In some ways, this is the most important of the three debates on the Service Estimates which follow the recent two-day debate on the Defence White Paper. To see in proper perspective the effects on our maritime forces of the Government's defence cuts, we must look not only at the latest White Paper but also at the combined effect of all the measures that they have taken during the past year or so as a result of those cuts —three lots of cuts, amounting in total to the staggering sum of more than £6,000 million at 1975 survey prices.
I do not propose to rehearse all the Opposition's severe condemnations of the Government's wrong-headed approach to defence expenditure. We have made our position on that quite clear both in this House and elsewhere during the past year. But it is worth pointing out that our criticisms have been confirmed substantially by the Report of the all-party Defence Sub-Committee of this House, to whose diligent efforts during the past year the whole House is greatly indebted.
As a background to our debate today, it is worth looking at what the Government have done. The reductions amount to 5,000 in men, from 79,000 to 74,000, 15 per cent. of the planned number of frigates, destroyers and mine countermeasures vessels, 25 per cent. in conventionally powered submarines, 30 per cent. in other vessels including afloat support vessels, 25 per cent. in the Nimrod force, and more than a quarter in the amphibious force.
In that connection, we read today in The Guardian how enormous further cuts have been proposed to the Labour Party's National Executive this morning. We read that a draft paper to reduce spending by £1,000 million by 1980 has been put forward and that this would involve a combination of either a rundown of the Polaris force, the elimination of army combat forces outside Europe, a smaller ship fleet, reduced ground force levels in Europe, or a cheaper air force. It says that it would require the removal of Polaris and army forces outside Europe and would also mean paying off large surface ships, cutting forces in Europe, including a halving of the British Army of the Rhine by 25,000 to 30,000 men, and equipping the RAF to cover less than the full spectrum of tactical air missions and eliminating the multirole combat aircraft programme.
The report goes on:
The implication … apart from the enormous international repercussions, would be a big cutback in jobs.
The only good part of the report is that it says that the study group which produced it was denied co-operation by the Ministry of Defence. We on this side of the House are delighted by that. I do not see how such proposals could be supported or accepted by anyone who wished this country to remain in NATO or who wished to preserve our free society.
We welcome the Under-Secretary to the Front Bench for his first speech today. We have had our differences in the past about Northern Ireland, but they do not extend to the sea. We know that the hon. Gentleman has always taken a special interest in defence. I congratulate him on his appointment, just as I congratulate him, in advance, on his speech. However, I trust that he will be able to repudiate in the strongest possible terms the proposals put forward to the Labour Party's National Executive this morning.
The Opposition agree strongly with two parts of the Government's policy. We agree with their recognition of, though not with their action about, the massive and increasing Soviet threat against us. We agree with their support of NATO as our top defence commitment. Our fundamental disagreement, apart, of course, from the cuts, stems strategically from our conviction that we are now witnessing an important development of the threat—a development which affects this country especially. This consists of the Soviet maritime build-up and world-wide naval deployment which, if there is a virtual stalemate in NATO's central region, provides Russia with ever-widening military operations well below the so-called threshold of nuclear conflict.
We sometimes forget the extent of our dependence on our sea routes throughout the Southern Atlantic and the Indian Ocean and the threat to them which has been increased by events in Southern Africa and by the Government's regrettable decision almost a year ago to terminate the Simonstown Agreement.
At present, Britain obtains 66 per cent. of her oil from the Persian Gulf, France 52 per cent. and Germany 62 per cent. Those already very high figures will increase sharply over the next decade, despite the development of North Sea oil and gas. Despite this continued and increasing dependence on these oil supplies and the trade routes which carry them, there are no substantial or coordinated efforts by the Western European nations to protect their interests in this crucial region.
The sea routes can be protected only by a greater maritime effort by the West, and the only organisation which exists to carry out that task is NATO. However, as the Government never tire of telling us, NATO stops at the Tropic of Cancer. But the Supreme Allied Commander in the Atlantic has in fact been authorised to plan outside this area in the Southern Atlantic and in the Indian Ocean, and recent developments have reinforced the urgent need for NATO to take more positive steps to safeguard our vital supply routes throughout this area.
Admiral Lewin, who until recently was one of NATO's foremost naval commanders, sounded a severe warning on television last October when he said:
I believe that by far the greatest risk lies in the part of the world where we are vulnerable and the Soviets are not, and this is at sea. The West depends utterly on freedom of sea communications … and the Soviet Union's fleet now exceeds anything that could be remotely justified simply for defence … The maritime balance has continued and is continuing to swing against us, so that this balance is now dangerously marginal.
The Secretary of State himself acknowledged the dangers in an article in Survival last year in which he said:
The growth of Soviet naval forces over the past decade has been a particularly worrying development, especially when one remembers how little the Soviet Union depends on the seas for the purposes of legitimate trade—in sharp contrast to ourselves and some of our allies".
The 1976 White Paper, like its predecessor, clearly spells out the extent of the threat posed by the Soviet navy. It itemises on page 5 of Chapter 1 the way in which in the past year it has increased in both numbers and quality. If we compare Figure 1 on page 6 with the corresponding Figure 3 of last year's White Paper, we see that in the past year alone the balance of surface ships in the Eastern Atlantic has deteriorated still further—from 1 to 1·7 in the Russian's favour last year to 1 to 2 now—and in submarines from 1 to 1·6 to 1 to 1·7 in the same period.
In view of those figures and the dire warnings about Russian naval power which have been sounded in the past year, the portion of the White Paper devoted to NATO strategy on pages 9 and 10 makes extraordinary reading.
The Government virtually ignore the maritime threat in chapter 1. There is only a passing reference to a wide range of options to restore the territorial and maritime integrity of the Alliance. The passages on strategy would be more suitable for Switzerland or some entirely landlocked country than they are for Great Britain. But sea power is not important for this country just because it is an island, or just because of its importance for European food and other resources; it is important for keeping the sea and air lanes open in an emergency, when reinforcements have to be brought across the Atlantic and the Channel. That aspect of the matter has been left out of the passages on strategy.
As the White Paper points out, in the Eastern Atlantic Britain provides the major contribution—about 70 per cent. —of NATO's immediately available maritime forces. That contribution is vital to the security of the seaborne supply and reinforcement routes from North America to Europe. It is estimated that about 100,000 tons of supplies a day would be needed for American forces in Europe and most of that would have to go by sea. The theme and emphasis of the White Paper on strategy seems to concentrate on the central area and neglect sea and air lanes and the flanks which remain of crucial importance.
In an article in the NATO Review, No. 3, published in 1974, the author pointed out that a basic concept of the Soviet general staff is the outflanking of Europe at both its wet flanks. The alarming expansion of the Soviet fleet seems to support that belief.
An important aspect of the dangers that we face at sea is graphically described by Admiral Gorshkov in his book "Red Star Rising", in which he reminds us that during World War II, for every operational U-boat Britain and the United States deployed 25 warships and 100 aircraft, and that for every German submariner at sea there were 100 British and American anti-submariners. He went on to ask this highly relevant question:
Therefore the question of the ratio of submarine to anti-submarine forces is of great interest even under present day conditions, since if anti-submarine warfare forces which were so numerous and technically up-to-date (for that time) possessing a vast superiority, turned out to be capable of only partially limiting the operations of diesel submarines, then what must this superiority be today in order to counter nuclear-powered submarines, whose combat capabilities cannot be compared with the capabilities of World War II submarines?
The admiral thus put his finger on the most important problem facing NATO's maritime forces today, which, despite the continued expansion of the Soviet fleet, has been largely ignored.
During our recent two-day debate on the White Paper I referred to some comments by the NATO Commander-in-Chief, Northern Europe, in which he drew attention to the extreme seriousness of the imbalance between the conventional forces on the two sides in that region. We must pay more attention to the security of the northern flank.
I now turn to the defence aspects of the cod war, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) hopes to return later. The House will agree that the Royal Navy deserves the highest praise for the brave and skilful way in which it has been carrying out an onerous and, in many ways, distasteful task in confronting a NATO ally in the lawful protection of our fishing fleets.
I do not intend to raise the fishing or legal aspects of this unfortunate dispute, but for some time I have been unhappy about the Government's handling of the wider aspects of the problem. The Government seem to attach too little weight to our NATO interest in the dispute. From the Government's policy one would hardly gather that Iceland is an important maritime surveillance base for NATO. Disturbing reports about Iceland leaving NATO have been coming thick and fast this week. That would be a serious blow to the Alliance.
It takes two to make a marriage. It takes two to walk together hand in hand. If Iceland will not come near us, Dr. Luns can shout his head off from the top of the Himalayas and it will make no difference. Our Ministers, and the Alliance have done all they humanly can. Why is the right hon. Gentleman so purblind as to say that it is our fault or the fault of the Alliance? There is a third party involved.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman on marriage. I never said that it was all our fault or that it was Dr. Luns' fault. Much of the fault lies with Iceland. The Government's handling of the problem was entirely characteristic of the way in which the present Prime Minister handled foreign affairs when he was Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary he blustered and blundered. It is high time that the Government took a new initiative.
Will the Under-Secretary tell the House whether NATO's capabilities in other areas have been seriously damaged by the cod war? How many frigates have been damaged, and what will be the cost of repairing them? It seems to many people that because our frigates are sophisticated and expensive ships, they are at a disadvantage against the small, tough and inexpensive ships, which can sustain damage more easily. On the related topic of the security of our North Sea oil installations, I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us about the co-operation with our NATO allies. Can he also give assurances about the command, control and co-operation between the three Services and about the equipment that will be used for the protection of installations? It has been alleged that the five new protection vesesls that are being built will be too slow and not heavily enough armed. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us on that.
I turn to the question of the southern flank. The Government's decision to withdraw from the Mediterranean, which is glossed over so ineptly in the White Paper, was especially unfortunate because of the serious disarray in NATO's position on that flank. Admiral Johnson, Commander Allied Forces South, last year said of these cuts:
The United Kingdom's current proposal would greatly reduce her traditional rôle as a Mediterranean power. Further, it would seriously lessen our already limited conventional capabilities, our vital external reinforcements and our technical nuclear operations. I believe the results would far exceed those of her earlier withdrawals from East of Suez and would ultimately deal a heavy blow to our deterrent posture as well as eliminating an important stabilising influence in the region.
Subsequent events in the region have not contradicted that.
I must ask the hon. Gentleman to give the House a further explanation of the Government's decision about the supply of tritium, about which there has been considerable speculation in the Press. We should like to know, for example, what effect the decision is likely to have on the duration of the life of our Polaris missiles.
We on the Opposition side of the House unanimously support our commitment to NATO's central front in the shape of BAOR and the Second Tactical Air Force. Elsewhere, we believe that both in our national interests and in the NATO interest we should veer a little from a continental towards a more maritime-oriented strategy, backed by multi-purpose uncommitted reserves sufficiently flexible to be deployed in Europe, or in support of our commitments elsewhere, or in unforeseen circumstances.
As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said in her famous speech in January,
The first duty of any Government is to safeguard its people against external aggression, to guarantee the survival of our way of life.
Nowhere is that more true than at sea. The Opposition have a clear responsibility to do all we can to ensure that, to borrow a recent expression of President Ford, the Government "stop cheating the country's defences". As my right hon. Friend emphasised in her speech, this is
a time when we need to strengthen our defences.
Of course, this places a burden upon us. But it is one that we must be willing to bear if we want our freedom to survive.
That is our policy. It is not the Government's policy. But our plain duty as an Opposition is to go on reminding the Government that if the realm is to be properly and effectively defended, and if we are to play our full part in the Atlantic Alliance, they must get their priorities right. At the very least, they must on no account impose any further cuts on defence.
The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour) made a kind reference to me in his introductory remarks, and I am much obliged. I am all the more sorry that I must preface mine by taking issue with his hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow), who said in his opening speech in the Army debate last Thursday, bracketing me with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force:
Both these hon. Gentlemen have been known in the past to make statements calling for the withdrawal of troops from Ulster."—[Official Report, 6th May 1976; Vol. 901, c. 1493.]
The hon. Gentleman either did not check his source and therefore his authority for making that grave statement—if he had, he would have known that it was groundless—or he was less than careful and
perhaps even less than scrupulous in nevertheless going ahead and making it.
The right hon. Gentleman said today that of course we had differences over Northern Ireland, and indeed we did. There was rarely a time when he stood at the Dispatch Box as Minister of State for Defence when we did not have a difference over Northern Ireland. But when I wound up for the Opposition in the last Army debate under the Conservatives, I said:
It is possible to endorse and support the British Army, as we unhesitatingly do, and still despair occasionally, as I have done, of, say, the Minister of State for Defence. There is no inconsistency here and no betrayal."—[Official Report, 5th April 1973; Vol. 854, c. 730.]
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I assure him that I was at pains to give him notice, but he will know that no matter how much care one may take in these matters it is not always possible to communicate with somebody. I tried to inform the hon. Gentleman yesterday that I would raise the matter today, and I took the precaution of writing to him at his home address. I did not merely put the conventional note on the board an hour before the debate but wrote to the hon. Gentleman the day before it.
I have no intention of imputing to the hon. Gentleman anything other than honourable conduct, but no such message has reached me, though we have had an opportunity to exchange a note across the Table. I regret that the hon. Gentleman's intention was not carried out. No matter whose fault it may be, I see no reason to go on further about the matter.
I do. I want to say two more things. First, I got in touch with the hon. Gentleman at his home address because I understood that that was where his mail went every day. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman did not give me notice last Thursday that he would refer to me.
It is a great honour for me to be taking part in this debate today, my first as Navy Minister. I am very much looking forward to hearing the views of hon. Members on both sides of the House, many of whom I know have had long experience in naval matters and from whose contributions I expect to learn a great deal. I shall do my best, with the leave of the House, to answer at the end of the debate any specific questions that may arise, but for the moment I wish to concentrate on the broad outline of our defence policy in so far as it affects the Royal Navy.
I come first to the matter of the threat, which was raised by the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham today and by some of his hon. Friends at Question Time yesterday. Of course, the Government's prime duty in deciding how much of the country's resources to allocate to defence is to ensure that the measures taken are adequate to deal with the threat posed. The right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends have spoken about the Soviet maritime threat on previous occasions, and I am sure that his hon. Friends will do so again today. Against them, some of my hon. Friends below the Gangway have on other occasions argued, and may well repeat some of their arguments today, that the Soviet Fleet has not grown at all, and that on the contrary it is NATO which is going in for all the expansion.
Before we can undertake a sensible debate on this subject, it is incumbent on me to try to reconcile these contradictory views, to discuss the nature of the threat at sea and how, consequently, we should be prepared to counter it.
First of all, let us take the balance of ready forces in the Eastern Atlantic at the present time. As the House knows. this is one of the main areas on which we decided to concentrate our efforts following the defence review. Its significance for the defence of the central front in Europe cannot be understated, since it is by sea—and therefore through this area—that most of the reinforcements from the United States would come in times of tension or war. It is also the gateway through which ships of the Soviet Northern Fleet enter the Atlantic. The 1976 Defence White Paper contains on page 6 a table which shows a superiority of Warsaw Pact over NATO forces of 2:1 in surface ships, 1·7:1 in submarines and 1·5:1 in combat aircraft.
Let me elaborate on this table, since it has been the source of some confusion in the past and I should like there to be no misunderstanding here today about what it represents. The title of the table is
The balance of ready forces in the Eastern Atlantic".
This means those units which are declared to be available to NATO for operations in the Eastern Atlantic, and on the Soviet side for operations by the Northern Fleet. I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) was under some misconception about this in the recent defence debate. The comparison is between units available in the area, not based in the area, and the estimate is thus made regardless of the location of the bases from which the units might come.
Of course, counting the numbers of ships on each side is an over-simplified way of measuring the balance. Weapons systems and equipment must also be taken into account; but the odds I have quoted are a fair indication. Clearly, they are nothing to be complacent about, and indeed they have worsened somewhat since last year. But at the same time I would not subscribe to the despondent and alarmist noises which are frequently to be heard emanating from the other side of the House whenever defence is discussed.
I think hon. Members opposite are often inclined to forget that the United Kingdom is a member of an Alliance, and that therefore we do not stand alone. The fact is that the existing triad of forces maintained by the NATO Alliance—conventional, tactical nuclear, and strategic nuclear—should be sufficient to deter aggression by the Warsaw Pact, and to maintain the credibility of our strategy of flexible response.
Moving on to the question of the growth in recent years of the Soviet Fleet, here again the picture is a complicated one. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central referred to it in his most interesting speech during the last defence debate. The numbers he gave at that time for the production of both NATO and Warsaw Pact major surface warships were largely correct. What he did not mention, however, was the production of Soviet submarines, which was of the order of 40 per cent. greater than NATO's in the years in question. Nor did he mention a very significant factor in the equation—the dependence of the West on the sea, for trade in times of peace, and for military reinforcements in war, a dependence which is not shared by the Soviet Union and her allies.
I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for giving way and for the way in which he has referred to my speech in the defence debate. I should like to take him up on the point he made about a 40 per cent. greater production of submarines by the Soviet fleet. Submarines in the Soviet Fleet are largely related to ballistic missile submarine forces. In terms of attack submarines, the Warsaw Pact has 81 and NATO has 80. Therefore, there is almost a precise balance between the two.
Taking the most important factors in the operation and strength of the two fleets, and looking at the number of vessels produced and their capabilities, I am bound to take the view which I took, and it is a view by which I stand.
My hon. Friend also quoted the United States Secretary of Defence as a confirmation that the West need not worry about the growth in Soviet naval power. He omitted, however, to quote a later passage in the same document by Mr. Rumsfeld, which reads as follows.
Given the present trends in the Soviet Navy, maintenance of a favourable maritime balace will not be possible unless we modernise our fleet, maintain force levels and improve significantly the readiness of existing ships".
In other words, what Mr. Rumsfeld was saying in his statement—and I would go
along with him entirely—was that, although the Soviet Navy does not have command of the seas, the future balance depends on our continuing efforts.
I will give my right hon. Friend the exact figures if I catch Mr. Speaker's eye later in the debate.
I remind hon. Gentlemen opposite that the Royal Navy's contribution to the defence of the Eastern Atlantic and Channel areas remained virtually undiminished following the defence review. We are maintaining the cruiser programme; we are going ahead with the development of the Sea Harrier; the nuclear-powered submarine programme remains intact. The core of our anti-submarine forces is thus being maintained. We are building new classes of destroyers and frigates and introducing new and powerful missile systems.
Our new construction programme is impressive both in quantity and quality; at present we are building one anti-submarine cruiser, three Fleet nuclear powered submarines, seven Type 42 destroyers, five Type 21 frigates and two. Type 22 frigates. The Royal Navy's first Type 22 frigate, HMS "Broadsword" is in fact being launched today at the Scotstoun shipyard of Yarrows. HMS "Broadsword" possesses a first-rate antisubmarine capability, and carries Exocet guided missiles, a Sea Wolf surface-to-air missile system and Lynx helicopters.
May I ask the Under-Secretary how it is. that he, in his capacity as Minister responsible for the Royal Navy, shows such intelligent anxiety about the buildup of submarines in the Warsaw Pact countries when the Royal Air Force has had a cut of 25 per cent. in its Nimrod force, which is an essential part of the surveillance of submarine activity?
I am not saying that at all. I advanced the proposition, which I thought was irrefutable, that this was a matter for my hon. Friend.
HMS "Broadsword" is the first Royal Navy ship to have an all-missile armament. Furthermore, this year we plan to order a second ASW cruiser, two Fleet nuclear powered submarines, a Type 42 destroyer and a Type 22 frigate. This provides conclusive evidence not only that we are doing our utmost to fulfil our NATO mission in the Eastern Atlantic and Channel areas, but that we are keeping the shipyards busy.
Perhaps the most outstanding of these new ships is the anti-submarine cruiser. We have three of these vessels in our programme and the first, HMS "Invincible", is due to enter service at the end of the decade. Her primary rôle will be the deployment of Sea King ASW helicopters, each with an ASW capability equivalent to that of a frigate. In addition, she will be armed with the Sea Dart area air defence missile system, will provide the command and control facilities essential for the operation of task groups, and will carry the Sea Harrier to disrupt the activities of the reconnaissance and target-indicating aircraft on which the Soviet long-range missile forces depend. The combination of these capabilities within a single hull is highly cost-effective; their provision in a number of smaller hulls would be very much more expensive in both money and manpower.
Although the growth in the Soviet submarine fleet has been disturbing, the number of submarines that we contribute or are planning to contribute to NATO is itself not insignificant. By the end of this year we shall have nine nuclear-powered fleet submarines in service. Negotiations with the United States for the procurement of Sub Harpoon are nearing completion, and initial development work has already begun.
This shows that we are doing our utmost to realise the full potential of the nuclear-powered fleet for swift long-range attack on surface ships. Our decision to go ahead with the development of the Sea Skua helicopter-borne anti-ship missile underlines our determination to provide our forces with first-class weapons. This weapon gives the helicopter a strike capability that will enable our destroyers and frigates to hit targets far beyond the horizon. The wide fitting of the anti-ship weapon Exocet throughout the Fleet is another example of the improvements we are making to the quality of our ships.
Not without notice. Perhaps I may take that question up later if I catch your eye, Mr. Speaker.
I should like to say a word about mine countermeasures. The importance that we attach to this is illustrated by the orders we are placing for the new class of combined minehunter sweeper; our choice of the second builder for these ships, Yarrow's, on Clydeside, should create about 600 new jobs by the end of the decade.
As for our amphibious forces, following the defence review these will now consist of the Royal Marine brigade headquarters, three Commando groups together with their associated Wessex helicopters and Army support, and two assault ships, one of which will be kept at immediate operational readiness. HMS "Hermes", which is being converted to the ASW rôle this year, will also retain a secondary rôle as a Commando ship.
The House will also be aware that, following consultations with our Allies, we have offered to assign the second and third Commando groups as well as the first to specific NATO plans and to train and equip one of these two groups and a small tactical brigade headquarters for operations in Norway in winter conditions. Commando forces continue to train frequently with units of the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps, with whom they would operate in war. This training and that of Royal Netherlands Marine Corps officers and men at Royal Marine establishments is of great mutual benefit.
I come now to the situation outside NATO. Hon. Members are well aware that as a result of the defence review we decided that priority must be given to those areas where the United Kingdom could make the most significant contribution to its security and that of the Alliance. We therefore concentrated our efforts in the maritime sphere on the Eastern Atlantic and Channel areas, the United Kingdom and its immediate approaches and our contribution to the NATO strategic nuclear deterrent. But, as I have said, the members of the Alliance depend on seaborne trade with countries beyond the NATO area for many vital commodities, and it is therefore inevitable that they will take an interest in developments anywhere in the world that might give a potential enemy the ability to threaten the shipping that carries that trade.
It is thus only prudent, as I am sure the House recognises, to undertake contingency planning for the protection of our shipping wherever it may be at risk. As we stated in the 1975 White Paper, the Royal Navy retains the ability to deploy world-wide in support of our interests. For example, a group of six warships and three Royal Fleet auxiliaries has just returned from a round-the-world deployment that provided many valuable opportunities for ships to train and exercise together and with other navies. Not only does this demonstrate our ability to deploy world-wide in defence of our own and allied interests; it provides a Royal Navy presence from time to time in areas such as the Indian Ocean.
But hon. Members on the Opposition Benches should be under no illusion; we have no intention of reversing our defence review decisions. We are determined to bring Britain into the second half of the twentieth century, to face up to the fact that we can no longer fulfil commitments that were taken on in the heyday of British imperial power. We must concentrate on the priorities defined in the Defence Review and, above all, within the financial limitations imposed on us by our present economic position in the world.
I come now to the PESC exercise. The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham has had a good deal to say about the recent cuts in defence expenditure that we made as part of the Government's 1975 Public Expenditure Review, but have he and his colleagues really thought through their position? Did they really believe that defence could remain exempt from the cuts in public spending that they themselves have been so vociferous in demanding? Certainly some of their number did not, as was illustrated by the Bow Group pamphlet "A Chancellor's Primer", which recommended among other things the cancellation of the ASW cruiser programme. I am sure that even the Government's most adamant critics on the Opposition Benches would accept that it is no good having a defence policy that ruins economically the nation that it seeks to protect militarily.
Not at all. That is why I was glad to be able to point out with the utmost care at least twice yesterday afternoon that our country is now a member of an alliance—a formidable alliance—and it makes a vital contribution, perhaps as much as 70 per cent. in the Eastern Atlantic and the Channel areas, in the sphere that we are debating today. That contribution has been left virtually undiminished both by the PESC review and the defence review. That point must be understood.
The Minister says that the concentration of criticism has come from the Conservative Benches. Surely it is fair for him to admit that the recently widely publicised report of the Defence Sub-Committee, comprising equal representation of the two parties, also made criticism. Is he not being unfair in suggesting that all the Doubts and criticisms have come from the Opposition side of the House, when his own side was represented by 50 per cent in that report?
I am well aware not only of that report but of the work done by that Committee. I did not need to spend very long at the Ministry of Defence to learn of the keen appreciation there for the Committee's work. The criticisms in the report, however, do not run by any means as far as many that have been advanced by other Opposition Members.
They are, indeed.
Given the need for reductions in Government expenditure, it was inevitable that defence should have to take a share of the savings. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explained to the House in the defence debate on 31st March that we had preferred to make cuts in the "tail" where the defence review had left scope for further studies rather than in the "teeth" of the Armed Forces. We were determined that the front line and the effectiveness of our contribution to NATO should not be put at risk. That cannot be over-stressed.
In the case of the Navy, the Government had said in the 1975 Defence White Paper that the defence review reductions in the strength of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines would lead in due course to economies in shore support and training. We would aim to secure savings as quickly as was consistent with the needs of the fleet.
In order to identify the scope for economies in this area, we set in hand a comprehensive examination of the shore and support organisation. In the wake of the public expenditure review, several decisions have already been announced The 1976 White Paper names several naval support depots that will be closed and mentions that the level of support will be reduced in other ways. It goes on to say that our object is to secure further economies.
I have no illusions that savings in shore support can be obtained easily or painlessly. We are satisfied, however, that the measures we are taking will not put at risk the operations of the Fleet. The closures and reductions will require some readjustments at the naval bases, in our supply and transport organisation, Fleet Air Arm support and in port services, but we shall be watching to ensure that the traditional high standards of service to the Fleet are not sacrificed in the search for economies.
In the defence review, we had already planned a saving of substantial numbers of civilian jobs in the naval area, largely as a result of the decisions to withdraw naval forces from overseas and to reduce Royal Fleet auxiliary numbers. Most of this reduction involved locally-engaged civilians abroad. At home, the reductions we have now announced total about 1,500 civilian posts in the naval support area, on top of the reductions already identified in the Defence Review. Some further savings are being considered.
The Ministry of Defence is a major employer of civilians, and civilians have always played a vital rôle in support of the Fleet. The Royal Navy owes a great debt to them. It is therefore a painful business to have to close naval support establishments and declare redundancies. The measures will be phased over a period, and we shall do all that we can, as good employers, to ensure that the number of redundancies is kept to the minimum possible by offering alternative jobs in the Ministry or elsewhere in the public service, wherever practicable. Discussions on these aspects are now being held with the staff associations and trade unions.
The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham asked about the offshore tapestry. Perhaps I may take up this point later.
I should like now to turn to the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference, the latest session of which has just finished in New York. Although this is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, I think I may be allowed to express independently the hope that general agreement will be reached on all the subjects under discussion. For it is only by reaching—and keeping to—international agreements that states can hope to avoid damaging conflicts of the kind we are now experiencing with Iceland.
I have just re-received a message from Hull that the Icelandic coastguard gunboat "Aegir" has fired a shot across the bow of the Hull trawler "Primella" of Marrs Limited and has prepared a boarding party. Does my hon. Friend know anything about this incident, and is there anything he can do about it?
The "Primella" has been fishing off the west coast of Iceland, several hundred miles from the designated fishing area. It is reported that the "Aegir" has fired a shot across its bows and has put a boarding party in the water. The "Primella" is still steering south and a Nimrod is in the area. We are urgently considering what further action is necessary. If I can give the House any further information later I shall do so.
It is in the water. If I can make a further statement later I shall be glad to do so.
The Royal Navy, supported by the RAF, continues to provide protection for our trawlers fishing legally on the high seas off Iceland. Despite the continual harassment by the Icelandic gunboats, their dangerous tactics and close manoeuvrings resulting in collisions, and sometimes even apparently deliberate rammings, protection has overall been effective. No trawlers have been arrested, and there have been long periods with almost no warp cuttings.
For the first time towards the end of April the Icelanders deployed as many as six gunboats, and, because of this and favourable weather conditions, did achieve some success. As from Monday of this week, the level of protection was increased by the deployment of two more frigates, bringing the total to six. Despite a period of intense harassment last Thursday when the increased level of protection was announced and eight collisions ensued, only one warp was cut; none has been cut since Thursday, despite further harassment.
But as my right hon. Friend said in the House last week, a balance has to be struck in providing protection—a balance between preserving continuity of fishing and the lives of the men in ships, both British and Icelandic. Clearly the former cannot be given priority regardless of the consequences. Secondly, we have to remember that Iceland is a valuable ally in NATO; and that is why we seek an amicable and speedy end to this dispute.
In the meantime we shall continue to protect the lives and livelihoods of our fishermen, and I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute both to them and to the Royal Navy for the good sense and restraint all have shown in carrying out their difficult tasks.
I should like to pay a special tribute —and I know hon. Members on both sides of the House will wish to join me —to the men and women of my old service, the Royal Navy, to the Royal Marines, the Women's Royal Naval Service, and the Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service for the part they play in serving the nation so selflessly, often in dangerous circumstances. In particular, I should mention those who have served or are serving with such courage in Northern Ireland—42 Commando are currently in Belfast and I hope to visit them next week—and those who mount search and rescue operations, often with little regard to their own personal safety, to assist those in distress.
I come to my final remarks. If they are of a more personal nature than those that have gone before, I hope that the House will bear with me.
The Royal Navy is sometimes depicted as traditional, and even conservative. I cannot accept that either trait is carried to excess in the light of my wartime service in, and subsequent exposure to, the Navy. Prior to joining the Home Fleet as a seaman in 1940, I spent two days in a depot ship in Scapa Flow—the old "Iron Duke" Jellicoe's First World War flagship. By the end of the war I had moved through such growth areas as Coastal Forces and the Fleet Air Arm. My duties had ranged from scrubbing decks, painting ship and peeling potatoes on the lower deck of a battle cruiser to navigation responsibilities in Coastal Forces, flying duties in the Fleet Air Arm, service afloat in converted, and, subsequently, the very latest, Fleet carriers, and, finally, the command of the Navy School of Air Radar.
In terms of naval technology, that latter activity represented a greater advance on the old "Iron Duke"—where I started afloat—than the "Iron Duke" on Nelson's "Victory".
The Navy has undergone a further revolution since World Wars I and II. As the oceans become both a greater source of and a greater medium for conflict, a new array of technology for war at sea is being introduced. The British Navy stands, as usual, on the very frontier of current development.
Nothing strikes me more during my visit to the Fleet nowadays than the new direction of naval doctrine and strategy and their impressive reflection in the most sophisticated equipment.
Nothing surprises me less, however, than the success with which the Navy has adapted yet again to a changing milieu, and preserved yet again its renowned combat effectiveness.
The Navy would say the credit lies largely with the workers in industry who provide the Fleet with its hulls, equipment and other provisions. And, unquestionably, sight must not be lost of the current MOD programme, which occupies about 20,000 shipyard workers, and the planned programme which should suffice to maintain the three specialist warship builders—namely, Vickers, Yarrows and Vosper-Thorneycroft. I pay tribute to them through the hon. Members on both sides of the House who represent them in this House.
I revert to the question of the boarding party, in which I think the whole House is interested. I think that the House would like to know who gives the order to repel a boarding party. Is it the Minister, or the person in charge in the area in which the incident takes place?
I said that I would try to make a further statement on this matter at a later stage, including the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised.
I was paying a tribute to workers in industry who provide the Navy with its hulls, equipment and other provisions. I also pay tribute to the vital contribution of the Royal dockyards, which provide for the refitting of warships as well as other specialist facilities.
My personal experience, however—and my mind's eye ranges from my first ship HMS "Repulse", to the first of our new class of Type 42 destroyers, HMS "Sheffield", in which the city I represent takes great pride—leaves me in no doubt that the major credit for the continued successful adaptation of the Navy to an ever-quickening pace of change, despite the buffeting to morale inseparable from such a transitory process, must go to its personnel.
Their demanding tasks require of officers and men at all levels yet higher and higher skills. They are not content to rest on their conventional values, distinctive and enduring though they are. They are as conscious as any other body of men and women in our society of the importance of yet higher and higher standards. That is the hallmark of the true professional.
The Navy is therefore on the move, and in that sense points the way in an entirely appealing and wholesome direction.
I am most grateful for this early opportunity to. speak in the debate. I feel it appropriate to pay recognition to the Under-Secretary of State for his first major contribution from the Dispatch Box. I am sure that the House has listened to his speech with considerable interest. It is comforting for many of my hon. Friends and I to know of the wide and historic experience that the hon. Gentleman brings to the office that he now holds. We were moved by the sentiments and feelings that he has for the Royal Navy. Surely that can lead only to a close understanding of the problems that the Royal Navy faces.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the figures in the White Paper and contrived, with what I would term as an element of fantasy, to show that the figures are not as one would read them. In effect, he was saying that the Russian forces are not as strong as we would suppose. He went on to dab whitewash over the growth of the Russian Navy—a growth that has been accepted and spoken of by many eminent members of the Armed Forces. I refer in particular to Admiral Lewin, who was until recently the Supreme Allied Commander, North Atlantic. The hon. Gentleman brushed aside the increase in expenditure that the United States has appropriated to its defence budget and ignored the growth in expenditure that the French Government have introduced to ensure that their level of defences is increased.
These increases have been brought about by the belief of those nations that we face a growing threat from Soviet Russia. Only recently there was a report that Russia is spending 42 per cent. more on armaments than had been supposed by the West. I contradict and refute what the hon. Gentleman has said, and reinforce the eloquent words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour).
As the Under-Secretary of State has said, we are party to an alliance. It is a vitally important and powerful alliance. With its combined navies the NATO Alliance presents a powerful force against Soviet operations. However, we as a nation must contain a proper balance within our own Royal Navy. We may at any time face a conventional situation with which, for various reasons, we alone will have to deal.
I address myself to a specific area that I feel needs special emphasis. I refer to the threat of mines. We rely on the freedom of movement that our ships enjoy, and must have, from our harbours and estuaries, and along our sea routes. We are by nature a trading nation. We have a long coastline and many harbours and other areas to protect. The Soviet Navy has a large capacity for laying mines. I do not know what the estimates of its capacity are, and I appreciate that they are difficult to formulate, but it would be unwise of us to ignore the fact that the Soviet capability is considerable.
The Ministry of Defence's evidence to the Expenditure Committee drew attention to the threat of mines in the Clyde area, and the effect that they would have on our nuclear submarines. As the Royal Navy is one of the navies of NATO, that factor has to be taken into account overall. However, we would have to deal with local mining threats, and it is the task of sweeping mines that would essentially fall on the Royal Navy.
Essentially, our operation must be to prevent the laying of mines by either sea or air. We must be assured by the Minister that we have sufficient forces to to do that. I do not believe that we have sufficient forces. This is one of the great weaknesses of the Royal Navy.
We need an assessment of the key areas which would be selected for blockading by mines and which would have to be protected. Therefore, we depend on ships to form a screen of protection against a sea invasion for mine laying. Have we sufficient ships to undertake that task? Likewise, we depend on air cover to prevent mines being laid from the air. That is another matter of concern.
When I talk of mine sweeping, I refer also to mine-hunting—mine counter measures. What is our minesweeping capability? The French Navy has 46 ships available for coastal and inshore mine-sweeping operations. The Federal Republic of Germany has 57 ships. Holland has 43 ships. The United Kingdom, which has the longest coastline of all, has 45 ships according to Jane's "Fighting Ships", 37 ships according to the White Paper, 34 ships according to an Answer given by the Minister on 29th March, and 33 ships according to a report in the Daily Telegraph a short time ago. Will the Minister clarify this matter in his winding-up speech? Either way—whether it be 45, 33 or some other number of ships—the majority of those ships were built between 1953 and 1960. Replacement of many of those ships is becoming a matter of great urgency. It is a weakness which draws attention to the mine threat which could be posed by Russia.
How many minesweepers are likely to be ordered, when will attention be given to this matter, and when will the orders be placed? I regard this as a critically serious matter.
New ways must be discovered of finding and destroying mines. The relevant section in the Second Report of the Expenditure Committee refers to the feasibility study stage of hovercraft in mine counter-measures. It is about time that the Ministry of Defence got on with the job of testing, in a practical way, the use of hovercraft for detecting and destroying mines. I understand that a hovercraft was purchased in 1972. We are now in 1976, four years later, and the hovercraft has been well and truly tested as a sea vehicle. I believe that it is time that experiments were carried out in the direction which I have indicated.
It would be possible to use the LCTs —tank landing craft—which are currently in use with the Army's Corps of Transport. They are highly magnetic vessels. Therefore, they have mine appeal as a result. They are shallow draughted and could act as mother ships in conjunction with hovercraft. I believe that idea should be considered.
It is important to reassess the mine threat in the light of our available task forces. The reservists played a valuable part during the last war in sweeping mines. I believe that the reservists today can play an equally vital part in running minesweeping operations in the event of a lesser or greater emergency. However, the reservists must be encouraged to improve their operational skills. I greatly regret that the number of minesweepers attached to the reserves, under the review, was reduced from 11 to six. I should like an assurance that the reservists will be given effective training in the Fleet as they are now unable to obtain a sufficient number of training billets in their own coastal minesweepers. Only by giving reservists proper and efficient training and a task to do can we draw them into the service. I hope that encouragement will be given to recruit and to the work which reservists have to do.
An important part of a reservist's job is operational capability. He must be closely connected with what is going on in the Royal Navy and to be able to undertake certain tasks when a situation calls for them.
The Secretary of State, opening the defence debate on 31st March, spoke rather grandly, I thought, of the Regular Forces being supplemented by 300,000 civilians and 250,000 reservists. The Royal Navy and Royal Marine Reserves amount to 27,800, but they comprise the Royal Navy and Royal Marine Regular reserves, the retired and emergency list of officers, the Royal Fleet Reserve and the Royal Navy and Royal Marine pensioners. It is no use talking about reserves in these grand global figures. It is the reservists, trained and able to perform tasks at short notice, who are important and valuable to our forces.
I turn now to consider the rôle of the small ships in the Royal Navy. We have a mixture of ships, sizes, capabilities and roles which they have to play. We appear to lack a coherent plan or policy on their use or pattern of action. For instance, we have four large patrol craft of the Kingfisher class. Three are under construction now. HMS "Kingfisher" is in service, I understand. The task of the Kingfisher class vessels is coastal fishery protection.
We have one fast attack craft, three fast training boats, and five new Island class vessels are being built for offshore surveillance and protection of oil rigs. Presumably they are designed to meet the situation which the Royal Navy is now meeting with some difficulty, because of the ships which are being used, in the cod war. The Island class is a trawler type of vessel. Will the Minister clarify the position as to the designation of these vessels, because we have "ship", "craft", "boat" and "vessel"? I am not entirely sure about the reasons for these different terms.
The characteristics of the Island class are somewhat dull. These vessels are certainly slow, having a maximum speed of 16 knots. They are equipped with only one Bofors gun. I should describe them as Donkey class ships.
The Ocean class tug is similar in size. It has a smaller amount of accommodation for the crew, but that could be enlarged. It is sturdy, reliable and useful for towing. Three Ocean class tugs were recently built, at a cost of over £2 million each. Repeat orders would no doubt be greatly welcomed by the Beverley shipyard in Yorkshire.
The new class of Island class ship is similar, and costs nearly £3 million. I cannot see why this special class of ship has been constructed when an honest-to-goodness Ocean class tug would do the job just as well with the ability to tow into the bargain.
What are we to do in this situation? I believe that the small ship in the Royal Navy has an important part to play. I ask the Under-Secretary to consider the production of a multi-purpose, versatile small ship that could be used in the future, perhaps as the old corvette vessels which he may well recall from his naval experience. They should be adapted to combine the purposes of oil rig protection, fishery protection—in the cod war sense—patrolling, convoy escort and surveillance.
Such a new class might well have characteristics similar to those of the Russian Nanuchka class. This ship is 196 metres in length, with a good beam, to ride difficult seas. It carries an interesting armament: six surface ship-to-ship missiles; a twin ship-to-air missile system; anti-submarine weapons; and two antiaircraft 57 mm guns. She has a speed of 32 knots. She is a useful lethal small ship, adaptable to many uses.
I should like to see our design, however, somewhat changed from that which I have just described, to perform more of an anti-submarine rôle, to minimise the rôle of an anti-aircraft weapons system and to provide a helicopter platform. The helicopter carried by such a small vessel would provide a wide-ranging capability for mine detection, submarine detection and, indeed, missile attack.
Here is a case for a ship packed with armaments, not cheap, perhaps, but attractive for its versatility and performance, and value for money. I hope that the Miniser will take particular account of that. Such a ship would perform a very useful and valuable task in convoy escort work and in screen protection against a mining threat from minelaying vessels of, for instance, the Soviet Navy. Her speed would give her versatility and would give us a far greater range of coverage. I would imagine that such a ship would perform some of the tasks that the old Hunt class destroyers did during the war. They were largely responsible for the saving of many of the convoys coming across the Atlantic. It is the small ship that also provides the Navy with the training opportunities for young officers and men to work in a confined ship with responsibilities and an opportunity of getting some action.
I hope that the Minister will not only take real notice of what is said in the Chamber but will read carefully—I am sure that he has done so already—the reports of the Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee and its criticisms, and the points to which it draws attention. It is important that the House takes account of what is said by people such as those who are members of that Committee, from both sides of the House. Parliament will be nothing unless it takes account of what is said and the advice it is given.
The hon. Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks) paid a very nice tribute to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy on his debut. I should like to add to that tribute, from the Government side of the House.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary mentioned the tremendous technological changes that take place in the Navy—and my word, they are tremendous. I know from experience that the Navy that I came to know when I became a Minister was totally different from the Navy in which I served during the war. It is a long time since I had any responsibility for the Navy, but I am certain that the whole thing has changed again and that I am totally out of date. However, one thing does not change, and that is the feel of the Navy. It was quite obvious from my hon. Friend's concluding remarks that he has that feel. I am sure that he will find his job of being the political head of the Navy and looking after that great Service one of the most absorbing and satisfying jobs that a politician can have. I only hope that it does not spoil him for other jobs that he may have in years to come.
The hon. Member for Harrogate—it is rather nice to see so many Yorkshire Members present for the debate—asked my hon. Friend some questions about mines. He asked in particular about the use of hovercraft in mine countermeasures. He suggested that the evaluations of hovercraft began in 1972 and should by now be complete. I can tell him that they began rather earlier than that. They were certainly beginning as long ago as 1966. I fully agree with him that it is about time that we knew whether hovercraft can be used not only for mine counter-measures but as fast patrol craft and so on. One of the problems is seaworthiness. I should like to know to what extent that problem has been overcome. I shall listen to the reply on that point with great interest.
I want to deal with only one point, which is a major point at present. That is the question raised by the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour) about the protection of our supplies of North Sea oil. This is obviously a major British interest. Equally obvious, it is fairly vulnerable. It is vulnerable in outright war and even in periods of comparative peace. It is vulnerable from the air, from surface attack from the sea, from submarine attack and from attack from land. The threat can come not only from an openly declared enemy but from the covert guerrilla saboteur who is such a curse to the peace of the world at present.
The protection of this major interest calls for the deployment of a very wide range of defences and services—air-sea rescue, anti-pollution, aircraft, submarines, surface ships and land-based guards. I have to tell my hon. Friend that so far I am not satisfied that this defence is being properly organised. At least five Government Departments are involved—the Department of the Environment, the Home Office, the Department of Trade, the Department of Energy and the Ministry of Defence. As I understand it, these Departments are very loosely coordinated by an interdepartmental committee which is presided over, with immense self-satisfaction, by some official in the old Board of Trade, or the Department of Trade as it is now. The Navy, in the offing, is mumbling about not treading on the corns of the civil power. While this going on, no one seems to know whether the defences of our installations at sea and ashore are in the care of the coast guards or the Chief Constable of Aberdeen or assorted groups of Boy Scouts. No Minister is directly and solely responsible for the organising of the defences of this vital concern.
What I believe is necessary—this is not the first time I have said it—is the creation of a special task force. Every part of defence—in the air, on the sea, submarine and on land—providing protection against the elements as well as against man, can be done by the Royal Navy or by the Royal Marines as part of their regular training and experience.
Such a task force should be an integral part of the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines and should be under a new command. I would suggest that the Admiral in charge of it might be called the "Commander-in-Chief of Celtic Seas" and that the task force should have at its disposal an intelligence network which is in constant touch, as far as possible, with the sort of guerrilla groups throughout the world whose malice may at any lime threaten these supplies. Here, in this House, one Minister, and one Minister alone, must be responsible, and that is clearly the Secretary of State for Defence.
I am sorry to go on about this, but from the information we have so far extracted from the Government I do not believe that the defence of this vital British interest is being properly and effectively organised. That means that our oil supplies are vulnerable and are seriously at risk. Yet they are a major interest. I hope that my hon. Friend will deal with this point at some length when he comes to reply. Although there are many important considerations to which the Secretary of State for Defence must be continually applying his mind. the proper organisation of the protection of our oil supplies should be the top priority of the Ministry of Defence.
It is a pleasure for me to follow not only an ex-First Lord of the Admiralty, whose affection for the Navy is well known and who is very much respected by the Navy; but also the new First Lord of the Admiralty, and I add to the welcome already given to him. His knowledge and background of naval service will be of enormous help to him in his job. It was typical of his modest character that he put his own qualifications at the end of his speech rather than hoisting his colours before he started.
The Navy is in good heart—it always is—but I shall make one fundamental point today, and that is that it is too damned small.
The Minister referred to HMS "Iron Duke" and technical developments. It is interesting that HMS "Iron Duke" had all the guns to blow anything which floated out of the water, but no information and the poor people standing on the bridge with vibrating binoculars did not know whether the smoke on the horizon was friend or foe. But nowadays we have all the information coming in, from long-range radar and sonar, but very little punch to do anything about it.
I shall be extremely topical, but I hope not to strike too jarring a note. It was a bit odd to hear the answer which the Minister gave about the Icelandic boarding party. I think he should have been able to give a clear-cut answer about who is responsible for repelling boarders. "Repel boarders" is one of the oldest cries in the Royal Navy. I should like to think that if a set of Icelandic fingers came across the gunwale. the skipper would say "Punch him on the nose, Jock" not "Let us hang on a minute while I ring up the Ministry". The man on the spot must take the decision. This is beyond argument. If any news comes through about this incident, would it be in order for the House to be given that information right away so that we could be up to date? It seems to me that this is very close to what we are trying to discuss today.
These Service debates should not be about minor problems of policy or about details of weapons or equipment or ship design or even personnel problems. I shall try not to nit-pick but be reasonably constructive. When it comes to equipment, we have a very good naval staff to deal with these problems and it is difficult for the House of Commons to know the whole picture about weapons or equipment.
I am extremely glad that recruiting is good and that we have not heard moans and groans about recruiting. I am satisfied that the welfare of naval personnel is extremely well taken care of. My outstanding impression, when re-visiting ships and establishments—as an old sweat myself—is that the high standards are still maintained and that the men are fit and clean and, above all, interested. They know that they are doing a really useful job. These are the underlying factors in morale, which seems to be excellent.
The question which we ought to discuss in these Service debates is whether enough of the nation's resources are being allocated for defence purposes. My assessment is that they are not. Successive cuts since 1966, under successive Governments, have left all three Services under strength. I welcome recent forthright speeches of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition pointing out the threat posed by continual increases in Soviet strength, particularly at sea. She seems to have latched on to this very well.
However, we have not yet heard my own party say that defence spending has to be increased. I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour) is not here to hear this, because the fact is that we cannot go on saying that we ought to have this or that, or the other, without having the guts to say that defence spending has to be increased. That is what has to happen.
The purpose of this increased spending must be clear. It is not to try to match Soviet strength gun for gun, tank for tank or ship for ship, nor is it to wage war against the Russians. Of course we cannot wage war against them single-handed. This increase is for good reasons all the same. First, it is to retain the viability and cohesion of the NATO Alliance on which our ultimate safety depends. Secondly, it is to prevent war, not to wage war. Thirdly, it is to make sure that British interests are properly protected in conditions below the threshold of declared war.
This, I believe, covers the whole scenario from peace with on-going détente, through a situation where the Soviet Union runs rings around us, or seems to do so because of its increasing influence overseas, to circumstances in which relative strengths tempt the Soviets to exert harassment or blockades upon our merchant shipping.
The White Paper neglects certain aspects of these problems. I believe that, the Government's policy of concentrating exclusively on the NATO area is wrong to the extent that it is based on the assumption that there is no threat outside the NATO area. It is grotesque to say that a submarine five miles north of the Tropic of Cancer is a danger but that five miles south of the Tropic of Cancer it is not. British interests are neglected by this policy, and I shall state some of them in outline.
First and foremost is the protection of British merchant shipping, for which the Cape route is one of the focal points. In this context, the unilateral abrogation of the Simonstown Agreement is absurd, because it was a joint agreement entirely in our favour. We got a great deal out of it. The Silvermine headquarters—the hon. Gentleman will know what I am talking about—is very valuable indeed to us, because the first essential for the prevention of war is to have surveillance, to know what one's potential foes are up to.
It is equally deplorable that there has been a cessation of joint Royal Navy-South African Navy exercises. I understand—I hope I am wrong—that there are now serious shortcomings in the communications between Simonstown and the United Kingdom, due to the withdrawal of the radio facilities in Mauritius, as mentioned in the White Paper.
It is also rather petty that there should be—as there appears to have been—a cessation of visits by Royal Navy ships to South African ports, because the South Africans have been most generous in their hospitality throughout the centuries. I have enjoyed much of it, as have many others. They are wonderful people, and the Cape is still a very good place at which to call. We all understand the politics behind the decision, but I believe that the United Kingdom, instead of moralising, has a duty to explain patiently to the black African States, which do not always have a great maritime comprehension because that has not been their history—and particularly in the context of Angola and Mozambique—that their new-found and valued independence, which we all welcome, depends upon the security of the trade routes around the continent in which they happen to be located.
Another sector of neglect of British interests is the withdrawal from the Five-Power arrangement in South-East Asia. This leaves Singapore, the epicentre of the eastern hemisphere without effective British representation. It is also poor economy to withdraw HMS "Chichester" from Hong Kong, where our position entirely depends on the confidence of a very overcrowded population. Surely it is not too much to have one frigate there to maintain that confidence.
The northern flank of NATO has been mentioned, particularly by the hon. Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Mallalieu). Is the reconnaisance sufficient over this area? Have we adequate means of knowing what is happening there?
The hon. Member for Huddersfield, East suggested a special command for the defence of our oil installations. I am not sure that I want such a special command. One gets into mix-ups if one has functional commands and area commands. I think that the job could well be done by the area commander, provided that he is given the right ships and aircraft.
On the southern flank of NATO, in the Mediterranean, there is the grotesque arrangement by which we are withdrawing, for the first time in centuries, from the Merditerranean. The threat has not evaporated. It is still there. It is merely another case of the Government trying to cut their coat according to the cloth they wish to buy. The threat is there. We have seen it in Cyprus and in the difficulties between Greece and Turkey, and potentially of course in Yugoslavia. The Government are going ahead with the withdrawal of the Nimrods and all other operational aircraft from Cyprus. Akrotiri, until recently the busiest operational station of the Royal Air Force, now stands silent.
I am not sure whether the Minister has just received some further news about the boarding party. If he has. shall be glad to give way to him.
As the hon. Gentleman is not rising, I return to the subject of the Nimrods. He said that they were not his affair but a matter for his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Royal Air Force. He, with his Fleet Air Arm background, knows better than that.
Yes, of course the hon. Gentleman does. What the Nimrods do and report is essential to the Royal Navy. The hon. Gentleman and I learnt that lesson bitterly during the war. In any case, we now have an integrated Ministry of Defence, so a Minister in it cannot step aside and duck an issue such as that.
May I reinforce my hon. and gallant Friend's point about the Nimrods? I went to Naples a fortnight ago and saw the Allied Commander-in-Chief. He said that the Nimrods flying from Malta were responsible for over 30 per cent. of submarine sightings and he was anxious because they had been withdrawn.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reinforcing my point.
Another neglected area is the support of British exports and trade by way of selling ships and equipment overseas. This is perhaps much less delicate ground in the naval context than it is in the case of ground equipment. I am delighted to congratulate the Government on going ahead with HMS "Invincible" and the Harrier programme. Some of us have been nagging at successive Ministers for long enough about that. Will the hon. Gentleman bring us up to date about these programmes, particularly the Harrier development? That aircraft is God's gift to naval aviation, as he will understand, and we must go ahead fast with it if we are to get the exports which are necessary for obvious reasons and also so that friendly countries can make a contribution to the defence of the trade routes.
Another sector which I feel is neglected, and has been neglected by successive Governments, is the Hydrographic Service. There have been debates in Parliament recently about it. I am not sure whether everyone realises why it is necessary that the service should be increased. It is needed militarily for the operation of nuclear submarines which dive far deeper than the previous generation of submarines. It is also needed for giant tankers and bulk carriers and for towing the exploration rigs out to the oilfields.
Hydrography has lapsed not in its techniques but in the extent to which we can deploy forces. The service has a worldwide reputation and we should extend it very largely. I suggest that we should hire out our hydrographic sur- vey ships—men, expertise and the lot—on an agency basis throughout the world. That would help to solve certain problems affecting the third world countries, which cannot do these technical surveys for themselves, and it would make a contribution to the general background for the Law of the Sea Conference.
Another problem which is suffering neglect is that of the Merchant Navy. We see British ships, with British sailors carrying British goods on their voyages around the world, having to operate under some extraordinary, outlandish flags of convenience. It is wrong, and I was delighted to hear the Prime Minister tell me yesterday that he will look into the problem. I ask the Under-Secretary of State to realise that the two problems of the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy are geared together and I ask him to support those of us who wish the Prime Minister to set up a study into the broad problem of the Merchant Navy.
Perhaps I may sum up by saying that we in Europe must have the use of sea routes to survive in war. The Soviet Union has no such need. That is why the present balance gives us much concern. I agreed with the Minister's peroration—I think that he has got the message—relating to merchant shipping and its protection. He said that the Royal Navy had the capacity to deploy world-wide. I agree with him—but not in the numbers required.
I wish to give the House a brief progress report on HMS "Belfast". I hope that that will be in order. [HON. MEMBERS "Hear, hear."] HMS "Belfast" was given to the "Belfast" Trust by the Navy Minister of the day almost exactly five years ago this week. It is right that the House should have a brief summary of how the scheme is progressing.
In essence, it is succeeding beyond the wildest expectations of the trustees. We have had well over 1½ million visitors on board the ship, largely from the younger age group. We have a total of 8,000 schools on our mailing lists to which we send our brochures. Visitors come in droves at the weekends, in school holidays and on other occasions. We give special rates to parties of young people who come on board to find out what life in the Navy is all about.
There are masses of things for them to see on board HMS "Belfast". The turrets are preserved exactly as they were, also the bridge, the steering position, the mess decks, the hammocks, the ditty boxes and all the rest of it. Indeed, the Ministry has provided an up-to-date mess deck so that young people can see what life is like in the Navy of today. Engine and boiler rooms are open and they have been described as examples of marine archaeology.
On board the ship are 25 staff, who are all naval pensioners and whose duty is to show people round, to pick up old ladies who fall down ladders, and to tell stirring stories of what goes on at sea. We have a ferry service from Tower Pier. The Trustees invite the Minister in his new capacity to visit us to see what we are doing.
On the subject of expenses, it is a slightly more difficult problem. We have recently made an appeal for funds and have had some generous support from the City of London, and also from various firms and individuals in Hong Kong. It will be remembered that in past years HMS "Belfast" had close connections with Hong Kong.
I hope that from my brief progress report it will be seen that the HMS "Belfast" Trust has been able to make some contribution towards giving the younger generation a vital understanding of the importance of maritime policy to the British people—in the future as well as in the past. We hope that HMS "Belfast" will come to be thought of as "the HMS Victory of the steam age".
I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House were glad to have a report on HMS "Belfast" from the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles). Those who have visited it must feel considerable gratitude for the work that he and his fellow trustees have done. [HON. MEMBERS "Hear, hear."] The ship is not only a stimulus to youth but a helpful tourist attraction as well as being a pleasurable amenity for Londoners.
I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy on his elevation to ministerial office. I am sure that with his experience and background and the immense amount of work that he has put in on defence matters, his appointment will be beneficial to the House and to the Royal Navy.
I wish to confine my speech to three points. First, I shall presume to give my hon. Friend some advice about the cod war, secondly, agreeing with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Mallalieu), I shall suggest that there should be some protection for oil rigs, and, thirdly, I shall suggest to the Opposition that they should take a more balanced view of the Russian naval threat.
I turn first to the cod war. Hon. Members on both sides of the House must express appreciation for the hard work and excellent seamanship on the part of the frigates that are protecting our trawlers. They are carrying out a fine job. However, I am inclined to wonder whether they are somewhat hampered by the orders they receive from the Ministry of Defence. The present situation is that an Icelandic gunboat can approach a Royal Navy frigate, swing its stern into the frigate's side, and cut a hole in the ship. That has happened on numerous occasions, and obviously such action, when carried out with apparent impunity, is not conducive to morale in the Royal Navy.
I have spoken to a number of Royal Naval officers on the subject and they feel upset about the situation. They certainly feel restricted in what they can do to prevent these rammings. It is hardly satisfactory for the prestige of the Royal Navy that frigates should be swiped at in this manner by the rear ends of gunboats. It is also not satisfactory for the prestige of this country that this should happen with impunity to the Royal Navy. I suggest that the question of prestige is of some importance.
I should like the Minister to consider what counter-measures should be taken. I understand that there are three forms of counter-measure that can be employed. The first is that frigates could be equipped with some form of projecting steel beams which would cause the gunboats to damage themselves if they attempted a ramming. I regard that as a cumbersome and unsatisfactory idea.
I also understand that frigates could manoeuvre in pairs so that when one frigate is rammed the other would be in a position to cause considerable danger to the ramming gunboat. But even that solution presents dangers. I suggest that something more could be done than the present system in which the captains of the frigates appeal to the gunboat captains over loudhailers. From what I have seen on television programmes, it all sounds somewhat unimpressive.
I suggest that the gunboat captains should be told on the loudhailer that if they attempt to ram Royal Naval vessels they will be the recipients of a solid shot. I emphasise that it should be a solid shot because a high explosive shot would do serious damage and cause casualties, and possibly loss of life. But a solid shot directed at a gunboat would probably make a nasty hole in it and probably cause no injury at all. If the gunboat captains were given to understand that if they rammed a frigate they would immediately receive a solid shot in a non-vital part of their ship, that surely would be a deterrent to them in carrying out that course of action—action which is contrary to the law of the sea and which diminishes the prestige of the Royal Navy. I hope that the Minister will consider this proposal.
We now have 22 platforms, 27 more under construction and 25 oil rigs in our coastal waters. It is doubtful whether enough has been done for their protection. I am not talking about direct attacks by aircraft or surface ships because these would be acts of war which would put the matter in an altogether different category. These oil rigs are particularly vulnerable to guerrilla activities and to limited war operations. For example, on 25th August 1975 anonymous telephone callers claimed that underwater charges had been fitted to gas production platforms in the Hewett Field just off the coast of Norfolk. As a result, three of the platforms were evacuated, a ship of the Royal Navy had to be in attendance and a naval helicopter had to go to the platform. A skilled naval diving team had to put in an appearance. These things alone, plus the loss of production, certainly caused the loss to this country of several hundred thousand pounds. This was achieved for the price of a couple of telephone calls.
This incident gives some indication of the vulnerability of these rigs. That was merely a hoax. But it would be perfectly possible for guerrilla groups to lower a charge with a delayed action fuse on to the seabed near an oil rig from some small vessel at night. A 350-kilogramme ground mine would do the job effectively, if waterproof and fitted with a fuse. A couple of those cost £5,000. A guerrilla group could do enormous damage for a small amount of money.
During the past 20 years, 60 midget submarines have been built and sold, mostly to undisclosed customers. Under circumstances of limited war those midget submarines could cause considerable damage to our offshore installations. I hope that the Under-Secretary will give some thought to these issues.
I turn to right hon. and hon. Members on the Conservative Benches. They have pointed out, reasonably, that there has been an enormous increase in Soviet naval power. There is no doubt about that. Since 1965 the Soviet Union has built 800 ships. The United States has built only 300 in the same period. The Soviet ships are built to a high standard. The Kresta I and II missile carriers, the Kara guided missile cruiser and the Quebec guided missile destroyers are ships of the highest technological standard. I do not think that we have anything in the Royal Navy to approach this.
We know that the total numbers of the Soviet fleet now exceed that of the United States Navy. It has been rightly pointed that the Soviet Union is a land-locked power and for that reason does not need to acquire a navy. Also, it has no trade routes to protect. It is natural to assume that the Soviet Union has greatly increased its naval strength for some possible aggressive purpose.
My hon. Friend has quoted the gross figures for the total number of ships constructed by the United States and the USSR. Will he acknowledge that the reason for the disparity is that a greater number of small patrol vessels have been built by the USSR? Has he not seen the report in the Financial Times last week which demonstrated that the American Navy has built twice as many major combat ships as the Russians over the past 15 years?
My hon. Friend, with a certain Scottish clairvoyance, has antici- pated something I was about to say. I suggest that we should analyse the nature of the Soviet naval threat and its history to get a more balanced picture of that threat.
Obviously, the Soviet Union intends its Navy to deter any attacks on its allies and client States. In other words, the Soviet Navy would prevent us from doing a Suez or carrying out another Lebanon landing operation. If it is preserving us from follies such as that, it is doing a worthwhile job. It is also being used to extend Soviet influence throughout the world. I would have thought that that can hardly be counteracted by trying to build a navy of the same size. There are many ways of counteracting Soviet influence. Soviet naval power has been greatly increased for two purposes. The first is to counteract the threat of the United States Polaris submarine and the United States nuclear carrier force, and the second is to have a strategic deterrent.
If we examine the history of the rise of the Soviet Navy we find that it began in 1962 during the Cuban crisis when the Soviet Union was exposed to the utmost humiliation because it had no naval power at all worth talking about. As a result, Mr. Khrushchev got Admiral Gorshkov to take over the Soviet Navy and to initiate a programme of enormous expansion. In 1960 the most tremendous innovation took place, namely, the beginning of the first Polaris submarine, the "George Washington". Here for the first time was a nuclear warhead missile system which could be discharged from a totally invulnerable site. No one thas any illusions that nuclear submarines are easy to find. It is extremely difficult to find them at all in deep water.
In 1968 we had the multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles—or MIRV—introduced in the Poseidon submarine. This posed an even greater threat to the Soviet Union. Now we have an even more efficient nuclear submarine for nuclear ballistic purposes, the United States Trident submarine. Those advances have been an enormous threat to the Soviet Union. I do not think that we attach sufficient importance to the psychological effect of the United States Navy being able to destroy Soviet cities with comparative ease from a position of almost total invulnerability.
Is not the boot on the other foot? Has not the Soviet Navy got 24 D-Class submarines which have a missile range of 4,500 miles-plus at sea before the first Trident is launched? Can the hon. Gentleman explain, if the reasons for the expansion of the Russian navy are as he suggests, why it ran anti-convoy exercises in the South Atlantic in ' Exercise Okean" last year when it attacked convoys, presumably "dummy" NATO convoys?
These are helpful points in debate and I will deal with them. The interesting point about the Soviet Navy is that it is largely an anti-submarine war navy. The Soviet Navy has one aircraft carrier undergoing trials. The United States and Britain have between them 16 carriers and 10 small carriers. Any navy which has to contest the high seas cannot do so against another navy which is enormously superior in aircraft carriers. I should have thought that that was self-evident.
When the Polaris bases were set up in Spain by the United States, Soviet warships started moving in strength into the Mediterranean, obviously in an attempt to counteract the Polaris submarines. In 1968, when the Poseidon submarine was introduced, it was a much more dangerous threat to the central Soviet Union from the Indian Ocean and it was then that the Soviet Navy started to appear in strength in the Indian Ocean. So the picture is that the Soviet Navy is substantially geared to counteracting the nuclear threat to its own cities.
The hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) asked me about the Soviets' own ballistic submarine force. That must in the nature of things be their own strategic deterrent. In other words, they feel that if the Americans are to have a ballistic submarine force which is a danger to their cities, in view of the inadequacy of modern technology in detecting submarines, they should have their own strategic deterrent submarine force. It is no more than that.
I would be the last to suggest that we should be complacent about the enormous increase in Soviet naval strength. It is obviously a threat, but this House and the Government should take a balanced view of its nature. I do not think that it is as serious as is suggested by United States admirals, by representatives of industries which make a living supplying naval equipment or by the Leader of the Opposition.
The threat is not nearly so serious, but it cannot be ignored. There are no grounds at all for any further reduction of the fighting capacity and efficiency of the Royal Navy. I hope that there is no possibility in the near future of further attempts to cut the Royal Navy.
I was most interested in the thoughtful speech of the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Cronin). Obviously we shall all want to read it carefully later. However, in his enthusiasm to present a balanced view, he has fallen into the trap of assembling all the facts that he can find and then steering them in the direction in which he felt that his argument should have been leading. Anyone who considers the facts of the Soviet naval increase should not ignore that in almost every case it has been leading itself out of its natural rôle as a continental power, safe from attack from anyone else, into that of an international power able to exert its will anywhere in the world. That is what the Soviet naval threat is about and that is why we should take it as rather more serious than we have so far and not less so.
I want to talk about the equipment of the Royal Navy. I welcome appointments of the Under-Secretary of State for the Navy and the Under-Secretary of State for the Royal Air Force. I should like to ask a number of questions which I hope the Ministers will try to answer more fully than has been done so far.
First, the Under-Secretary said that development work has already begun on Sub-Harpoon, the weapon that we contracted to buy from the Americans some time ago. I understand that development work is necessary to adapt this American weapon for installation in British ships. Does the Minister expect this work to be accomplished on schedule and to ensure that the weapon goes into service as planned? Any slippage would gravely throw into doubt the original agreement with the Americans.
Is there any further information that the Minister can give us tonight or soon about the offset purchases which the Government have contracted to get from the Americans in return for this order? I had a letter recently from the Secretary of State, in which he assured me that a number of British equipments are under consideration by the United States Defence Department. We should like to know how that is getting on and what prospects there are of having some facts about these offset agreements.
The Minister also mentioned the continued capability of the Royal Navy to operate world-wide if necessary. He mentioned a task force which has just returned after a journey over the seas far from our own shores. The Minister must satisfy us on one further point. It is one thing to send a squadron of ships on a carefully pre-planned tour of overseas areas with a carefully planned programme of Royal Fleet auxiliaries and so on to back them up. No doubt that can still be done, but bearing in mind the severe cut of a third in the strength of the Royal Fleet auxiliaries, which is being put through under the defence cuts at the moment, could such a force be mounted at short notice to meet an unforeseen crisis and be sent to deal with a threat to some vital British interest, as could happen at any time?
That is the test. I suspect that with the reductions which have been made in the Royal Fleet auxiliaries and which are being made now as part of the defence cuts, the vital element of flexibility, the ability to provide them with little or no notice, and to have something in reserve against the unexpected, has been eaten into. We cannot afford that.
The main point was the Minister's statement that our naval strength, in spite of the cuts, is "undiminished" in the Eastern Atlantic. That is a massive understatement. Our naval strength is in no sense undiminished. It is very much diminished and is being further diminished as part of the Government's defence cuts.
As has been said, this criticism does not come from the Opposition alone. It comes from all our NATO Allies. I have said this often, and I will not labour the point. But more important to our debate now, it comes in very telling form from the all-party Select Committee upon which many of our hon. Friends on both sides of the House are serving so successfully. There is a mass of small and larger criticisms in the Committee's Report which have not yet received detailed answers from Ministers. I should like to remind the Under-Secretary of some and to ask him to let us have detailed answers.
We much enjoyed the hon. Gentleman's speech and welcome him in his new position, but it will not be enough for very long to tell us of the splendid things that there are in the Royal Navy—as of course there are. We must have answers to detailed questions.
In paragraph 16, the Select Committee refers to its concern
… that our ships, compared to those of the Russian Navy, contain a higher proportion of older ships and that they carry substantially fewer missile systems.
I would say, not only fewer but in some cases less up to date and effective. That is a very serious responsibility of the Minister and the Government and I hope that we shall have an answer. The answer cannot be that it is not so, but I hope that it will be that steps are being taken to see that it is put right.
In paragraph 17, we read of the Committee's concern at the increasing dependence of our naval forces in home waters on shore-based aircraft. We have never yet had a proper spelling out of the limitations which reliance on shore-based aircraft must impose on the flexibility of a naval task force when it is put in a situation that it is meeting a hostile threat. It is all very well to plan cruises round our coasts, in the North Sea and in the Eastern Atlantic and to tie in an air support programme which is based on shore. That can be done by the staffs and by the Ministry, of course. Again, it is a matter of flexibility. There are severe limitations on this flexibility because of the reliance on shore-based aircraft. I hope that the Minister will tell us more about this so that we can assess how serious a problem it is.
In paragraph 19 of its Report, the Committee expressed concern about the shortage of escorts which it thought should be looked at again by the Ministry.
In paragraph 24, the Committee expressed concern about the slippage in the construction programme, especially about the shortages of labour at Barrow which have led to considerable delays in the construction of HMS "Invincible" and to delays at other yards. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that these problems are being overcome and, perhaps more importantly, that the next order will come for Swan Hunter before long. I hope that he can assure the House that there will not be labour difficulties or shortages there if that order is placed, as we hope it will be.
In paragraph 32 of its Report, the Committee asked some questions about possible exports of the Sea Wolf missile. The Committee suggested specifically that the Ministry should mount some major effort to see what possibilities there are. I ask the Minister to describe what efforts have been made and, hopefully. what successes have been achieved.
In that same paragraph, there was also the suggestion that the Ministry should put in hand a study to try to recover the slippage in the construction not only of HMS "Invincible" but also in the Type 22 programme. Are these slippages in sight of being recovered? What steps have been taken? Can we avoid slippages of this kind in the future?
In paragraph 40, the Committee raised the question of a study put in hand by NATO in respect of a possible future light frigate for use by members of the Alliance. It is suggested that the Government should give their support to this. I should like to know what has been done about it and what progress, if any, is being made with it.
I reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks) said about the importance of the study of mine warfare. I agree with him that this is a facet of warfare which perhaps is less glamorous than other forms of naval warfare. But it is a type of warfare in which the Russian Navy has a long history of being expert—much longer than just the last 10 years. Therefore, I hope that the Minister can assure the House that our mine and anti-mine technology is keeping well up to all that we know is likely to be put against us and that it is not being neglected in general by the modern programmes.
May I ask the Minister a question which I posed during the general debate on the White Paper about the ability of the Royal Navy to transport at short notice to any trouble spot the commando units which are to be left after the present cuts are implemented? There were some disturbing reports that it would be necessary to rely on British Rail ferries to do this. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that he has other arrangements in mind because, frankly, it does not fill us with tremendous confidence to think that we are likely to be reduced to that.
I want finally to say a few words about the comments made by various hon. Members on the need to look again at the defence of our North Sea oil areas and the zones round our coasts affected by them. There are various interlocking problems here which require further study.
The Minister will know that doubts have been expressed about the Jura class vessels. I wonder whether the design of those vessels does not owe more to the need for quick announcements and decisions in getting out a small programme for building them than to a thoughtful working out of what is needed. Almost everyone to whom I have spoken has criticised the speed of these vessels. I am sure that they are excellent in many ways, but a maximum speed of 16 knots, which is probably not an effective cruising speed for very long, is no faster than the speed of the ordinary ferries which we operate between the islands off the West coast of Scotland. When we think of dealing with swiftly developing threats which may be terrorist inspired and quite unexpected in their nature, we need to think in terms of a vessel which is faster than that.
Allied to this criticism of the vessels' speed is the surprising feature that they are not to be equipped with helicopter platforms. I believe that platforms for even the smallest helicopters would improve immensely the deterrent value of these ships, to say nothing of their flexibility. It is all very well to say that the ship will plough its way to any trouble spot at 16 knots and that meantime Nimrods will watch overhead to make sure what is happening. The damage could be done by the time the ship arrived on the scene. I agree that we need to look at it again.
The basic trouble is that, because the Ministry is naturally short of money and going through a time of great difficulty generally, there is a tremendous temptation on everyone to persuade even himself that the real answer is that everything is all right as it stands, because that does not involve extra expenditure and difficulty.
It is the case that, within the limits of what is needed at the moment, things are working all right. But we have not had a major threat with which to deal. We have had only routine activities and, thanks to the skill of the Royal Navy, everything is working all right at the moment. However, we have to plan for the time when they are not working all right, and we have to be able to meet any difficulty which may arise.
My concern about the effect of these cuts on the capability of the Royal Navy to meet the unexpected threats which will undoubtedly arise is undiminished by anything that has been said by Government spokesmen. The Icelandic conflict is, to my mind, a supreme example of the unexpected threat with which we are not equipped to deal. I am not suggesting that I foresaw it or that anyone could have done so, but it is a very good example, and there will no doubt be many other such threats which will develop, the type of which we cannot forecast. The only answer for a prudent Minister is always to have something up his sleeve against the unexpected. That can be done only by providing ships which are flexible, which are able not only to deal with the peacetime tasks which are planned carefully in advance but can move quickly to any spot and cope with different types of trouble.
That is where the Government are going wrong. I know that the Ministers do their best to preserve what they can in these difficult times. But I hope that they will not let matters get out of perspective. Their duty is not just to look at the financial side. Their duty is to tell their colleagues when the financial side is impairing our ability to defend ourselves. We all rely on them to tell their colleagues that and to ensure that action is taken before it is too late.
So far today, we have heard two views about the rôle of the Royal Navy. I suspect that later on we shall hear a third view about defence generally.
The Government's attitude, which I support, is that we have an adequate defence system, bearing in mind the present economic capability of the country. The view of the Opposition is that we should increase our defence capability because of the threat from the Soviet Navy. I was interested to hear the challenge thrown out by the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) to his own Front Bench to name a figure. I think that we are entitled to hear from the Opposition by how much they would propose to increase defence expenditure.
My first interpretation was right.
I was particularly interested in the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Cronin), who explained the political side of the current problem between the super Powers—Russia and the United States. He put the position clearly. Many statistics have been thrown about the Chamber today and a set of relevant statistics was issued last week by the Pentagon. The Pentagon admitted that, far from outbuilding the United States, the Russians are behind with large surface craft. It admitted that in the last 15 years the United States Navy built 122 ships of 3,000 tons and over, while the Russians built 57. The United States built only two small antisubmarine vessels of less than 3,000 tons while the Russians built 83. The emphasis is on defence, anti-submarine and mine warfare as opposed to large capital ships.
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman again, but he has not mentioned the building figures for Soviet U-boats. One new Soviet nuclear U-boat is built each month. That is not a weapon of defence; it is a weapon of attack. That figure was left out by the Pentagon and by The Times newspaper recently.
I take the hon. and gallant Gentleman's point.
We are debating the British Navy in the NATO Alliance and therefore we must look at the overall picture. Britain has an important rôle to play. I am pleased that the Government have decided to build ASW cruisers, because they will be an effective answer to the nuclear submarine. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said that these cruisers are capable of carrying Sea King helicopters and have the anti-submarine capability of a frigate. It is proposed to build three of these cruisers, which will go a long way towards providing a defence system against nuclear submarines in the Atlantic.
This morning the NEC of the Labour Party expressed the view that we should cut back our defence capabilities. I do not accept that view. I appreciate that it is a sincere view, but, in the long run, when the consequences of such a policy are examined, with its effect on jobs—about 30,000 may be affected—and on exports, I am sure that the Labour movement will agree that it is a leap in the dark, both politically and economically. I hope that that view will be rejected by the Labour movement.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary paid tribute to the Royal dockyards, which are of interest to my constituency. The modern ship is complicated. Because we are trying to economise we keep our ships in service longer, but they must be modernised and refitted—a process that becomes more complex as time goes by. Chatham Dockyard has been equipped as a refitting dockyard, and work is supplemented by conventional refitting, although the emphasis is on nuclear submarines. Originally it was thought that they could remain at sea for four years before having to return to port to refuel and refit. But experience has shown that they do not need to return to port for five or six years. Therefore, there will not be continuity in the refitting programme. My constituents are anxious to know whether the gap can be filled by further conventional work or whether a third nuclear submarine will come in from time to time.
At present HMS "Conqueror" is being refitted, but that work will be completed two months ahead of time. The next submarine will not arrive at the dockyard until October. That means a loss of earnings of between £30 and £35 a week for my constituents. Nobody can afford that loss. If there are peaks and troughs in demand, dockyard workers will look elsewhere for work.
HMS "Warspite" is now in the Mersey, following an accident on board after a fire in the diesel generators, which damaged electrical equipment. Rumours are that the ship will be docked and repaired on the Mersey, but we are anxious that it should come back to Chatham. The ship is nuclear-activated, and if it is to be in dock for a long time it should come to Chatham, where we have the capability to handle it.
Hon. Members have mentioned the cod war. HMS "Diomedes" came into Chatham three weeks ago, after she had been damaged, but the dockyard management said that it had not got the labour to do the work. She was diverted to Plymouth. where overtime has to be worked to complete the job. In my dockyard men are standing around idle waiting for work, and yet work is being diverted elsewhere.
Labour Party policy, as described in the manifesto, is that the Royal dockyards shall be made available, not only for defence use but for general industrial use. The expertise and capital equipment in the dockyards should be used for the general economic benefit of the country.
There are about 50 acres of unused land at Chatham. Firms are looking for sites for factories, but these 50 idle acres cannot be used for that purpose. Will the Minister look at that problem? I hope that he will visit Chatham and meet my constituents, to hear their problems at first hand.
I apologise to the Minister and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour) for not being in the Chamber to hear their speeches, but I was on a Select Committee. I hope that in my speech I shall not repeat too many things that have already been said. If I ask the Minister to answer a question I shall understand if he has already dealt with that point, and I shall look it up in the Official Report.
I was interested in the speech by the hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bean), who represents an area with a strong naval interest. He did a service by explaining his constituents problems in terms of unemployment in relation to the Governments' defence policies.
The hon. Gentleman made an important point, which seems to be coming to the surface in this debate, about the importance of large ships compared with small ships. Clearly that argument will develop in view of the recent report on the matter. It is the Government's duty to tell the House how they see it. It is dangerous to over-simplify. It is not right to suggest that the criterion for a successful ship is necessarily its size. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) referred to the great expansion in the number of Soviet nuclear submarines. for example.
The main burden of my argument must centre around the main threat to Britain's defence interests. Despite what one or two hon. Members have said, I remain convinced that the real threat to our defence in the long term must be the Soviet Union's dramatic expansion of its naval forces over the past decade or so. We cannot evade the cold, hard fact that since the Cuban crisis we have seen a dramatic expansion in the quantity and quality of Soviet ships. We have seen the growing provision of facilities for the Soviet Navy world-wide, the growth in its nuclear forces. in its missile-armed submarines, its generally improved missile system and its naval presence in all the oceans of the world.
As always happens when the Government publish their White Papers, they eloquently describe the threat and the dilemma we face. Their analysis is always brilliant. It is the way in which they deal with the threat that causes serious doubts.
On page 5 of the White Paper we read:
The major Soviet threat at sea is posed by their very large submarine force of over 330 operational submarines: 130 of these are nuclear-powered.
We have only to look at paragraph 17. which says:
Eleven Delta class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines are now operational and can threaten all Europe and most of Northern America from Soviet home waters.
We have only to look at the reference to the construction of a Soviet aircraft
carrier, at a time when the Western world, particularly Britain, appears to be phasing out aircraft carriers.
Paragraph 19 refers to Soviet air power and the Backfire supersonic bomber, which has been introduced and which the White Paper says threatens NATO's shipping on the transatlantic sea routes.
The whole problem has been well analysed and summarised in the White Paper. We see that 45 per cent. of the ships in the surface combatant naval force of the Soviet Union are less than 10 years old—far younger than the NATO ships.
We have only to look at Lloyd's Register to see that over the past 18 years the Soviet merchant fleet has grown from 26th in the world to sixth. Of the world's total of 900 trawlers of more than 2,000 tons, 643 are from the Soviet Union. Lloyd's Register shows that 122 of the 139 fishing factory vessels of more than 10,000 tons are from the Soviet Union.
Hon. Members may ask what that has to do with defence. There is evidence that the merchant ships and fishing vessels have highly sophisticated equipment, which can monitor what the Western world is doing. There is also plenty of evidence that Soviet merchant fleets often carry defence equipment across the trade routes and oceans. That is why those statistics are significant to us.
We know that the Soviet Union has well over 100 survey ships, six missile support auxiliary ships and 25 repair ships, which enable its fleets to be more self-supporting. The Soviet Union's naval manpower—470,000 officers and ratings—is bigger than the whole of Britain's total defence strength.
I come to the question of the flanks. We have only to look at the chart on page 7 of the White Paper to see the growing preponderance of the Soviet Union's Northern Fleet compared with NATO's. In the Eastern Atlantic we are under growing threat, with a great expansion in the number of Soviet nuclear submarines, guided missile cruisers and destroyers. We know, too, that in that area a new canal has been built between the White Sea and the Baltic, which facilitates the expansion of the Soviet Navy into the oceans of the world.
On another vulnerable flank, in the Mediterranean, the Soviet Union has a permanent presence of about 60 ships. Another important area, upon which we depend for our oil supplies, is the Indian Ocean, where the Soviet Union has a permanent presence of at least 20 ships. Contrary to the comments of Mr. Gromyko in London recently, the late Marshal Grechko confirmed that it is the Soviet policy to continue to expand its forces. Admiral Gorshkov instructed the Soviet Navy to go to sea and stay there. As a result, the Soviet Navy is now spreading its tentacles to every ocean and sea. The Russian bear is learning to swim.
We must ask why Russia, with its vast land mass—a country that is largely selfsupporting—needs to expand its Navy in that way, to increase the number of its ships and the oceans into which it goes. Can the policy of encircling the Western world, of outflanking it, really just be defensive, as the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Cronin) suggested?
We understand from all the lessons of history about the balance of power that any country, including the Soviet Union. wants to ensure that it is adequately defended. When it was expanding its sea power in the 1960s, that must have been a major consideration, but can it be the Soviet Union's sole objective? We must ask that question when we look at the cold, hard facts of what it is doing. Even the Chinese are telling us that the Soviet Union is expanding with aggressive purposes. We know that there are other objectives besides defence. It is part of the Russians' economic and foreign policy. They have obtained facilities in South Yemen, Somalia and Conakry, and no doubt will very shortly have facilities in Luanda. All this has political, economic and in the long term possibly very serious military implications for the Western world. It is a gradual political and economic subversion and erosion of the West's position.
We must assume from the evidence available that one of the purposes of the expansion of Soviet sea power is to gather intelligence. That should be taken for granted. We must assume also that another of the purposes is to enhance Soviet training and general capability in the world, and we must assume as well, from the evidence—unless someone can
produce new information to disprove it —that the Soviet objective, equally, is to have the potential to cut off completely the trade routes of the Western world. If the Soviet Union wishes to adopt an aggressive military policy, it has provided itself with facilities to do it. It can now cut off the lifeline of the Western world. It has the strategic capability to attack major NATO targets. It can support land and amphibious operations in almost any part of the world.
Therefore, we must make the assumption that it poses a real threat to the West. It would be irresponsible to make any other assumption, when we have an overwhelming duty in this House to set as our prime objective the adequate defence of this country and of the Western world.
In looking at the position of the West, and of Britain particularly, one can see the importance of sea lanes to our trade. and the importance of merchant shipping to our survival. Also one can see the importance of the continuing flow of oil and international trade to our survival. It does seem odd to react to this grave menace, as the British Government have done, by reducing the numbers of our destroyers and frigates by 15 per cent., our planned, conventionally-powered submarines by 25 per cent., our amphibious forces by 25 per cent., our fixed-wing transport by 50 per cent. and our Nimrods and helicopters by 25 per cent. The men in the Kremlin must be rubbing their hands with glee at the way in which we in Britain, and in some other Western countries, too, are reacting to the expansion of their forces. Indeed, one can see a look of glee on the faces of some hon. Members on the Government Benches when they think about this situation. It makes one wonder whether they have the true interests of this country at heart.
We have been warned by military leaders in the Western world, by the Secretary-General of NATO, by Admiral of the Fleet Sir Peter Hill-Norton, and by Admiral Sir Terence Lewin. These people are responsible Service leaders, in high positions, and they say that our defences are inadequate at the present time.
Additionally, we have to consider the growing importance of providing adequate defences for North Sea oil. Then there is the dispute with Iceland and the enormous strain it is imposing on the British Navy. There is also the unstable situation in the Mediterranean and the outflanking of the West in the southern Africa area.
Whether we like it or not there are certain remnants from our imperial past for which we are still responsible, such as the Belize and the Falkland Islands. What happens, for example, if Argentina moves into the Falkland Islands? We still have responsibilities towards the Falkland Islands and we have to be ready to respond to any possible threats to them.
I must pose one or two questions to the Minister. Our job is to show evidence of what is happening, then it is up to the Government to reassure us, which they have not done so far. We have a duty to pose certain questions and the Government have an obligation to answer them and show that they can provide this country and the Western world with adequate defence forces.
Have we provided adequate forces to counter the aggressive intentions and potential of the Soviet Union? Have we got adequate forces to protect our sea lanes, when 1,000 ships of NATO countries pass around the Cape route every month? Have we adequate escorts for convoys of ships in that area in time of war?
My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester referred to an important point concerning NATO's area of responsibility, which ends at the Tropic of Cancer. When we depend for so much of our trade on the South Atlantic routes, which are outside the direct area of NATO responsibilities, should NATO wash its hands of that area? The Minister has a duty to explain what NATO is doing and also what Britain is doing about this in terms of the NATO Study Groups. What action would the Western world take south of the Tropic of Cancer if there were any threats to Western interests in that part of the world.
The Minister also must tell us whether we have the capacity to defend Belize or the Falkland Islands; if we could look after our interests in North Sea oil, and have the capacity, at the same time, to cope with the Icelandic situation? I say "at the same time", because we should be prepared for all these things to explode at the same moment.
Are our vulnerable flanks—the Mediterranean and the northern flank—adequately defended, considering the growing preponderance of Soviet forces in the area? Have we sufficient amphibious forces to cope with a situation in the Norwegian area? Have we the ability to provide adequate reserve stocks for the Western and European sector if war is declared? We know from evidence that if war were declared the European NATO Powers would require about 100,000 tons a day of vital defence equipment from across the Atlantic, and from the United States in particular. Have we the capacity to defend convoys of ships that would have to cross the Atlantic bringing adequate reserves of defence equipment to deal with potential threats?
Then there is the question of slippage in the construction programme, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger). Are we going to produce on time those ships which we are planning to produce? What is being done to ensure that they are delivered on time, in view of the fact that our naval defences have been weakened already?
It is the Government's job to satisfy the House that they are providing this country and Western Europe with adequate defence forces to cope with all these potential threats which exist in the world today, primarily from the Soviet Union. The Minister must do his best to answer these questions and give us some reassurance.
The United Kingdom, with its enormous naval history, provides 70 per cent. of NATO's forces in the Eastern flank and the Channel. We provide a distinctive service with our Navy, which has a wonderful history. Once we start reducing it below the capacity we need it will be difficult to restore it to the correct level.
The Government have a primary duty to ensure that this country is adequately defended. Succeeding generations will never forgive us if we let the country down and imperil their freedom. It is up to the Government to be more robust on defence and to tell the Soviet Union that so long as it expands its naval forces we shall respond and be ready to deal with any threat that comes our way.
If I may I shall leave the subject of the Soviet Fleet, although I am tempted to talk about Soviet fishing and factory vessels. I shall instead confine my comments to the Navy's activities and its magnificent work in the so-called cod war.
First, however, I should feel ashamed, after my long association with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy, who is my Yorkshire neighbour, if I failed to compliment him on his position on the Front Bench. He is a square peg in a square hole, and if he thinks that he is lucky to be in his post, I believe that the Navy is lucky to have one of its former men looking after it as its political chief. I welcome him and I wish him all success.
I want to deal with the activities in Icelandic waters of the Navy and with some of the snags which have arisen. These matters are of vital constituency interest to me, but I promise not to make a parochial speech. I intend to ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for information, and I am grateful for the way in which he listened earlier to the question about the uncivilised behaviour of the Icelandic coastguard vessel "Aegir" in firing a shot at the Primella and in preparing a boarding party which was stated to be in the water. I hope that we shall get a full and satisfactory reply on that matter at the end of the debate. I am quite appalled at the buccaneering behaviour of our NATO partners.
I should like to know what is the position to date and what part is being played by the Navy. This subject is of vital importance to us in Hull, Fleetwood, Grimsby and Aberdeen. The vessel owners may be losing money, but the trawlermen stand to lose their lives. Meanwhile, the wives of the skippers and the deckhands wait anxiously at home. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs told me:
We continue to seek a fair and honourable solution to this dispute, and meanwhile to protect our trawlers obtaining their livelihood."— [Official Report, 28th April 1976; Vol. 910, c. 111.]
That is our obligation in this House. We are thankful for the magnificent work that
the Navy is doing. I have been deeply involved in both cod wars. No Back Bencher could have paid more visits to the Icelandic Ambassador in the days of Mr. Nils Siggurdsson. I therefore have a good idea of the difficulties facing cut fishermen and the Navy.
The Navy is always magnificent it Whitehall allows it to be. It deserves the highest commendation. But how far are our men fighting with their hands tied behind their backs? How far are they being undermined by influences at home and abroad, and by the Press here in the last few weeks? I was shocked to see the Varoomshka cartoon in The Guardian on Monday morning. It is a sick cartoon judging by the way in which it refers to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and the part the Navy is playing.
There is support for the Government's policy in all quarters and by all parties in the House except for the SNP which, of course, has ulterior motives. It is interesting, however, to see what is being said in Iceland on the subject, and I shall quote from two Icelandic newspapers. The first is the Morgunbladid which said in an editorial on 10th April:
Mr. Anthony Crosland has been appointed Foreign Secretary, who is MP for Grimsby and represents voters with a direct interest in the fishery dispute. It will be recalled that 10 days before the fishery jurisdiction was extended to 200 miles, on 5th of October last year, Mr. Crosland, speaking in his constituency, said that British fishermen had an undoubted right to fish up to the 12-mile fishery limit of Iceland and that Britain must and will fish inside the 50-mile limit, that that traditional right has been Britain's for 500 years, and that the British Government was determined to protect the right.
To that I say "Amen". There are other party newspapers in Iceland. One, the Dagbladid, said,
Nobody wanted to discuss the offer Mr. Geir Hallgrimsson brought home with him. The judgment of the general public and of most politicians was and still is that it is a stronger move to continue the stalemate on the fishing banks and let time work for us, rather than agree to a catch quota that will satisfy the British.
There are moves both in London and in Reykjavik to fetch out our fishing fleet. Siren voices say "Pull out the frigates ".The inference of that is that Iceland would then negotiate, but will it? My view is that if the Navy left and our vessels stopped fishing, and returned to Hull and Grimsby, our case would go
by default. We would have no cards to play. I he skippers and men in these dangerous, inhospitable and bleak waters wish to fish and to make money. Some of the deckhands, however, want to come back, but not because the Navy is not doing its job. They think the Navy is doing a magnificent job in looking after them. They want to come back because there is no compensation for loss of earnings. Their union, the Transport and General Workers' Union, is doing its best to get that compensation.
Lately the Navy has been accused of creating a hiatus, so the skippers in Hull and elsewhere tell me. I cannot criticise the Navy because I believe that it is doing a magnificent job. Its ships were never designed for this work, however. Their hulls are thin, with perhaps only 1½ in or 2½-in of steel. If they were gashed below the waterline men could be catapulted into the sea. What banner headlines there would be if a sailor or a trawlerman fell into those waters in winter weather. Fishermen tell me that he would not last two minutes.
Our men have to be careful, and the Icelandic gunboats have exploited the situation to a dangerous degree. What instruction has Whitehall given to the frigate captains? Obviously the top priority has been to keep the gunboats away from our fishing vessels, even at the risk of collision and, although our vessels have manoeuvred to the best of their ability, there have been collisions. The captains are obviously worried. I have spoken to them in Hull and I realise that they must avoid damage to their vessels. They shadow the enemy and warn our fishermen when the gunboats "Thor", "Aegir" and others are in the vicinity.
I wish to ask the Minister some questions to which I hope he will give me full and frank answers. Have conditions changed? Are we back on course? What latitude are the captains allowed in manoeuvring their vessels? If there has been a change, it seems to have been purely tactical.
The hon. Member is making an extremely important point. Does he agree that, despite the skills of the crews and their dedication, the Navy vessels which are being employed are wholly inappropriate for this task? I hope that when the Minister answers the hon. Member's questions he will comment on the unsuitability and extravagance of using frigates in what is, in effect, a ramming competition.
I am not a Navy man or an engineer, so I am not competent to comment on those matters. However, I shall await the Minister's reply with great interest and anxiety.
I urge my hon. Friend to consult the Ministry of Agriculture about whether financial assistance or subsidies can be given to the industry so that crews can get compensation for loss of earnings.
This is a vital problem for the people in the fishing ports. If they are not given Navy protection and cannot continue fishing in the northern waters, hundreds of men may lose their jobs. Deputations come to this House from shipyards and factories which are in difficulties. Here we have an industry and a fleet of ships in difficulties. Apart from the men who actually catch the fish, there are many ancillary workers involved. If 100 fishermen lose their jobs, about 500 people on shore will become unemployed.
I urge the Minister to give us a full and frank statement about the present situation when he replies to the debate.
It is always a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson), whose knowledge of the fishing industry is surpassed by none.
As an ex-sailor and member of the Fleet Air Arm, I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I am told that morale in the Navy is now much better because of his appointment in place of the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Judd).
I told the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North that I intended to refer to him in my speech. His only interest in the Navy appeared to be in ensuring that Portsmouth Dockyard never closed, and the reason he did not wish it to close was that it lies in his constituency. I regard the hon. Member as the most disastrous happening to the Royal Navy since Lord Charles Beresford conducted his campaign against Jackie Fisher in this House 70 years ago. The Navy is happy with the change.
The primary task of the Royal Navy is to defend our lines of communication at sea and to deny their use to an enemy and, secondly, to defend our mariners going about their lawful occasions on the high seas.
Many of the people who fish from the port of Grimsby are my constituents from Clecthorpes and the surrounding area. We are deeply grateful for the magnificent work the Navy has done in supporting them during the cod war. On the south bank of the Humber, we are very grateful for the way the Government have conducted themselves and for their decision to send the frigates in support of our fishermen.
I was delighted when the Minister of State for Defence and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food both assured the House last week that the support would continue. We have to make absolutely clear that British fishermen in the northern waters are fishing in international waters. They are going about their lawful occasions on the high seas, and until the Law of the Sea Conference reports and the rules of the game are changed, the Icelanders have no right to harass our ships.
I had a meeting today with representatives of the Findus firm, whose large factory in my constituency processes a vast tonnage of fish every year. I wish to stress the great importance of British fishermen being allowed to land fish at Grimsby. Employment is provided not only for those in the fishing fleet but for five or six times as many on shore, producing fish fingers and other forms of processed fish from the cod that we catch in the northern waters.
Turning to more general matters, it is now just over a year since the shameful decision of the Government to abrogate the Simonstown agreement, leaving us with no base for British ships to operate from in the Indian Ocean. We are told by various Ministers that we can use Simonstown on a consumer basis and that there are other ports that our ships can use. But which ports are these?
Let us imagine that we are taking a ship round the Cape. That is where a vast quantity of shipping passes every day, bringing us oil and raw materials on which we are totally dependent. We do not produce sufficient raw materials for our needs. They come by sea, and a very high percentage of them come round the Cape. Where can the ship that we are taking round the Cape be refuelled? Angola? I think not. We are busy insulting South Africa, so we cannot use Simonstown with a clear conscience—assuming the Government have a conscience.
Let us take our ship further round the coast. Could we go to Beira, which is under a Marxist regime? I doubt it very much. How about Tanzania? I fear that is unlikely. I am told that the appointment of a residential naval officer in Mombasa is to cease shortly. This is the only port on the east coast of Africa where there are reasonably friendly facilities to our Navy.
If we go further north we get to Somalia, another Marxist regime. Would they accept our ships? Of course they would not. There are too many Russian ships there already. Another alternative is to go across to the old colony of Aden. That is another Marxist regime. There is nowhere on the east coast of Africa where the Royal Navy can be refuelled and victualled.
I know that the Under-Secretary of State is as aware as I am that the Russians operate with greater and greater strength in the Indian Ocean. It has been said today that the Russians have only one aircraft carrier, but it is significant that they are building more. They have two on the stocks and there are more to come. It is significant that in the 1970s, having phased out our fixed-wing air support—namely, the Fleet Air Arm—so that HMS "Ark Royal" is the only aircraft carrier that remains, the Russians are introducing carriers into service. That is not a coincidence. The Russians realise the value of fixed-wing air support.
I turn to our amphibious forces, or rather our lack of them. Last month I went to the farewell ceremony for HMS "Bulwark", a ship on which I served some 14 years ago with the Royal Marines. HMS "Bulwark" and "Albion" have done more as fighting units for this country over the past 16 or 17 years than any other form of naval, army or air force unit.
The two ships saw service in the confrontation that took place in Borneo. During the East African mutinies, which took place when I was on HMS "Albion", the Governments of Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda were kept in being because we were able to fly our Royal Marine Commandos ashore to look after the people and put down the army mutinies. The two ships were involved in the fighting in Aden and elsewhere.
In this year's White Paper, and in last year's, it is insisted that Her Majesty's Government are totally committed to the idea of a viable amphibious force. I ask the Under-Secretary of State how we are to transport the Royal Marines and Commandos if we have no commando ship.
I am sure that he did not mean to do so, but yesterday he gave a particularly misleading answer to a Question that I put to him on this very matter. He said:
Although HMS "Bulwark" has been taken off the active list since 31st March this year, her material condition is being maintained until decisions can be taken about the Royal Navy's ASW capability."—[Official Report, 11th May 1976; Vol. 911, c. 215.]
I was asking not about ASW capability but about amphibious forces. I was asking about the transportation of the Royal Marines and about the movement of helicopters.
We are told—can the Minister deny this?—that a British Rail ferry will be used in the autumn to transport Royal Marine Commandos to take part in exercises off Norway. The British Rail ferry cannot carry helicopters and cannot carry the necessary spares. Unless the sea is like a millpond there is no hope of even landing the Commandos. That is the state to which the Government have reduced the Royal Navy. That is the Royal Navy that over the past 500 years has stood for all that is great in Britain. The post of First Lord of the Admiralty was one of the great jewels of Government. People strove to be appointed to that post, including the Duff Coopers and the Churchills.
What do we have now? After two years of the equivalent post of First Lord of the Admiralty having been occupied by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North, we have a Royal Navy the morale of which is low, although it is improving since the appointment of the present Under-Secretary of State. We have a Navy that cannot perform its functions, a Navy that cannot undertake the primary purpose of any Government in a free land —namely, to defend the nation against the threat of the Soviet Union.
As one who has sat in his place almost continuously since half-past three this afternoon, I am painfully aware that the start of the debate was a long time ago. However, I hope that the House will bear with me if I return to the beginning of the debate. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State mentioned me by name, it is only fair that I should take up some of the comments that he made. At the risk of provoking a return to the exchanges of icy politenesses with which the debate began, I must tell the House that my hon. Friend warned me in advance that he would refer to me.
I think that the House would consider me churlish if I did not thank him for having commented so fully on the speech that I made in the defence debate last month. On a number of occasions I have complained in the House about the excessive secrecy of the Ministry of Defence, and its failure to reply to the points that we put to it. We have a duty to interrogate the Government from our various points of view, and it is of enormous help to Parliament, in its rôle of parliamentary scrutineer, if Ministers are as helpful and full in reply to our comments as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. That is why I fear that when he goes to the Minister of Defence tomorrow morning someone will take him aside and suggest that he need not be quite so full on future occasions. I am most grateful for my hon. Friend's comments, and I shall study them with care tomorrow morning in Hansard.
There are one or two points that I shall make off the cuff in reply to what my hon. Friend has said. First, with reference to the graph that was published in the Defence Review, my comment was not that there had been a selective approach to the ships counted within the boundary of the graph, but that the boundary itself was rather selective in that it happened to contain the major Russian naval base. Presumably all the ships attached to that base are counted as being readily available for deployment in that area.
There is a simple way of resolving the matter, namely, for my hon. Friend, if he is prepared to do so, to place in the Library parallel graphs for the Western Atlantic Division and the Channel Divi- sion. I appreciate that there may be security reasons which will preclude him from taking that course. However, a graph relating to the Eastern Atlantic has been published. I hope that my hon. Friend will take the view that the information is not classified and that he will make similar graphs available for the other two areas of the Atlantic.
My hon. Friend did not challenge the statement that I made in last year's debate on the Royal Navy, that the Russian surface fleet was no larger than it had been in 1958. In last year's debate I was drawing on information from the Brookings Institute. That is an independent organisation that is not affiliated to the Tribune Group. It is not a subcommittee of the NEC. The paper showed that between 1958 and 1972 the Russian surface fleet did not show any significant increase, although ships were modernised and replaced.
Last month, in the defence debate, I quoted figures to demonstrate that in the past 10 years the Warsaw Pact countries have produced 84 major combat ships and that the NATO countries have produced 151. Since then, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bean) has pointed out, we have had the publication of further figures from America. They show, if we confine our attention to ships of over 3,000 tons that have been built in the past 15 years, that the Warsaw Pact countries have built 57 ships and that America has built 122. The latter figure relates entirely to America and does not take account of any ships that might have been produced by America's NATO allies.
I accept my hon. Friend's point that the comparisons I have drawn are historic—that they tell us what has happened over the past decade or 15 years. I accept that it requires continuing vigilance to ensure that superiority is maintained. However, shipbuilding capacity takes a considerable time to increase, and it is difficult to believe that the rate of shipbuilding construction in the USSR is now so dramatically different from that of 1974 or 1975, which are years included in the figures that I have quoted.
My hon. Friend has pointed out that the figures do not take account of the submarine balance. That has been referred to by many other hon. Members. I accept that a greater number of submarines have been constructed by the Warsaw Pact countries than by the NATO countries in the past decade. I admitted that in my intervention, in which I was drawing on a table that is published annually in the "Military Balance", which is produced by the International Institute of Strategic Studies. I think that Members from all corners of the House will accept that it is an independent and fairly authoritative review.
If we take the table for the latest year that I have seen, which is in the publication for 1975–76, we see that a greater number of submarines have been laid down by the Soviet Union over the past decade. But that greater number is due only to the greater number of ballistic missile submarines that Russia has constructed in the past decade—more than twice as many as the Western countries.
I share the concern of all hon. Members at the rate of construction of ballistic missile submarines by Russia. It is frightening. It is giving the Soviet Union an overkill capacity, almost comparable to the overkill capacity of the United States. Such capacity is lunacy. It is frightening from whichever corner is comes, but perhaps particularly from that corner.
However, let us consider the published figures for those submarines, which are attack submarines. Ballistic missile submarines are not built to attack the ordinary merchant shipping lanes. They remain concealed and do not betray their position by attack. An analysis of attack submarines built in the past decade shows that the Warsaw Pact countries have built 81 submarines and that NATO countries have built 80. There is an almost precise arithmetical balance between the two rates of construction.
Some hon. Members may ask: why do the Warsaw Pact countries need 81 attack submarines? That is a valid question. But we should bear in mind that somebody in Warsaw, in the Kremlin and in East Berlin is asking an almost identical question: why do the NATO countries need to build 80 attack submarines? If we become obsessed with counting the numbers of ships and submarines constructed by the other side, without bearing in mind the effect upon them of the ships and submarines that we lay down, we shall become locked in a never-ending arms race—a spiral from which we can escape only by conflict.
I should like to put three other points to my hon. Friend. I hope that he will hear with me if I deal with them briefly in the next 10 minutes.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having given such a full reply to the points that I made last month, but I hope that he will find time at the end of the debate to reply also to the interesting point made by the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour) about supplies of tritium. Some of my hon. Friends are anxious to hear a reply to that question, too.
As I understand the situation, our agreement with America for the supply of tritium was first concluded in 1959. Some of us have great difficulty in understanding why an agreement that has apparently worked adequately and at fairly economic cost to us for nearly two decades should now require to be abrogated and replaced by another arrangement.
I find it hard to believe that the comparatively small runs of tritium—if runs is the right term—which Britain will require will justify the substantial capital investment required to create the plant at Dumfries, which will need 50 workers to man it. Indeed, as the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham said, it begs the question of the future of the Polaris submarines. Hitherto, we have been told that the future life of these submarines is unlikely to exceed another decade. As the plant will not be operational for the next three or four years, unless there has been a serious change of policy, we shall have to recover our costs over a period of only six or seven years. I should be grateful for further enlightenment on that matter when the Minister replies to the debate.
The second question relates to Press reports, a fortnight ago, that nuclear depth charges have entered service with the NATO countries, including Britain. My hon. Friend will not be surprised that I should raise this matter, as five hon. Members tabled a large number of questions on it last week. I noted from the Press reports on this matter a quotation from an RAF officer in which he said:
We are not ashamed to be training to attack such a fair target as a submarine which
is prepared to attack cities crowded with civilians, using imprecisely aimed nuclear rockets from the apparent safety of the open sea.
I have great sympathy with that observation. But if the use of a ballistic missile submarine is so execrable that we are justified in stopping at nothing to destroy it, it raises some pertinent moral questions about our own nuclear deterrent which is adequately and aptly described in that very quotation.
I mention that in passing, because the point that I wanted to press on my hon. Friend is that many Labour Members are concerned that tactical nuclear weapons, such as this, dangerously lower the firebreak between the conventional and the nuclear explosive. Is there not a serious danger of a further weakening in that firebreak by the introduction of nuclear depth charges? The temptation to use them will be greater because there will be no collateral damage. There will he no civilians about to be destroyed. Moreover, it will be more difficult to verify whether they have been used. It is not impossible to construct a scenario in which one side discovers that its submarine has disappeared and is then left wondering whether it was destroyed by a nuclear or a conventional weapon. Therefore, I ask my hon. Friend seriously to consider whether the introduction of such weapons and their increasing proliferation will not lead us into a situation where the firebreak between the nuclear and the conventional is dangerously blurred.
The last point I wish to make, at slightly greater length, concerns arms exports. I indicated during Business Questions a fortnight ago that I might raise this matter in one of the Estimates debates. This is a more general point than the two points that I have just made. However, I believe that it is competent for me to raise it in this debate, since there is an intimate relationship between the Estimates and the arms that we export. Although all three Services are involved, it is appropriate to raise this matter in a debate on the Royal Navy, since naval armaments comprise perhaps the largest components of our arms exports.
I spoke at length on this matter in the debate last July and I do not wish to go over the general ground. However, I am moved to return to the subject by two recent developments.
The first was the visit by the Secretary of State for Defence, only a fortnight ago, to South Korea for the avowed—openly admitted—purpose of selling arms. I am not aware whether they were naval arms, because its own secrecy does not permit the Ministry of Defence to divulge the nature of the arms that it was seeking to sell.
I was seriously disturbed to read these Press reports, because there is a highly repressive regime in South Korea. I recall that a year ago a spokesman for the South Korean Government said "We are rather better than Spain. We still have an Opposition." Unfortunately, only last March, all the Opposition were arrested and imprisoned. They were not by any stretch of imagination pro-Communist.
The hon. Gentleman asks about North Korea. I should be happy to make a similar speech on North Korea if we were faced with a situation in which any member of the Labour Cabinet had visited North Korea to offer to sell armaments. At the moment no one has done that. We must wait and see whether that development occurs. I am dealing with places to which members of the Government have paid visits. I am confident that if any member of the Government goes to North Korea, we shall have similar speches from the Opposition.
The Opposition in South Korea, who have been arrested and imprisoned, are by no means pro-Communist. The statement on which they were arrested was read out in the Catholic cathedral of the capital city. Ironically, it was a statement that called on the West to withhold economic assistance to the South Korean Government until certain democratic freedoms were restored. It must have struck them as very bitter that the first major Western statesman to visit South Korea following that statement should be a member of a Labour Government seeking not to withhold economic aid but to supply further arms to buttress the regime there.
I note that the recent Financial Assistance Act passed by Congress includes a clause which
prohibits the furnishing of security assistance to any foreign Government which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognised human rights, except in exceptional circumstances justified to Congress.
I can only assume that Congress has found justified the violations that have been going on in South Korea, because the United States Government propose to continue military assistance to that country. But the fact that the American Congress is considering the insertion of such a clause in a major statute indicates growing international concern about the arms race. I hope that Britain will note the increasing international concern about this matter and will reconsider those nations with which it is prepared to trade.
The other development that has moved me to refer to this matter has been recent Press reports on arms supplies to Southern Africa. A number of hon. Members have referred to Southern Africa in the context of moving NATO activities south of the Tropic of Capricorn. The view that they take of the matter is tenable, logical and consistent. It is not one with which I agree, but it is a consistent and tenable position. What is untenable is the position that we appear in danger of adopting—namely, that we say we are against collaboration and the supply of arms to South Africa but covertly are prepared to tolerate it.
I refer in particular to the recent deal that has been concluded between Marconi and South Africa for the supply of military communications equipment. There is no secret that the communications equipment is military. Its only conceivable purpose is military, and neither Marconi nor the South African Government have denied that it is for military purposes. Electronic communications equipment does not go "bang"; it does not kill people. But it directs, guides and targets the things that do go "bang", and the person who finds himself on the receiving end will regard it as a very metaphysical distinction.
Given the fact that such sales appear to be legitimate, in terms of the guidelines, is the Minister satisfied with the state of the guidelines at present? I am not satisfied. Nor am I at all satisfied that the degree of secrecy that surrounds our present arms trade is justified. I refer to the statement that appeared in the Sunday Times a fortnight ago reporting the creation of an exhibition at Aldershot as a special one-off job to attract orders from foreign countries. The report said that the exhibition was an extraordinarily extrovert "move on the part of the Ministry of Defence. I asked the Minister of State in a Question only last week if he would list the 70 countries that are being invited to attend this exhibition. The reply that I got was far from being extraordinarily extrovert. In fact, it was of five lines and it declined to list the 70 countries that had been invited. Seventy is a very large figure. Indeed, if one deducts the number of countries that are members of the Warsaw Pact and fellow-travellers, and one or two others that are not in the arms trade, I suspect that with half an hour in the Library one could produce the list of 70 countries that are sending representatives.
It is the almost paranoid secrecy that surrounds this matter that makes it very difficult for Parliament to exercise proper scrutiny of what is a legitimate area of public concern. That is the trouble with secrecy. It suggests to me the unworthy reflection that perhaps there is something to be hidden. Perhaps there is being invited a country that the Government would rather we did not know about. That suspicion might be totally unworthy. but it would be easier to remove it if the Minister would come out into the open on what is not a high security matter.
I therefore leave my hon. Friend with two points on this matter. First, when we had the debate on the arms trade last year, the Minister of State kindly arranged for some Members who took part in that debate to visit the permanent defence sales exhibition of the Ministry of Defence. Would it be possible for those Members who have visited the permanent exhibition also to attend the Aldershot exhibition to see what is on display there? Secondly, will my hon. Friend arrange for the Ministry seriously to consider whether the guidelines on arms exports should be revised?
The growing amount of Press and public attention to this matter in Britain reflects a very serious and deep unease at the rapid increase in our arms exports —an unease that can be reassured only if the public are confident that there has been a thorough revision of these guidelines and that it has been carried out in the open with proper parliamentary scrutiny.
The end of May will be the 60th anniversary of the battle of Jutland, the last great naval engagement and an opportunity that the Royal Navy let slip of final victory of the First World War.
How circumstances have changed. Sixty years ago the First Lord of the Admiralty was the second most important figure in Government. Despite the fact that the new Under-Secretary has made a jolly good speech, he has yet to be able to claim similar status.
Sixty years ago no debate on the Navy estimates would have closed at 8 p.m. with final winding-up speeches from the Front Benches because the House had run out of Members. [HON. MEMBERS: "Who says so?"] I suggest that it is likely. I do not know. However, I make the obvious comparison. If one wishes to measure our straitened circumstances, there is the comparison between the interest that we then took in the Royal Navy and that which we now take in the Royal Navy, a comparison which is almost too eloquent for comment.
I want to follow the remarks of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) and to talk about strategic nuclear weapons and their future. Before I do so, I want to make a passing reference to the Soviet Foxbat in the Mediterranean, and the mystery as to why that aeroplane is not being intercepted. I visited the NATO headquarters at Naples a fortnight ago and was told that the Foxbat, which flies higher and faster than any Allied aircraft in that theatre, makes incursions over international waters and NATO airspace very regularly indeed. Its favourite beat is the Black Sea, overlooking the shores of Anatolia, in Northern Turkey. Its rôle is surveillance—electronic spying. In the words of one officer at the NATO headquarters, it has the capability of opening NATO's mail, of listening to every communication in the Mediterranean sector. When one asks why it is not intercepted, the answer one receives is that we have no aircraft in that theatre that could do it.
However, that is not quite the whole of the story, because there is one American aircraft that has the capability to intercept the Foxbat, and that is the F14, and the F14 is flying off the USS "Enterprise". I am further told that the National Security Council in the United States has debated at great length whether the F14 should be sent up to intercept Foxbat. The Council decided against it because it felt that to do so would be to upset relations between the Soviet Union and the United States.
The question I want to put to the Minister—many of these questions are unfair because he is new to this game—is whether that decision was made with our approval. What is his reaction? Either Foxbat is of remarkable value to the Soviet Union as a spy aircraft, or it is not. How does one measure its value against the notional threat to relations between America and the Soviet Union?
So far, the F14 stays on board the "Enterprise ", and it has made no attempt to intercept the Foxbat.
Has it crossed the hon. Gentleman's mind that there might be a gentleman's agreement between the two sides to allow Foxbat to spy on NATO activities and our comparable aircraft to spy on the Russians? That would be a civilised and sensible arrangement.
I do not know that any arrangements between NATO and the Warsaw Pact are either civilised or gentlemanly.
This year's White Paper contains one line only on the deterrent. Yet we in Europe worry about the future of the deterrent, but prefer to let the Americans talk about it. We are silent on the question of a European nuclear force, and the future of Polaris because were we to pay it attention it would highlight the inconsistencies that underlie many of Europe's defence policies. For example, the Schlesinger doctrine, adopted by the Americans as their official doctrine, emphasises the first use of strategic nuclear weapons against a Soviet attack. It calls for greater flexibility. Yet there are many people in Europe who fear lest this flexibility would weaken deterrence, but we are reluctant to say so.
Another inconsistency within Europe is that whereas we all rely upon United States protection—the strategic nuclear guarantee—the British and French take out a little nuclear insurance on the side, in the shape of the French and the British independent nuclear forces. How do we, the Government and the Opposition, justify the Polaris force of four submarines? I believe that we can do it in two ways. We can claim that having four Polaris submarines prevents the first use of nuclear weapons on the part of the Soviet Union against this country. We might also claim that the possession of four Polaris submarines would deter a conventional attack upon the United Kingdom, or would stop it happening, once war had broken out in central Europe. Of the two justifications, I prefer the first as being more valid than the second.
The European dilemma is that whereas Americans increasingly talk of using nuclear weapons in war situation, the European powers have always relied upon the uncertainty of an American response to make deterrent work. Of course, the second of the two justifications for the British nuclear force—that it would deter a conventional attack—is an extension of the "uncertainty" argument favoured by Europeans as a whole.
The point is that the hull-life of the first Polaris submarines expires in 1989. The question we ought to pose is, what, if anything, should replace the four Polaris submarines in the 1990s? We are moving into a region where there is almost complete silence.
I believe we should stay nuclear, and I have five reasons for that view. The first is that the USSR and the Chinese might make common cause. Secondly, the United States might withdraw from Europe, and that is a more likely eventuality. Thirdly, I do not believe it to be in the United Kingdom's interest for France to remain the sole European nuclear power. Fourthly, no nuclear power has yet become a non nuclear power for nowadays, it is more difficult for a nuclear power to become non-nuclear than it is for a non-nuclear to become nuclear. Fifthly, I do not think that Europe can remain an economic super-Power indefinitely. Sooner or later she will need some sort of nuclear capability of her own.
Yet it we do stay nuclear—and the decision may already have been taken—the task of doing so may well become technologically and economically impossible unless it is carried out on a co-operative basis. But with whom do we co-operate and what form should the new independent deterrent take? Obviously a seaborne force is likely to be less vulnerable than any other system. While searching for partners we might go to the Americans and ask them for their missile system—the Trident—on the same sort of favourable terms as we were able to negotiate 15 years ago for Polaris. The Americans may be prepared to take the Kissinger view that more than one decision-making centre enhances deterrence. On the other hand, a new President, Administration and Congress might feel that to extend this weapons system to an ally would be to upset the American-Soviet relationship and détente.
This brings us to the Government's explanation in respect of the decision to ask British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. to manufacture tritium, the radio-active insotope of hydrogen, instead of relying upon the United States for its purchase. The reason is not, I submit, the one which the Government have offered—that it saves dollars. The reason is that we are uncertain about the course of future American policy and wish to guarantee our own supplies of this essential material which goes into the making of warheads. Perhaps the Civil Service is thinking about what should happen in the 1990s even if the Government are not and even if my own Front Bench has not yet got round to it.
There may be many difficulties about Anglo-American co-operation for a Polaris replacement, but what is the alternative? It could be Anglo-French co-operation, and there are small straws in the wind blowing in that direction, too. The basis of co-operaiton would be United Kingdom warheads, because we have the technology, and the delivery vehicle, which we have already constructed, linked to a French missile—the A4—which is about to go into production. The joint system might be fitted into a new generation of Polaris boats.
Such co-operation, of course, would leave in abeyance the thorny problems of a European nuclear force, because there can be no European nuclear force without a European executive or government. It would also leave in abeyance the extent and nature of United Kingdom-French co-operation once the new force became operational —for example, surveillance from satellites for targeting, and the question of how many boats are on patrol at any given time. Future Anglo-French co-operation may well he at that level. At present the United Kingdom has four Polaris boats and the French have six missile launching submarines. It was a great pity that the Wilson Government in the mid-1960s cancelled the fifth Polaris and it is a greater pity that the Conservative Government of 1970–74 did not decide to purchase a fifth Polaris. But that is by the way.
The question is, will four British and six French boats be enough for the second generation we are talking about in the 1990s? A minimal deterrent for Europe —and we must talk in terms of a minimal deterrent—would require, in my view, 18 to 20 boats in order to extract from the USSR an equivalent price to the one Britain threatens to extract now. A Europe which remains allied to the United States, as I would hope and expect it to do, would not need a nuclear war-winning capability. Only an independent third-force Europe would need a war-winning capability along the lines of the United States' nuclear force or the Soviet nuclear force. Were we ever to discuss a European nuclear deterrent it would be a minimal one and not a maximum one.
In the meantime, the United Kingdom has to guard against any change of circumstances which might threaten the efficiency of Polaris. We have already decided not to purchase the Poseidon missile, which means that we shall not be able to fit our Polaris warheads with MIRVS because existing warheads are too small. Instead of purchasing Poseidon we have embarked on a modest warhead improvement programme, which involves some nuclear testing in the United States and which, presumably, hardens the warhead in order to improve its re-entry capability. Decoys may be added. But, we must also pay close attention to any advance which the Soviet Union might make in anti-submarine warfare, because any dramatic improve- ment would mean that the next generation of submarines would have to be larger and capable of firing missiles of a longer range from further back.
The next year—1977—will be an important year for three reasons. Perhaps the Minister will make a note of them in the absence of his colleague. The first is that 1977 will see the five-yearly review of SALT 1, with its ABM limitations, which were of course a great gift to the British and French independent nuclear deterrents. The second reason why 1977 will be very important is that the first of the British Polaris submarines will begin her long refit, and it will be more than a year before it is completed. The question we have to ask ourselves is this: if it is difficult, although not impossible, to keep one boat on station when we have only four, shall we be able to keep one boat on station throughout 1977 when only three British Polaris boats will be operational?
The third point is that the United States Government in 1977 will phase out the last of the American Polaris submarines and their nuclear force will consist completely of Poseidon. Is the Minister—and this is the important question—confident that, once these American Polaris submarines are phased out, Britain will be able to go on receiving from Lockheed, the manufacturer of Polaris missiles, an adequate supply of missile fuel, gyros and other spare parts?
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has no taste for national disarmament, and I believe that she sees the value of Polaris as providing both insurance and self-respect, and at comparatively little cost. But has the Conservative Party thought about its replacement? I have my doubts. We should put on our thinking caps.
I apologise for speaking in the debate, particularly as the main point that I wish to make is a narrow parochial one. However, while I realise that the immediate technique of defence is very valuable to the United Kingdom, I also realise, as Member for a constituency where there are thousands of dockyards, and therefore naval jobs, I should take part in this debate, because I feel that Rosyth dockyard has become a political football in my constituency between certain of the political parties.
First, I mention a new entrant into that political arena, the prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate for the next General Election. Rather rashly, he said recently that the Rosyth dockyard was grossly overmanned. That was a disgraceful statement by a representative of a party which appears to stand for the establishment and full defence maintenance.
I wrote to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Royal Navy, and he assured me that, as I have already said, there was good reason for certain overmanning in Rosyth dockyard because it was feasible to hold in readiness always a certain amount of the work force for any emergency that arose.
From the social and employment points of view, it is very important that we continue to have in the area this naval presence. We have in the constituency a large dockyard, a stores depot, an armaments depot and a naval construction research establishment. We also have HMS "Caledonia", a very efficient training centre. Unfortunately, it has been decided that HMS "Caledonia" shall close in a few years' time, but we have had an assurance from the Minister that the Royal Navy will find some alternative use for this establishment.
Dunfermline and district, therefore, is highly dependent on the maintenance of the naval establishments. Indeed, they are vital to the whole economy of the area, and if they were withdrawn the economy of Dunfermline and district would be quickly strangled.
We now have another political enemy of the naval establishments—the Scottish National Party. I am sorry to see that not a single Member of the SNP has been present for the debate. The local SNP, as we call it, has been sniping and questioning about the future of Rosyth dockyard for quite a number of years. There is a new SNP candidate. She is completely new to the area. I am safe in saying that she had never seen or heard of Rosyth dockyard until two years ago. Yet she is able to say that it is fast becoming a one-ship dockyard.
We also have the SNP spokesman in this House, the hon. Member for Argyll
(Mr. MacCormick). In a defence debate last March, he said:
I feel that it is inevitable … that the Polaris base will have to be moved."—[Official Report, 31st March 1976; Vol. 908, c. 1406.]
He meant away from Rosyth. He based his argument on strategic reasons, but I believe that the true reason is one contrived to fit in with the SNP policy statement in its manifesto on nuclear bases in Scotland.
The SNP is aided and abetted in this campaign to sap the confidence of thousands of workers and their families in my constituency by a senior lecturer in the economics of defence at Strathclyde University, Dr. Gavin Kennedy, who last week was reported in my local Press to have prepared a special paper. The report was headed:
British not best for Naval Base".
The newspaper was reporting a meeting of the SNP. It said:
The vice-chairman quoted extracts from a special paper in which Dr. Kennedy argued that on the basis of evidence from public sources about Britain's strategic needs and its Defence capability, the closure of a dockyard remained a possibility, with a severe curtailment in operations in a yard as a possible alternative.
Dr. Kennedy was quoted as stating:
Rosyth is vulnerable to severe curtailment or to closure as things stand in Britain at present and as they are envisaged to develop by the Ministry of Defence up to 1980. Being British is no guarantee of Dockyard employment; quite the opposite is the case.
That same gentleman was in my constituency during the referendum campaign, when he said that there was no likelihood that the Rosyth dockyard would keep open. He repeated this statement a few weeks later. On both occasions, I wrote to the Under-Secretary of State for the Royal Navy to get reassurance again that nothing was going to happen to Rosyth dockyard for a very long time, because I have always had the assurance that there would be a full load of work in the dockyard for many years ahead. But, nothing daunted, Dr. Kennedy came back to say by implication that it could happen within 18 months' time. He has only six months to go to that deadline, and I cannot see him being proved correct in his forecast.
A letter which I have received from the Minister confirms the Government's policy. It says:
Our latest forecast shows that for many years ahead the dockyards will have a heavy programme of naval work.
I hope that the Minister in reply to the debate will refer to the point made by the hon. Member for Argyll in the House on 31st March—namely, that for strategic reasons the Rosyth dockyards may be closed. I gather the reason is that as we are in the River Forth, which is an estuary, the Russian submarines will be able to follow any ships that leave the Rosyth dockyard.
I apologise for introducing this purely parochial note into the debate. I conclude by saying that the controversy in my area has had the effect of undermining the minds and attitudes of my constituents. I hope that something will be done for the workers in the Rosyth dockyard, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give them some hope when he replies to the debate.
I am sure that the hon. Member for Dunfermline (Mr. Hunter) will forgive me if I do not take up the arguments he deployed in regard to Rosyth dockyard. The hon. Gentleman has given a strong lead to his constituents. I am sure that he will agree with me that the defence cuts obviously will have an effect on employment. I do not wish to make a party political point, but I support the hon. Gentleman in seeking to defend the employment of his constituents.
This has been a valuable and wide-ranging debate. It has highlighted the fact that the Royal Navy still plays an important rôle in the defence of our nation and also fulfils our commitments on the situation.
I should like to say a few words that have a direct bearing on the appointment of the newly appointed Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy. It was once said that the worst Minister of Health was a politician who had been a doctor. On the contrary, I have discovered that any hon. Member who has spent time in the Services has always proved to be superior to a Minister who has not. I think that is a fair comment on the situation.
The first duty of any Government is to make provision for the defence of the nation. It is quite useless to talk about raising our standards of living and all the other desirable aims if we cannot guarantee to our people the freedom to live their lives in peace. That must be the objective of any Government. The question of how that objective is achieved on both sides of the political fence is perhaps a difference of emphasis.
I should like to refer to the situation around the coast of Iceland. That has involved the participation of a NATO ally and has shown how important is the rôle of the Royal Navy in our defence. It has also emphasised the importance of our trade routes, as was emphasised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles). Our duty, and certainly the duty of the Royal Navy, is to protect those trade routes. That is one of the most important roles to be fulfilled by the Royal Navy.
The Icelandic dispute has pointed up the difficulties of protecting our own vessels. Surely it is essential to protect our fishing vessels if they are to be allowed to carry out their fishery tasks in peace. Once the fleets are dispersed, we shall never be able to build them up again. There will be no second chance to re-form an industry that is already facing considerable financial difficulties.
This also brings to mind the important subject of the protection of oil rigs in the North Sea. That is a matter that we must consider, and it is also a matter that must be of concern to our allies, because we are becoming an oil-producing nation. A most vulnerable part of our industry finds itself in a difficult area of the ocean. I am not a seaman, but I gather that it is a difficult operation to defend the rigs. It is certainly a matter to which we should give our full attention.
A great deal has already been said about detente. Of course, by modern technology our ability to detect an enemy is considerably increased. We have had advances in radar, satellite communications, and all the rest of it. They make much easier the task of detecting our enemies. It is difficult to envisage the kind of occurrence in the early days of the war, when two German battleships were lost in the English Channel just because we had no technology with which to find them. The weather came down and they were lost to our ships. Had we had radar at that time, they would have been detected despite the weather conditions.
I wish to ask the Minister whether we now have adequate means of detecting the movements of ships, wherever they may be, in conjunction with our NATO allies. I believe that we have not enough forces to carry out that rôle in a satisfactory manner. When we examine the Warsaw Pact strengths, we begin to realise the kind of build-up that is necessary to cope with the situation. We are all aware of the build-up of Soviet forces. It is no use referring to moves towards detente and agreements on this, that and the other. I know that the Soviet force have been built up, and it is up to us to see that we build up our forces accordingly.
Labour Members may well counter my arguments with the retort "You have on many occasions advocated reductions in expenditure". That is true, but I do not believe that we can afford to cut our defence budget. I believe that we have cut too far and that we need to increase defence expenditure. It is no use taking the view that because of our economic situation we cannot afford to increase our defence spending. We must take a hard look at the minimum requirements of our nation in terms of its defence budget. I am concerned to see that this country has a proper and adequate form of defence. If it means an increase in spending let us have it and find something else to cut.
That is true, but my argument is entirely unrelated to that. It is based purely upon what the country needs by way of replacements for its defence programme. We must cost that programme and pay for it. It is true that our main commitment is with NATO. I do not believe that we can say that it is our only commitment.
It is a year since the Simonstown Agreement was abrogated. We shall find it extremely difficult to refurbish and refit our ships. About 1,000 ships go round the Cape route every month. How do we refit those vessels? My hon. Friend the Member for Louth (Mr. Brotherton) went into details and mentioned the other countries in the area, none of which were friendly. We cannot rely upon them in the event of war. There will be no way in which to refit our ships. Yet the danger has in no way lessened. If anything, it has increased.
In the Mediterranean there is cause for concern. There is an enormous build-up of Soviet naval power. We are unable to compete with the magnitude of those forces. Further East, I am sad to see the SEATO agreement shattered. Our presence in that area is still required. We owe obligations to many parts of the world and it is our duty to fulfil them. We see the Soviet strength increasing year by year. This must be worrying to us all.
China has been slow to begin its development of atomic weapons but is gradually building up its programme. The distance over which these missiles can be fired is increasing, and with it the dangers. I have frequently mentioned the danger of Russia and China uniting their atomic forces or, alternatively, of those two powers clashing. The Chinese are equally aware of their long frontier and realise that they are, to some extent, dependent on their nuclear deterrent. With a population of about 900 million they are not so dependent as a small island of 50 million people.
Everyone wants peace, but until such time as we are satisfied that we have an arms limitation agreement that will work we have to ensure that we have sufficient military strength. What shall we do when Polaris becomes out of date and it is difficult to get spares? Perhaps America will withdraw from Europe. We shall lose one of our most important weapons. This is principally a weapon of defence, which enables us to say to a potential aggressor "If you seek to attack us we have the ability to create such damage as to make your attack not worth while".
There must be a completely new appraisal of our requirements, particularly in naval defence. How much will it cost? We must find that out and persuade people to pay for what they need. What nuclear force is required not in the next two or three years but in the next 20 years? These things take time to build up. If we are to find ourselves short of spares and deprived of supplies from the United States we must prepare for such eventualities. We have a duty not only to protect our people and give them a sense of security but to ensure that our trade routes throughout the world are properly protected. We must have sufficient ships to do this job.
I pay the highest tribute to the Navy for the difficult job that it is carrying out in the cod war. I hope that the Under-Secretary will deal with the question that I put to him in an intervention. What happens when a confrontation is near in the cod war? Does a commander have to take his orders from the political chief, or does he take action on the spot and then carry the can back? Is the Minister satisfied that the vessels engaged in the cod war are of the right type and that the commanders have the authority to do what they believe to be right?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy—who has had to leave the Chamber briefly—on his new appointment. I am sorry that I was not present to hear his first speech from the Dispatch Box, but I was acting as Chairman of a Select Committee.
In the past 25 years mankind has suddenly become vividly aware of the enormous wealth that lies beneath the sea. This wealth is of incredible proportions. I am indebted to a book written by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Luard) for some of the figures which I shall give, which have been drawn from international sources. On the sea bed there are objects called manganese nodules, small lumps of metallic ore which extend over a vast area of the sea bed in the Pacific and other oceans. The estimate of the content of these nodules has been put at 16 billion tons of nickel, 8 billion tons of copper, 10 billion tons of titanium, 25 billion tons of magnesium and similar quantities of other extremely valuable metals.
This wealth is building up at the rate of about 10 million tons annually. We know that under the sea bed there are trillions of cubic feet of gas and millions of tons of oil. We are busily exploiting these resources round out own shores. The wealth of fish in the sea is being exploited at a rate never before known —70 million tons a year—providing a revenue of $10 billion. There are minerals from sea water such as salt, magnesium bromine and potassium sodium. Sand, gravel, and, in some parts of the world, tin, can be extracted from the sea bed, and there are other resources of the sea.
It is probably in the light of these discoveries, which are adequately proved scientifically and technically, that the nations of the world have gathered in the biggest international conference ever held by mankind—the Law of the Sea Conference, now in its fourth session in New York. It is fairly certain that two decisions will emerge from that conference relating to the rights of coastal States over the sea and the sea bed. The first is an agreement on a 12-mile territorial sea, over which this country and other coastal States will have sovereign jurisdiction, subject to the right of innocent passage of shipping. The second is a 200-mile exclusive economic zone, where the countries concerned will be permitted to exploit the wealth on the sea bed and beneath it over that enormous area. Although these are not formal agreements yet, most experienced commentators, I think, believe that these two features will almost certainly emerge as general international agreements in the next two or three years.
In the light of these trends, international and scientific, one would imagine that the United Kingdom, with its great maritime tradition and its proportionately long coast and immense interests in seafaring, would have strengthened those institutions, particularly those within the control of the Royal Navy, which might in future enable us to benefit from the resources in the sea and from international agreements which permit us access to them.
In particular, one might have supposed that the Hydrographer, the surveyor of the seas, would have had his hand strengthened and his facilities improved and increased in the light of the opportunities which will clearly lie ahead of this country and others. The Hydrographer has an immense and deservedly high reputation not only here but worldwide. One hon. Member opposite talked nostalgically of 60 years ago and the battle of Jutland. I understand that the Hydrographer's services extend back more than 150 years, long before the dreadnoughts were thought of..
The Hydrographer is responsible for surveying the seas not only in our home waters but as far afield as the West Indies, the Pacific, the Persian Gulf and virtually all around the world. I understand that this country is one of only six which produce a series of charts purporting to cover virtually all the seas of the world. These charts and this work are of vital importance, but there is a civil application, too.
I should like to quote from the study published by the Hydrographic Study Group, on page 2 of the appendix:
Charts serve two primary uses:
Thus, apart from the great importance of the work of the Hydrographer to the Navy, his work has great relevance to a wide range of other activities.
Unfortunately, the future of this great and distinguished service has now become the subject of a squalid departmental Whitehall squabble about who should pay for it. It is staggering to reflect that, although in 1973–74 the capital and revenue cost of the service was £14·6 million, in the current financial year, 1976–77, the expenditure will be £11·9 million. In other words, there has been a fall of between 20 and 25 per cent. in expenditure on this service at constant 1975 prices, at a time when the whole world, not just the United Kingdom, is becoming more concerned about and interested in the enormous economic possibilities in and beneath the seas.
The Statement on the Defence Estimates, which runs to 111 pages, could find only one minor paragraph for this matter. The essential sentence in paragraph 59 reads:
The recommendations of a study group which was set up in July 1974 to assess the future civil and military requirements for hydrographic effort and to look at possible sources of funding are now being considered.
In a debate on 19th December last year, the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), in whose constituency the Hydrographer's headquarters is situated, made an excellent speech asking for the Government's intentions on the future of the Hydrographic Service and what was to be done to strengthen and develop it. All that he got in reply from the then Under-Secretary for Defence for the Royal Navy, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Judd), was:
We shall…be taking decisions just as soon as we can."—[Official Report. 19th December 1975; Vol. 902, c. 2018.]
I put down a Question a little while ago and received a reply on 8th April. It was:
We still have to complete our consideration of the Hydrographic Study Group's report"— [Official Report. 8th April 1976; Vol. 909, c. 285.]
This report was commissioned in July 1974. It was published on 27th March 1975. But even before that, in July 1974, the Select Committee on Science and Technology was making a special study into offshore engineering and related problems of North Sea oil and gas. It paid some attention to the Hydrographer and his work. The Report of the Select Committee was published nearly two years ago, on 25th July 1974.
It is interesting to note, especially for me, since I was and am a member of the Committee, that paragraph 119 of the report said:
We were disturbed by the Evidence given to us by the Assistant Director, Naval Division, Hydrographer of the Navy on the absence of up to date charts for many areas of the UK Continental Shelf. Substantial areas have never been properly surveyed or were surveyed by lead and line over a hundred years ago.…We believe that there is serious risk of accident unless urgent action is taken. We recommend that immediate provision should be made for a substantial increase of ships and equipment for surveying the Continental Shelf.
The report went on to talk about the problems and dangers to navigation if chunks of machinery and bits of oil rigs and so forth were left around in the North Sea:
…until recently there was no responsibility for anyone to report when they abandoned, either temporarily or permanently a wellhead. We have found instances of some being abandoned and sticking forty-six feet from the sea bed, about which we know nothing…We understand that the permanent or temporary abandonment of wells should be notified to
the Department of Energy and that the Department of Trade…requires that the Hydrographer of the Navy be advised of the nature of any obstruction which is to remain on the sea bed.
We were given to understand, in other words, that the Hydrographer, quite apart from his long traditional one and a half century duties of surveying and charting which have been done so splendidly for such a long time, now had extra duties of, as it were, policing bits and pieces left strewn around in the North Sea in our quest for oil.
We have a situation in which the Select Committee on Science and Technology reported on the importance of this matter in July 1974, the special study group was set up, presumably by the Secretary of State for Defence, in July 1974, the study group produced its report in March 1975, there was a debate in this House on the subject in December 1975, there is now a debate on defence in May 1976, and nothing is being done about the Hydrographic Service. What is more, there is still this silly, squalid little squabble going on in Whitehall between umpteen Departments because the Navy wants its servant to do his job but does not want to pay his wages and provide him with the necessary equipment.
This is not purely a matter of defence. I have a list of the Government Departments which are involved, one way or another, in the work of the Hydrographer. The list is in a Written Reply from my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North. He said:
The services of the hydrographer are used to a greater or lesser extent by a number of Government Departments, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Home Office, Department of the Environment, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Social Security, Department of Trade, Scottish Office. Welsh Office, Northern Ireland Office, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Department of Education and Science and Ministry of Overseas Development."— [Official Report, 8th April 1976; Vol. 909, c. 284.]
Yet many of those Departments, each of which are quibbling over sums of £500 million or £600 million for this or that, cannot cough up a few million pounds for this important and vital service. It is not as if we do not have specific, clear and detailed recommendations about what should be done.
I have referred to the report commissioned in 1974 and published in 1975. I do not wish to weary the House with all the detailed recommendations, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of them, but, basically, there are two possibilities. The report suggests that to carry out the hydrographic service efficiently will cost another £30 million over seven years. That sum would be for specialist survey ships. An extra £18 million over seven years will be required for supporting staff and equipment. A more interesting suggestion made in the report, which I hope the Government will take seriously, is the idea that the services of the Hydrographer be split from the Defence Vote and carried on a separate Vote in the same way as the national meteorological services are separately financed.
If that suggestion were accepted them. would be no more squabbling in the Ministry of Defence about how much should he paid for the service. The Ministry strongly objects to the idea of a separate Vote or separate control but it is not itself prepared to pay for an adequate service. It wants to keep control and to keep this important service in its own hands for understandable reasons. Its services are important to NATO but the Ministry does not want to pay for it. It wants some other Department to pay.
The Secretary of State for Defence and his colleagues must make up their minds. If they want the service to be expanded and developed they must be prepared to pay for it. If they do not want to pay out the money, they should agree to use the service and agree to separate financial accountability. It is absolute madness to ignore this splendid service, which commands high admiration in this country and abroad and which could be the focus of work not only for the United Kingdom but throughout the United Nations.
If the debate produces no other result, I hope that it will result in the Secretary of State and other Defence Ministers paying urgent attention to the problem which has been on the stocks for nearly two years. I hope that something will be done
am glad to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley). Although I listened with great interest to the speech of the Minister and most of the other speeches, if I had not heard the hon. Gentleman I should have said that all the speeches in the debate had followed the usual course of more or less ritual acceptance of the Soviet threat and then declarations, depending on which side of the Chamber one sat, about the possible need for more or less expenditure on the Royal Navy. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on a thoughtful and most important contribution on a subject that has been totally neglected but that is fundamental to the country's future wealth and well-being.
What make the subject of the Royal Navy quite different in both status and quality from the subject of its two sister Services are the following three fundamental truths: first, it is the most important of the Services. It is the last custodian of the country's freedom from starvation or occupation. It is the first trip-wire or safeguard in sub-threshold conflicts, in infringements of our sovereignty or of our dependencies, our offshore installations, fishing fleets or whatever, in any local action against our shores. The Royal Navy has the enormous dual importance of being both our first and our last line of defence.
Secondly, of all the Services, the Royal Navy has been the most seriously disabled, distorted and unbalanced by successive economies, design failures, delays and indecisions in weaponry.
Thirdly, because of that imbalance and the unsuitability of much of its equipment, the Royal Navy is less able than either of its sister Services to carry out the tasks with which it may be charged. It is neither cost-effective nor combat-effective. Of course, to some extent these failings may be disguised by the quality, dedication and standard of training of the crews. But the traditional naval complaint with which the Minister, as an ex-Navy man, may be familiar—the long-held contention about "Iron Men in Wooden Ships" has never been truer than it is today.
It is nearly two years since I asserted in this Chamber that not one vessel in the Royal Navy was capable of conducting a surface engagement. It is possible that today there are five. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong. No vessel constructed since 1955 has armour capable of resisting—to take the lowest common denominator—twin oerlikons on an Angolan gunboat. Its magazine would be penetrated.
Tables of relative strengths are exceedingly misleading. They do not show that of the total surface strength of the Royal Navy only five ships are equipped with surface-to-surface missiles—of French design—and that no fewer than 52 in the Soviet Navy are equipped with equivalent, or in many cases superior, surface-to-surface weaponry. It is a fact that all the other vessels, all the expensive and complicated frigates, would at close quarters be torn to pieces by a K-class destroyer of World War II vintage.
If one may express this disparity in terms of explosive power—my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) mentioned the Battle of Jutland, so we will express it in terms of Jutland—we have at the moment in the Royal Navy the equivalent of one Queen Elizabeth class battleship firing 15-in. shells—with a much greater range, of course—while the Soviet Navy has the equivalent of 42 Queen Elizabeth class battleships. Therefore, the possibility of the Royal Navy considering a surface engagement with other ships, or even with gunboats or the particular weaponry of emergent nations, is very limited.
What sort of action is the Royal Navy equipped for? Is it convoy protection? There are far too few vessels adequately to institute a convoy protection system. In the Admiralty the possibility of instituting convoy protection for ships bringing supplies from America to Europe, as in the First World War has been more or less discarded. One has only to consider the argument of Admiral Gorshkov, on the ratio of ASW to submarine activity, to realise that it would be wasteful and pointless to institute a convoy protection system in the old manner.
Is the Royal Navy equipped to conduct an opposed landing in hostile territory? Plainly it is not. It is lacking in both air support and Commando or close support vessels. Is it equipped to conduct a search-and-destroy operation against raiders in distant oceans? I doubt it. Its vessels do not have the speed, the air support. the endurance, or the back-up from the Royal fleet auxiliary to make this possible.
Is the Royal Navy Suitably equipped to protect our fishing fleets? The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr Johnson) illustrated this well in his argument. At present the Navy is trying to protect the fishing fleet with expensive vessels designed for totally different purposes. We do not have economic and efficient means of protecting our fishing fleets. This may be disguished to some extent by the skill and dedication of the crews, but it remains a fundamental fact. The same is true of the Navy's ability to protect our offshore installations. We do not have the proper equipment to do this economically, efficiently or effectively.
The defence White Paper says that the prime purpose of the Royal Navy is to co-operate in NATO, but in view of these deficiencies one might well ask "To co-operate in doing what?" The fact is that the imbalance in the Royal Navy reflects a continuous series of stop-start-cut compromises and, of course, financial stringency. The ships themselves are, or should be, the tools with which we implement our new maritime strategies, but the fact that they are defective, as I believe they are, shows that either the Admiralty is confused about its strategy or, more likely, the directions that it receives from the Ministry of Defence are inconsistent and occasionally contradictory.
One gets the impression that there are just these periodic panic cuts, ending up in a deal with the admirals in which they agree not to resign en masse if they are allowed a few extra 21 or 42 Type frigates, or whatever. Each successive confrontation between the Treasury and the Admiralty, each concession and compromise, alters the bias in the development of the Navy and magnifies these distortions. The result is that compared with the ships of our enemies, or even of our allies, such as the French and the Germans, the vessels of the Royal Navy are all-purpose millionaire's yachts, under-armed and under-armoured, with curiously high freeboards, and with amenities aimed mainly, it would seem, at providing material for recruiting posters.
In my experience and that of my constituents in the Royal Navy, men are not induced to Join the Service, and do not derive their maximum pride in it, from the various air-conditioned squash courts and other items with which our ships are equipped. They would prefer that when they put in at a foreign port those who visit them are prompted to admire the fierce line and the profusion of weaponry which is so apparent in the Soviet ships when they—sometimes simultaneously with ours—pay courtesy visits.
Service men enlist, fortunately, not for amenities, air conditioning and piped sound in their cabins, but from a kind of martial ardour, with a pride in having the finest equipment, and because their ships are admired for their obvious superiority. It is a mistake to believe that the men can be sent out on expeditions to paint old people's homes as a substitute for this pride. Essentially, the enlisted man in the Royal Navy is first attracted by and takes a pride in the efficiency and effectiveness of the ships and their formidable armament.
I do not necessarily ask for greater expenditure, although I would welcome that. I recommend a radical and intelligent rethink of the Navy's design requirements, which have for too long been distorted by compromise and stringency.
The cure is in our own hands and in our yards. In recommending the through-deck cruisers, the Minister described the comprehensive weapons systems on these vessels. He said that it was desirable that all these systems should be housed in one hull. Anyone can see that that makes a vessel that much more vulnerable. As if to discount vulnerability, the Minister said that it was very much cheaper to do that than to have a multitude of smaller vessels.
The figures do not bear that out. It we were to adopt the Harrier carrier, which is designed to frigate specifications in size—5,000 tons with a complement of 250 men—we could have four such vessels for a smaller crew complement than one through-deck cruiser. I have argued the case for the through-deck cruiser, but I am doubtful whether it can still be sustained with the advances in technology and with the overhang of financial menace that threatens the programme, together with the obvious possibility of achieving the same results with smaller, more economic and more easily dispersed vessels.
I fear that if we continue to attach importance to the through-deck cruisers, we may find in later years that they are either cancelled or allowed to lag severely, whereas if we had the strength of mind to approach the re-designing and re-equipment of the Navy in a new context, we could have a much more effective means of giving air support and covering the gap in the eastern Atlantic with a multitude of Harrier carriers than with one or two highly complex, expensive and probably long-delayed through-deck cruisers.
The remedy is in our own hands. We are now making for the Governments of Egypt and Nigeria gunboats and fast patrol boats which would be exceptionally well-suited to the protection of our offshore installations. The design that came before the Select Committee was totally inappropriate, and the vessel would have been slow and cumbersome.
Three years ago, one of our foremost naval experts said, about the equipment of the Navy:
It is difficult to imagine that any country over a period of time has ever spent so much money on its defence to see so little effect.
In relation to the equipment of the Navy, that is even truer today than it was three years ago. The only remedy is for the equipment of the Navy, the design of ships, and long-term budgeting to be taken out of the incessant arguments that the design staff at the Admiralty can undertake long-term programmes suited to between the two parties in the House, so our present needs.
I start by joining those hon. Members from both sides of the House who have congratulated the Minister on his appointment. I was interested to hear him say that he served in the early part of the war on HMS "Iron Duke". I was the gunnery officer of that ship at about that time. Perhaps we can call ourselves "old ships'.' I shall be making some harsh, though justified, criticisms, but the Minister has just taken office and cannot be held responsible. My remarks are not directed at him.
I must also admit that the Secretary of State has done his best against the neo-Marxists who normally sit below the Gangway and who seem to be seeking the abolition of all our Forces. Unfortunately the right hon. Gentleman's best is not good enough, and the Government as a whole stand indicted. The Defence Review appears to have been written by two people—one who accurately assesses the threat to this country and NATO and another who attempts to make a case for decreasing, rather than increasing, the size of our Navy.
We have heard quite a lot about the figures on page 6, showing the ratio between the ships available to NATO in the North-East Atlantic and those of the Soviet Northern Fleet. We have seen that, compared with 1975–76, that threat is increasing. The ratio of surface ships has increased from 1:1·7 to 1:2. The ratio for submarines has increased from 1:1·6 to 1:1·7. The aircraft ratio has remained the same—namely,1:1·5. However, the Backfire bomber has come into service in the Soviet maritime forces. That has greatly increased the air threat.
My complaint about the table is that it leaves out the vital question. It does not give the vital comparison, the comparison that that only just enabled us to win the Battle of the Atlantic in the Second World War. The comparison between Soviet submarines and our anti-submarine forces. The White Paper shows that there are 46 British escort vessels to 180 Soviet submarines in the Northern Fleet. That is a ratio of one ASW to four submarines.
The House will say that we are not fighting the Soviet Union, and that we have NATO behind us. All right, let us take the relationship between NATO's anti-submarine forces world-wide and the Soviet submarine fleet world-wide. This shows a ratio of two anti-submarine vessels to one Soviet submarine. In World War II, when we were nearly brought to our knees by the submarines, the ratio was six anti-submarine vessels to one German U-boat. The U-boats were the old type of submarine, which had to come to the surface at night to recharge its batteries. Today we are dealing with nuclear submarines which can go around the oceans of the earth without the need to surface. One can well imagine the staggering losses that they could inflict upon us.
The White Paper tells us in page 5 that there are 330 Soviet submarines, of which 130 are nuclear, and that the West as a whole is being out-built by the Soviets by 2:1. In other words, the menace is getting worse. The White Paper tells us that the Russians have built the "Kiev" and her sister aircraft carrier, and that possibly even a third is now being built. That is taking place at a time when we have scrapped all our aircraft carriers except HMS "Ark Royal" But the White Paper does not tell us about the "Kara" cruisers and the "Krivak" destroyers—the world's most heavily armed surface ships.
The White Paper does not tell us how we shall protect the 3,300 ships that are at sea on one day in the Atlantic alone, leaving aside the Mediterranean, and the ships that are in port on both sides of the Atlantic. It does not tell us how we shall prevent the staggering losses that we would be hound to suffer in the early stages of any war in bringing reinforcements from Canada and the United States, and in bringing oil from the Middle East round the Cape of Good Hope.
That is the threat, but what do the Government do in face of it? The Government cut our defence budget by £4,500 million last year, followed by a cut of £110 million, followed by a further cut of £534 million this year. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour) said, that is over £6,000 million in terms of present inflated prices. My right hon. Friend referred to a report in today's Guardian that a Labour Party working party wants another £1,000 million to be cut by 1980.
The hon. Member for Keighley;Mr. Cryer) says "Hear, hear". He is the sort of person who wants to abolish our Forces altogether, the sort of person I was referring to when I spoke of the neo-Marxists below the Gangway.
Such cuts reduce the very forces on which NATO depends more than any others, namely, the antisubmarine forces. It removes at a stroke a total of nine destroyers and frigates. It cuts our anti-submarine warfare aircraft —the Nimrods—which are already in short supply. II cuts our mine counter measure vessels when we well know that the Soviet Union has an historic record of mine laying. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks) pointed out, probably it knows more about mine laying than does any other country in the world. It cuts our amphibious forces, our scarce helicopters and our only heavy-lift aircraft—namely. the Belfast.
Why is this being done'? It is not that the Government do not notice the danger that is set out in the White Paper it is not because of the futile argument that has been used in the past that our Allies spend less per head on defence than we do, and that we should spend less than them. The Government make these cuts because they want to maintain a greater expenditure en the social services, education and health than on defence. In recent years those three services have been costing the country more than defence.
If the threat is not met, there will be no social services, no education, and no National Health Service. In fact, the Secretary of State's predecessor—the present Chancellor of the Exchequer—said that we would have only a heap of cinders. Hon. Gentlemen must appreciate that point when they encourage the Government to go on cutting our forces.
We have been told the truth by a Russian who has seen both sides of the question. He said:
Modern society is hypnotised by socialism, it is prevented by socialism from seeing the mortal danger it is in. And one of the greatest dangers of all is that you have lost all sense of danger. You cannot even see where it is coming from as it moves swiftly towards you".
I think that we owe a lot to Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Luckily, the British people are beginning to realise the danger, thanks mainly to the repeated warnings by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition.
I turn now to the Royal Navy. I congratulate the Secretary of State, as I did last year, on his order for HMS "Invincible" and on the building of the Sea Harrier. I would press the Minister to tell us when the order for the second ship will be placed. Earlier he said that it would be placed in the near future. It seems surprising that in a debate on the Royal Navy he cannot be more precise. However, the hon. Gentleman said that a third vessel would be ordered. We hope that the order will be placed soon, because HMS "Invincible" is two years late in building.
Who will fly the Sea Harriers? Will it be Royal Navy pilots? If so, where will they do their fixed-wing training? Is it intended that some will be flown by the RAF? That question has not yet been answered. I hope that Royal Navy fixed wing pilots will fly the Sea Harriers. Will the Minister assure us about that matter?
HMS "Invincible" and the other ships, when available, will greatly help our antisubmarine forces. I remind the House that this year our anti-submarine forces have been cut by one destroyer, two frigates and two mine counter-measure ships. The Minister said that we were maintaining the forces, more or less, or words to that effect. I suggest that it is less these five important ships in this year alone.
I can understand that when the Government want to make cuts and to save money they should delay the building programme. What I cannot understand is why they should scrap a modern ship, HMS "Hampshire", which is only 13 years old. She is a modern guided missile destroyer, which has seven sister ships in the operational fleet. Why suddenly scrap a ship like that?
Again, why scrap modern conventional submarines? Two—the "Rorqual" and "Grampus"—have been scrapped, and they were built only in 1958. Is it true that every time a new nuclear hunter-killer submarine is launched, one conventional submarine is scrapped? According to the White Paper, we have only three Polaris, seven nuclear, and 13 conventional submarines in service—a total of 23. Ten years ago we had double that number—46.
If the Government want to save money, I suggest that they should concentrate on the smaller ships. As has been pointed out, these are valuable for the training of naval officers. Not long ago we had over 80 coastal minesweepers. Today, we have just over 30. Since 1960 we have built only one small warship and three fast target boats, and two mine warfare ships have been ordered. I leave aside the Kingfisher and Island classes, to which I shall refer later.
Before the last world war we led the world in fast patrol boats. These boats are of far more value today than in the 1930s, because of the missiles with which they can be armed. They can now pack real punch and sink major ships. Why do we not concentrate on building more of these fast patrol boats, which cost far less than the frigates that we have been discussing?
I turn now to the problem of North Sea oil. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate criticised the building of the Kingfisher and Island class ships, which he said were designed to protect North Sea oil rigs. There are four Kingfishers, each of 190 tons, with a speed of 16 knots, and built at a cost of £500,000. Yet British yards are turning out for Mexico a class of ship—the "Azteca"— of 130 tons, a speed of 24 knots, and at the same price as the Kingfisher class ships. About 10 of these vessels have been delivered to Mexico. The repeat order will be for a different class of ship —the Osprey class—which will be capable of 32 knots, will be armed with missiles, and will cost about £1,750,000, which is about twice what I imagine the Kingfisher class will cost now because of inflation. The cost must have escalated to about £1 million.
I can understand that we need a policeman, as it were, on the beat, for the oil rigs, always to maintain patrols in bad weather; but we also need quick reaction forces. I should have thought that we should not order any more Kingfishers or, for that matter, any more of the Island class, but should concentrate on fast patrol boats so that we can have a quick reaction capability. We need both types of vessel.
As regards oil protection duties, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Mallalieu), the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Cronin) and my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn), we must realise that NATO takes over the protection of North Sea oil rigs in time of war. But what happens in time of peace? I think that the hon. Member for Huddersfield, East was absolutely right in saying that we have to get tighter control. There ought to be centralised control under the Admiralty. We should also have agreements with the other countries that are interested, such as Norway, so that we can have a combined protection force and thereby save money. Discussions are going on, but I doubt whether the Minister will be able to tell us anything about them this evening. However, this matter is of fundamental importance. We need both national and international co-ordination in the protection of North Sea oil.
As for the cod war, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) and by my hon. Friends the Members for Louth (Mr. Brotherton) and Windsor and Maidenhead we must realise that the gunboats that the Icelanders use are designed for Arctic waters. They are built of plates of steel that are about 2 in. thick. Our frigates, on the other hand, are built for anti-submarine purposes. They are fast and thin-skinned. Therefore, when they are deliberately rammed—and I agree with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West that they are deliberately rammed from time to time—they suffer severe damage. I am told that out of the 16 available frigates, 12 have been damaged. That is obviously a serious matter.
What I want particularly to ask the Minister is this: two weeks ago the frigates stopped protecting our trawlers. By that I mean that in the past the frigates had interposed themselves between the gunboats and the trawlers whose warps the gunboats were trying to cut. Suddenly, for two weeks, this no longer happened. The frigates signalled the trawlers, saying "Look out. Gunboat coming up your stern". Nothing else happened. This must have been done by order from the Ministry of Defence. I should like to know whether that was so. Above all, if there was this order, why was the fishing industry not informed? Obviously this did the reputation of the Royal Navy no good. There is certainly no blame attached to the Navy. The Government must take the blame. The fishing industry kicked up a fuss and said "If we are not to be protected, we are coming out of these waters", and the Minister sent out three more frigates.
This whole incident did the country a disservice. It was unfair on the industry, and we ought to have a full explanation. Since the frigates have returned, there has been little warp cutting, and the protection has been first-class.
As for the boarding party incident, I understand from the tape that the matter has now been resolved by a Nimrod aircraft, which circled around the trawler and told the gunboat to go and behave itself, and the gunboat actually went off. This is highly satisfactory, and shows good maritime co-operation between the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. It also shows the importance of the Nimrod aircraft, which has suffered a cut in the Government's programme. I hope that the Minister will give a full explanation of this important incident, in which shots were fired at our trawlers.
If any Icelandic gunboat crew attempted to board a Hull trawler, I am damned certain that they would be met with steam hoses, water hoses and every missile that could be thrown at them. I do not think that they would get aboard.
I turn to the northern flank. I think that the House knows that the key NATO requirement, as far as Britain is concerned, is the rapid reinforcement of Norway, Iceland and the Faroes. This is to be achieved by our amphibious forces. I want to take the House to last year's White Paper. On page 11 it talked about our amphibious forces and said that we had a brigade headquarters and four Commando groups. It was said that this force would be cut to three Commando groups, of which one would be specially trained for the Arctic. We had four, and this was to be cut to three.
On page 17 of this year's White Paper the Minister says that thanks to NATO's pressure he has agreed to four additional measures. The first is the
allocation of two additional Commando groups, together with a brigade headquarters and a logistic regiment for deployment in support of specific NATO plans".
Reading that at first sight it seems that four is cut to three and that with an additional two the total is five. But, of course, this is not so. What has happened is that of the four Commando groups one was specially trained in snow and arctic warfare, another was stationed in Malta, and two were allocated to the southern flank. What the Minister has done is withdraw from the southern flank in order to increase the total on the northern flank. There has not been an
increase; rather there has been a reduction by one Commando group.
In this respect I refer to a pamphlet on defence produced by the Greater London Young Conservatives Defence Study Group. In speaking about the Royal Marines and Norway it says:
The Royal Marines pose important questions—perhaps the value of a flexible commando unit (in terms of value for money) has been seriously underestimated.
It recommends that
Britain must retain her ability through strong seaborne and airmobile reserves to reinforce rapidly either Norway or the Mediterranean sector; helicopters and Commando ships are required for this.
I am sure that those recommendations would be endorsed by this side of the House.
That brings me to the need for a rapid reinforcement. In the past for reinforcement to Norway we had two aircraft carriers, "Ark Royal" and "Eagle", two Commando carriers, "Hermes" and "Bulwark", and two assault ships "Fearless" and "Intrepid". Now we have only "Ark Royal". There is no Commando carrier, because "Hermes" has been converted into an anti-submarine carrier and will not be available for this kind of operation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Louth so forcefully pointed out, the helicopter lift for the Royal Marines has been reduced by 50 per cent. There is now no deck to lift them from. The Minister knows that the essence of the Royal Marine Commando technique is that it is helicopter borne. But their total lift has been reduced by 50 per cent. and this creates serious problems for NATO.
I am glad to see that "Bulwark" is not to be scrapped. I gather that she will be laid up. If so, will she be assigned to NATO? If she is at one or two months' notice, I shall be very much happier, because it means that despite any future Socialist desires for cuts they cannot scrap this vessel.
Several hon. Members talked about the use of merchant ships and train ferries to get these Commandos to Norway. I would not emphasise this point, because it has been made strongly enough already. I would only remind the Minister that the NATO Commander- in-Chief in Northern Europe has protested most strongly about the reduction in our amphibious forces, and in this he is absolutely right. The Government are heading towards a repetition of the shambles of the Norwegian campaign in the last war.
Mention has already been made about the withdrawal of the Royal Navy from the Mediterranean by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles). My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley), with his experience as Chairman of the WEU Defence Committee, talked about the Foxbat problem which, again, is undermining NATO strength in that part of the world.
I would like to move quickly to equipment. It was a Labour Government's White Paper in the 1960s which spoke of the Fleet submarines as the capital ship of the future. But this capital ship is still equipped with World War II torpedoes. The Government have said they are hoping it will be possible to procure the US Sub-Harpoon, and to scrap the British equivalent, Hawker Siddeley USGW. I agree that the Sub-Harpoon is an excellent weapon, but it is a most extraordinary way to conduct negotiations with an ally to buy one of its weapons by scrapping one's own weapon before negotiating the price. This is a crazy thing to do, particularly, knowing that the Americans are so good at salesmanship. I ask the Minister how these negotiations are proceeding, and when this weapon will be available at sea.
Two British weapon systems are going ahead. There is Sea Skua with the Lynx helicopter. We would like to know more about the progress on this weapon and also the Sea Wolf, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger).
Sea Wolf is an anti-missile missile—the only one existing in the world. What are the Government doing to see that it is sold to our allies? I have recently been to the United States, and I know that the Americans are just starting a project definition study for an antimissile missile. We are well placed. We should say to them. "If we are to buy Sub-Harpoon, you can buy Sea Wolf. If we are to buy AWACS. you can buy Sea Harriers". Sea Wolf is a world beating weapon. and I hope that it will be sold to our Allies. The Americans understand that sort of talk. Page 32 of the White Paper shows that we spend 62 per cent. of our available money on manpower and only 38 per cent. on hardware, whereas the Soviet Union spends 20 per cent. on manpower and 80 per cent. on hardware. We cannot afford to economise on research, but we should be able to do so on manpower, particularly civilian manpower. Yet page 57 of the White Paper shows that the amount spent on research next year will be reduced to £107 million—less than what the Government gave to bail out Chrysler. The Minister seemed to Indicate on 31st March that research would be cut by a further 10 per cent. Yet the one area in which we lead the Soviet Union is in advanced technology. It is a false economy to cut research expenditure in this manner.
So far as manpower is concerned, 10 years ago we had 102 Service men for every 100 civilians in support. Today, the ratio has barely changed, to 108 Service men to every 100 civilians in support, yet the Fleet has been reduced by 50 per cent. I hope that the Minister will concentrate on the Ministry of Defence, with its 16,000 employees. The labour force in the dockyards has been increased by 900 this year. If we are to cut, let us cut the tail, as I believe the Secretary of State intends, not the teeth.
However, there is sometimes a danger in cutting the tail too much, particularly as far as fuel supply is concerned. Everyone who has seen a torpedoed tanker blazing will know what I mean. Page 27 of the White Paper says that a number of naval support depots will be closed and that there will be a reduction of fuel and stock purchases. One example of this is at Pembroke. There, as part of an oil pontoon, lies the hull of HMS "Warrior", as famous in her way as HMS "Victory" or HMS "Dreadnought". She was our first iron-hulled seagoing armoured ship. She is 166 years old, but the hull is in good condition. I hope that the Minister will give an undertaking that whatever happens to the oil fuel depot the hull will be preserved until money can be raised to refit this famous ship, which is part of our naval heritage.
I end where I started. I believe that the Western world faces its greatest threat since the 1930s. With nuclear stalemate in Europe, this threat lies at sea. The Soviet Navy has increased by 700 per cent. since 1963. Its new missile submarines can cover the whole of Europe, North America and China from the Barents Sea with missiles with ranges of over 4,500 miles.
The Government's policy is to concentrate all our naval forces in the North-East Atlantic. Let them ask themselves where our fuel, food and minerals come from. They will find that far the largest percentage comes round the Cape of Good Hope. Yet Aden, Simonstown, Singapore, Mauritius and Gan have in turn been surrendered by successive Socialist Governments. Aden is now used by Russian aircraft. What assurance has the Minister that the airfield at Gan—we have left a magnificent aerodrome there—will not be used by Russian aircraft, which would extend Soviet surveillance over the southern Indian Ocean? I hope that proper arrangements have been made to see that that does not happen.
As has been pointed out, the Soviet Navy has increased its presence in the Indian Ocean year by year—threefold in the past four years. It has now installed SAM batteries in Luanda, in Angola, and has the use of one of the best ports in the Indian Ocean, Nkala in Mozambique. The main Soviet strategic aim is to detach Southern Africa from the Western orbit, and with it our supplies of gold, uranium, chrome, titanium and industrial diamonds. The NATO commanders know it. It is the politicians who remain blind, deaf and dumb.
The Secretary of State yesterday mentioned the report by SACLANT on operations outside the NATO area. This report was largely thanks to the North Atlantic Assembly Military Committee. The Soviet forces are in the South Atlantic; ours are not. We conduct no exercises and have no surveillance in that part of the world. This, indeed, is NATO's Achilles heel.
Why are we so blind? We are blind because, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn has said:
Great Britain, the kernel of the Western world has experienced a sapping of its strength and will to a greater degree perhaps than any other country. Contemporary society in Britain is living on self-deception and illusions both in the world of politics and of ideas …
They build themselves rickety structures to convince themselves that there is no danger.
After 10 years of Labour rule our Services are indeed, through no fault of their own, rickety structures. This period has witnessed the greatest decline in the status of this country in its history. Thanks to the warnings of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the country is now at last becoming alarmed at this state of affairs.
The first duty of any Government is the security of the State. It is a duty that successive Labour Governments have failed to acknowledge. It will be our primary task to give national defence the priority which it deserves. It will certainly be a far higher priority than it enjoys today.
With the permission of the House, I should like to reply to the debate.
I am grateful to the hon. and gallant Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) and to others for their generous remarks to me. I also welcome their contributions to the debate, which have been of a high standard. There have been so many valuable contributions to the debate that I can say without fear of contradiction that they will all prove stimulating to me in my reply. I was glad to be called in their company this evening.
I wish to begin by making a statement on today's events off Iceland. The Icelandic Coastguard Vessel "Aegir" intercepted the British trawler "Primella" at 11·58 this morning 30 miles from the North-West Coast of Iceland and some 350 miles from the designated fishing area in which protection is provided for British trawlers. The "Aegir" ordered "Primella" to stop, fired a shot across her bows and put armed boarding parties into boats. "Primella" proceeded to steam south at best speed. I understand that she was accompanied by at least two other British trawlers. "Aegir" fired two further shots across "Primella's" bows and one across her stern. "Aegir" informed "Primella" that she was being fired upon for fishing inside the 200-mile limit and that firing would cease if the trawler stopped.
Meanwhile a Royal Air Force Nimrod had been immediately despatched to the scene, arriving at 13.27. "Aegir" was then informed, using the Nimrod as a communications link, of the possible consequences if the coastguard vessel fired again upon the trawler.
Although the "Primella" is so tar away from the area in which protection is provided, the recent increase made in the level of protection has made it possible on this occasion for the frigate HMS "Lowestoft" to be despatched to the assistance of the trawler, and she is expected to reach her early tomorrow morning. Meanwhile further Nimrod reconnaissance sorties are being mounted until the frigate arrives.
This afternoon the French Ambassador in Reykjavik made representations to the Icelandic Ambassador on Her Majesty's Government's behalf. Preliminary reports from the French Ambassador suggest that the Icelanders now consider the incident closed, but we have not yet had confirmation from the fishing grounds that the "Aegir" has broken off her action.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull. West (Mr. Johnson) spoke at length on this matter.
The House is grateful to the Minister for bringing us up-to-date about these events. In regard to the part played by the Nimrod aircraft, was it in direct radio touch with our trawler? Indeed, was she in direct radio touch with "Aegir"? Secondly, although I do not wish to embarrass the Minister, can he say whether the aircraft was armed?
I cannot comment on the second question. As for the first question, yes, communication was established and the communication conveyed by the Nimrod to the Aegir was that we are entitled to take action in self-defence.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West and the hon. Member for Haltemprice spoke at length on the subject of Iceland. It is significant that our frigates have been involved in 41 collisions protecting our trawlers. This is sufficient evidence of the robust and resolute instructions under which they are operating.
My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Cronin) made some suggestions about how operations might be conducted in the distant fisheries off Iceland and I am grateful to him. He, and the hon. Member for Haltemprice, raised the subject of the present rules of engagement. I can assure them that the rules are the subject of deep consideration. They are under constant review. Our NATO Allies are grateful for the forbearance and self-control the Navy has shown in trying and sometimes dangerous circumstances. The hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) made a number of characteristically thoughtful and constructive observations. I am grateful to him for his invitation to visit HMS "Belfast" and I will certainly take him up on it. I am also grateful to him for his remarks about naval welfare.
I should like to say a word about the new arrangements which we are making for ratings who wish to leave the Navy before the end of their engagement. At present men on a notice engagement have the right to give 18 months' notice to leave any time after 18 months' service, either from age 18 or from the end of training, whichever is the later. Men on a committed engagement can apply for premature voluntary release, formerly known as discharge by purchase. The detailed arrangements for PVR in the Royal Navy are necessarily complicated for manning, training and drafting reasons, which are associated with its seagoing rôle.
We have, therefore, decided to simplify our release procedures and to make 18 months' notice the basis of release from both types of engagement. The PVR system will cease to be used in the Royal Navy. Instead, ratings on a committed engagement will generally be allowed to transfer to the notice engagement after three years' trained service and thus acquire the same right to give 18 months' notice. There will be no discharge fee under the new arrangements and ratings will have a much greater degree of certainty about the date of their release but they will normally lose at least part of their committal pay.
We have consulted the Fleet about these changes and the vast majority of men were strongly in favour of them. Amendments to the naval terms of service regulations will shortly be laid before both Houses and, subject to their approval, the new arrangements will come into force on 1st October 1976.
I come to the point that has received the most attention during our debate, that of the maritime threat. For some of my hon. Friends who persist in maintaining that a threat does not exist, let us look once again at the balance of ready forces in the Eastern Atlantic and Channel areas. As Conservative Members are not slow to remind us, here the numerical balance is continuing to tilt towards the Warsaw Pact, which is at the same time making impressive improvements in the quality of its military capability. The Soviet Union has introduced new types of intercontinental ballistic missiles. It has a heavy nuclear submarine-building programme — 10 new boats a year. Eleven Delta class submarines are now operational, capable of landing missiles on targets in America and on the whole of Europe without leaving the safety of Soviet home waters. Each missile fired would have more destructive potential than all of the bombs dropped by the Allies in the last war. The "Kiev", which is of comparable size to HMS "Ark Royal", is expected to be operational this year. A second of the class has been launched and a third is under construction.
However, while there is, of course, no room for complacency, when we take into account other factors, as well as quality, such as training and morale, which Conservative Members may be inclined to ignore, the picture looks less black. Given the deterrent nature of NATO's strategy, I am firmly convinced that the level of United Kingdom maritime forces in the Eastern Atlantic and Channel areas, which remained virtually undiminished following the Defence Review, is consistent with the threat, and indeed continues to constitute a formidable reminder to the Warsaw Pact that we are serious in our intention to protect the democratic way of life against any encroachment.
I would remind the gloomy alarmists on the benches opposite, including the hon. Members for Shoreham (Mr. Luce), Louth (Mr. Brotherton) and Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Clark) that the assessment that I have just offered the House has recently been supported by an independent and highly respected body, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, whose Strategic Survey 1975 I recommend them to read for a balanced assessment of all the factors involved.
Perhaps I might break off to refer to the recent controversy in the United States about the comparative numbers of ships built by the Soviet Union and the United States, to which my hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) and Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bean) referred. I should not wish to become involved in an internal US controversy revolving around points of definition. Details of Warsaw Pact and NATO forces in the Eastern Atlantic are of course given in the Defence White Paper, and, as I have said, they show that the balance is continuing to move in favour of the Warsaw Pact.
But Senator Leahy's suggestion that the Soviet Union has not been outbuilding the United States in terms of naval vessels appears to depend on the exclusion not only of submarines but also of all vessels under 3,000 tons. That is hardly realistic, since all vessels equivalent in size to the Royal Navy's frigates would be excluded.
The first set of figures to which I referred, the 84:151 contrast, are of ships above 1,000 tons, not above 3,000. The second figure, which came from the figures released last week, certainly referred to ships above 3,000, but not the first.
In that case, we may finish all square. I concede the first point, but my hon. Friend must concede me the second. Furthermore, the Soviet submarine building rate over the last 15 years has been more than double that of the United States.
My hon. Friend raised many detailed points on the comparison of forces, with which I do not have time to deal now. I would certainly not wish to leave Russian SSBNs out of the balance. On Polaris and nuclear depth charges, my right hon. Friend has dealt extensively with both—very recently in the case of the latter—and I cannot usefully add to that information. I shall certainly write to my hon. Friend about the graph for which he has asked.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) asked earlier today about submarine numbers. At the start of World War II, the Germans had 60 U-boats in action. Russia now has 330, compared with 200 in the Western Alliance. In comparing these numbers, hon. Members will realise that other forces are relevant to the ASW equation.
I come to the other point which has commanded most attention today, that of the offshore tapestry. I said earlier that Britain now had to concentrate on new priorities more directly related to her revised rôle in the world. One of these, of course, is the protection of our maritime interests immediately adjacent to our own shores, which include our important offshore oil and gas reserves and the resources on which our fishing industry depends. This was just one of the areas of vacuum left by our predecessors when the Labour Government entered office in 1974. As a result of our efforts, in a few months we were able to outline a strategy for the North Sea. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State announced our plans to the House on 11th February 1975.
The hon. Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks) and the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) referred to the Island class of vessel and raised several questions which have also been raised by the Sub-Committee on Defence Expenditure. We shall, of course, be replying in detail to the Sub-Committee's comments in the near future, but I do not accept the criticisms of these ships such as those advanced tonight. Their chief characteristics are good sea-keeping and endurance qualities which are essential if they are to stand up to the tough weather conditions in the North Sea and the Atlantic. Good communications are another vital feature, since it is through these that the more sophisticated warships of the Royal Navy can be summoned to assist should an incident occur requiring their facilities. They have the inestimable advantage nowadays of being relatively inexpensive. and they are the most suitable and cost-effective ships for the patrolling tasks involved.
We are of course keeping our arrangements for the future continuously under review, and we shall make any necessary adjustments in the light of experience.
I now take up the question of responsibility, or perhaps its dissipation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Mallalieu) put it. It is true that ministerial responsibility for dealing with incidents affecting North Sea oil would depend on the nature of the incident. There is, however, very close co-ordination between the various Departments and agencies concerned and, as the House was informed as long ago as 6th November 1974, the Lord Privy Seal has special responsibility for overall co-ordination and protection measures and other maritime interests.
My hon. Friend also suggested that there should be a specially created task force for the purpose. But, as my predecessor explained in the defence debate, the offshore oil and gas installations already fall within the area of a single command—that of the Flag Officer Scotland and Northern Ireland and his Royal Air Force counterpart. The operational focus is, therefore, in the Maritime Headquarters at Pitreavie, and the whole range of duties carried out by the Armed Services is directed from there. I am satisfied that these arrangements are the most satisfactory from every point of view, and I am pleased to be supported in this conclusion by the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester.
What of hydrography, which I know concerns my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley)? I am sorry that I missed part of his speech, for reasons which I know he will understand. I am well aware of his anxiety and that of the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester, but, in today's economic climate, many services high in the list of national priorities are competing for resources. The problem of the future funding of the Hydrographic Survey Fleet is thus complex and is still under consideration. As soon as I can make any further comments, I shall do so.
The hon. and gallant Member for Winchester preaches to the converted when he advocates increased strength and when he proposes repayment work worldwide. I am not able to say any more on the first matter. I shall be willing to consider any request for overseas surveys, however.
The hon. Member for Ayr dealt in some detail on the Select Committee's Report. We are, of course, giving careful consideration to the comments of the Committee and we shall be replying to them shortly. I was interested to hear the emphasis he laid on the shortcomings of shore-based aircraft, in view of the reluctance of the previous Government to develop the Maritime Harrier.
The hon. and gallant Member for Winchester and the hon. Member for Haltemprice asked to be brought up to date about the Sea Harrier. I can give them that information. It is planned to purchase a total of 25 of these aircraft, and deliveries are expected to begin in 1979 and to be completed by 1981.
I am sorry. I overlooked that question. Perhaps I might write to the hon. Gentleman about it.
The hon. Member for Shoreham gave an eloquent exposition of the maritime threat to be expected from someone with distinguished naval connections. But the world we live in is a rather different place from the one in which the Pax Britannica for which he yearns would be appropriate. He asked a straight question—are our naval forces adequate? I can give him a straight answer—"Yes", and I can assure him that safeguarding the route through the East Atlantic by which NATO will be reinforced and re-supplied in war time is the primary task of the Royal Navy.
Hon. Members have referred to the 25 per cent. reduction in our force of Nimrod long-range maritime patrol aircraft and, of course, I recognise that maritime defence is indivisible. This reduction relates to the aircraft which will be withdrawn as a consequence of the reduction in our overseas commitments announced in the Defence Review. There will, in fact, be no reduction in the numbers of Nimrods we are deploying in the Eastern Atlantic and Channel areas.
The hon. Member for Shoreham also mentioned the importance of the flanks. We are fully conscious of the importance to NATO's defence strategy of both the southern and northern flanks. In the naval sphere, on the southern flank, we
shall be participating in naval and maritime exercises in the Mediterranean, and these joint operations and exercises are always a valuable aspect of peace time training of maritime forces from which the Royal Navy and our allies can he expected to benefit.
For the benefit of the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester, I might stress that our undertaking to train a second Royal Marine Commando group for winter warfare in Norway is evidence of our determination to maintain an effective contribution to the northern flank.
The hon. Member for Ayr, the hon. Member for Shoreham and the hon. Member for Louth raised the question of amphibiosity. It is true that we have reduced the numbers of amphibious ships in service, but those still available, together with "Hermes" in her secondary rôle and landing ships logistic, will be sufficient for many years to come to meet our requirements.
The hon. Member for Harrogate was less than generous about the Navy's investment in mine counter-measures. Let me say first of all that our primary objectives are to counter the mining threat to the major NATO and national submarine base on the Clyde and also the ports which are important for the cross-channel reinforcements of BAOR. Counter-measures consist of the detection and destruction of mine-laying vehicles, the reduction of ships' acoustic and magnetic signatures, and clearance of mines. On that last point it is important to note that the effectiveness of the new class of MCMVs, which will come into service from about 1979 onwards, will be much greater than that of the present generation, of which some 40 ships are in commission. Our choice of a second shipbuilder for this new class is evidence of our determination to allocate sizeable resources to this task.
The hon. Member for Harrogate also referred to the use of hovercraft in the mine counter-measures rôle. Hovercraft studies and trials have taken place over a number of years and a feasibility study into its use in the mine counter-measures rôle is well under way. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that it would be wrong to commit ourselves to hovercraft in this rôle before we were satisfied that it was capable of carrying it out safely and effectively. Inevitably, the trials are taking time but in this context the hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that the Royal Navy has chartered an SRN4 hovercraft from 3rd May 1976 for a short period to conduct trials in the Portland area. We are evaluating various large commercial craft to determine their suitability in the mine counter-measures rôle.
I turn to the SACLANT Study. The hon. Member for Haltemprice and the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester suggested that we were neglecting the protection of our shipping around the world. I take the point about the need to protect our shipping in times of war outside the NATO area. I said as much in my opening speech and I indicated that studies are in hand, under the aegis of SACLANT, against this contingency. That does not imply, of course, any acceptance by NATO members of additional maritime commitments, but it is a normal part of the contingency planning which every prudent Government must undertake. As my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State said yesterday, the SACLANT study is completed and it has been sent to the defence Ministers of NATO for professional military opinion.
The right hon. Gentleman was not in the Chamber for some of the debate. If he had been, he would have known that too many questions have been asked for me to reply to them all. I will write to hon. Members about those that I cannot manage to deal with before 10 o'clock.
I can give the assurance sought by the hon. Member or Harrogate about the adequacy and state of training of the naval reserves. The size and rôle of the naval reserves have been tailored to the war and emergency plans for the Navy. They fulfil an important sea-going rôle in mine counter-measures warfare by providing 18 crews in war time.
They have proved their capability in this rôle, operating with ships of the RN and other countries. Every encouragement and help is given to the training and recruitment of the naval reserves. They are an integral part of the nation's maritime defences. Steps have been taken recently to integrate the reserves even more closely with the Royal Navy, by placing them directly under the command and control of the Commander-in-Chief, Naval Home Command. Their training is effective and Royal Naval Reserve minesweepers regularly carry out routine training with the Royal Navy and take part in NATO and national exercises on a regular basis carrying out their assigned rôle.
The hon. Member for Ayr and the hon. Member for Shoreham raised the question of shipbuilding slippage. Hon. Members will realise that considerable effort is taken by the Ministry of Defence and shipbuilders to ensure the completion of building in good time. Naturally we are very much aware of the need to learn from past problems.
The hon. Member for Louth, in a rather vitriolic opening, mentioned Portsmouth dockyard. I can assure him that, in this respect at least, there will be no change in policy from that which pertained under my predecessor. It is not planned to close any of the home dockyards. They provide the support needed to maintain approved Royal Navy force levels, in particular those necessary to enable NATO commitments to be fulfilled, and there is a continuing requirement for their capacity.
I can give the assurance that the dockyard at Rosyth is not vulnerable to closure. There will continue to be a heavy load of refitting and repair work there.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Chatham mentioned the Chatham dockyard and the work done there. There is a continuing heavy load of naval refitting and repair work for Chatham dockyard. If pockets of spare capacity appear we shall continue to feed them with other work when circumstances permit. There is no question of diverting work from Chatham to Devonport. The additional facilities being provided at Devonport are needed to supplement those already existing at Chatham. I have every intention of visiting Chatham when the opportunity occurs.
Before concluding, I should like to say a word about the Royal Dockyards. Coming new to the subject with an economic background, I shall be concentrating hard on the efficient management of the dockyards and on their cost- effectiveness and paying particular attention to the proposals for a trading fund.
I was very interested in the Defence and External Affairs Sub-Committee's comments on the dockyards, to which we shall be replying shortly, and shall certainly take its views into account in the consideration I intend to give to this subject in the coming months. A wide range of new management systems and changes to financial procedures, including a separate dockyard vote, are already being developed in order further to improve the performance of the dockyards. We are also constantly looking at ways of improving industrial relations in the yards.
I paid my first visit to a dockyard in my ministerial capacity last Wednesday when I chaired a meeting of the Royal Dockyards Policy Board in Devonport. I was favourably impressed by what I saw there, and particularly by the covered frigate refitting complex, the biggest covered dock facility in the country.
The departure of Mr. Richard O'Brien from the Dockyard Policy Board to take up his new post as Chairman of the Manpower Services Commission was a sad loss to the board. But we were fortunate in acquiring the services during the year of Mr. Maurice Coles. of Joseph Lucas Limited, and of Mr. Ken Griffin, of the Organising Committee of British Shipbuilders.
This is an appropriate opportunity to mention the valuable work carried out by our civilian staff not only in the dockyards and the support areas but in naval establishments all over the country, as well as those in headquarters, in establishments abroad and at sea with the Royal Fleet auxiliaries.
Although I have been in office for only a matter of four weeks, in that short time, as well as in my previous visits to the Navy, afloat and ashore, as PPS to the Secretary of State, I have been most favourably impressed by the high quality and dedication of the men and women, both Service and civilian, whom I have met. One must not lose sight of the fact that personnel are still, in these days of highly sophisticated equipment, the most important single factor in operating a Navy.
A great deal has been said one way or another in previous defence debates about the mythical "animal of defence". Opposition Members have accused us of committing the sort of crimes to which no member of the RSPCA could listen without blenching. But, far from being the heinous vivisectors Opposition Members have implied us to be, we would put a different interpretation on the Labour Government's handling of the defence animal. What we have done in the defence review and subsequently is to convert the ponderous and outdated dinosaur of Tory defence policy, with its small brain, oversized body and lengthy tail, into the present-day streamlined Jaguar version. Such a transformation cannot, of course, be carried out without some pain, but we believe that the operation was entirely necessary and that the results will prove satisfactory.