Orders of the Day — Defence

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 9th March 1966.

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4.10 a.m.

Photo of Commander Anthony Courtney Commander Anthony Courtney , Harrow East

As one of that large number of hon. Members who did not have the privilege of catching your eye, Mr. Speaker, in the recent debate, I feel that even at this late hour I should not apologise to you and the House for raising the matter of defence. I should like to draw attention to what I consider to be a retrograde and disastrous White Paper on Defence recently published by Her Majesty's Government.

I am strengthened in this resolve by the fact that earlier today in another place, by an overwhelming majority, their Lordships have thrown out the Government's White Paper on Defence and thereby shown the wisdom of their deliberations. It is little wonder that the party opposite has it in its manifesto to emasculate another place when such wisdom is shown as in the circumstances of today.

I wish to make a non-party speech and I should like to compare this disastrous White Paper with the equally disastrous one of 1957. I believe that both follow from respective will-o'-the-wisps. In 1957, the will-o'-the-wisp, was the doctrine of massive retaliation before which our ancient strategy was to bow its head. In 1966, the mirage—if I dare use that word—is cheap shore-based air-power, a substitute for something which served us so well for many centuries. I believe that the Government have been guilty of falling—to use an American expression—for a gigantic public relations operation in that they have accepted a fallacious doctrine which is that of the self-sufficiency in British strategic circles of air power divorced from its necessary logistic connotation and connection with land and water. That is the fundamental fallacy behind the Government's reasoning as expressed in the White Paper.

It seems to me extraordinary that an island nation such as ours should bind itself, it seems for a further 10 years, to a strategy which in the first place maintains a standing army of 55,000 men on the continent of Europe in peace time—something unknown in our whole history—while, at the same time, it is implicit in the 1966 White Paper on defence that we are surrendering finally our ability to protect our shipping anywhere outside what amounts to British territorial waters. I hope to satisfy hon. Members opposite on this.

The logical outcome of Government policy as expressed in the White Paper surely is that in the early 1970s, if not before, our large army, which presumably will still remain in Europe, will have become virtual mercenary troops in what is rapidly becoming a German-American alliance, whilst east of Suez our small naval and air forces will become pensioners and auxiliaries of the United States forces themselves. By confining defence beneath a £2,000 million ceiling the Government have made a very serious error in forcing the acceptance of weapons systems as alternatives to one another when they should be complementary to one another. I hope to show how seriously this has affected our ability to maintain our defence strategy. Furthermore, this selection of alternatives exacerbates inter-Service rivalries, which the integration of the Ministry of Defence under successive Governments has done its best to remove.

We are told that we shall have no aircraft carrier after 1975. The Government do not seem to realise that this, in effect, removes the main armament of the fleet. It is as though, in earlier days, we had removed the gun power of the fleet, as though, fifty years ago, we had removed the battleships from the Grand Fleet itself.

Photo of Mr Derek Page Mr Derek Page , King's Lynn

I am puzzled to relate the hon. and gallant Gentleman's opinion with that of his right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys) who, in the debate on 26th February, 1958, said: We have no aircraft carriers large enough to operate the long-range bombers which would be needed for an effective strike operation. We really could not contemplate building more and bigger carriers…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th February, 1958; Vol. 583, cc. 388–9.]

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. We cannot have a long quotation in what is supposed to be a brief intervention.

Photo of Commander Anthony Courtney Commander Anthony Courtney , Harrow East

If the hon. Gentleman looks into that quotation a little more closely, he will realise that it related to the totally fallacious strategic concept of applying aircraft carriers to nuclear strikes, to bomber strikes, for which they were never intended in the British case and, I trust, never will be. There is no place in my thinking for the continuing use of British aircraft carriers as a nuclear strike force, despite the thinking of the Americans on a similar subject. British ideas on the subject are completely different.

I have spoken of the removal of the main armament of the Fleet. By taking away the fixed-wing aircraft with its long range and great striking power, mounted as a weapon operating from a ship, an aircraft carrier, we deprive shipping, task forces, convoys, whatever they may be, of any protection from existing potentially hostile surface forces belonging to the Soviet Union, to the Soviet-sponsored Indonesian naval forces and the Soviet-sponsored naval forces of the United Arab Republic. There are about 30 Sverdlov class cruisers against which we can oppose nothing on the surface at this moment except the fixed-wing aircraft operating from carriers. There are 20 to 30 guided missile ships against which, equally, we can oppose nothing except the fixed-wing aircraft. And, apart from that, though not quite in the same context, there are over 400 ocean-going submarines.

In Part I of the White Paper, there are three major fallacies to which I wish to draw attention. In paragraphs 2 and 3 it is said that there is only one type of operation for which carriers and carrier-borne aircraft would be indispensable. This was weakened in the debate the day before yesterday by an intervention by myself and a reply by the Secretary of State for Defence in which he admitted that that was not the only function of the aircraft carrier. He admitted the truth of the matter, which is that the carrier is also for the protection of shipping wherever it may be.

But that admission in debate is not matched by any reference in the White Paper to aircraft carriers for the protection of shipping or anything else, and this, from the Government of an island nation, is sufficient indication of the poorness of strategic thinking which underlies the whole document. There is no mention whatsoever of the protection of shipping.

It is surely clear, furthermore, that if we are to protect our shipping east of Suez, outside British territorial waters, or outside short-range aircraft protection from bases such as Singapore, we shall be entirely reliant on United States naval co-operation. Here we come to realms of policy which the House should consider very seriously. Obviously, there will be many occasions on which we and the Americans will see eye to eye and such co-operation will be forthcoming, but there will be others on which we shall wish to pursue policies involving the protection of shipping which are not agreeable to the United States, and in these circumstances, without a carrier we shall not be able to pursue those policies.

Alternatively, it may be that the United States wishes to pursue a line of policy, say, in support of Formosa or against China of which we do not approve, and then we shall be bound hand and foot with such naval forces as we possess, because we have no carriers, as auxiliaries of the United States in a line of policy with which we do not agree.

The second fallacy lies in another sentence in Part II, that Britain should maintain a major capability outside Europe. Without the ability to protect shipping, how are we able to support, or nourish, in the old Churchillian expression, any major military force anywhere in the world outside air cover range from the United Kingdom? Again, this can only be done if we are acting as auxiliaries of the Americans and utilising American carriers for the air cover of the shipping needed to support such major military capability.

The third fallacy is as follows. We intend, in the words of the White Paper, not to provide another country with military assistance unless that country is prepared to provide us with the facilities we need to make such assistance effective in time. That sounds very right, proper, easy and face-saving in the House of Commons, but can we really imagine a determined aggressor giving us the time to deploy our forces and get them in unopposed? Can one imagine the host country being in a position to make it possible for us to send unopposed help?

We say that we are going to rely on quick reinforcement by air. Surely this is cloud cuckoo land. Let us go back a couple of years to the events in Kuwait. Do we really think that if H.M.S. "Bulwark," with her carrier-borne aircraft, had not been in the vicinity the Iraqis would have given us time to send transports full of troops and long range aircraft to fly into the Kuwait airfields in plenty of time to deploy force against a possible Iraqi attack? It is senseless for any potential aggressor ever to allow such a situation to occur. Therefore, I submit that that sentence in the White Paper is, again, a complete fallacy.

Can we imagine the new C5s, which the Royal Air Force will have to have if it is to transport large quantities of stores and troops over long distances, flying into terminal airfields and the butchery which will ensure if, as one expects, the potential aggressor has his fighter aircraft in the vicinity ready to mow them down as they come in? Again, it is cloud cuckoo land to write such things into what purports to be a serious White Paper defining the strategy of this country for years to come.

What logic is there in these circumstances in continuing to build commando ships, assault ships and amphibious craft of any kind if we are depriving ourselves of the means of deploying an amphibious force throughout the world? Why go on building the ships? We know that that is not the £100 million saving promised by the Government, a fact which was not elicited until last night's debate, because we know that that depends upon a hypothetical situation in the future when confrontation in Indonesia comes to an end. Why did not the Government take their courage in both hands and cancel the programme of amphibious assault ship building, observing that they were no longer providing after the early 1970s the power of giving them air cover?

For the same reason, one can ask—and I know that this will be of particular interest to an hon. Member opposite— what is the further use of that magnificent corps, the Royal Corps of Royal Marines, whose whole object historically—and, as we had hoped, in the future—has been the deployment of military power from naval vessels at isolated points throughout the world. If that cannot be done in face of opposition anywhere because we have deprived them of air cover, surely there seems little reason for the continuance of the Royal Marines as a corps, including the Royal Marine Commandos.

What effect will all this have on recruiting and training and on the morale of the Royal Marines and the Fleet Air Arm? We are told that we are keeping them on and that there will be a cut-off somewhere about 1975. Do the Government really think that they can keep that magnificent corps and that magnificent Fleet Air Arm fully effective up to that date? I very much doubt it.

In paragraph 25 of Part II of the White Paper on Defence we have a real gem: Protection for island territories in the Atlantic, Indian or Pacific Oceans can readily be provided from our major areas of deployment. I have never read such fatuity as that in anything which purports to be a serious Government paper. What bases are the Government talking about? The United Kingdom, of course. Singapore? For the foreseeable future, perhaps, although doubts are expressed in the £100 million of saving which the Government talk about. Aden? We have had enough said about Aden last night and the night before. Australia? Of course. Simons-town? I should like a reply from the Minister as to Simonstown's place in the thinking of Her Majesty's Government in all this. It has been, and, we hope, will again prove to be, a possible major area of deployment for our forces.

What of the advanced island bases which we are to protect? Gan? Aldabra? Ascension? Diego Garcia? Cocos? Surely, these island bases are equivalent to immobile task forces. They are just like a task force or convoy except that they cannot move. If we are to protect them at all, we must mount a Pearl Harbour scale of defences, which is quite outside the possibilities of our national pocket, as the Government and all of us in the House know.

How, then, can we imagine that we will give protection for these island territories in face of the overwhelming Soviet and Soviet-Indonesian, and perhaps even Soviet-U.A.R., sea power—surface forces which can be mounted at this moment because they exist? I say with some sadness that the Minister of Defence for the Navy does not have the courage of his hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) in resigning over a major question of principle like this, having the main armament of the Fleet removed, together with our ability to combat those surface forces.

The Government speak in the White Paper of the development—10 years ahead, as we know—of a surface-to-surface guided missile to replace the fixed-wing aircraft. The reason why we have not hitherto developed this surface-to-surface guided missile is simply that we have relied upon the fixed-wing aircraft. Now, we are depriving ourselves of the fixed-wing aircraft and finding ourselves without the ability to develop the missile. The thing is strategic imbecility and, to an island nation such as ours, absolute madness.

How are we to supply the food, the fuel and stores to these far-flung island bases? How are the petrol and the diesel fuel and the kerosene for the aircraft to be taken to those islands? They have to go by sea. How are these sea roads to be protected in the new circumstances? Have the Government thought that out? It is quite clear to me that they have not. It seems to me that in the purchase of what amounts to 20 to 25 at any one time of F111 As—I know that the total is 50—the Government have fallen victim to one of the most gigantic confidence tricks in history.

For the first time in our national history we have given up our ability to defend our merchant shipping outside a short distance flying range from this country or our major bases abroad, a departure from historical strategic precedent. I cannot believe it will be persisted in even by this Government, should, unhappily, they be returned to power at the end of the month. Surely, as we on this side of the House—[HON. MEMBERS: "Where?"]—have declared, when we form the next Government we shall put that matter right. It is utter madness that a country which imports 50 per cent. of its food and 90 per cent. of its industrial raw materials by sea should give up its birthright in this way, and I hope, rather against hope, that even hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite will come to their senses at last and see that they have written a perfectly appalling White Paper.

My final point—I hope I shall be in order in mentioning it—is about defence security, because today I have received a Written Answer to a Written Question, and it has a distinct bearing on this matter. I have in this House many times drawn attention of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen to the persistent weaknesses in our national security, emphasised perhaps most recently by the Vassall case, the Portland spy trial, and by the Bossard affair, reinforced by the evidence we have received through the Penkovsky papers, of the abuse of diplomatic privilege by certain foreign embassies in London for espionage and successful espionage purposes.

Today, in this Written Answer it appears that by the Anglo-Soviet consular agreement, signed in Moscow last December the numbers of these consular representatives are to be added to the numbers of diplomats who have full diplomatic privileges, and at places outside London, and, what is more, contrary to the provisions of the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations, to which we and other countries concerned subscribed, every member of the new consular establishments of the Soviet Union, wherever they may be in this country, is going to have full and complete diplomatic immunity, far greater than that which we give to our closest friends and allies.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. and gallant Member, but has he given someone notice that he intended to make, as it were, two speeches by raising this second point?

Photo of Commander Anthony Courtney Commander Anthony Courtney , Harrow East

With apologies to you, Mr. Speaker, and the House, I have given no such notice with regard to the security aspect. Perhaps I may be at fault for not having done so, but having only just received this Written Answer to my Question I would crave the indulgence of yourself and the House. But I will leave the matter there.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

I have no power to stop the hon. and gallant Member, but the traditional courtesy of the House is that, usually, if an hon. Member wishes to raise a question he should endeavour to have someone to answer it.

Photo of Commander Anthony Courtney Commander Anthony Courtney , Harrow East

I will leave the matter there, simply craving the indulgence of the House because of the short notice I myself have been given by receipt of this Answer only today. That is all I wish to say.

I believe, to return to my first point, that this White Paper is retrograde and disastrous, as bad as that of 1957, though for different reasons.

4.35 a.m.

Photo of Mr Joseph Mallalieu Mr Joseph Mallalieu , Huddersfield East

I can see only one good reason why the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Harrow, East (Commander Courtney) made the speech to which we have just listened. It is that, having spent a considerable amount of time preparing it and having failed to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, during the defence debate, he was determined to fire it off, even at this hour of the morning. I wish that, instead of yielding to the nervous tension that we all feel when trying to catch your eye, he had listened to some of the arguments put forward from this Dispatch Box during that debate. I am not going through them all again. The hon. and gallant Gentleman can read them in HANSARD, if he has not done so already.

One thing which I am going to do which is relevant to his speech is to bore the House with a personal reminiscence—and, if I cannot bore the House at this time of night, I do not know when I can.

My sea time during the war lasted five months and two weeks, and, because of that, I am not entitled to the 1939–45 Medal. I resent that, because my experience was more intense than that of some people who were swinging round a buoy in a battle wagon up in Scapa.

I say that it was intense. In fact, it was on a convoy to Russia. It was not the disastrous one in July, 1942, but the one afterwards. It was the largest convoy sent to Russia during the war. It experienced the heaviest torpedo attack of the whole war and one of the heaviest bombing attacks sustained over four or five days. But it was successful, and it was successful because we had a Woolworth carrier.

I mention that personal experience only to show that I know perfectly well the need for air cover. That need existed during the war, and it exists today. It is going to exist into the indefinite future, as far as I can see. It is going to be met, now and for the next 10 years, by exactly the same traditional methods that it has been met in the last 40 years, and that is by the Fleet Air Arm. The hon. and gallant Gentleman has been talking as though the Fleet Air Arm was finished today or tomorrow, but it is not. It is the full intention of the Government and, what in my view is more important, the Navy that it should be continued until the other alternative sources of air cover are produced.

What are those alternative sources of air cover? One idea is the shore-based aircraft of the R.A.F. But that is only one of the options, and that is really the crux of the whole argument that is going on now. The argument is not about Britain's defences today. It is not only about Britain's defences in 10 years' time. It is Britain's defences in 10, 15 or 20 years' time.

Our job now is to forecast as best we can what the job of our defences will be that time ahead. When we have made the best forecast of what the job is, then it is our business to judge what weapons we need to do that job. That is an altogether different thing from asking how we are to preserve the Air Force or build up the Navy; how we are to secure the future of carriers or make certain that we get the TSR2.

Instead of that, we say that these are our weapons—the ones that we have at present, and the ones that we are going to have in the foreseeable future. Having said that, we then must judge which arm of our defence force, or what combination of our defence force arms, is best suited to carry these weapons for the jobs that we foresee. They could be aircraft, and I do not exclude vertical take-off aircraft, as some have done, whether shore-based or sea-borne. They may be missiles, carried in aircraft, or stationed on land, or in surface ships, or in submarines. Whatever decision we take, we know that we will still need the Marines. I thought that it was most damaging to suggest that we do not need the Marines any more, that wonderful all-purpose corps which will do any sort of job at any sort of time, and will go on doing it. We shall still need sailors, marines, soldiers, and airmen. Whatever decisions are taken on the job that we have to do, and on the weapons that we are going to have to do that job, I cannot for the life of me see how anybody could possibly say that there will not be a serious and indeed dominating rôle for the Royal Navy.

We have new classes of ships coming on. We have new types of propulsion. We have the concept of the hovership. We have nuclear propelled submarines, far and away the best platform for any sort of missile, conventional or otherwise that has yet been devised.

Photo of Commander Anthony Courtney Commander Anthony Courtney , Harrow East

We have not got the weapons.

Photo of Mr Joseph Mallalieu Mr Joseph Mallalieu , Huddersfield East

We have 10 years in which to get them, and we are going to do it, and if anybody who has seen the possibilities for the use of the Royal Navy in the defence of this country still says that there is not a future for the Navy, there are only two words which I can offer him, and neither of those is Parliamentary.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.