With permission, Sir, I will make a statement to the House.
The Government have had the question of aircraft carriers under consideration with a view to determining the requirement for the 1970's. After full consideration it has been decided that the carrier force likely to be required during that period is three carriers.
The life of H.M.S. "Eagle" and H.M.S. "Hermes" can with refits be extended until about 1980. H.M.S. "Victorious" and H.M.S. "Ark Royal" will come to the end of their useful lives in the early 1970s. A decision has, therefore, been taken to build one carrier replacement. This ship will be of around 50,000 tons and will give us, with H.M.S. "Eagle" and "Hermes", a force of three carriers. This decision will ensure that the Fleet Air Arm can maintain its rôle at least until 1980.
I have also had under consideration an aircraft replacement for the Sea Vixen. I am now able to announce that the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have reached agreement on the characteristics of a common aircraft which will replace both the Sea Vixen and the Hunter. This aircraft which will be capable of operation either from land or from carriers will greatly increase the flexibility of our use of air power and provide the opportunity for economies in its disposition.
The aircraft will be based on the Hawker P1154 and a detailed study is at this moment proceeding. As soon as this is complete I will take steps to inform hon. Members of the result.
May I say, first, how glad we are on this side of the House that the Government have accepted the arguments which we have so often put forward against building an aircraft carrier of the size of the "Forrestal" class? Can the right hon. Gentleman give any estimate of the cost of this proposed aircraft carrier?
Secondly, does his statement mean that no further aircraft carrier will be built for Britain over the next ten years?
Thirdly, will he assure the House that in deciding the procedure which he is to adopt for placing the contract for the aircraft carrier, he will bear in mind the needs of those development areas which are not benefitting from other Government shipbuilding programmes?
On the question of the new aircraft, we are delighted that, for the first time almost in post-war history, the R.A.F. and the Royal Navy have been able to agree on the characteristics of an aircraft. Would he give some idea of the number of aircraft of this type which he proposes to order and what the total cost is likely to be?
The all-up cost of the aircraft carrier is about £60 million, which will be spent over eight to ten years. The hon. Member asked about other aircraft carriers. The conclusion which we have reached is that we should go for an aircraft carrier fleet of three carriers, which will be composed, at least until 1980—when the "Ark Royal" and the "Victorious" go out—of the "Hermes" and the "Eagle". Whether a replacement of the "Eagle" and the "Hermes" will be made during the 1970s is a matter which will fall to be considered at that date.
The hon. Member asked about the shipbuilding yards. Naturally, all considerations such as that which he mentioned will be borne in mind, but I emphasise that the building of a ship of this character will be of substantial benefit to the whole of the shipbuilding industry, because the orders will be placed widely.
The hon. Member asked about the aircraft. As he knows, we never mention costs or numbers, because this would disclose our plans in considerable detail to an enemy. But I agree with him that the decision on a common aircraft is a breakthrough in military operations and is much to be welcomed.
In my statement I am not announcing any cut. I announced the building of a carrier and the study of a common aircraft. As for the placing of the orders for the aircraft, I should like, first, to complete the study. This is going on at full pressure with the co-operation of Hawkers and my right hon. Friends the Minister of Aviation and the Secretary of State for Air. I hope to be able to say something mere definitive to the House about the results of that study when we review it in the autumn.
Is it proposed that the new aircraft carrier will be nuclear-powered or conventionally powered? May I ask him, with respect to the aircraft which are to be used on it, whether it means that we are committed for another generation to the use in both the Air Force and the Navy of aircraft using comon engines for both lift and propulsion and that we have abandoned all work on the technique of using separate engines for these two rôles.
We studied very carefully the question of whether to go for nuclear propulsion. No doubt there may well be a future for nuclear propulsion for surface ships, but I think that to embark on what would be largely an experimental venture in the case of a capital ship like an aircraft carrier would be to take a very considerable gamble. We might be wiser to make the first venture in a somewhat smaller ship. The cost would certainly be substantially increased if there were nuclear propulsion and, of course, the advantages of nuclear propulsion are much more if the whole fleet is nuclear-propelled and not just one element in it. In those circumstances, this is planned upon a conventional basis.
The aircraft which is being examined is based on the Hawker P1154, which is an aircraft based on using the same engine for lift and propulsion. It must be remembered that it has not been easy to find an aircraft which is light enough and at the same time powerful enough to be able to carry out the dual rôles of replacing both the Hunter and the Sea Vixen. There seems to be a great possibility in this particular conception. I therefore ask the hon. Member to await the result of this consideration. We hope to be able to report later in the autumn.
With respect to the aircraft carrier itself, when will the keel be laid for replacement of the "Victorious"? With respect to the aircraft, will my right hon. Friend go on considering either the multi-jet or a blend between the multi-jet and the vectored thrust, because this must be a heavy aircraft of considerable range?
In view of the Feilden Report and other reports, will my right hon. Friend consider the particular needs of development districts, where there is high unemployment, when placing orders for the aircraft carrier and the aircraft?
I have already given an answer about the various areas. I imagine that I could be pressed on the interests of many areas. I emphasise again that the order for this ship will be of substantial benefit, I think, to the whole shipbuilding industry.
The aircraft we are studying is the P1154, which is the Hawker aircraft. I should like to complete the study of that aircraft before making any further announcement, although I emphasise that this is a very important military advance to be able to get increased flexibility by using men, whether they are in light or dark blue, operating either from land or aircraft carriers.
With regard to the replacement, which I would regard in this case as a replacement for the "Ark Royal", I emphasise that it will enable us to complete a fleet of three carriers and preparatory work of placing orders will now be set in train, including the design drawings and the rest.
While I think that it may be necessary to consider later whether three carriers in the 1970s will be adequate, may I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and congratulate him on the decision in principle after these long and very controversial discussions?
I think that my hon. and gallant Friend speaks with the necessary experience in these matters on this topic. I hope that he will, however, recognise that we have given very careful consideration to this matter. We had to consider the military, technical and financial considerations and I am sure that this decision for the three carrier fleet is the right one.
Is the purpose in building another carrier at a cost of £60 million—that is only an estimate, it may be £70 million or £80 million—merely to provide work for unemployed shipbuilders, or is it a military necessity? Does the Minister appreciate that a carrier of this capacity, of this tonnage, is highly vulnerable in this modern nuclear age? While there is some advantage in having a common aircraft—I appreciate the purpose of that— would he not reconsider this question in the light of the modern military position?
I hope that the right hon. Member will recognise that the carrier still remains probably the most flexible instrument of conventional war and that in these days the whole concept of conventional war and conventional defence certainly should not be ruled out from his thinking in defence policy. So far as vulnerability is concerned, the best advice I have is that at present the means of defence are, at any rate, keeping full pace with means of offence.
While welcoming both the decision to build a carrier and also the agreement on a joint aircraft, may I ask whether my right hon. Friend can assure the House that in view of the vital importance to our position in the Far East of maintaining our air power he will speed up the process of consideration to ensure that the Hunter replacement is in service before the 1970s? Will he guarantee that this can in no way, so far as he is able personally to oversee these matters, affect the TSR2 programme?
I shall certainly proceed with all the expedition that I can. My task is to see that we get a balanced force of all the services available for our defences, but it is certainly not my purpose to advantage one by sacrificing another, nor have I sought to in this decision.
Order. I cannot commit myself, but it is just possible that somebody might be able to discuss some of these topics tomorrow. I think that we have to put a stop to it now.