There is no precise designed effective life for a warship. The date at which ships are phased out depends on a number of factors, including the condition of the ship, the performance of the new construction industry and the current assessment of the number and quality of ships needed to meet our requirements in the light of the threat.
The assessment has been made that about 40 out of 180 of our warships are obsolete. Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that we now have the smallest Navy in our history and that, due to the Government's defence cuts, the rate of replacement is nowhere near overtaking the rate of obsolescence?
No, I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman's assertions. The average age of the major units of the Fleet—frigates, submarines and above—is about 12 years. I should like to assure the hon. Gentleman that we have a modern and effective Navy and that a continuing and impressive programme of new construction, about which I could send him a letter, as well as modernisation will ensure that the fleet remains fully able to meet the tasks required of it.
Can my hon. Friend give the House any idea what the total cost would be of carrying out the major refits and replacements for warships for which the hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) is asking? Would it not mean a vast increase in public expenditure, and is there not a blatant contradiction between the views of those on the Opposition Benches who call for tax cuts and cuts in public expenditure and the views of those who demand enormous increases in military expenditure?
It would not require a vast increase in public expenditure, but its absence would increase the level of unemployment. Nevertheless, I shall repeat my letter to my hon. Friend.
With British shipbuilders on their knees for orders, would it not be sensible for the Government to order some warships now, and thus be sooner able to replace some clapped-out wrecks like the "Blake" and the "Tiger"?
I remind the hon. and gallant Gentleman that the present major new construction programme includes nuclear-powered Fleet submarines as well as the construction of five new classes of surface warships, including the new ASW cruiser—the first, incidentally, of a new class—" Invincible ", which was launched only in May this year. This programme, as I have said, is intended to maintain a modern and balanced Fleet.