HL Deb 18 January 1990 vol 514 cc735-7

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are aware of the scale of building of ships of war for the navy of the USSR; and whether this has increased or decreased over the last two years.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (The Earl of Arran)

My Lords, we do of course take a keen interest in Soviet naval shipbuilding activity. In general, we have detected no great change over the past two years —neither increase nor decrease. The Soviet Government have announced plans for conversion of shipyards from naval to civil work, but so far we have noted only one significant example of this.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that interesting Answer. Can he say whether Her Majesty's Government regard with equanimity the possession of a substantial navy by the Soviet Union, which obviously has very little need for protection of sea communications, or whether they hope to see there too some activity by way of disarmament?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I can inform my noble friend that the Soviet Union is currently engaged in major combatant and submarine construction programmes in all major categories of naval vessels. The bulk of those programmes has been established in production well in excess of five years. The trend is downward with some of the more mature among them; but among the more recent classes the position is unchanged or the trend is upward. Those on a rising trend —we judge in terms of annual completions —are in surface ships, a new class of frigate and the Sovremennyy guided missile destroyer, and in the submarine area the Oscar anti-ship cruise missile platform and the Akula nuclear powered attack submarine.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, can the Minister say why it is that at a time when Mr. Dick Cheney, the American Defense Secretary, is considering cutting the US defence budget by 150 billion dollars over the next five years and has said that Soviet defence spending is coming down, Britain alone is set to increase its defence expenditure by £1 billion in each of the next three years? Why do Her Majesty's Government persist in ignoring the fact that the Berlin Wall has come tumbling down? That should enable fresh winds to blow away the cold war mentality that dominates much of their thinking.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I must make quite clear to the noble Lord that it is because of our defence in conjunction with our allies over the past 40 years that we are where we are at this very moment in time. There is no greater moment of uncertainty and concern in the Transcaucasus than at the moment. We must always consider their position of capability rather than intention. As your Lordships will know, their capability is still immeasurably greater than that of our NATO allies.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, will the Minister say what the programme of scrapping has been during the period to which he referred? Would the Soviet Union have scrapped fewer than 20 major ships in that major two-year period? How many submarines has it scrapped? Will the Minister confirm the American view that a very great proportion of the Soviet fleet is obsolescent? Finally, will he further confirm that during this period the West's considerable lead in naval power has not been eroded in any way?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, the problem is that naval forces are not included in the current conventional force reduction negotiations.

The Earl of Kimberly

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, in view of the fact that NATO has kept the peace for the past 40 years and, with regard to my noble friend's Question, the one thing that one does not want to do is throw away everything? At this moment in time should we not stay as strong as possible in NATO?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I hope and trust that all noble Lords will agree with my noble friend's comments.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, unfortunately the Minister implied that naval disarmament is not included in the current talks. Is he not aware that this is because of the Western attitude? Some Russians are perfectly willing, and have been for some time, to include those talks in the disarmament negotiations. If he is so worried about the naval shipbuilding of the Soviet Union, will he explain why the British Government and the West resist disarmament negotiations on naval weapons?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, perhaps I can make it perfectly clear to the noble Lord. Naval forces are included in the current round of CSBM talks (the Confidence and Security Building Measures mandate) which are going on at this very moment. The West's proposals seek to encourage openness and predictability in military activities but the Soviet proposals for constraints on size and duration of exercises are not acceptable to the West. We have to exercise our deterrent posture.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that comparisons with the United States are beside the point? The United States can defend its own hemisphere. We are wholly dependent, as we always have been, on oceanic communication. Is that not a good reason for treating naval problems on their own?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, as an aside to my noble friend's point, no doubt your Lordships are aware that NATO and her allies have 385 surface ships and the Warsaw Pact 220. Our superiority is of course for supply and protection of the North Atlantic routes.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, can my noble friend detect anything in the fact that, although in 1970 and the years afterwards there was a very large building programme in the Soviet navy, these ships are now becoming somewhat aged and needing repairs? Is that not distorting the fact that there may be a reduction in the strength of the Soviet navy? Can he tell me whether, on balance, the figure is going up or down?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, in numerical terms it is not easy to answer the noble Viscount. However, the only sectors that are showing any signs of long-term reductions are missile control boats, minor combatants (in other words, minor warfare and patrol craft) and auxiliaries. The former two categories are highly dependent on export orders.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, the Question relates to our survival as a maritime nation. Is not the biggest threat to our survival if hostilities broke out —and God forbid —the fact that we now have hardly any merchant navy left to sustain us in the face of an adversary?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, if the British merchant fleet continued to decline, our defence capability could be affected. But there is certainly no serious cause for concern that the needs of our armed forces could not be met.

Back to