Defence Programme

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:26 pm on 7th July 1981.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Douglas Jay Mr Douglas Jay , Wandsworth Battersea North 6:26 pm, 7th July 1981

What the hon. Gentleman says is also true. The whole of this operation is being carried out for economic reasons, which to my mind are largely fallacious. I shall not go into that issue in detail today. But when surplus productive capacity exists, there is little, if any, real cost to the nation in making use of that capacity.

On the matter of escort substitutes the Secretary of State said virtually nothing today about the increase of only three aircraft in the fleet of Nimrods which he described in the White Paper as "highly effective" maritime patrol aircraft. I have no doubt that it is valuable. But are three extra planes really a substitute for nine or 10 fewer surface escort vessels? I am sure that the Minister, if he agrees that the lessons of the last war are not wholly to be ignored, will know that the most dangerous attacks on the Northern Arctic convoys in that war were made by bomber aircraft from bases in the north of Norway. The only effective defence proved to be anti-aircraft fire from surface frigates and destroyers protecting the convoy. Is it the view of Defence Ministers now that future convoys could be defended against air attack by either Nimrod aircraft or hunter-killer submarines? If not, how would they be defended?

Unhappily—this is perhaps a minor point—the story of co-operation by the Royal Air Force in naval warfare between 1939 and 1945 does not convince one that, unless many things have changed, this sort of dual control can be relied on. I still ask how the Minister thinks that our vital supplies and reinforcements will be defended in a non-nuclear war. Some may argue—I hope that the Minister does not—that all this does not matter because we shall simply rely on the United States navy through NATO. Incidentally, if that is the argument, it is no good anyone declaring that we shall not co-operate with the United States in defence plans involving cruise missiles. We cannot say that if we are relying wholly on the United States for our maritime defences. Of course, we must cooperate with the United States. But co-operation is not the same thing as total dependence.

There are other people—we have heard whispers today—who suggest that longer-term plans do not much matter because a future war would be over in a matter of days, or perhaps a week or two. Indeed, I thought that I detected some phrase in the Secretary of State's speech to the effect that it might be a short blitzkrieg, or something of that kind. If that is the fashionable view at the moment, I find little comfort in it.

The one result that certainly could not occur in a matter of days in such a war would be a conventional victory for the West. One can imagine other results. Those of us who are non-experts in defence would do well to be a little sceptical about fashionable views of that sort. In September 1939, as many hon. Members will remember, the fashionable expert view was that we should fight a prolonged war behind fortified lines. Indeed, in August 1914 almost everyone believed that the whole thing would be over in a month. I believe that Lord Kitchener was the exception, but I may be wrong.

Indeed, if the Soviet Union expects a non-nuclear war to be over in a matter of days, why has it built 400 submarines and a number of powerful surface warships at enormous cost to its economy? Is it not probable that, if this country were known to be unable to fight a protracted defensive war at sea, the incentive for the Soviet Union at some moment of crisis, if it ever came, to declare a blockade would be at the maximum? If this country were then unable to resist, the risk of nuclear war would surely be all the greater.

I come back, therefore, to the maxim that if one wants to minimise the risk of nuclear escalation, one must have conventional defence capacity. I ask the Minister of State to explain more clearly and rather more convincingly than the Secretary of State yet has how he applies that principle to future anti-submarine warfare.