problems which have to be solved frequently make it necessary to redesign major components; and when the aircraft finally goes into production it is often quite different in some important particulars from the original prototype. Again—and, broadly speaking, when the prototype is finally ready to go into production—a number of jigs and tools which could not be made before then have to be produced. Once this stage has been reached, then the production time cycle is, in fact, quite short. I will leave it to the noble Lord, the Secretary of State for Air, who will wind up this debate, to go into this matter in more detail, and enlarge a little on that part of the subject.

Having regard to the technical and engineering problems involved, it is no simple matter to cut down the time it takes to produce modern aircraft in quantity that is, if we are going to have the best aircraft; and it is only the best which we want. It surely must be recognised that modern aircraft take longer to produce than did their predecessors. The "V" Class of bombers of to-day are vastly more complicated than the bomber of yesterday. They are more than twice as big, and will carry more than twice the bomb-load at twice the height and speed. The noble Viscount is quite right to show concern that we should get these new weapons into the hands of the men who are going to use them, and get them into use, with the shortest possible delays. Those of us who are responsible for defence are right behind him in this respect, and I can assure him that we are doing our best to achieve this.