Air Estimates, 1952–53, and Air Supplementary Estimate, 1951–52

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 18th March 1952.

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Photo of Mr George Ward Mr George Ward , Worcester 12:00 am, 18th March 1952

I beg to move, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."

The Air Estimates for 1952–53 first provided for a net total of £467,640,000. A revised Estimate has since been presented to cover an addition of £30 million to Appropriations-in-Aid, our estimated share of the grant of economic aid by the United States of America announced in the House of Commons by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 29th January. Taking into account the recent Supplementary Estimate, this is a net increase of just over £107 million on the 1951–52 Estimates. Comparing gross totals, we are expecting to spend £147 million more in the coming year than we have provided for this year.

As the House knows, this sum would have been larger if the original programme of expansion over the next three years had been maintained, but it is still a very great sum, especially at a time when the country is subject to acute economic and financial strain. My task today is to lay before the House the reasons which have prompted Her Majesty's Government to put forward these Estimates.

To get matters into perspective and to enable the House to appreciate the good and bad points of the present situation, I would like to start with a brief glance at the post-war history of the Royal Air Force. I do not seek to apportion praise or blame for what has happened. Indeed, upon the more important decisions history alone can pronounce. All I want to do is to put before the House certain relevant facts and dates.

The rundown of the Royal Air Force after the war was planned to end with a front line large enough to meet normal peace time commitments in a period of no international tension. At that time, however, there were only 38,000 Regulars and many of these were coming to the end of their service. All the rest were war-time entrants who were due to be released under the age-and-length-of-service system; and it soon became clear that there would not be enough men in the skilled maintenance trades, and especially in certain key trades which need long training, to keep the aircraft serviceable.

The front line was, therefore, determined, not by the number of aircraft but by the number of trained men available. At one stage, the front line sank to little over 1,000 aircraft, and any expansion was governed by the manpower situation.

There is another effect of immediate post-war policy which is especially important and from which we are suffering now. Because the main assumption in planning the peace-time Air Force was a period free from international tension, re-equipment was planned on a long-term basis. This policy no doubt relied at that time—1946–47—on the belief that the need for replacement aircraft which would incorporate the best possible developments in design lay seven or eight years ahead. Therefore, it was decided to rely on the existing types until radically new and fully developed designs could be brought into service.

Now, the inevitable result of this policy was a rundown of the aircraft industry which exceeded, in terms of manpower, that of the Royal Air Force itself, and no increase in the numbers employed in the industry took place until June, 1950. I know that many of these points were made by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Defence in his winding-up speech in the Defence Debate on 5th March, but I felt that the conclusion was so important that the factors leading up to it bear repetition; for it is this rundown in the aircraft industry which is making it so difficult to get production going quickly now.

In August, 1948, following the Berlin crisis, a number of emergency measures were taken to increase the production of existing types of fighters and to refurbish some of the war-time stocks of piston-engined fighters. The financial crisis in 1949 resulted in considerable economies in the Air Force, notably in Transport Command. On the other hand, Fighter Command began to expand slightly, and during this period intermediate types, such as the Venom and the Meteor night fighter, were ordered. We also obtained from America some B.29 Washington bombers, and the Canberra was ordered off the drawing board.

Then came the invasion of South Korea. This brought about a change in policy, and by the end of 1950 the £3,600 million programme was announced. This programme was designed on the basis of the maximum production of the armaments industry over a period of three years without special measures being taken. Under this plan, additional Canberras were ordered and the Valiant, the Swift and the Hawker P.1067 were ordered off the drawing board. The House will be interested to bear that we have now decided to name this new and important high-performance day fighter the Hawker Hunter.

In the defence debate two weeks ago, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) suggested that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence was mistaken when he said that the Swift and other types of modern fighters were not ordered until after the invasion of South Korea. As my hon. Friend said at the time, the right hon. Gentleman's memory was at fault. The production orders for the Hunter and the Swift were approved some weeks after the invasion of South Korea.