Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:34 pm on 1st July 1982.

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Photo of Mr Jerry Wiggin Mr Jerry Wiggin , Weston-Super-Mare 9:34 pm, 1st July 1982

The only sensible proposition that I can make is that which I have already made. The Government have not yet made final decisions on these matters. The ships are now coming back in a roulement and we shall have a better opportunity to assess their condition. Far more importantly, however, the replacement issue will be dealt with in the next few months and announced in the White Paper that my right hon. Friend announced in his opening speech. It would be most unwise for me to be drawn into making statements about decisions that are by no means finalised.

One feature of the debate today may have been related to an article in The Times. My hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Clark) and Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) raised two questions about the future of BAOR. The first was whether the Government gave proper consideration to a reduction in the size of the land forces in Germany when the matter was considered last year in the run-up to the White Paper "The Way Forward". It is clear from any study of that that the matter was given substantial consideration and the conclusion was perfectly clear. Despite the temptation to imagine that great economies would be effected, there was no way in which we could substitute the facilities now available to BAOR without greater cost to the defence budget.

The suggestion that if we removed our troops other NATO countries would fill the vacuum is highly questionable. There is no evidence that that would necessarily happen. There must be a grave danger of some kind of domino effect. There would certainly be a marked loss of faith by the Americans and then, perhaps, by smaller countries. Under the White Paper to which I have referred, our forces were reduced to the treaty limits. We do not intend to go below that minimum. Although the intellectual arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton strike considerable chords of sympathy, the practicalities are such that we cannot consider a move of that proportion at this time.

The position of the Royal Air Force in Germany has not been mentioned either in the debate or in the press. The RAF rightly looks upon this very much as its tactical front line. I do not think that we could envisage the placing of RAF airfields without the necessary support from BAOR. I come down heavily on the side of those who say that the matter has been properly considered and that we should make no changes.

It has been suggested that some of the support costs for BAOR should be carried elsewhere. It is an old subject that has been raised many times. There were one or two critics of the Treasury in the earlier part of the debate. Were those savings to be effected, there would be a transfer between Departments which would not mean a saving to the defence budget and the Treasury would see that we did not gain any benefit from that. The matter of detail was slightly wrong. The Times gave a figure that was the cost of all medical education and married quarters services throughout the whole of the Army and not just in Germany. I do not have the correct figure, but I can certainly obtain it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot made a military point about surprise. He is not here, but I shall deal with the fair point that he raised. He gave three historical examples of surprise being the initial element in a military context. He did not say what he thought we should do about that, except that we should strive to be vigilant and to be there. That is what we are in Germany. The fact that the three examples he gave lead ultimately—after long wars—to victory was not mentioned.

The hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett) mentioned the backroom boys, as he called them—the civilians and others who helped during the operation in the Falklands. I hope that the Government's gratitude has been expressed to all those people. Somebody mentioned to me that civil servants had been left out. That was not the case. Many civil servants have worked jolly hard, as have all the other people who have been mentioned. We are grateful to them.

The hon. Member for Wallsend also mentioned the Territorial Army. Reserves provide outstanding value for money. In the case of the Army they form about 30 per cent. of the mobilised strength of BAOR but only some 4 per cent. of the Army budget. They are a tangible demonstration of the British people's commitment to national security. They strengthen the link between the Services and the community. We have dealt with the minor problem of training days. We have instituted new works projects, increased unit establishments, set up new training teams for the TA, and our expansion plans are going well towards a target of 86,000. We have formed a number of new units.

In the case of the Royal Naval Reserve we are about to order four new fleet minesweepers. That covers the point also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed). We are going for the cheaper versions, and I shall be happy to give him the details of the ships that we have in mind. We believe them to be good value. It is our objective to see that every division of the RNR has a ship. I have taken steps to see that where refits take place during the summer, as far as is possible, we can provide a substitute so that training can continue.

The Royal Auxiliary Air Force has been expanded from three to six squadrons for airfield defence. The House heard what the Secretary of State said about the possibility of establishing a flying part to that organisation. I realise that my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Sir F. Burden) has not had a chance to speak about Chatham. The House and the whole country have noted with pride and admiration the dedication and sheer hard work with which the work force of the naval bases and dockyards—I must single out the contribution made by Portsmouth and Devonport—rose to the massive challenge of preparing ships of the Navy, and the ships of the Merchant Navy that were requisitioned or chartered to sail with the task force.

Equally, the organisation now faces a considerable task in repairing battle and weather damage. Less obviously, but equally importantly, it must recover the normal programme of refits, dockings and maintenance disrupted by the Falklands crisis. Over 100 warships, RFAs and merchant vessels taken up from trade have so far been deployed on operations in the South Atlantic. I shall be happy to let the hon. Member for Thurrock have detailed answers.