HL Deb 02 December 1954 vol 190 cc107-15

3.5 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to ask Her Majesty's Government a Question of which I have given them private notice—namely, whether they can make a statement upon the new plan for rearming the Royal Auxiliary Air Force squadrons, and any other changes that are at present contemplated in their defence programme.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Templewood, for this opportunity to make a statement on certain changes in policy for the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and in other fields of defence which were announced yesterday by my right honourable friend the Minister of Defence in another place. The purpose of the changes in the organisation of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force fighter squadrons is to suit modern conditions. The squadrons of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force are now equipped with fighter aircraft of the types in service with the Regular day fighter squadrons of Fighter Command. A new generation of swept-wing fighters is now coming into service which represents a marked advance in design and performance. These new aircraft and their equipment are, besides, much more complex.

Pilots of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force manage to do a great deal of flying, chiefly at week-ends, in the course of a year, but despite their skill and enthusiasm they cannot undertake as much flying as those in Regular squadrons. This must react upon the capability of the Auxiliary squadrons to fight as squadrons on the outbreak of any future war, especially as our fighter aircraft and, indeed, the whole air defence system develop to a more elaborate form. Thus, to re-equip the Auxiliary squadrons with Hunters and Swifts and to expect them to be able to take their place in the front line on the outbreak of a war would make quite unfair demands on the time and effort of Auxiliary pilots and ground staffs. It is, therefore, proposed to affiliate each Auxiliary squadron to a Regular squadron so as to give Auxiliary pilots the opportunity of qualifying on the new Hunter and Swift aircraft.

The Auxiliary squadrons will retain their existing town headquarters and a training flight consisting of Meteors or Vampires at their home airfield. The Auxiliary pilots will fly to the appropriate Regular airfields to carry out their training on swept-wing fighters, when this is the most convenient means of travel. By this means the squadrons will be able to continue to fulfil, in the most efficient manner practicable, their honourable rôle in the defence of the country. I must take this opportunity of recording my admiration and that of the whole Air Council for the tradition, keenness and efficiency of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force.

I should like to inform the House as well of two measures which particularly concern the Army. The development of nuclear weapons and of long-range aircraft of high speed and capable of operating at great altitude has, in the Government's view, radically reduced the effectiveness of anti-aircraft gun defences. Her Majesty's Government have, therefore, decided that it is no longer justifiable to continue to spend money or to use manpower on the present scale of anti-aircraft gun defences in the United Kingdom. They therefore intend to make drastic reductions which do not justify retention of the existing Anti-Aircraft Command structure. This will be abolished. A certain number of heavy anti-aircraft and light anti-aircraft regiments will be kept to provide anti-aircraft defence of the field forces and to protect certain vital targets at home and overseas.

The second matter concerns the organisation of the Army. During the period 1950–51 special measures were taken to increase the size of the Army in order to produce a rapid increase in the number of units and formations so that we could meet the additional commitments of that time, and in 1951 some additional units, including the second battalions of certain infantry regiments, were formed. There is bound to be a considerable rundown, in the strength of the Army in the next two years, due partly to the rundown of the larger intake of National Service men called up in 1952 and partly to the rut-out of Regulars. It is now hoped to bring home a number of units and formations and to create a strategic reserve. So measures of reorganisation can be contemplated far the more efficient use of manpower, and it is as part of these measures that it is planned to disband the second battalions which were formed in 1951. This process will be spread over the next two or three years. It is hard to say how the very large commitments which confronted us in 1952–53 would have been met without these extra battalions, and those regiments which have been so successful in forming the battalions deserve a warm tribute to their efficiency.

3.13 p.m.


My Lords, arising out of that part of the noble and gallant Lord's answer that concerns the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, may I ask whether this change does not mean that, whereas in the past the Auxiliary squadrons formed an essential part of first-line air defence and were armed on the same lines as Regular squadrons, they will henceforth be nothing more than reserve units armed with obsolete machines? Secondly, will not the result be to discourage the squadrons, to weaken their esprit de corps and to make them less attractive to National Service men who have finished their service and who are at present entering these squadrons in substantial numbers? Thirdly, does the Secretary of State remember the history of these squadrons and be splendid part they played in fighting during the war, and also—and this is a very important question—in maintaining a much-needed link between the Air Force and the general public? Lastly, will the noble Marquess the Leader of the House give an early day for the discussion of this important question? If so, having expressed my grave anxiety, I will withhold my final judgment until then, and particularly until I have had further discussion with the squadron of which I am honorary Air Commodore and with others, like the noble and gallant Viscount, Lord Trenohard, with whose invaluable help we brought into operation the original scheme for the Auxiliary Air Force.


My Lords, the noble Viscount speaks with unique experience of this particular problem, and I share his anxiety about the future of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. Naturally, I have most carefully considered with my colleagues how the changes we now propose will affect the Auxiliary Air Force. I do not pretend to disguise for a moment that we should all have preferred to continue in the future as we have in the past, to equip them with the same types of aircraft as those in service with the Regular squadrons of Fighter Command. But I am sure it would be quite wrong if we failed to recognise that circumstances have changed, and that we should not be doing our duty if we did not adapt the Royal Air Force to those changes. If I may lapse into Latin, Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis". We believe that by giving Auxiliary pilots the opportunity to qualify on modern sweat-wing aircraft and by keeping their organisation in being, as we shall do, we shall enable the Royal Auxiliary Air Force to continue to serve the cause of national defence in the most efficient way possible. I should like to record my agreement with the noble Viscount that it is of inestimable value to the Royal Air Force to have a link of this kind with the general public and with the Territorial associations; and, furthermore, it is a most valuable asset to the Air Force to be able to provide an opportunity for young men who have learnt to fly during their two years' National Service to volunteer for the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and to continue to take a prominent part in our air defences. I assure the noble Viscount that it has been our main Object in this reorganisation to preserve this link and those opportunities; and we believe that in difficult circumstances we have succeeded in doing so.


My Lords, the Government are generally kind enough to give a copy of important statements of this kind to the Leader of the Opposition. I make no complaint that that was not done on this occasion, but, not being an expert, I cannot make any useful comment to-day. I should like to point out that the noble Lord has not answered one question which the noble Viscount, Lord Templewood, put—namely, may we have an early day on which to debate this matter? Apart from the anxiety of the noble Viscount, persons like myself, with very slight knowledge, do feel some anxiety about the statement which has now been made, and I think it would be desirable that the House should have an early opportunity of discussing its grave implications.


My Lords, before the noble Lord answers the last question, I would ask the Leader of the House that in fixing a day for this debate he will, so far as possible, keep it clear of general defence questions. This is an exceedingly important question and it will take nearly a whole day in itself; and if it is possible one day ought to be kept separate for debating this matter.


My Lords, as I understand it, the present and future identities of these squadrons will be retained under this reorganisation—I gather that that is so. May I ask the noble Lord this question? Is he aware that while we must all have anxiety such as has been expressed by the noble and learned Earl, on the other hand, this scheme would seem to relieve the anxieties that many people have felt about how the complexities of modern fighters and their equipment can be handled with safety and efficiency in units established on a part-time basis? Obviously, the whole matter must be debated, but this scheme does give immediate relief to some of us who have been anxious about this particular aspect.


My Lords, may I first answer the noble and learned Earl, the Leader of the Opposition. I regret that I did not furnish him with a copy of the statement. It was subject to certain last-minute amendments and I had not an opportunity of furnishing him with a copy. I apologise to the noble and learned Earl. To the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, I can say that most decidedly these squadrons will retain their identity complete, as well as their honorary air commodores. It is very much in our minds that, so far as is possible, the pilots shall feel themselves part of the Royal Air Force. I must emphasise that the fact that they will not be re-equipped as squadrons with the most up-to-date aircraft will not prevent them from flying these aircraft. That is the point which I am sure will be looked to by all young National Service men who have spent two years in Flying Training Command and some time in the operational training units: they will have a squadron to which to belong and an opportunity of flying in swept-wing aircraft of Regular squadrons.


My Lords, I think I should absolve my noble friend Lord De L'Isle and Dudley from blame for not answering the last part of the question from the noble Viscount, Lord Templewood, with regard to a debate. I asked him not to do so, because I thought it would be more proper to answer that portion myself. I entirely agree with the noble Viscount when he says that it is most desirable that we should debate these matters more fully than perhaps is possible to-day, and I should be very ready to talk to him about a possible date. I suggest to my noble friend that it would probably not be so useful to take such a debate before the production of the White Paper on Defence, because, clearly, one has to look at all these matters within the framework of general defence policy. I would therefore suggest, with that reservation, that he and I might discuss the matter further. With regard to the question of the noble and gallant Viscount, Lord Trenchard, I shall be happy, so far as lies in my power, to have this particular problem debated separately. But what I have said, of course, applies here, too: it is impossible to dissociate this matter altogether from the framework of defence policy, but it may be desirable to have two days rather than one day for a discussion of the whole question.


My Lords, may I ask the Secretary of State for Air a question on the aspect of his statement on which no question has been put? I quite understand that matters affecting the Auxiliary Air Force are domestic decisions, but I should like to know, with reference to the reduction of the number of anti-aircraft units, and therefore with regard to the conclusion that has been reached of the decreasing importance of anti-aircraft artillery, whether this aspect of the policy of Her Majesty's Government is purely domestic in its character or whether it has been the subject of discussion with the other Powers belonging to N.A.T.O., and whether the armies associated with us on the Continent of Europe are applying similar principles.


My Lords, before the noble Lord replies, may I ask a question? While realising that such considerations must be paramount in dealing with the future of Anti-Aircraft Command, and while agreeing with the way in which the matter has been approached by Her Majesty's Government, I would ask whether my noble friend can give an assurance that members of the Territorial Army who are now in anti-aircraft units which are to be disbanded will not be hastily discharged but will be given a further opportunity for service in the Territorial Army, which I am quite sure they would all welcome.


My Lords, may I take first the question of the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman? It is certainly the intention of Her Majesty's Government to give those opportunities to members of the Territorial Army; I am happy to reassure him on that point. As to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Hore-Belisha, if he is distinguishing between domestic policy and N.A.T.O. I would point out that all these problems must be considered in the context of our overall defence programme and plans. I think it would be unwise today to launch into wider fields. Her Majesty's Government thought it right to make these particular decisions known to Parliament, feeling that it would be wrong to delay or risk not getting the economies we can make. It ought properly to be debated in the much wider context of our defence plans as a whole, and I hope that the noble Lord will abide in patience until we can review the whole field.


My Lords, I am quite prepared to do that, but will the White Paper make it plain whether these Army reorganisation plans have been made in isolation or have been the outcome of discussions with our Allies?


My Lords, I will take the noble Lord's point of view into account when the White Paper is produced.


My Lords, while thanking the noble Marquess for what he has said about the debate, may I ask whether he will keep in mind the fact that the issue which I have raised to-day is a very special one, and one which need not be confused with the wider issues of defence that will appear in the White Paper? I venture to say that, because I should like to keep my mind open as to whether it is necessary to wait until some time in the Spring for a general debate, when this question can easily be isolated.


My Lords, the noble and gallant Viscount, Lord Trenchard, has already asked that a special day should be given to enable the question to be isolated and I have promised that I will consider that request sympathetically. I cannot agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Templewood, that this particular question can be completely isolated from general defence policy. As the noble Viscount, with all his great experience on this question will know, every item of defence expenditure and organisation has to be correlated with all other items, and I do not think we should get so useful a debate if it were held prior to the publication of the White Paper, in which case, obviously, there would be numbers of things which could not be said by whoever had to reply for Her Majesty's Government but which could be dealt with fully later.


My Lords, is it not a fact that the practice of taking an acute issue such as this, of which the noble Viscount, Lord Templewood, has special knowledge, and merging it into a general debate tends to reduce the value of our debates? Is it not an example of weakness in the procedure in this House whereby specific issues cannot be brought to debate?


My Lords, the noble Viscount apparently has not quite appreciated the point that I was trying to make. I said that there would be a special day if I could arrange it. Secondly, I said that when that special day came, it would be of value to the House to have the general framework in which this particular question could be put.


My Lords, referring to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Hore-Belisha, may I ask whether my noble friend the Secretary of State for Air would be prepared to go a little further? After all, my noble friend asked a very specific question about policy, both national and international. He asked whether this was a domestic decision or whether it had been taken in view of much wider implications in N.A.T.O. To that question, my noble friend the Secretary of State for Air replied, as I understood, that he was not prepared to give an answer at this moment. My noble friend Lord Hore-Belisha then asked whether the matter would be dealt with in the White Paper, to which my noble friend the Secretary of State for Air said the matter would be taken into consideration. May I put it in this way, to be within Rules of Order: is he aware that, if it is not taken into consideration, when the White Paper comes to be discussed there is likely to be considerable criticism here and in another place?


My Lords, if I may answer on points arising out of what I have said, I would say that I do not think it would be useful to answer that question in isolation today: it goes a good deal outside the original Question and Answer. I do not want to anticipate what will be in the White Paper, but at the same time this matter could properly be raised on the occasion of the debate on the White Paper or on the other individual day; and of course the discussion would have to be answered in a proper manner.

Back to