HL Deb 27 July 1954 vol 189 cc127-38

2.52 p.m.

VISCOUNT HALL rose to call attention to the First Lord's Statement Explanatory of the Navy Estimates, 1954–55 (Cmd. 9079); and to move for Papers. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, before dealing with the Motion upon the Order Paper, I should like to express my deep regret for the postponement of this Motion some six weeks or two months ago. It is rather unfortunate that the debate on the Navy Estimates should wait until almost the end of July. I am mainly responsible for, unfortunately, on the date when the Motion was to be taken I was indisposed and was unable to be present. Then, on the second day which was chosen the noble Earl, Lord Birkenhead, who was to reply to the debate and will reply to-day, suffered the sad bereavement of a close relative—a person who was also a great friend of a number of Members of your Lordships' House, including myself; and I make no apology for postponing it on that date. Then, a fortnight ago the Government stepped in and took the early part of the Sitting—


Assisted by the Opposition.


—and promised that we could have our debate after the conclusion of the Committee stage of the Television Bill. I guessed that that Bill would occupy the House until rather late in the evening, and I could not imagine that Members who are interested in the Royal Navy would want to deal with the Navy Estimates after six, seven or eight o'clock in the evening. So here we are at the present time. I want to say a special word of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Winster. If anybody has been put out in regard to this matter, it is the noble Lord. In the first place, he was good enough to transfer the Motion from his name to mine, and I am afraid that he has been treated rather badly from that time onwards.

My Lords, the Navy Estimates this year provide for an expenditure of no less than £367 million, of which £14 million is received from the United States of America under the Mutual Defence Assistance scheme. It is interesting to note that last year the amount received under this scheme was £35 million, so we are short of £21 million this year in relation to that grant. But this shortage has been made up by the Treasury—indeed, the Navy Estimates this year are about 2½ million more than they were last year. This small increase must be very welcome to the Admiralty, particularly in view of what I regard as the disastrous reduction which was imposed upon them last year. A close study of the Estimates, of the First Lord's speech in another place and his explanatory Statement, indicate that there are several matters which give cause for much uneasiness. I should first like to mention to the noble Earl—I trust that he will convey this to the First Lord—that he is rather whittling down the information given in his explanatory Statement, particularly in relation to the introduction. Three most valuable paragraphs which have in the past been included are missing, one particularly so, namely, the amount of money spent upon research and development. One has to pick out quite a number of bits and pieces from the main Estimates in order to discover the actual amount which has been spent upon research and development. I hope that the First Lord will resort to the old practice, and give as much information as he can in his explanatory Statement, instead of reducing it.

I have referred to causes for uneasiness. There are fewer ships with the active Fleet at the present time than there have been for many years. I am not going to recite the number of ships contained in the First Lord's Statement, but if noble Lords will look themselves they must feel, as I feel, a sense of uneasiness. At the present time there are only ten cruisers. It is true that the "Daring" class ship has been moved up from the destroyer class to the cruiser class; but, good as that ship is, it does not take the place of an 8,000 or a 10,000 ton cruiser. Quite apart from the ships in the active Fleet, if your Lordships look at the number of ships which are used for training and experiment, you will see that, here again, the numbers are reduced in relation to what they have been over the course of a number of years. It is understood that one of the "Hermes" class carriers is now with the Fleet, and that two more, with the "Ark Royal," will be completed before the end of the year and will join the Fleet or go into reserve. This will greatly strengthen the small active Fleet that we have at the present time. I have no doubt that the noble Earl in his reply will be able to say, seeing that it is about four or five months since this Statement was published, that there is some strengthening in the active Fleet, by additional numbers of both cruisers and frigates, and, indeed, destroyers.

I come now to the question of the construction programme, for after the completion of the last of the "Hermes" class, which is now under construction (I understand that it will be completed by the end of this financial year) there will be no ship larger than a frigate on the stocks—nothing in the way of cruisers or carriers; and nothing, in fact, but frigates, minesweepers, seaward defence boats and fast patrol boats, with some submarines. The output of those, to date, cannot by any means be considered satisfactory. Indeed, both the Minister of Defence and the First Lord have referred to the very slow production of these ships. How slow that has been can best be seen by the numbers accepted into service. In the Estimates of this and the two preceding years we are told that there were respectively nine, thirteen and twenty-two frigates under construction but not launched. During the last three years, not one new frigate has been accepted into service. I am not suggesting that there has not been a converted frigate—there have been many converted ships, from destroyers to frigates.

The First Lord, in his speech, referred to the two squadrons of modernised frigates which are, I know, very acceptable. Minsweepers, those important small craft, number, if one goes through the Estimates for the last three years, about 194. There is some duplication of numbers, but in the past year only one minesweeper has been delivered. Last year there were thirty-three; and the year before, one. That is the position at present, and to me it is quite unsatisfactory. The First Lord and the noble and gallant Earl, the Minister of Defence, said that there would be one new frigate completed by the end of the financial year; and the First Lord referred to the fact that some new frigates may be under trial before the end of the year. It is absolutely indispensable that these ships should be brought into service as quickly as possible.

In going through these Estimates one of the most disconcerting discoveries, at a time like the present, is the amount of money being spent upon the new construction programme. Small as it is, the figure is reduced by about £5½ million this year, as compared with last year. That figure I am taking from the details of contract work on hulls and machinery ship repairs and miscellaneous items in Vote A. To reduce expenditure on new construction at the present time, when other nations are building up their navies, is a matter of some concern. So much for frigates and minesweepers. What of the rest of the Fleet? I make no apology for referring to a statement made by the First Lord last year. He said that if the Fleet is to exist as an efficient and well-balanced fighting force it is vital that we have a steady replacement of new construction throughout the future. This problem is becoming more pressing as time passes. I make this prophecy: that in a few years time the then First Lord will be asking Parliament to vote more funds for an increasing ship-building programme.

How long must we wait for some announcement of such a programme? We know that no battleship, as such, nor, indeed, conventional destroyers, will be ordered; so that the heavy warships of the future must be the cruiser and the aircraft carrier. Of these ships, unless a replacement programme begins soon, the Royal Navy will, by 1960—five years from now—have only two fleet carriers, a small number of light fleets, and about five cruisers, less than eighteen years old Most of those cruisers have had to stand a very heavy war. Apart from the one light fleet carrier now completing, there will be no warship on the stocks larger than the frigate—and this, at a time when, as we know, the Soviet Navy have twenty very powerful cruisers, with eight or nine building; and it is said that they are building more cruisers annually than all the N.A.T.O. Powers combined.

In addition, we know what they have in large destroyers and submarines, and from the information we get we know that these ships are well-built, well-manned, Well-armed, modern and up-to-date, because the Russians have had the assistance of German experts who, after the war, went into Russia and, of course, gave them all their scientific and technical aid. This makes those ships some of the most modern and powerful in the world. So far as we know, Russia has no aircraft carriers, but she has a very powerful naval air force which can be used for bombing, mine-laying, or torpedo attacks. It is an integral part of their Navy and can not only be used defensively but can also give powerful support to any offensive action against our sea communications.

The amount of money being spent by Soviet Russia at the present time is not known. There was a report in The Times that the Soviet Budget is higher than ever. It was said their expenditure on defence has been reduced this year, as compared with last year, but the amount is still stupendous. Ours is a very large sum—almost a crippling amount—but their expenditure is five times as great as ours. Some 17.8 per cent. of their increased Budget goes on defence, and a very large proportion of that is going to the Soviet navy. Many people imagine that navies are out-dated and old-fashioned, but that is not the opinion of the Soviet Union and America. Whilst there is a substantial reduction in the amount of money being spent upon the Army and Air Force in America at present, there is an increase in expenditure in the American Navy.

The significance of this expenditure is that these countries—Soviet Russia and America—are spending a large proportion of their defence expenditure upon their navies. I can give no figures for the navy of the U.S.S.R. I know it is said that the combined strength of the N.A.T.O. will outweigh the strength of the Soviet Navy. That is so; but we should see to it that the British contribution is a well-balanced one, both as to the class of ship and their modernity. Until this pause in the replacement of the cruiser comes to an end, we cannot make the contribution which should be made. I realise how important it is that in building a new warship—a very costly business—we should have the latest scientific and technical knowledge, and for years, to my own knowledge, a very efficient group of scientists and naval constructors have been at work at the Admiralty, and we were hoping that by now some newer designs would have been forthcoming. Of course, much has been done to modernise the destroyers converted into frigates. They now have their anti-submarine weapons and antiaircraft weapons, which can be used both shipborne and airborne, and also conventional propulsion machinery both for surface ships and submarines.

On the matter of submarines, of which we are told that quite a number are to be laid down this year, I should like to ask the noble Lord to give the House some idea of the type. Is it a completely new type or an improved midget submarine? We know of, and are particularly interested in, the new submarine "Explorer," which is using a new kind of fuel with the peculiar name of "high-test peroxide." We are told that a submarine propelled by this fuel has a submerged speed of 20 knots. We have known of this for some time; at least four or five years ago we were told that this was just a spurt, and I do not know whether this speed can be maintained over a long distance. I think we should have this information, particularly in view of the fact that we know that the Americans have now launched their nuclear-propelled submarine, and appear to be satisfied with the results of the experiment. They are so far satisfied that there is a possibility of their using nuclear power for the propulsion of large surface ships like aircraft carriers and cruisers. Unless this new submarine which we possess has advantages as great as the advantages which are claimed by the Americans for their nuclear-propelled submarine, we ought to think twice before we go on with this new kind of propulsion, unless fuel is available to a much greater extent and can be produced at a much lower price than was possible when I was at the Admiralty.

I do not know what progress is being made in this country in nuclear propulsion research and whether there is a possibility of nuclear propulsion being tried out. I know that science has made defence a costly business, for, in addition to the immense amount of money spent on research, there are the blue print and development stages; and when the new weapons reach the latter stage there is the merging of unconventional with conventional weapons, with all the difficulties which that entails. In the Statement on Defence the noble and gallant Earl told us that some atomic weapons are now in production and that delivery to the Forces has begun, while guided missiles have reached an advanced stage of development. We should like to know how far research in guided missiles has gone. A few months ago Sir Victor Shepheard, Director of Naval Construction, was reported to have said in Montreal that "the Royal Navy is well on its way to solving tine vast problems presented by atomic warfare and guided missiles." If that is so, is the Service ready to receive these guided missiles? Are other countries more advanced than we are, not only in research and development, but in the production of the necessary equipment?

The Minister of Defence said that the Navy's needs for both surface-to-air guided missiles and surface-to-surface weapons are not being neglected; indeed, he said that we can foresee the day when they may become, the ships' main armament. We know that other countries, particularly America, are much more advanced than we are in this matter. A short time ago I saw a report in the Press that guided rockets are to be the standard armament in the United States Navy and that designs for new types of rocket ships, and plans for converting existing warships into missile carriers, are well advanced. It was also reported that there were three basic types of these weapons. There is the light anti-aircraft rocket, for use in heavy warships and anti-aircraft frigates. The rocket will be fired as soon as the ship's radar picks up the target. It has supersonic speed and has a "homing" device. Then there is the medium missile. This has been developed for use in cruisers against ships and targets ashore. It carries a heavy armour-piercing warhead and is expected to replace the heavy guns now on ships. The third type is the atomic weapons for firing at large targets ashore. American scientists are working on an entirely new type of electronic navigating mechanism which cannot be fouled or diverted by enemy interference. We know that the Minister of Supply, together with his chief expert, and, recently, the Minister of Defence have been to America and have had opportunities of discussion with the Minister of Defence in America and others concerned with the development and production of these weapons. I understand that on this matter of guided missiles there has always been friendly collaboration between the United States experts and our experts, especially those in the Royal Navy. So I trust that the Minister of Supply, Mr. Stewart Mitchell and the Minister of Defence have been able to see how far ahead of us—if they are ahead—the Americans are in the production of these weapons and in the preparation of ships for using them.

There is no doubt that, with the introduction of new weapons into the Service, great changes will have to be made, perhaps in the near future, in ships' equipment. If information in advance cannot be given to the public. I hope that it will be possible for some information to be given to naval officers, particularly the senior naval officers. At the present time, some of the best officers in the Royal Navy feel that they lack a sense of direction; indeed, they feel frustrated because they feel that they are called upon to maintain for the Service only a defensive rôle, and there is not much interest to them in that. I beg the Government and the First Lord to take the naval officers more into consultation in connection with the changes which must take place. If these new weapons are to be used by the navies of other Powers, then we cannot do without them. The Minister of Defence, in his speech to your Lordships some two or three months ago, said: We cannot afford to go into the next war—if the next war comes—with weapons which are unfit for the purpose and we must have weapons quite as good as the enemy as otherwise the situation will be much worse than it was on the outbreak of the last two world wars. We should take heed of that.

Another cause for uneasiness brought out in the Estimates is that of naval manpower. Before dealing with the main point—that is, the falling off in the Regular recruitment—I should like to say how pleased I was with the announcement made by the First Lord that all the recalled and retained men for Korea are now back in civilian life. I well remember the calling up and the announcement of the retention of a number of these men in the Service. They made a ready response to the call, and indeed, retention, and they all carried out valuable work. I gladly join with the First Lord in his expression of gratitude to them. Then, the scheme of general service, and the reduction in all forms of foreign service is acceptable, I think, to most persons who are interested in the Navy, as is also the announcement of the reintroduction of discharge by purchase. Manpower must give some concern to the Board of Admiralty, for Vote A numbers are lower than they have been for some time, with Regular recruitment last year 15 per cent. below requirements and an estimated fall in numbers below what they were last year. This is unusual, for the Navy, as a rule, can have all the Regular recruits it requires; indeed, we were taking only about one out of every seven or eight who presented themselves. Yet we are now faced with this situation.

I am not so sure that the Admiralty are not in some way to blame for the present position. I do not think it is right at this particular time to discourage the recruitment of men for a seven years' engagement, with five years on the Reserve. I have no doubt that the refusal of intake of men for seven years' service and five years on the Reserve is responsible for the reduction which took place during last year. I believe there was a reduction in that type of person from 39 to 12 per cent., and there was only about one-third of the number of entries compared with the number taken on in previous years. I am afraid that that applies to all the Services, as was pointed out by the Minister of Defence in his speech here on March 16. He then said [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 186, col. 369]: … despite recruiting figures which compare favourably with those of two or three years ago, the preponderant number of Regulars are now enlisting only on the three-year short-service engagement. … We cannot in these days expect to get away from the short-period Regular engagement. He added that we must do our utmost after we have these men in the Service to induce them to prolong their service.

I understand the great difficulty of persuading these men to go on for twelve and twenty-two years. But there is quite a change in the attitude of the men in all Services. Not only the Army, but also the Royal Air Force, have had to accept short-service men—the R.A.F. not in quite the same way as the Army, but they have had to accept men who serve for a much shorter time. In this, the Admiralty policy is somewhat inconsistent, for last year the First Lord, referring to the aircrew entry for short service commissions, said that the vacancies had almost been filled. In cost and time the training for this short service must be two or three times as great as with a short-service seaman; and there is the possibility that a number of the men will continue their service beyond the seven years. So many young men will not willingly commit themselves for twelve years during which so many changes may take place in their lives. They point to the Army with its three years' break, also to the short service of the R.A.F. to which I have already referred. I beg of the First Lord to think again in relation to this question of short service, as it is called, although to the other Services it is regarded as a long service.

I cannot leave the question of naval manpower without referring to officer entry, and I include in that the subject of the Dartmouth Naval College. My approach to this matter will not be in any way political but with a view to securing the best type of the youth of this country to serve the nation as naval officers. Here I must say that I have no regrets for the change which was introduced in regard to Dartmouth College entry while I was First Lord. Soon after I became First Lord representations were made to me to consider a change in the officer entry of the Royal Navy through Dartmouth College. Before taking any action, I made inquiries of the naval members of the Board of Admiralty and of naval officers in the training cruiser, in the gunroom, and of the many naval ships which I visited; and I also spent some time at Dartmouth College. The majority opinion which I collected was that the Dartmouth entry lacked much of the educational essentials of the special entry. This was freely admitted by many of the young officers who were from Dartmouth College; and, indeed, many naval officers of high standing informed me that if they were to advise any relative who desired to become a naval officer, they would tell him to do so through special entry, and not through Dartmouth College.

In the light of what has been said, it may be asked why it was that the age entry of sixteen was instituted. The members of the Board of Admiralty, like myself, were anxious not to close the Naval College, and in view of the educational changes which had taken place we decided to broaden the source of entry by inviting applicants from public schools, grammar schools, and modern secondary schools, and make it financially possible for any youth of ability, character and qualities of leadership to enter Dartmouth College and become a naval officer. It was an experiment, and I was hopeful that with some adjustments at Dartmouth it would succeed. I am still of the opinion, notwithstanding the report of the Admiralty committee and the objections of some headmasters and some naval officers, that, given a fair run, such as was recommended in the Minority Report, it could make a very valuable contribution to providing many suitable officers for the Royal Navy.

It is interesting to note that whilst the Admiralty is now closing down the "sixteen" entry, the age of sixteen has been adopted by the Army as one at which to take a number of officers into their new school which has opened at Welbeck Abbey. These boys are taken at sixteen years of age, given two years at this school, and then entered into Sandhurst, not with an entrance examination, but on the recommendation of the headmaster. The Royal Air Force and, I understand, the Admiralty, are now going into secondary schools and, grammar schools and selecting boys at sixteen years of age. They are giving them a grant to maintain them at the grammar school or secondary school until they are eighteen. The Navy is then taking them into Dartmouth. A similar scheme exists in the R.A.F. There is some inconsistency between what is taking place under these schemes and the decision to close the "sixteen" entry, although I concede that in all the circumstances the First Lord and the Board of Admiralty were quite justified in doing what they have done in relation to officer entry. There is one point I should like to make. The officer entry from the lower deck should also be given, say, one year's educational or technical training at Dartmouth or Greenwich to supplement the experience which they have gained whilst serving in the Navy. Indeed, I think there is a course at Greenwich which is very suitable for them, and if they were given a year there, it would be very helpful.

I am afraid I have kept your Lordships a long time. I would just say, in conclusion, that I think it is necessary for the Admiralty and, indeed, the Government, to have an early new look at our naval requirements in the light of the new weapons which are coming forward. For while we cannot do without conventional weapons at sea during a war, those conventional weapons must be merged with the more modern scientific and unconventional weapons which now exist and which are being developed. It must be remembered that every year when at peace some 50 million tons of dry cargo and 30 million tons of oil are imported into this country, and, however much we reduce our standards during a war, great tonnages of these imports will be required for our own use, while the flow of men and materials to the key points throughout the world will have to be maintained. That work cannot be carried on unless there is a strong Navy to do it. The Royal Navy in peace time must be the framework for rapid expansion should war come again. This framework must be highly efficient, consisting of sufficient modern ships and highly trained personnel. Then, as in the past, the Sea Service can be relied upon at any critical period to fulfil the expectations of this nation and of the Commonwealth. I beg to move for Papers.