Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th December 1974.

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Photo of Mr Peter Walker Mr Peter Walker , Worcester 12:00 am, 16th December 1974

I am delighted that at last the hon. Gentleman considers that being criticised by Pravda is a smear.

I hope that hon. Members and the country at large will realise just how much the defences of the West have been eroded in the past decade compared with the Soviet Union's. In 1964 the United States had four times as many intercontinental ballistic missiles as the Soviet Union. Ten years later the Soviet Union had half as many again as the United States. In 1964 the United States had more than three times as many submarine-launched ballistic missiles as the Soviet Union. By 1974 the Soviet Union had many more than the United States. In the same decade the United States reduced the number of men under arms by 500,000. The Soviet Union has increased the number of men under arms by 125,000. The West constantly cuts back on its investment in research into new weapons. The Soviet Union year by year increases its investment in improving the effectiveness of its offensive weapons. Project this trend a further decade, and we see that Soviet military might will be so dominant as to enable its Government to dictate to the Western world.

I hope that when the Secretary of State prepares his White Paper he will consider the inclusion of an illustration of the current strength of the Warsaw Pact Powers. It would be interesting for the country to see in a White Paper not just the known strength but a projection of that strength if over the next 10 years the Soviet Union continues to increase its military might at the same pace as it has done over the past five years alone. The picture of its expanding military strength in a period when we are contracting ours would very much alarm our country.

In the face of all that, we have the review, described proudly by the right hon. Gentleman as the most thorough review that has ever taken place in peace time. It was a wrong review, because it was not to review our needs but to reduce our expenditure. Even in that context, it has been ineffective. Normally, it would probably have been completed by June or July, but it was postponed until after the General Election and then until after the Labour Party conference.

One would have expected such a time lag at least to enable the Government to come to conclusions. But a week of Written Questions since the Secretary of State's statement has shown just how uncertain has been their approach. What information has been given to the House over the past week about the Army, for example? We have been told that it is not possible to give an estimate of the phasing of the 12,000 reduction in manpower or to say where it will take place.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army gave a remarkable reply to a Question asking specifically how the reduction of 12,000 Service men is to be spread between Army regiments. He said: I cannot at this stage provide details about the composition of the expected reduction in Army manpower. However, I confirm that it is our intention to achieve the reduction to the maximum extent possible by pruning overheads and by structural adjustment and we shall make every effort to avoid a significant impact on the regimental system with its historic loyalties and traditions."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th December 1974; Vol. 883, c. 62.] Before completing the review, the Undersecretary should have known whether a reduction of 12,000 men would have that effect.

Nothing is known about the phasing of the reduction of 12,000 men. There is no indication of when their numbers will be reduced, or how. The Government's position on the Army can almost be described in the words of the song "Don't know where, Don't know when." The Government only hope that the cuts will take place some day. No final decision has been taken about the reductions in helicopters and reconnaissance cars.

We are told that the Government do not know when the 5,000 reduction in Navy manpower will take place. They have not yet considered the effect on the RNVR. That is under consideration. No information is available on how the reduction of one third in support ships will be made. No decision has been taken on the future of the "Ark Royal", and the position of HMS "Bulwark" is being considered. It is not known whether the through-deck cruiser will be a one-off project or will become one of a series and a class. No decision has been taken on the future of the maritime Harrier. With that mass of uncertainty surrounding the future, how can the Secretary of State put forward firm figures as to his reduced expenditure?

I turn to the RAF. We are told that reductions in maritime patrol aircraft have not yet been decided. The extent of the slower phasing of the MRCA is not known. The phasing of the halving of RAF transport depends on eventualities, and the increased need to charter aircraft as a result is not known. It is not possible to give details of the phasing of the 18,000 reduction in manpower. The extent and speed of reduction of the RAF Regiment is not clear. As to the closing of the 12 RAF stations, it is not known which stations will close, and we are told that the information cannot be given until all relevant figures are carefully considered. If the Government have not considered the relevant figures, why did they decide to close 12 stations?

As to the civilian staff, the Minister's knowledge, after the most detailed review in peace time, is as non-existent as it is for the Armed Services. The phasing of the 30,000 reduction cannot be given, nor can the locations of those affected. We are told that it is too early to say which shipbuilders will be affected, and too early to judge the effects of the change of policy on ship refitting. Ministers have told us that they have not decided the effects on the Royal Ordnance factories. When we asked questions about where 10,000 jobs would be lost in industry, and which firms would be affected, we were told that the 10,000 figure was a "broad order of magnitude". As for the 10 per cent. reduction in research and development, we are told that the Government have not decided which projects will be affected.

If ignorance is bliss, we must have the most contented group of defence Ministers in our history.

We dispute the international strategy which has supposedly come out of the review. The view taken increasingly by the Secretary of State, that the defence of this country is almost totally concerned with the position in central Europe, is dangerous. Ten years ago the late President Kennedy said that we must learn to think inter-continentally. That is true of NATO. The oil crisis should have taught the West the vital importance of securing our raw materials and the safety of our sea routes.

Let us look at the way in which the changes have taken place. Listening to the Secretary of State today, one might almost have believed that he had withdrawn everything throughout the world and made substantial savings. He has not. He has kept most of the overseas obligations, but has weakened the ability of the Services to meet them in time of difficulty. There is no decision about the magnitude of the reduction in Hong Kong. Does the right hon. Gentleman not consider that the garrison there is not too large to meet some of the potential problems which could arise?

The decision about Brunei and the Gurkha battalion is remarkable. We are pleased to hear from the right hon. Gentleman that it is not final. We are glad that he will consult the sultan and consider the position. The countries in that area are good allies of ours, and they judge this move as being beyond comprehension, particularly as the present situation does not cost the British taxpayer one penny. Recently, in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Surrey (Sir A. Royle), who, while at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, had a great deal to do with that area, the reply by the Secretary of State lacked only one thing—any logical reason for his decision.