Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:24 pm on 1st July 1982.

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Photo of Mr John Nott Mr John Nott , St Ives 4:24 pm, 1st July 1982

The opening words of the White Paper on defence policy last year were The first duty of any British Government is to safeguard our people in peace and freedom. That duty rests on three defence commitments. The first is the maintenance of a credible strategic nuclear capability to deter nuclear blackmail by our enemies. My hon. Friend the Minister of State will say more about that in the second debate next week. The second is the collective security provided through our contribution to NATO of strong naval, army and air forces for the defence of the West. The third is a force structure, within the NATO framework, which has the balance and flexibility to enable us to respond to a challenge to British interests at home or abroad.

The events of the past few weeks have concentrated all our attention on the third commitment—our ability to respond in defence of uniquely British interests—although our determination to resist aggression will have strengthened the whole deterrence strategy of the West. In these past few weeks we have seen British power projected over 8,000 miles into the South Atlantic to restore the rights and freedom of British citizens.

I must single out for a special mention at the outset the Royal Navy: putting the Fleet to sea in such a short time and sustaining it over such a long distance into the South Atlantic have been a remarkable achievement. The many essential refuellings and transfers at sea in often appalling weather required seamanship of the highest order. When the historians come to write about the operation I believe that achievement by the Royal Navy will have a special place.

Our armed forces conducted themselves at every stage with great gallantry under intense attack and in the most hostile climatic conditions. A major amphibious landing has been successfully conducted; a major and decisive land battle has been fought by the men of 3 Commando Brigade, 5 Infantry Brigade and the 2nd and 3rd battalions of the Parachute Regiment against great odds over the most inhospitable terrain, thus writing another historic page in the annals of the Royal Marines and the British Army.

Incidents of individual courage, initiative, and also compassion, on the part of our forces have been shown at every level and at every stage of the operation. I pay my tribute from this Dispatch Box to the men and women of all three Armed Services and to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, the Royal Maritime Auxiliary Service, the Merchant Marine and to the many military and civilian personnel who provided support for the task force. A special place in our thoughts will remain for them and most particularly for those who were injured, and for the families and friends of those who gave their lives that others could be free.

Our forces in the South Atlantic were for the most part equipped with weapons, ships and aircraft which had been optimised under successive Governments for battle under very different circumstances. Some, such as our amphibious force, amply demonstrated the advantage that their inherent flexibility confers. The quality of our men and equipment on sea and land and in the air was amply proved.

Let me give a few examples. Twenty-eight of our 32 Sea Harriers were deployed to the area and they achieved at least 28 kills without a single loss in air-to-air combat. There were more than 2,000 operational sorties from the carriers, and one of the most remarkable features of the whole operation was the 90 per cent. availability of all aircraft embarked.

The first order that I intend to place following the Falklands crisis is for new Sea Harriers. All seven Sea Harriers lost will be replaced—and I intend to fund out of the existing programme, rather than out of replacement funds, a further seven Sea Harriers, making an immediate new order of 14 in all for British Aerospace.

The crisis showed that flexibility, adaptability and the imaginative use of national resources were crucial to the success of our operation. Particularly notable was the extensive use made of air-to-air refuelling. Seven Hercules and 13 Nimrods have already been adapted for it, and that will greatly enhance our capability. Hercules regularly made, and are still making, 25-hour, 8,000-mile round trips from Ascension to drop supplies to the task group around the Falkland Islands. Nimrods flew more than 110 maritime surveillance sorties—including regular air-to-air refuelled flights of 19 hours to the Falkland Islands area. RAF Harriers were flown to Ascension direct on a nine-hour, air-to-air refuelled mission and then—almost miraculously—four were flown non-stop to the deck of HMS "Hermes", another nine-hour flight.

The performance of the Victor tanker forces was outstanding and six Vulcans and four Hercules are being converted to the tanker role. We will be devoting increased resources to in-flight refuelling as a major force multiplier—it will be particularly valuable in the United Kingdom air defence region, extending our ability to maintain combat air patrols over the North Sea for long periods and it gives us the ability to extend dramatically the flexibility and scope of the projection of our air power. The first VC10 tanker for the RAF had its maiden flight a few days ago.

One notable feature of the Falklands campaign was the enormous contribution made by shipping taken up from Britain's merchant fleet and its Merchant Navy crews. At peak, more than 50 vessels were involved. The campaign has proved beyond a shadow of doubt that necessary modifications, such as fitting helicopter platforms and at-sea refuelling facilities, can be made quickly and efficiently. From the container ships not only did helicopters successfully carry out limited operations, but Sea Harriers made several flights in the vertical take-off mode from those ships.

As part of the studies of the campaign, we shall be taking another look at such use of civil resources in wartime. The Ministry of Defence does not claim to have any monopoly of good ideas in this area and I hope that organisations and individuals will come forward with their own suggestions—a point I made when identifying the importance of this area in chapter 2 of the defence White Paper in the section on the use of national resources.