§ Mr. Chichester-Clark
asked the Secretary of State for Defence what estimate he has formed of the defence potential of the hovercraft.
§ Mr. Healey
Hovercraft are able to travel over difficult terrain or water at high speeds compared with conventional ground or water transport; additional useful characteristics are their low ground pressure and their low underwater radiated noise. These craft therefore have considerable military potential in such rôles as carriage of personnel, equipment and stores; anti-submarine warfare; air sea rescue; and airfield fire-fighting and rescue work.
An Inter-Service Hovercraft Working Party (which includes representation from the Ministry of Aviation) is responsible for continuous review of the defence potential of hovercraft, and the Inter-Service Hovercraft Trials Unit at Lee-on-Solent works under their directions. Contracts have been placed with industry to make proposals for hovercraft to fill various military rôles, including hoverships primarily for anti-submarine warfare, a wheeled hovercraft as a possible replacement for the DUKW, and a hovercraft with a 25-ton payload for logistic support. Research 21W studies are also going on in some of the universities and in Government research establishments.
Two SRN5 hovercraft are at present undergoing trials in the Far East in support of the Army and for Naval coastal patrol work. These trials, which so far have been most promising, are due to finish at the end of the year. Further trials are planned to take place in widely differing conditions. Anti-submarine evaluation trials using the SRN3 during the summer demonstrated that within the sea-keeping limits of such a small craft, it had a useful potential. These trials, as well as evaluating operational capability, have to provide information for assessment of maintainability and cost in comparison with conventional alternatives.
Very good progress has been made in a relatively short time. It is already clear that hovercraft can well perform a number of military tasks, and that there is the potential for much further development. I expect current trials and research and development studies to provide the basis for decisions on the types of craft which will best meet our operational requirements in the immediate future.