HL Deb 09 March 1972 vol 329 cc275-300

6.35 p.m.

LORD ORR-EWING rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether in view of the strong views expressed in both Houses of Parliament in favour of retaining H.M.S. "Eagle" in maintained, or even in unmaintained reserve, they will now not send this aircraft carrier to the scrapyard. The noble Lord said: My Lords, when my noble friend Lord Carrington became Minister of Defence in his early days he said: First, we are remedying a real weakness in our naval forces which would have resulted in the 1970s from the policy of the previous Government to phase out the aircraft carriers before providing the necessary alternative weapons. The problem I am discussing, and seeking to draw to your Lordships' attention, is the gap; the gap which must exist if aircraft carriers are to be phased out in the early 1970s and there is no substitute weapon and no substitute ship until the late 1970s. It is my submission that in the last 18 months since that statement was made this gap has certainly not narrowed.

The through-deck cruisers which we have heard about in this year's White Paper cannot be ready until 1978, and your Lordships will recognise that no new ship, no new weapon, no new project, ever comes through exactly on time; and it invariably slips to the right and takes longer than expected. Moreover, of course, through-deck cruisers are not of themselves any use unless they have the suitable aircraft to go on those cruisers. The maritime Harrier decision has still not been taken. The White Paper this year, at the bottom of page 10, underlines the very considerable problems which still exist about the maritime Harrier, despite its acceptance by the United States Defence Forces. It underlines both the time that will be taken to develop such an aircraft, and the cost—which will be undoubtedly large.

Therefore on both the scores, that the cruiser is not coming until 1978, at the earliest, and that still no decisions have been taken about the maritime version of the Harrier, I think it would be unwise—at least this is my submission—to destroy what we already have. Policies change; Governments change; Ministers change; and the attitude and capabilities of our allies change. The reliability of our allies changes. Only two things, in my submission, remain absolutely constant. The first is that all new weapons and ships cost more and arrive later; the second is that the magnitude of the threat to the supply lines of the United Kingdom and all Western Europe increases as the U.S.S.R. pour more and more effort into creating the largest and most up-to-date maritime capability and nuclear submarine capability that the world has ever seen.

In these conditions, I urge my noble friend the Secretary of State not to destroy any effective ships until their replacements are actually operational. We do not want paper ships; we do not want paper promises. Nor is it wise to rely entirely one one's allies. I feel that it would be most unwise at this stage to send "Eagle" to the scrapyard. I personally should like to see "Eagle" kept in maintained reserve, maintained by a mixture of senior technical rates and civilians from naval dockyards, or even by civil shipbuilding firms, if this can be arranged. Many civil firms have vast experience in building naval ships. I find it difficult completely to accept my noble friend's quotation that it would take 350 to 400 Navy men to maintain this ship. As he rightly said in his speech in our Defence debate, that would be the equivalent of 1½ frigates at sea. But why is it necessary to use Navy men in this work? Surely there could be a combination of senior technical rates very experienced, who are desirous of spending time ashore, or at least close to their families, as they end the period of their service. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, who knows much more about this aspect than I do, will have an opportunity of commenting on it during our debate.

In winding-up our Defence debate on February 22, my noble friend said at column 492 of Hansard, that he would "read and ponder again". The Daily Telegraph of February 25 published a most sensational picture showing A 260 feet long girder bridge built by the Royal Engineers at Portsmouth Docks to facilitate the unloading of thousands of tons stores from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier, Eagle, 43,000 tons, which is to be scrapped. So the message about "pondering" had not quite got through there; although I fully recognise that she will have to be de-stored, and I hope only that is going on. I hope that what is going on is not destroying her or destroying her capability.

My noble friend also told us in that same debate (column 491) that it would cost between £1½ million and £2 million a year in Naval personnel. But I believe that if we used civilian personnel the cost would be less than that, because we should not then have the same family, educational and other social responsibilities for civilian manpower. But even if the figure is £2 million a year, that is a drop in the ocean compared with the size of our Defence Budget, which in NATO terms is given in the White Paper as £3,000 million for the coming year. My Lords, is it really not possible to find between £1½ million and £2 million to undertake a task which must be of such considerable importance to the safety of our ships and of our merchant fleet? Of course I recognise that in all Defence matters there is a question of priorities, but that figure of £2 million is less than 0.07 per cent. of our Defence Budget; and, incidentally, it is less than 1 per cent. of the Supplementary Estimates in the current year, which total £227 million.

Also, I submit that one aircraft carrier is never able to be operational for more than 65 or 75 per cent. of the time. Refits are essential, and sometimes long. In addition, of course, there is the working-up time as the ship is recommissioned, and the training time. So why not keep "Eagle" in either maintained or unmaintained reserve? The object would be to help bridge the gap, to which I referred earlier, in case of accident to "Ark Royal", possibly in case of a long refit to "Ark Royal", should one be necessary, possibly because of the need in some unforeseen circumstances to deploy the Harriers or Buccaneers when "Ark Royal" was not available. I would accept that at this stage it may not be economic to "Phantomise"—that is, to make "Eagle" suitable for the deployment of Phantoms. I would even accept that "Eagle" might be a second XI ship. There are so many instances in this century when second XI ships have been of inestimable value in keeping the peace in different parts of the world. I do not think we should neglect the fact that when my noble friend and I were serving in the Admiralty we had such ships as the "Loch" class, 20 or 25 years old, serving a very useful purpose in the Persian Gulf and helping to keep the peace in that part of the world. Furthermore, at 43,000 tons, "Eagle" must be worth £50 million of anybody's money at this moment; and no wise man destroys a ship worth £50 million if there is any possible alternative.

I shall not pretend to understand exactly the manner in which, and the degree to which, "Eagle" might be maintained, but obviously cathodeon protection of her hull would be essential. I should have thought that some areas could be cocooned, although in other areas it might be better to leave the complicated equipment in situ and to arrange for local air-conditioning. If her own air-conditioning is becoming old and unserviceable, there must surely be a great deal of air-conditioning equipment available from H.M.S. "Lion", a large cruiser which is shortly due to be scrapped. In any case, if there is a will there is a way, and I am sure that it is not beyond the ingenuity of their Lordships at the Admiralty and of the Ministry of Defence to find some method. I would remind your Lordships that 50 U.S. destroyers built in World War I helped to save our nation 25 years later. I suggest, too, that if the TSR 2 had not been sawn up and scrapped, and if the jigs and tools had not been destroyed by a previous Administration, that fine modern aircraft would be of tremendous value to us; and, incidentally, as a result of the failure of the F.111, would be selling in all parts of the world.

It is surely unwise to destroy a worth while asset. It is surely unwise to destroy a ship which gives our defence policy the flexibility which is so essential in this day and age. If the money cannot be found within the present Defence Budget of £2,976 million in NATO terms, as given in Annex B of the White Paper, this is surely a subject which could be put in the first Supplementary Estimate. We are bound to have a Supplementary Estimate as the Services get their new pay increase. They had an interim one last year but are due for a pay increase in April this year, and that will necessitate a Supplementary Estimate. I hope that my noble friend will think it worth while if there is no other way of scraping up a few million from the £3,000 million, to add "Eagle's" cost to this Supplementary Estimate.

My Lords, last month, H.M.S. "Eagle" was a modern fully operational aircraft carrier. It cannot be right four weeks later to send her to the scrapyard.

6.49 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to add briefly to what my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing has been putting before you in his Question. We are really coming towards the end of what has been a long battle of over 10 years. Mr. Healey is reported as having said in another place during the past week, that the carrier Lobby was getting going again. What is happening is that the anti-carrier Lobby is at last getting its way. The anti-carrier Lobby has been in operation since the late 'fifties and it has done very well. Among other things, it captured Mr. Healey and with him the entire last Administration. Their argument some six years ago, when I saw fit to leave the Navy at my own request in protest at there policies, was that the carriers could be replaced by island bases across the Indian Ocean. It did not require much in the way of imagination to see that that was not going to be a starter. It was going to be most unlikely that that solution would come about; and this, in the event, was the case. In fact, all the principles on which the "anti-carrier lobby" based their premises were themselves proved to be wrong within two or three years of their being declared.

The point, my Lords, is this: why do we need a carrier? The Government—as when we last debated this point I had cause to mention—recognise that we need carriers. They are keeping the "Ark" in being. We need carriers even if we forget any possibility that we may require to deploy our fighting forces around the world to help keep the peace in areas beyond that covered by NATO. Even if we forget that, even if we assume that during the course of the next ten years there will never be cause for the deployment of forces, we have a need for sea-based air power in our own back-yard. If your Lordships look at the Statement on the Defence Estimates, you will see that it says on page 2 that the Soviet Union has 1,400 inter-continental ballistic missiles as well as some 700 medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. This is clearly a threat which cannot be ignored and which, it is not hard to see, is posed at the land bases of NATO. Surely the sea-based air power which is needed in order to make sea power credible can be the only solution with that sort of power ranged against us.

Your Lordships may say that this is a world of cloud-cuckoo land; that people will not go swopping ballistic missiles and the like. But warfare and defence planning are all a business of providing a credible force which can be deployed against any potential enemy so that he may be deterred from attacking you. That is what it is all about: and there is really no point in anybody having ballistic missiles if you do not believe that. What we require is enough strength to be able to stand on our own feet with such allies as we can acquire. Our allies in NATO suffer in the main from the same shortcomings as we do; that is, their air bases can all be likely targets for the potential opposition. As to our American allies, I hope that we can rely on them. I hope that we will see them supporting us, through thick and thin, as time goes on. However, things change. Who would have thought, even two years ago, that one would have heard of an American President going to China in the early months of this year? We know that the SALT discussions are going on, and we wish them well; but the occasion could well arise when commitments were entered into to which we and the rest of NATO would not be a party and in which we could not necessarily be sure of the support that we have had in past years. Therefore, to rely on our one sea base for aircraft is surely a very narrow and limited insurance policy.

As my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing made so very clear, as we have this expensive, well-built, almost entirely modern ship at our disposal, surely it is crazy to get rid of it when for a relatively small sum of money we could keep it going until we were sure of its replacement. This is the nub of the argument. Your Lordships will have seen recently in the Press that the "Ark Royal", the one carrier which is to be retained, was in difficulties in the approaches to New York in a gale of wind. This may have been something that was "blown up" by the Press, but it was surely an awful warning to us that this sort of thing can happen; and it is possible that our one carrier could be out of action through no foreseen cause, such as a refit, for which possibly alternative arrangements might be made, though I am doubtful of them. It could well be that our one carrier could be out of action because of some unforeseen disaster. It really is a case of having all one's eggs in one basket. Therefore, it is surely wise to keep at least one other hull which can be used as a possible alternative.

I fully appreciate the arguments that my noble friend the Secretary of State for Defence has put, to the effect that, unless one is sure one needs it, it is probably not worth converting the "Eagle" for operating Phantom aircraft so that she can be a true alternative replacement for the "Ark Royal". Though the sums of money involved, measured against the total Defence bill, are still quite small, one can see that this is getting a little much. But this is not necessary if we are not going to need the ship; and, as to the rather gloomy note in the White Paper which suggests that the through-deck cruiser will not be with us until the end of this decade and which casts grave doubts upon the Harrier being able to be operated from it. it could well be that in (shall we say?) two years' time this particular problem will have been overcome and the noble Lord the Secretary of State for Defence will be reasonably certain that he is going to have an operational replacement for the "Ark Royal" in a reasonable length of time. But at this moment of time, if one is to believe what is said in the White Paper, that is not the case. So surely it is reasonable to retain this carrier for at least two years—review her, position annually, if you like—and to do so on the basis that the noble Lord the Secretary of State for Defence himself suggested when he said: We could have kept 'Eagle' in reserve, as she now is, with some refitting …".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22/2/71; col. 491.] That, surely, is the solution until we can be sure of a replacement.

The noble Lord went on to say: … this would have locked up 350 to 400 men, the equivalent of a ship's company of one and a half frigates. As a statement of fact, of course, that is true; but it is not really fair to compare the 350 to 400 men with one and a half frigate crews. As my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing said, the sort of people required to maintain an aircraft carrier are not the same in every detail as one and a half frigate crews. In fact, I would suggest to the noble Lord the Secretary of State for Defence that there is a very good case, if only he and his advisers had the will to do it, for seeing how this ship could be maintained in some other way. It is quite easy to see that it could be done by naval ratings, in which case I would suggest that the comparison should not be with one and a half frigate crews but with so much of a percentage of the people in the schools and the barracks who are doing their shore-time, anyhow.

The ship could be used for a certain amount of training. It would not be the first time that that had been done. But however it is used, I should like to suggest that comparing the sort of people who keep a carrier of that sort in a maintained state with the people in operational small ships gives a misguidance to your Lordships, and that is not really fair. If it has to be a case of comparison with seagoing ships, if it has to be a case of sacrificing seagoing ships, it would possibly be better to sacrifice, and deliberately, "Tiger" or "Blake", both of which are most unfortunate experimental hybrids of ships which do not really provide the sort of support to the Fleet which everybody hoped that they would. They are likely to be much more the type of ship which we can do without during this interim period until we can be sure that we have the capability to provide a credible seagoing unit wherever we wish and whenever we wish.

We are left, in fact, with the problem of asking that my noble friend the Secretary of State for Defence and his advisers give consideration to changing their minds. I know that it is very hard to do this, because one gets committed. That is why we are in this trouble: the previous Government got themselves committed. My Lords, I earnestly urge that this be seen as some means of bridging a two-year gap—it may be it will be only a one-year gap, though personally I think it would be more like a three-year gap—of having the will to do it, and of devoting the great intellect which is available for this purpose to the business of solving the problem rather than of finding ways to avoid meeting it.

7.2 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, merits our congratulations for his zeal, persistence and enthusiasm; although I find very little merit in his objective. It is only a couple of weeks since we had our debate on Defence and the noble Lord raised this matter in the course of his very interesting speech. Why he has raised it again in the form of a Question, and in a very limited form, I fail to understand. We are not having a debate on whether we should build carriers or not build carriers, as apparently the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, appears to think; we are not having a debate of carriers versus anti-carriers. We are merely having a discussion, so far as I can understand it—and certainly we ought to be having a discussion—on the limited point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing. And what is that?


My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to ask him whether in fact I did not concentrate most of what I had to say on this single point of the retention of "Eagle", which is the substance of my noble friend's Question.


My Lords, with respect, it appeared to me that the noble Lord raised the general question of the carrier policy. However, I let that pass for the moment.

The noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, speaking with what appeared to me to be some confusion, referred to the gap and to whether we could close the gap; and at the same time he asked that "Eagle" should be retained and reserved for a period of time. I could have understood it if he had gone out full throttle for the retention of the carrier, for its recommissioning, so that it might be of some value, but to place "Eagle" in reserve, with the volume of manpower that would be absorbed, with the expenditure that would be entailed, all for the purpose of having a carrier, uncommissioned and maintained in reserve for no immediate use or no use in the foreseeable future, appears to me to be quite unwise—and I am putting it very mildly.

It appears to me that at some time we ought to have a debate on carrier policy; that we ought to consider the carrier policy in the context of strategic defence. What is it we want in the way of defence? What do we envisage in the future? What do we envisage as regards the possibility of another conflict? Would it be a war in the oceans or a war on land, or a combination of both? What kind of weapons do we require in either context? We ought to have a debate on that and—if I may say so with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, because he criticised the previous Administration—we ought to have regard to the opinions of our advisers. I should not be at all surprised if the present Government seek to ascertain the views of their naval advisers, the Lords of the Admiralty, the First Lord, the Second Lord and the rest of them—and quite properly. That is precisely what the previous Administration did, and what previous Administrations, the Administrations which preceded the last Administration, sought to do. It was done in my time when I was Minister of Defence.

It is not the politicians who decide these matters. They base their decisions and come to their conclusions on the basis of the advice rendered them by experts. That is the appropriate thing to do in the circumstances. What are we faced with now? It is whether we should spend a couple of millions or so in order to prevent the carrier "Eagle" from being sent to the scrap yard. I am bound to say that it appears to me to be very largely emotional. It never occurred to me that Lord Orr-Ewing, who was a colleague of mine in the other place for several years, was an emotional character. I never suspected anything emotional or sentimental in his observations; but this does appear to me to be a matter of sentiment—to retain something for sentimental reasons. What use "Eagle" is going to be to the United Kingdom in the context of the future of our country I really fail to comprehend. Therefore I am bound to say (and I hope that by so saying I shall not find myself in difficulties with my Party) that I am on the side of the Government in this matter.

There is only one qualification I wish to make. The noble Lord the Secretary of State for Defence, in the course of the debate that we had recently, said that he was not opposed to the carrier policy. I do not go so far as that. My view is that the carrier policy must be set aside. What is much more important—and the noble Lord the Minister of Defence himself said this—is that instead of retaining the carrier "Eagle" it would be far better to concentrate on five frigates which would cost precisely the same amount. I should prefer frigates, or at any rate a smaller type of vessel, adequately armed with modem missiles in order to meet an emergency should it arise. I hope that it may never arise. That is the kind of policy which I should be inclined to support in the context of defence; and I believe that defence is necessary in the kind of world in which we now live and in which we are likely to live for some time yet. So I beg the Secretary of State for Defence to reject the suggestion made by the noble Lords, Lord Orr-Ewing and Lord Mottistone, and to say, "We are very sorry about this carrier. It has been a very fine vessel. It has rendered excellent service. But we see no use for it in the future and we intend to concentrate on the kind of vessels which, in our judgment, are likely to be more adequate for our purpose."

My Lords, I repeat that it seems to me that there might be a purpose in having a debate on some future occasion, even a mini-debate, the kind of Wednesday debate that has been envisaged, in which we could discuss the general question of strategy. What is it we want? Is it sea power we require? Is it more ground troops for conventional purposes? Or more air power? Or increased nuclear strength? What is it that we want? Is it a combination of all these things? That is the kind of debate we might have, and in the course of it the arguments adduced by the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, would be appropriate. I may not agree with them, but they would be appropriate in the circumstances. But, for the moment, it seems to me that no value is likely to accrue to anybody concerned: to the Board of Admiralty, the Ministry of Defence, the United Kingdom Government, or even the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, and his friends of the Navy League, if the Navy League still exists, or the relic of the old Navy League. I recall a period, way back in the First World War, when we heard the slogan, "We want eight and we won't wait". It was eight Dreadnoughts, although what use they were going to be in the context of that war I failed to see. So I prefer to support the Government in this connection, and hope that the Minister will say unyieldingly, "I will not agree to retain something which, in my judgment, is no longer of any value or likely to be of any value in the future."

7.13 p.m.


My Lords, it is indeed an unexpected pleasure to be allowed to follow such a distinguished former Minister as the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, particularly in view of his once enthusiastic support, I think I might almost say, for keeping ships and a maintained Reserve. I believe that he had as many as three or four times more ships so kept in his day as there are now. One grows older and one gets wiser, perhaps, or one thinks one does. And perhaps one gets a little more bored. I feel that I can detect a slight vibration of patient resignation from my own Front Bench and it seems to be emanating from my noble friend the Secretary of State for Defence who says—I do not pretend to quote him—that he thinks he has heard already everything that there is to be said about H.M.S. "Eagle". I imagine, a little fantastically perhaps, that a nail might make something of the same remark when listening to the boring repetition and the repetitive noises of the hammer. None the less, it is the hammer that gets the point driven home, and a lttle repetition, provided that it is sound repetition, is not always a bad thing. However, it is not necessary, or even wise, for me to repeat too much.

My Lords, I will not follow the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, or my noble friend Lord Mottistone—I am not qualified to do that for both noble Lords are experts, although in this connection my noble friend Lord Mottistone is the expert on my side from the professional point of view—and ask the question: why do we need carriers? The question to which I would address myself is: why do we need to scrap this carrier? It is not quite the same thing and not quite the sane argument but it leads to the same conclusion; and, after all, as was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, it is the object of Lord Orr-Ewing's Question.

My Lords, it is a question of some urgency. This is not an academic debate being carried out in a vacuum. "Eagle" has already been paid off and is actually awaiting removal to the scrapyard. The White Paper says that this ship will be scrapped. All my noble friend's Question does—it may be quite a large question—is to ask whether the Government will reconsider, and not send the ship to the scrapyard but maintain her or, at any rate, keep her in reserve. There are three lines of argument for scrapping H.M.S. "Eagle". They may reasonably be stated as follows: want of men; want of money, and want of usefulness. A comparison has been made by both my noble friends, and here I make the smallest possible tap with my little hammer of repetition in this connection—a comparison between one and a half frigates and one aircraft carrier. Both my noble friends have cast doubts on this comparison. I should be ready to accept it as true if I thought that one and a half frigates were likely to be sent to sea with a crew of dockyard mateys. Here I am being deliberately repetitive but in a somewhat different form. Bluejackets, sailors, man and fight a man o' war. A man o' war is designed, built, fitted, rigged, armoured, victualled, repaired and re-fitted by civilians. Why, then, is it necessary to have bluejackets to perform the single, and comparatively simple, function of maintaining a ship which is lying at anchor?

The other comparison which I think neither of my noble friends has mentioned or has criticised in depth—although I am not sure about this—is the comparison between five frigates and one aircraft carrier; that is to say, the choice that has to be made, or it is alleged has to be made, between five frigates with the Fleet or one aircraft carrier in reserve, and potentially with the Fleet. I will accept this comparison as just if I can get a definite, categorical answer from the Secretary of State to a question. My question is this: Is this a true choice? Will there in fact be in the Fleet, in service with the Fleet, at some predictable point between now and the end of the 1970s five frigates whose existence will make it impossible to re-commission H.M.S. "Eagle"? If the argument of the comparison between the five frigates and one aircraft carrier has value, the answer to that question must be, "Yes". If the answer is, "I do not know"— and I am certain that no one can—then that comparison is, in my opinion, a highly dubious one.

The next question, I think I said, was one of money. I am not going to say too much about money, except that probably £1½ million a year would be a better investment than £25 million on the Upper Clyde. But the Ministry, represented in this case by my noble friend the Secretary of State, must cut their coats according to their cloth. Naturally, they have to do the best they can with the money they are given. This is not true of Governments. Governments decide the allocation of the "cloth". We might well bear that in mind. Secretaries of State, Ministers of State, may say, "We cannot do better than this because we cannot get the money out of the Treasury." But unless it is the Treasury that gives the orders to the Government, Secretaries of State cannot say that, because they are part of the Government who decide how the money shall be allocated. I think it may be well to bear that in mind.

On the question of usefulness, one of the great arguments revolves round this question of whether this ship is ever again likely to be useful. The key quotation on which I fix here is from my noble friend the Secretary of State in the recent Defence debate when he said this, looking to the future—I think the future pluperfect, if I may use that phrase: Had we brought 'Eagle' out of reserve in the 'seventies her operational capability would be no better than it is to-day. In particular, the Sea Vixens would not be a proper match for the threat which we must expect to confront us. They are old aircraft, even now."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22/2/72; col. 491.] That appears, on the face of it, manifestly true; in fact so true that we might accept it without a second thought. But I think we should look at it a little more closely. It speaks of the Sea Vixen (and by implication the ship herself) as not being a proper match for the threat which we must expect to confront us. But what is the threat? Presumably the threat is not the same thing as an attack. Clearly, the NATO forces in Europe are not able to match a full-scale attack by Soviet Russia. Do we then think them useless, or are they matching the threat? We like to think—and I believe we are right—that they are.

Now war is one thing, of course; the threat of war is quite another; and the purpose of all the forces of war in peace is not necessarily to be ready to fight, but to discourage attack. Broadly speaking, there are two ways of doing this. One is to be strong to make a would-be attacker think it not worth while, and the other is to be weak enough to make an attack quite unnecessary because you can get what you want without fighting. A defence policy I take it, must be something between these two.

The question might then reasonably be asked: how can a more or less obsolete aircraft carrier fit into that pattern? We might also ask—at least it would be helpful to do so at this point—what would another major war be like, and with what weapons would it be fought? These are questions which can never be answered in full; nobody has ever been able to answer it; nobody with any sense would. One thing which is quite certain so far as Great Britain is concerned is that the war would be—not might be—fought in part by the Merchant Navy and by the ships of the Royal Navy that protect them.

Who, then, is the enemy of the merchant fleet? For fifty years now it has been the same—the submarine, which has brought us within an ace of defeat in two world wars. The submarine has changed out of all recognition: it is nuclear powered and can stay under water for great lengths of time, and it is faster. Anti-aircraft techniques represented by the Nimrod, and so on, have, we hope, caught up with those developments. But, of course, ships have changed as well, and if there were a war in seven to eight years' time our life's blood—by that I mean oil—would be coming to us halfway round the world in 300,000 ton tankers. A ship of that size is probably worth the expenditure of a very great deal of money to sink it, not necessarily by a nuclear bomb, because by that time you can probably get it with one iron bomb, at least if you know where it is. How do you know where it is? You have "spy in the sky"—a spy satellite, A nuclear submarine can travel under water at three times the speed of a surface ship and sink it in any ocean of the world. Therefore the first thing on the outbreak of war would be to shoot down the spy satellite. But we are not talking about that at the moment. What we are talking about is what is now the key word in all defensive thinking and that is "surveillance": knowing what the enemy is up to. There are two classic examples in connection with this word, both American. One is of non-surveillance and the other is of surveillance. The classic example of non-surveillance was the failure to observe the Japanese fleet approaching Pearl Harbour, and the classic example of surveillance preventing warfare was Cuba. By seeing what the Russian fleet was up to, the American President was able to send out a fleet and stop it.

My Lords, I ask again: what is the threat? This time I ask it with a different significance. There are various ways of finding out what the threat is. A "spy in the sky" is not open to us, but one way is to send an aircraft carrier, this mobile air base, which can range the oceans and cover a vast field quietly and perform its functions in peace. We are apt to think of the usefulness of men-o'-war and all the forces of war as being confined to war itself; but they are not. The primary object of all forces is to prevent war, and as has been said on a number of occasions by a very distinguished admiral (Admiral Morgan-Giles has been known to say this in print), bombs or torpedoes can fight wars but airplanes can prevent them, and the means by which they can prevent them is surveillance. That is the kind of service for which an aircraft carrier can be useful and for which it might reasonably be kept in reserve, ready to be brought up, not as the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell seemed to think my noble friend Lord Mottistone was proposing, as a kind of sentimental trophy to hang flags on on Trafalgar Day but an activable, recommissionable ship which can be brought out as the threat develops and can also be brought out if necessary if or when the "Ark Royal" goes aground in New York Harbour.

It is unquestionable that this particular ship, quite apart from the carrier and anti-carrier lobbies, has a useful function to perform, and no one can say with any certainty that it cannot do it. I concede that it would not be able to fight in a major war, because I do not believe there would be a place for aircraft carriers. That is not a reason for getting rid of it. Sitting on the highest point in Cyprus there is a radar station—of course there are plenty of them but this is particularly conspicuous. It looks like a golf ball, tee-ed up ready to be hit. It can "see" Turkey to the upper end of the Red Sea; anybody can work out how far it can see if one knows the height of Mount Olympus. It can see from Asia Minor almost to the Eastern end of Crete. That golf ball can be knocked off with one iron bomb. Do we therefore say that it is useless or that it is a waste of money to keep it there? Certainly not. This is a peacetime operation of surveillance, and the fact that it would be instantly blown to bits on the outbreak of war is absolutely no reason for scrapping it now. I submit there is no reason whatever for scrapping H.M.S. "Eagle".

Better reasons must be found, and I am not convinced that the reasons that have been put forward that we cannot afford it and that we have not the men and that the ship is not very useful any way make out a case for her to be scrapped. In a few years time, probably at this side of the end of the 1970s, what operational requirements will there be for a ship of this kind? I am not postulating war, but still peace—and the answer is that we do not know. What will the threat be then? We do not know. What will the manpower position be? We do not know. What will the financial position be then?—we do not know but we hope it will be better than it is now. Some noble Lords may be familiar with the book entitled The Riddle of the Sands, which is one of my favourite books. The hero of that book, a man called Davis, had a yacht called "Dulcibella" cruising in the Baltic; and he had a mania for throwing overboard everything that he did not want. He had a new cooking-stove because the old one was not good enough, and when his friend bought him a new stove, the old one went straight "into the drink". He felt the toothpaste was no good; he did not want it, so overboard it went.

I do not think we ought to expect our Ministry of Defence to operate on this principle simply because we do not have any particular use for something at this minute. We hope—we certainly do not know—that we are not going to need it next year or the year after. But it cannot be right to throw it away. Nor can I believe that that is necessary. I believe that my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing was right in paraphrasing a not particularly unfamiliar statement where he said, "If there's a will there's a way". My Lords, I believe that there must be a way, and it has to be found.

7.31 p.m.


My Lords, after what we have heard so far I do not want to be accused of playing the same tune, albeit on a slightly younger fiddle; but we are resurrecting the ghost of a battle which was fought and is over. This was a battle that was fought with considerable intensity and emotion a long time ago and, despite the boiling over of numerous cauldrons of Naval blood, was lost. I do not believe in last-ditch stands when there is not much hope of winning. The battle that was fought had no winners; it had only losers. There was a big gap, as my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing has said, which was left and which needs to be filled.

If our Naval commitments were limited to the North Sea, the Bay of Biscay and the Mediterranean, as some people might prefer, there would be little cause for concern, and we might claim that our Navy was modestly but adequately equipped for this day and age. But, my Lords, we have far wider commitments, and for reasons of history, and an expansionist international policy, which I wholeheartedly support, we must play our role in far-flung places. Here is the gap, and after the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, I should like to take this further. I accept the claims that our ships can be provided with adequate air cover when within 650 miles of land. But I am concerned about their defence against air and missile attack when further out to sea or away from the comforting shores of Western Europe. It is here that the fixed-wing carrier played its most important role.

In the debate on the Defence Estimates my noble friend Lord Carrington said: Our plan has been to reprovide for the capability of aircraft carriers in other ways—as indeed was reflected to some extent in the proposals of the previous Government."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22/2/72; col. 489.] This to me is the "crunch" point. If adequate provision has been made or can be made, or, preferably, has already been made, then I do not support my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing. If it has not, then I have a tendency, although reluctantly, to share his views.

I should like to elaborate a little, but I do so with some caution since, naturally, I do not have other than published facts, and I am conscious of the dangers of drawing the wrong conclusions without them. My Lords, if the Queen's ships are at sea in an ocean war, do they have adequate defence at the present time? I know that with the new through-deck cruisers and missile systems we shall be protected in the future, but the question is, what is the position now. We have to recognise the power of the Warsaw Pact systems. Their Cosmos satellite (to which my noble friend Lord Cork and Orrery referred) for detection, coupled with missiles such as Kangaroo, S.S.N., Whisky/Longbin, plus the launching systems of Blinder, Cresta and W.E.2, and so on, are very advanced. These apparently far outrange what we have. We must recognise, too, the need for our aircraft to be able to deliver our missiles at a range of over 650 miles out at sea, and this is not possible without long-range fuel tanks on Buccaneer, which means that it could carry only either air-to-air or air-to-surface missiles.

My noble friend Lord Carrington has, I know, heard all the arguments and can understand them far better than I can. My real concern is whether, if we pursue an independent foreign policy, we can claim to have a fully independent Navy at the present time. If not, we should recognise this—and by this I mean that either we have a fully independent Navy or we do not. If we do not, then perhaps we can agree openly to rely upon our good friends the French, or our equally good friends the Americans. There is this major defence gap and I am not sure how it is being filled at the present time. It is a danger against which keeping "Eagle" in reserve could be regarded as an insurance policy if that insurance could not be adequately provided by our allies.

The carrier battle is lost, and the role of the carrier has been replaced by a new policy. I hope that we can satisfy ourselves that that policy is adequate. To keep a carrier in reserve is expensive. It may be only £10 million over ten years, but it is still £10 million; and it is akin to keeping a wasting asset. But there is a gap which must be recognised and must be filled. If it cannot be filled by any other means, let us keep "Eagle" in reserve. If it can be filled, then may we know how? Finally, may I urge as rapid building as possible of the through-deck cruisers and the development of adequate missile systems. I know, my Lords, that my noble friend Lord Carrington will continue to look upon the Royal Navy with the kindly benevolence and realism which he has always shown since his time as First Lord.

7.36 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing for asking this Question. I only hope that the support which the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, has given me for the line that I am going to take will not damn me for ever in what, strangely enough, the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, seemed to think was his sentimental eye. My noble friend and I have had a good deal to do with the subject of aircraft carriers over the years, and I know that there is one thing that both he and I—and, I imagine, everybody in the House—agreed on; that is, the importance of the Royal Navy and of its need to be able to defend itself. As I explained in our debate on February 22 I have been listening to arguments about the future of aircraft carriers in general, and H.M.S. "Eagle" in particular, for a good many years now. My noble friend Lord Cork and Orrery took me to task for having said that there was nothing new to hear about this. If I may say so, in passing, I should like to congratulate my noble friend on daring to speak in a debate which has been exclusively, or nearly exclusively, the territory of ex-Naval officers. In some of his observations I detected something of the tone of his formidable forbear, the noble and gallant Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Cork and Orrery, who was equipped with an exceedingly powerful and aggressive armament of which those who had to answer him in this House used to be very frightened.


My Lords, I hope my noble friend does not think I intended to take him to task. I wished to do no such thing; I was expressing sympathy.


My Lords, I have not quite finished with that point. My noble friend was expressing sympathy because I had said that I had heard nothing new about "Eagle" and did not think there was anything new to be said. I must regretfully say that, having heard the speeches this afternoon, I must honestly say that I still hold to that view. I have heard it all before; but I have seldom heard it more elegantly expressed than I have this evening, and, in particular, by my noble friend Lord Selsdon, who made a notable contribution to this short debate.

As I promised, I have studied carefully everything that was said by noble Lords on the occasion of the Defence debate two weeks ago, and in the corresponding debate in another place. I have also listened attentively to the speeches that have been made this evening. I appreciate—and I think your Lordships know this—the strength of feeling which exists in this House and elsewhere on this subject. Of course I recognise the sincerity of the views of those who wish to see the retention in some form or another of H.M.S. "Eagle". As I said on another occasion, as former First Lord of the Admiralty who devoted a great deal of time and effort in the early 1960s trying to retain a carrier force, I hope that your Lordships will also accept in return my real regret that, in my view, "Eagle" can no longer be kept in commission. I have now nothing new to say, and I must in all modesty say, having reread what I said the other day, that I found what I said then was exceedingly convincing.

It is always a sad occasion when a ship reaches the end of her life, and the more so when her passing is felt in some respects to mark the passing of an era. I think, too, that the general position on fixed-wing carriers for the Royal Navy is fairly well understood in the House. If I may for just one moment be allowed to trespass on the House's indulgence—though I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, that this is not the object of the Question—the late Government in the 1960s came to the conclusion that Britain could not afford the enormous cost of embarking on a new generation of aircraft carriers and that the existing ships should be phased out—first of all they decided in the middle of the 'seventies, 1976 or so, and then subsequently they advanced the date to 1972. This would have left a serious gap in the capability of the Fleet; and when we came to power in 1970 we reviewed the position and we decided that, while our resources would certainly not permit the construction of a new series of carriers, two steps should be taken to reduce this gap. The first was that the strike capability of surface ships should be improved by introducing as soon as possible a surface launched anti-ship guided missile system, the EXOCET. The second was that "Ark Royal" should be retained until the late 1970s to cover the period while the new ships and weapons were coming into service.

My Lords, the limitations of a single aircraft carrier are obvious, and my noble friend has raised them. But we must, I think, regard "Ark Royal" as a contribution to NATO naval forces as a whole; and so far as possible her deployment and refits will be co-ordinated with our allies. The Government therefore considered whether the life of the second carrier, H.M.S. "Eagle", could not also be extended to provide a second carrier for part of the time and to ensure the availability of one aircraft carrier while "Ark Royal" was undergoing refits. After a very thorough and careful study of the problem we came to the conclusion that, for the reasons which have been mentioned, manpower reasons and financial reasons, it was not practicable to run "Eagle" on after 1972. We made that decision known publicly more than 18 months ago and I must say that I thought it had generally been accepted. Our view then was that, even if manpower could have been provided for her, the cost would have been prohibitive. She would have needed a major refit if she was to operate Phantoms—and this really would have been the only sensible course, in spite of what my noble friends say, in the 1970s—special adaptation would have been needed, and that would have brought the cost of her refit to between £25 million and £30 million. Not only that, but aircraft and manpower would also have had to be found for her; and, as some of my noble friends have mentioned, 1,400 men would have been required for the ship's company, which is the equivalent of about five frigates' companies.

My noble friend Lord Cork and Orrery asked whether I could say to him that if "Eagle" were kept in commission there would not consequently have been five frigates. What I am saying to him is that if the manpower situation remains as it is now it would have been necessary to pay off five frigates, or something comparable, in the "teeth" section of the Navy. It was a question of priorities on which I and my advisers had to make a decision.

We judged that the period of useful life left for "Eagle" before the entry into service of the new cruisers (the first of which is due in 1978) and the other naval weapons—EXOCET, Sea Dart, new torpedoes and new helicopters—would not have been long enough to make this expense worth while. In answer to my noble friend Lord Selsdon, I would say that if I had a lot more money I would not, I think, seek to keep H.M.S. "Eagle" in commission; what I would seek to do is to speed up the entry into service of those new weapons, because I think that that is the right thing to do in the present circumstances.


My Lords, will my noble friend allow me to intervene? I should be most grateful if in dealing with our reply he would bear in mind that not one single person in this debate or in the earlier debate suggested that "Eagle" should be kept simultaneously in commission with "Ark Royal". We merely said that the complement of "Ark Royal" should on occasions be shifted to "Eagle" if an accident arose.


My Lords, with great respect to my noble friend, there has been a great deal of talk about keeping "Eagle" in full commission, and I think it only right on an occasion like this to deal with the whole subject of H.M.S. "Eagle" once and for all, so that if any of my noble friends are unconvinced by what I say, they may at least know the case which the Government are putting forward.

On the question of full commission, the Government's views on this matter remain unchanged, and nothing that I have heard in the debates on this subject since 1970 has led me to believe that I was wrong. I regret it, but one must be realistic about these matters. Defence planning is a matter of priorities. Within the sort of defence budget which is likely to be available, and bearing in mind the need to bring into service new ships and new weapons, we simply cannot afford to keep "Eagle" in commission as an operational carrier. The Fleet which we shall be building up this decade will I think be effective in both ships and weapons.

My Lords, it has been suggested that if we cannot keep "Eagle" in commission we should keep her in reserve. I believe that the arguments against that also are conclusive. The main item in the cost of maintaining the ship in reserve would be an initial refit of some six months costing between £2 million and £4 million, and similar refits every three or four years if the ship was kept in reserve for some long period. The complement of some 350 to 400 men—and I am advised that it would be very difficult to use civilians for this purpose because, among other things, the ship would have to be taken to sea every so often to see that everything is all right—would be the equivalent of one and a half to two frigates, on the same basis as the five frigates which my noble friend was talking about, and would cost something over £750.000 a year. In addition, there would be support costs ashore and further resources would be needed to maintain a reserve complement of Sea Vixen aircraft, since, as I have said, "Eagle" is not adapted to operate Phantoms. This would involve buying additional engines, additional spares and keeping a squadron of Sea Vixens operational ashore ready for work-up at sea. It would be difficult to keep the ageing Sea Vixens operational for very much longer. And I do not think I share the view of my noble friend Lord Cork and Orrery that it is right that the Royal Navy should possess, and should ask sailors and airmen in the Royal Navy to fly, obsolescent and obsolete aircraft in the face of opposition with modern equipment. At best we should have an aircraft with declining effectiveness in the environment of the 1970s. Even in the most favourable circumstances, the period needed to bring the ship forward from maintained reserve and make her fully operational would be something in the region of four and a half months. So, in the event of an accident, it would take four and a half months to bring her out of maintained reserve. To have incurred these costs and penalties simply to cover two short refits of the "Ark Royal" would not seem to me to be in any way cost effective.

There is of course a problem—and I do not deny it—when "Ark Royal" is being refitted; but, as I have indicated, her availability will so far as possible be phased in with that of other NATO carriers. And, of course, while she is being refitted her aircraft when disembarked will be able to operate from shore bases. The "Eagle", on the other hand, could not replace "Ark Royal's" Phantom capability and would fall far short of being an effective substitute, even if the Sea Vixens could be run on.


My Lords, will the noble Lord allow me to intervene? Would it not be right to consider the possibility that the replacement will not be ready in time, and that therefore, though perhaps now the ship should not be refitted and brought up to a Phantom capability, if things do not work out right in, say, two years' time it might be the only solution, if we are to provide something in the next fifteen years?


My Lords, I think I am right in saying, although I say it in a rather hesitant way because one gets a great deal of technical advice, that when I last inquired about this particular point I was told that unless a ship was refitted or kept in reserve in some way she would deteriorate in such a short time that she really would not be of any further use. Therefore it would be necessary to spend a good deal of money now in order to save the ship at all. If I am wrong about that I will publicly apologise, and anyway I will write to my noble friend.

I was saying, my Lords, that I think the premium for all this is quite simply too high, and the value of the insurance would be greatly reduced by the notice which would be required to bring the ship back into commission. Therefore I must tell your Lordships with great regret—and it is genuine regret—that our plans for Eagle must remain unchanged. But in saying this I should perhaps make it clear that the ship is not now on her way to the scrapyard. She will be towed to Devonport dockyard later this year when certain of her equipment will be earmarked to support the "Ark Royal". At the appropriate time, probably not before the end of 1973, a decision will be taken as to when she should be disposed of for scrap. Although the process of removing stores and equipment from her, which was mentioned by my noble friend, will continue, for the time being she may not be very far removed from what my noble friend Lord Mottistone has suggested: a ship in what he described as "unmaintained reserve". My Lords, if circumstances should change between now and the end of 1973 we could of course look at the matter again; but for reasons which I have explained to your Lordships this evening I really do not see how we could have come to any other decision.