HL Deb 11 July 1962 vol 242 cc245-56

2.52 p.m.

VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH rose to call attention to the Explanatory Statement on the Navy Estimates, 1962–63 (Cmnd. 1629); and to move for Papers. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I rise to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. It is becoming a longer and longer period of my life since I gave up the political side of the administration of the Admiralty; and, as the years go by, so, it seems to me, the size and strength of our Royal Navy continues to recede. The Explanatory Paper makes it fairly clear how very difficult it is to come to a judgment as to the adequacy of present Forces, reckoning both those in commission and available and those which are under repair or in reserve, for the kind of tasks which still remain to be dealt with by them. The most apt title that I could think of for this Paper, and indeed I think noble Lords will agree the most apt title for the White Paper on Defence itself, would be "Looking Forward", because I myself do not see that we have so much to look forward to except a lot of promises—promises, promises, year after year, but not too much achievement, not too much spread of provision, not too much alternative in technical development which would give us the confidence we all want to have that we are being properly defended. The Government's record for providing equipment for the Navy is as disappointing, I think, as in the case of the other two Forces, the Army and the Air Force; and the rather—what shall I call it?—grandiloquent language which was used in the White Paper on the Navy's world-wide tasks and commitments seemed to me to be strongly in contrast to what are the true facts.

Perhaps your Lordships would not mind (because it is some months now since the White Paper came out and we are apt to forget these things unless we specially look them up) if I quoted something about the Navy from the White Paper on Defence: To discharge this responsibility we need a balanced and versatile Fleet capable of bringing force to bear under the sea, on the surface and in the air. By the use of task forces with a significant amphibious capability, seaborne military and air power can be exerted wherever our interests require it, to preserve or if necessary to restore peace … The great assets of seaborne power are its mobility and flexibility, which enable it to be redeployed and concentrated wherever our policies require. Of course, I know that world circumstances have changed for us, I think unfortunately in many directions. I was saying the other day privately to the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, that the first function I attended after becoming the first Socialist First Lord of the Admiralty in 1929 was a naval dinner presided over by the late Lord Jellicoe, who was the First Sea Lord in the years previous and who commanded the Fleet in the First Great War. I always remember his taking me on a verbal tour around the Empire, telling me of all the situations there were and what were the tasks, and he ended up by looking me quite straight in the face—the first poor little Socialist ever to be First Lord of the Admiralty—and he said to me: The Scripture says, 'Thou shalt possess the gates of thine enemies', and that is where we are and that is where we have got to be.

I think the language of this White Paper on Defence speaks in almost the same kind of world-wide fashion, but where are the strengths really to cover these world-wide commitments and tasks which are spoken of in such language in the White Paper? I must compliment the First Lord of the Admiralty upon the clarity in which the situation is really portrayed in the White Paper. I am again glad to see the splendid illustrations in it, but when we come to look at the actual strength, then I just wonder and wonder.

Our capital ships of to-day are air-craft carriers There are six of them. I suppose one of the oldest is the one picked out by the First Lord of the Admiralty and reported to the House as being at any rate in the last stages of her journey. I think what the First Lord says is that she is due to be replaced by 1970, but the First Lord goes on to tell us in his statement that there is no need to begin at present to think about ordering another ship to replace her. Is it intended to reduce the total number of capital ship aircraft carriers? Or is it that some sudden, new discovery of construction has come about that will enable the next aircraft carrier to replace the "Victorious" to be completed far more rapidly than any of the others? If the "Victorious" is to go out finished in 1970, you have eight years left. I do not even remember a carrier of her type being completed in under nine years, and yet the time is not yet thought fit to talk about the design or the ordering of a ship of this character.

However, the First Lord will give us a better picture of that at the time. These are capital ships, large ships, very often the centre of any main operation; they must be to-day. When we think of the tremendous reliance we shall now be placing upon these six ships, I suppose the First Lord would admit that probably it would be only rarely that more than three would be in commission at any one time. I am wondering what the Board of Admiralty may be thinking about this publication by the Soviet News, on June 13, of the news issued by the Soviet Embassy to those of us who like to follow their proceedings. Here is an article attributed in its content to the Russian Admiral of the Fleet, Isakov: Aircraft carriers are ships of the past, just like battleships, which are obsolete in spite of the fact that they are now equipped with atomic engines and possess great speed; taking into consideration the new means of warfare at the disposal of the leading powers, and especially the progress made by the U.S.S.R. in rocket techniques and also in submarine construction, aircraft carriers are losing much of their military value. It might be helpful to your Lordships if, during the course of his reply to the debate, the noble Lord, the First Lord of the Admiralty, could tell us what he really thinks of that situation. I am quite sure from what I know of the intelligence department of the Navy they have their ears pretty close to the ground and will be aware of statements of this sort and able to give us their views upon that.

Certainly there has been a very great advance in the kind of amphibious warfare that is required in modern circumstances, as was demonstrated and mentioned in the First Lord's Statement, in such an operation as that which took reinforcements when required to Kuwait, an operation which was carried out with the first commando aircraft ship, the "Bulwark". I think it was one which brought credit to all three of the Services Which were engaged in it. But I wonder whether the First Lord has considered what sort of strength he has in that kind of operation when it has to be carried out; I wonder whether he has thought about that.

I was tremendously interested to look at the illustration which he has given in sketch in the naval Statement as to What is the actual strength of the amphibious force required. It will be found on pages 14 and 15. When I look at that I just wonder in how many parts of the world at one time you would be able to provide this single and amphibious force to carry out operations at particular places; how many forces you could mount at one and the same time if you had two areas of trouble, sometimes regarded as minor trouble but nevertheless likely to lead to more major trouble unless dealt with at once. As I look at this, it seems to me you have hardly a duplication of a whole force available. You would be able, of course, to go to a fleet of 32 frigates to extract ships of that kind for inclusion in the force, but where would you get another commando carrier? You have two in your programme; one is operational; the "Albion" is under complete transformation to be a commando ship.

The First Lord seems to rely upon the fact that in the current year, 1962–3, you have both available; but if I understand the position aright, in view of the service which the "Bulwark" has done she is much more likely to be under major refit and you will apparently never have more than one commando ship available in this period ahead. And I see no sign at present of its being thought desirable, in these new days of development of this kind of amphibious warfare, to order more commando carriers. Could we be told to-day something more of the intentions of the Admiralty in this matter? I certainly agree with the First Lord; the kind of demonstration that was made at Kuwait shows it to be capable of expansion, to the general success of the work of any one of our three Services which is concerned.

When looking at the lists of ships which are shown in the White Paper, I am also concerned about the balancing and the general strength of the Fleet. Let us take, first of all, the cruisers. We have had reports from time to time in the last few years about the cruisers. What is the final goal of the total number of cruisers you are going to keep? Apparently you still have eight. "Bermuda" is pretty old, is she not? I do not know about the others. "Blake", "Lion" and "Tiger" are very long since designed, but they took so long to put into service that I suppose one would regard them as fairly modern. If you look at the other list, of those under repair or in reserve, you find there is not a really modern ship among them. "Belfast" is one of the old Town class, built and designed under the leadership of Lord Mouse 11, when be was First Lord of the Admiralty between 1934 and 1935. That is a long time ago. The same applies to the "Sheffield"; she is Town class, built about 1932–3.

With the present way of setting out the ships in the Navy Estimates Report it is more difficult for Members of Parliament and Members of your Lordships' House to be able to ascertain exactly these ages and times than it was before the war, when we had the Blue Book on Fleets, or much more detailed information, ship for ship, in the Navy Estimates than we have at the present time. But these ships are old. The "Gambia", the "Mauritius", of course, were built slightly pre-war or early in the war. Here we are, eight ships all told; all this great language about the world commitments and the world tasks we have to perform, and these are all we have. And if I take rumour to be right—sometimes rumour is right—this is larger than the total number of cruisers the Admiralty intend to keep. Is that so?

I must say, you can prevent a whole lot of trouble in a very short time if you have a cruiser with pretty heavy guns shadowing the place where the trouble is likely to be, and I have seen a good deal of that done in my time. It is a great pity that showing the Flag now would be confined to frigates and to what you can spare for the purpose of the very limited fleet of destroyers. You have twenty in commission, apart from the two special missile ships, and the others are all either under repair or in reserve. When the ordinary citizen outside looks at facts like these he must wonder to himself why on earth are we really spending (if I take the gross figure) £460 million a year to get so little, compared to the size of the naval defence that we have to be responsible for throughout our present commitments. It is a good thing—and I would readily acknowledge it—if you come to think of major war or anything of that kind that there is a good deal of difference in what events are likely to be and what they were when we were preparing for 1939; that I readily admit.

It is also, of course, quite clear from the operation of the joint forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation that in a world war we should have a great deal of the task on the naval side taken over by the United States, instead of our being left alone as we were in 1940 and practically the whole of 1941, having to cover practically the whole of the Allied naval defence of the world. But in spite of all that, when you come to examine the actual lists here, how poor they are…

Turning to amphibious forces (I hope the First Lord will tell us if I am wrong in my figures), so far as I can tell, you can count almost on the fingers and thumbs of your two hands the number of landing ships and tank-landing craft. There are certainly not many more, if one looks at the two lists of those actually in commission and those under repair or in reserve. This is an extraordinary feeble provision to have, not only for the actual operation as it may arise, but for the adequate carrying out of the training of troops and crews concerned.

I must say that the more I sat and thought about this, the more I felt that we were not doing as well as we ought to have done. I hope that the First Lord will not think that I am just trying to be difficult. I have a genuine desire to see that if the country grants £460 million a year—all of which the First Lord, in his Explanatory Statement, carefully explains to us is the real and not the net extent; because you are really spending the money on what is required for the Navy—our citizens ought to know that we are getting full value for our money.

I am bound to say, too, that money spent in this way can really pay dividends. It is only just and due to the Navy of to-day to remember events like Kuwait, and the relief brought there, as it was again recently in the West Atlantic when people were in trouble, and the great many tasks which are undertaken by the Navy at exceptionally short notice. We are all grateful for that; but it still seems to me that we might be getting much more for their encouragement and their equipment, and in the opportunities of using adequately the defence weapons that can be provided for them.

I should like to ask especially about another class of ship which the First Lord kindly explained to us on the last occasion—the assault ships. What has happened about them? I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, who seemed to think that these are supposed to be a sort of glorified destroyer; but in fact they are small cruisers. I have no particulars yet about their actual armament. Apparently they will be larger and better equipped than the destroyer missile ships; but I should like to know more about them. Is it true that at present, after all the big announcements, only one has even been ordered? When are we likely to see these assault ships, and what is the actual target in regard to their provision? Will it be two or will it be six? I rather understood at the beginning that you were going to look for something like six. I should like some information upon that. The more information the Government can give us about the increased power and strength that is to be put into these ships, the better it will be for the restoration of public confidence; because we want these things to be put properly in order.

Then I should like to say a word or two about basic policy. It occurs to those of us who are not now in such close touch as we used to be, when we worry about this and the other section, or to Members of Parliament who have not had connection with the Fighting Services, that much of this muddle and deficiency, this hangover, is due to the extraordinary changes, and to the zig-zag policy that is taking place. Zig-zagging in war was a very great asset in naval operations when dealing with submarines, so long as you had the speed in the vessel. But the zig-zagging of naval policy in the last ten years just has me beaten; and it has a lot of the public worried to death.

You have gone from the policy which was carried on by the noble and gallant Field-Marshal, Lord Alexander of Tunis, with great steadiness and capacity—a policy which no doubt had to be changed sooner or later, as the new circumstances of post-war opened out—through all kinds of proposals. Under the White Paper of 1957, we were going to have an actual economy in Defence expenditure because you were going to rely upon the one great deterrent, the nuclear weapon. Since then we seem steadily to have reduced our ordinary conventional weapons; we seem to be completely handicapped in any possible development on the nuclear side. And yet we are spending far more money than we were spending in 1957. People are asking exactly why it is, or why we have gone on in this curious way.

I think it is quite remarkable, in the circumstances, that when you come to look at personnel, and think of recruiting, training and the like, how well the Navy has continued to appeal to men, and women, who wish to join the Royal Navy. I think that is a tribute to their confidence in the belief that the Navy has still a tremendous amount of power left within its ambit to exercise on behalf of the country, either in its alliance in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation or, if we can continue the old, good feeling with members of the Commonwealth, in the wider Commonwealth sense. When I look at recruitment, I think it is quite remarkable, in view of the size of figures that were being talked about before, and what ought to be allocated to the Navy, when there was such tremendous slashings in general Defence personnel, that the First Lord can say with confidence to-day that he budgets for a full 100,000 personnel in the ranks of the Navy. I dare say that that means that he is pretty confident about recruitment.

I do not know whether he was present while all the traffic was held up along the Embankment last night. Perhaps he did not know what was going on. But there was a very large parade of naval personnel. I looked carefully to see whether they were all veterans. And they were not all veterans; there were youngsters as well. Apparently, there was some special inspection, and the salute was being taken from H.M.S. "President". A great feeling of satisfaction was left in my mind that so many of them, probably many of them volunteers, should have been on parade last night at a quarter to nine, marching past in salute and giving up their time to the Navy.

But there is one thing I want especially to mention to the First Lord of the Admiralty. It is this. If he will examine the figures (I had them in my head at one time, but I have not the details at the moment) he will find that, of the number of recruits who have offered themselves for the Royal Navy in the last twelve months, about one-third have actually been accepted. This is particularly apparent, I think, in the very much smaller forces like the Royal Marines. Having regard to the number of people who offer themselves for the Royal Marines, and even the auxiliary forces like the Territorials and the Royal Marine Auxiliary Regiment, it means that you can take only a handful of them.

As I puzzled over some of the difficulties of the Minister of Defence in getting adequate recruitment to the standards laid down in the White Paper on Defence, I wondered what sort of co-operation goes on between those who handle the personnel volunteering for service in the Navy, particularly in view of the amphibious nature of warfare. I wondered why you could not train men in the Royal Marines and expand the personnel in that service so as to use them jointly with the Army, thus strengthening the amphibious forces. Could we be told how much co-operation there is in that direction?

I want to ask a lot more questions, but I do not think I ought to do so, in fairness to the House and the many other speakers who are to follow me. I would say to the First Lord of the Admiralty that although I may have sounded rather grumbling, probing, nothing will ever take from my head and my heart my affection for the Royal Navy. I want to see that in the days that are coming it gets whatever is its proper effective apportionment of the nation's defence effort. I do not ever want to see it let down in its branches, its training, its enlistments and its equipment so that it will not be able at any time to answer any call on its services. I hope that when the noble Lord replies he will be able to restore some of our confidence. I beg to move for Papers.

3.22 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Viscount who moved this Motion raised the question of the adequacy of the present naval forces. He went on to say that the White Paper is looking forward. I think that is quite true, but I would say that the noble Viscount himself was rather looking backward, and I do not think that the inadequacy of the Navy is quite so bad as he has painted. I think it is true to say that the guided missile destroyers and the air-strike and reconnaissance' planes have very largely taken the place of the old type of cruiser.

I think once again we can congratulate the First Lord of the Admiralty on his informative Explanatory Statement. The pictures and diagrams are very interesting indeed and, I think, most helpful. The rôle of the Navy in limited warfare is again set out very clearly in this pamphlet, but a veil is perhaps drawn over its potentialities in the event of all-out atomic warfare. I suppose it is true to say that no one will ever really know until that disaster—which God forbid!—takes place. In the past we have heard a great deal about the "broken back" theory after the first atomic strike has taken place, and I have little doubt the Admiralty are giving the whole matter continuous study and thought in conjunction with our NATO Allies.

The noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, raised the question of the new type of assault ships. I understand we are building two and that it is the intention eventually to have one allotted to each task force. I understand they are nearly four times the tonnage of the present tank landing craft. I have seen it stated that the building of this ship is to take about four years. Surely that is a very long time for a ship of this class. I believe the United States built a comparable ship in 26 weeks. Perhaps the First Lord would like to say something about the construction of these vessels, and when it is intended to lay down further vessels. The fact is that until we have these ships we cannot land tanks in the early stages of an assault in an opposed landing. The present tank-landing craft we have are really only follow-up ships.

I hope the First Lord will also say something about the Polaris submarine. I raised this question in considerable detail in our Estimates debate last year and I do not propose to go over the whole ground again. I would, however, repeat that it is not by any means too early to consider the next phase of naval armament apart from aircraft carriers. We cannot possibly afford everything, but I would say that the V-bomber force will one day have to be run down in numbers and replaced by Polaris submarines. There is no doubt that the Polaris submarine has now made it possible to combine the functions of the V-bomber and the functional submarine. We really must have a plan for the future—and we must have it soon.

I understand that design work for new aircraft carriers bas been put in hand for ships of about 50,000 tons, which tonnage is somewhat equivalent to that of H.M.S. "Eagle" and H.M.S. "ARK ROYAL". The noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, suggested that perhaps the carriers were out-of-date, but I would say that that is by no means true as yet, although the time may well come when they will be. There are two schools of thought about the plans for replacement of our aircraft carriers in the 1970 to 1990 period. There are those who think we should have the large carriers for strategic purposes as well as for use with the amphibious forces. There are others who feel that we should have a smaller carrier of the Commando type, like the "Bulwark", possibly with vertical take-off aircraft. I cannot help feeling that in the near future the long runway of the conventional aircraft carrier will no longer be necessary and that the vertical lift aircraft will become the standard type both afloat and ashore. Perhaps the First Lord of the Admiralty would like to give us his views on this question to-day. I suggest it would be a very great mistake to launch out into the building of large carriers at very great expense when the money might be better devoted to the missile-type Polaris submarine and the smaller type carrier.

There are one or two other questions I should like to put to the First Lord on matters of detail. Is it the intention of the Admiralty to develop a rocket-assisted torpedo? I understand the French Navy now have such a torpedo known as a "Melafon", and the United States also have one called the "Asroc". I also wonder Whether the First Lord can say anything about hovercraft or so-called "cushion" craft, and whether in fact the Admiralty are carrying out any experiments with it. Then, again, there is the hydrofoil craft, which has a very high speed and which might be very suitable for anti-submarine work. I understand that the Russians have built quite a number of these vessels both for commercial and naval uses.

There is no doubt that over the past few years we have built up a small but very efficient modern Navy, but I agree with the noble Viscount that it is rather depressing to realise that the operational fleet has in fact dwindled, year by year, in numbers. I believe that three years ago the operational fleet numbered 189; two years ago it was 185; and last year it was down to 177. It is true that the modern ship requires more men, which of course means more money and a great increase in building costs, and that there must be a limit to what we can afford to spend on the Navy. But I do hope that the First Lord will do all he can to reduce so far as possible the expenses, which I know are necessarily incurred in many ways, in shore-going establishments and so on, so that we can have more ships afloat in the Royal Navy as soon as possible.