Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 4th March 1968.

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Photo of Mr James Davidson Mr James Davidson , Aberdeenshire West 12:00 am, 4th March 1968

That is not within the scope of my speech or the statement. I will come in more detail later to the question of weapons and so on.

As I was saying, it took a major economic crisis and devaluation to make the Government see the light. And when they took their decision, it was done in such a way as to upset all our friends and allies instead of being done as part of a policy plan of phased withdrawal spread over live years or more.

Not long ago I was speaking to a member of the Australian Parliament. He told me that the stock of Britain in Australia had never stood so low. He went on to say that he felt that the Americans were the only people the Australians could now trust. I had to agree with him in that I thought that our withdrawal had been badly handled. I also felt obliged to point out to him that it was difficult to expect the voter and tax payer in this country to pay higher taxes to maintain bases in the Far East, perhaps to maintain a much higher standard of living in Australia and New Zealand than he himself enjoyed in this country. I also pointed out that while this country had the most tremendous gratitude for the part played by the A.N.Z.A.C. forces in the last war and the war before that in that they came to our aid, that did not involve them in maintaining expensive bases in Europe and that they used our bases when they came across here.

Perhaps I should also mention that I pointed out that at the time of the A.N.Z.U.S. Pact, we were not, as far as I was aware, asked to join it. I added that that did not undermine our obligation to come to their aid, to the best of our ability, should the necessity arise. I hope that the Government will see that our strategic transport forces will be maintained at an optimum level so that, if necessary, we can go to their assistance should the necessity arise.

My hon. Friends and I carried out a sustained campaign over a number of months against the purchase of the F111K, which would have cost this country £425 million. In this connection, on two occasions at the end of last year, I asked the Secretary of State to cancel the F111K order. When I asked that Question first, on 13th December, he replied that it would be required in about two years' time to replace the Canberra as a tactical strike and reconnaissance aircraft and that It is required as much in Europe as elsewhere for this type of operation".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th December, 1967; Vol. 756, c. 399.] According to our information, this rôle can perfectly well be performed by the Phantom—the rôle of a tactical strike and reconnaissance aircraft—and I should like the views of the Minister on this subject. However, when I asked the Question on the second occasion, on 18th December, he answered: We do not propose to cancel this aircraft".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th December, 1967 Vol. 756, c. 310.] Pressure from above forced him to alter his decision, and I do not think that he will regret it. In two years' time no calamity will have befallen this country as a result of the cancelling of the F111K. The Minister and his colleagues will still be here, unless there has been a General Election. It is interesting to note that the French Federation de Gauche has come out against the need for force de frappe, and this supports the view of my hon. Friends.

While giving a qualified welcome to the Government's Statement, I have certain criticisms to make and a number of important points which need clarification. All hon. Members will agree that the tone of the Statement creates uncertainty. It is simply a Statement of the status quo. We realise that it claims to be only an interim document, but we hope that the supplementary statement later in the year will be more specific about our future defence policy. It is stated on page 2: It has been a fundamental principle of the current examination that reductions in capability, whether in terms of manpower or equipment, must be accompanied by reductions in the tasks imposed by the commitments that we require the Services to undertake. This seems to be completely putting the cart before the horse. There is obviously real confusion here between capability and commitment, and I particularly draw attention to paragraph 3 on page 2, which states: No special capability for use outside Europe will be maintained when our withdrawal from Singapore and Malaysia, and the Persian Gulf, is complete". Surely it is logical to decide, first, what are our essential commitments, and then to decide what capabilities are needed to fulfil those commitments. Unfortunately, this Government prefer to do it the other way round: to decide, first, to reduce the capabilities, and then to see what commitments we are capable of undertaking and what obligations we are able to fulfil.

I have tabled a number of Questions, which the Minister will see on the Order Paper—a point I mention just in case he overlooks some of those I am now asking. At what level of forces are the Government aiming to fulfil the commitments outlined in Chapter 1(3)? Is there a rôle envisaged for Britain within a reshaped N.A.T.O. after 1969? What new aircraft are planned for the late 1970s, or are we to wait until the Lightnings, Phantoms and Harriers are obsolete, and then shop around in America or Russia? Or perhaps, by then, we will be buying cast-offs from Egypt.

What is the proposed composition of this thing at the top of page 3 in the statement called "a general capability based in Europe" for deployment overseas and in support of the United Nations? A little further on it states categorically that our Army is "superbly equipped". I very much hope that it is. Will the Minister tell us in what items of weaponry it has superiority over other armies in Europe? What about force levels? We view with concern the proposed withdrawal of 5,000 men from B.A.O.R. Exactly how long would it take to transport and deploy this brigade withdrawn to Britain in its B.A.O.R. rôle? This is important because it is part of the essential force of B.A.O.R.

The weapons would certainly need to be superb indeed to compensate for this disparity in numbers on the ground. Is there not also an inferiority in N.A.T.O.'s armed forces as compared with the fast, highly-mobile armour of the Warsaw Pact countries? Page 5 talks of maintaining our interest in the stability of the Middle and Far East. It goes on to say that we will demonstrate this: …by our continuing membership of CENTO and S.E.A.T.O. What form will this demonstration take? An annual affair with banners outside the headquarters in Bangkok and Ankara, or will it be the definite commitment of a specific force held in readiness for deployment if required?

I cannot help wondering what our home-based Regular Army of 150,000 men will do with themselves all day. They cannot spend all their time on exercises, weapon training and square-bashing. Perhaps they will replace the Territorial Army as part-time soldiers on full pay. I would much prefer to see a small highly trained Regular Army, backed by a proper Territorial reserve which could continue to serve as a basis for rapid recruitment in times of need and as an emergency force in time of civil crisis.

At the same time our commitment to the defence of Europe must remain paramount. For the foreseeable future B.A.O.R. should be maintained and equipped at optimum strength, despite the difficulties which will arise in the coming negotiations on support costs. Obviously the Government have to try to get the best possible terms they can in Bonn. Even if the outcome is not satisfactory B.A.O.R. should not be sacrificed.