Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:16 pm on 1st July 1982.

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Photo of Lieut-Colonel Dick Crawshaw Lieut-Colonel Dick Crawshaw , Liverpool Toxteth 6:16 pm, 1st July 1982

I beg to move to leave out from 'House' to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: 'fully supports the United Kingdom's continued membership of NATO; recognises that this involves both a commitment to detente through negotiations for multilateral arms control and disarmament and to deterrence through conventional and nuclear forces; declines to approve Her Majesty's Government's decision to purchase Trident missiles but despite the present economic difficulties believes that the NATO commitment to an annual increase of 3 per cent. in defence expenditure should be maintained.' There was much sense in what the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Clark) said. Those who know anything about NATO know that the disposition of our forces on the Rhine makes no sense. The same provision could be achieved with greater economy of effort and expense. That matter should be examined.

The Secretary of State for Defence is getting into hot water for sending certain documents to educational establishments. I understand that advice about the role of our forces has been arriving at some educational establishments. It is time that we put the other case. In many instances we are losing the argument by default.

There is a great fear about nuclear weapons. No hon. Member believes that a nuclear war will start by countries firing large-scale nuclear weapons at each other, but if one resorts to a hedge-hopping system of defence on the western front the nuclear threshold will be lowered. That western front would be overrun now, even with the positions that we hold, and even if additional forces went there. If a nuclear conflict takes place, it will occur in those circumstances.

The official Opposition should note that it is no good talking about defending Britain—that implies defence with NATO—unless people are prepared to spend money on conventional defence. It is all very well for the Russians to say, as they now do, that they will never fire nuclear weapons first. They do not need to. If they used conventional forces they would be through within a fortnight. Therefore, the Russians do not need to promise that they will not use nuclear weapons. That places us in a serious moral dilemma—we cannot follow suit.

It is important that we spend even more money on conventional defences than is now being spent if we are to guard against the very thing that everyone fears. People are closing their eyes to the issues if they ask for the withdrawal of nuclear defences without putting the money into conventional defences. I ask the official Opposition to consider that very seriously.

When I spoke on defence about three months ago, I made some harsh comments about the cuts in the conventional Navy. Had the Falklands crisis occurred before then, I should have been full of tribute for what happened. Unfortunately, it took place this year and I was proved wrong. If it had taken place in a year's time, however, I think that many who spoke in that debate would have been proved right, because we would not have had the resources to mount the operation that we managed to mount. I can see that that does not please the Secretary of State, to whom I intended to pay tribute, as he has much to be proud of in the way in which the forces were got together and sent. That could not have been done by overnight planning. There must have been intense planning on these aspects for a long time. I therefore pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman.

It is easy to start drawing all kinds of lessons from the recent conflict, but I think that that would be unwise, as there are many lessons that we do not yet know and which have still to be learnt. It brought out one thing, however. Although it is true that one cannot have one ship in two places at the same time, sometimes it is unwise to have two inadequately protected ships in one place. There is reason to believe that some of the vessels sent to the South Atlantic were deprived of defences as a result of economies in their construction. If the Falklands operation has taught us anything, it is that a scientific approach to all aspects of warfare must be carried to its extreme. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman's comments about weapons on platforms. That lesson must be learnt.

All of this makes me wonder. The Argentine army had only 11,000 men operating on the Falklands. If they had had a large army and a large navy and 200 aircraft capable of dropping Exocet missiles on our fleet, what would have happened? They would not have needed an army or a navy. As I said in the last debate, the important thing is whether one can get one's weapons to their targets, not how many one has.

In its other aspect, the Falklands campaign showed that resolute men with a land-to-air blowpipe missile can easily and rapidly destroy a £10 million aircraft. Indeed, I read that even a NAAFI manager with a machine gun was capable of bringing one down. There are plenty of lessons to be learnt. In considering recent events, not only the present Government but previous Governments should be complimented on many aspects of our defence system, but we must not stop there.

Another aspect of our defences that has been touched on briefly today is our Merchant Navy. Over the past seven years the Merchant Navy has been depleted by about 40 per cent. In that time 12,000 officers and 13,000 ratings have gone. But for the Merchant Navy, the Falklands operation could not have been launched.

What thought has been given to ensuring that Merchant Navy ships that are likely to be used in time of war are constructed in the best possible manner for that dual role? That is how money will be saved. In the South Atlantic, Merchant Navy vessels fulfilled roles that could not have been imagined 10 years ago. Therefore, when the ships are constructed in our yards the Ministry of Defence should take full cognisance of how this is done and put forward proposals to ensure that the ships can easily be converted. On this occasion some of the ships were easily converted, but with more forethought more could have been done.

We might have been better served with other aircraft if the conveyors could have been converted into bigger aircraft carriers. Lifts could be fitted to allow aircraft to be lifted up on to the decks instead of having to be kept on the ships. In the event of a war against Russia, the Merchant Navy will survive by its ability to recognise a threat before it actually strikes. Unless it is protected by the Navy or, as in many cases it will have to be, by aircraft from the ships themselves, we shall suffer very sad losses indeed.

Tribute has been paid to the Service men, and I add my personal tribute. I do not think that any force has ever come out with more flying colours that that which went to the Falkland Islands. There were not only Service men there, however. There were also men from the Merchant Navy and we have heard how they volunteered for the task. Sir John Fieldhouse, Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet said: I cannot say too often or too clearly how important has been the Merchant Navy's contribution to our efforts. Without the ships taken up from trade, the operation could not have been undertaken and I hope this message is clearly understood by the British nation. I hope that it is understood by the House as well.

In paying our tribute to those in the Merchant Navy who served, and especially those who lost their lives, it must be said that, at the end of the day, whether in the Army, the Navy or the Air Force, the loyalty and spirits of the men are what really count, irrespective of the weapons that they are using. I hope that this country will only ever send its men into battles of which we can be proud and feel no sense of shame whatever.