Orders of the Day — Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:58 pm on 6th July 1982.

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Photo of Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith , East Grinstead 6:58 pm, 6th July 1982

This debate and the one that took place last Thursday established four good points. First, there is the recognition of the invaluable role of the Royal Navy. There has been complete agreement about that. Secondly, although this is not a united view, there is a recognition of the need to maintain the British Army of the Rhine. Thirdly—there is far from united recognition here—should Trident be sacrificed to make room for expenditure on conventional weapons? Fourthly, most of those who have contributed to the debate have tried to take up the challenge that has been thrown down by the Government, especially by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, about the need to face painful choices.

I shall make some brief observations on those four issues as a Back Bencher, as a member of the NATO Assembly and especially as a member of the military and political committees and chairman of the manpower sub-committee of the NATO Assembly.

In his foreword to the White Paper, my right hon. Friend states: Only when the Falklands crisis has been fully studied will we be in a position to take reasoned and considered decisions on what adjustments need to be made to the defence programme". How right he is. With respect to the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), the Prime Minister of the former Labour Government, who spoke with considerable authority, it seemed that he was already making some considerable and rather sweeping sudden adjustments. The effect of his proposal would be to destroy the efficacy of the British Army of the Rhine. It seems that he would withdraw it and that is would cease to be the British Army of the Rhine. He argued that the best way out of our expenditure difficulties is no longer to remain a nuclear power and no longer to be a contributor to the land forces of Western Europe. He suggested that we should concentrate exclusively on the Royal Air Force and on our maritime tradition. That is too sweeping a judgment to make. It is one that runs away from the main problems that we face. The Royal Navy has a vital role to play. Those of us who consider these matters from a NATO point of view are increasingly concerned about the vulnerability of NATO in the northern and southern flanks, in which a maritime capability can play an important part. In NATO there is a growing perception of an increasing risk that hostilities can develop in areas outside NATO, which are of vital concern to NATO. The perception of the risk has grown with the growth of the Soviet fleet, which now can operate worldwide. The need to have the ability to operate outside the NATO area, which means a maritime capability, is one that the United States has taken up with its rapid deployment force.

There is little doubt that our American friends in NATO accept prime responsibility. They recognise that there are interests that are European and that are outside NATO. If we are to carry American public opinion with us, it will be necessary for us to recognise that the Royal Navy can play a part, should it be necessary, rather than leave the United States to go it alone. For example, we, too, have vital interests in the Gulf. If there is an outbreak of hostilities, which could break out into something more important, in the Indian Ocean or elsewhere, we should be there to help out. This suggests that the strength of our Navy will need to be enhanced, in view of the possibility of undertaking duties outside the NATO area, including the East Atlantic.

I do not want to draw too rash a conclusion because in doing so I would fall into the trap into which others have fallen. However, the preliminary studies that we make of the Falkland Islands campaign leads us to ask "Is the role of the Royal Navy, or of any navy, one which has a real future and which is credible in the face of modern missile tactics, strategy and capabilities, or is a navy really a sitting duck?" This question is posed because of the losses that we suffered. There is no time to go into the details, much as I should like to do so. In any event, we can expect a full study from the Government.

The way in which the Navy behaved in the South Atlantic tells me that there is a role for it and that it can protect itself in future. The costs of strengthening its defences and its ability to protect itself may not be as great as some might imagine. If they think that that will be a heavy burden, they must come to the conclusion, as others have, that something must give elsewhere. In doing so, they will have to argue that the role must be taken up by the Air Force or the Army. They probably adopt this argument because they fear that the lessons to be learnt from the Falkland Islands campaign will be expensive.

I speak with an open mind. I feel that those who argue against the strengthening of the Navy probably believe that we were outsmarted by the Argentines to the detriment of the Navy. I do not think that we were.

The British Army of the Rhine is professional but it is small. It would have a catastrophic effect on our allies if we were seriously to entertain withdrawing this small but effective army. I see no other group that is likely to come from the Dutch or the Germans that could match what the British force does in playing a supportive role on the central front in Western Europe. I do not know how it could be argued in Washington that it is vital for the defence of the United States to station about 300,000 of its men in Europe while we feel that it is not vital to station 55,000 of our men in Europe. In political terms, let alone defence terms, that does not add up. Neither would it add up for those countries on the continent of Europe which have conscription and believe that we should.

I have discussed this issue with many politicians and military staff in the course of my duties as a member of the manpower sub-committee. We can get away with the argument that we do not need conscription because we fulfil certain roles with the Royal Navy and the Air Force and because we have highly professional forces. However, if we reduce our forces in Europe or withdraw them, that argument will prove impossible to sustain. The pressure will then be on us to fulfil our role in NATO by introducing conscription.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley), whose knowledge in these matters is widely respected on both sides of the House, suggested that the important thing about a military presence in central Europe is not the reserves but the forces in being. He argued that if the forces in being are ready and available to defend, they deter. The decision to move soldiers in a crisis will always be a difficult one. How right my hon. Friend is.

He is supported by a former commander of the British Army of the Rhine, General Sir Harry Tuzo, who thinks that the warning of any attack on NATO, certainly on the central front, could come in the form of fragmentary, confused and ambiguous signs. In The Times today, he writes that a decision to move large blocks of troops across the Channel will be stigmatised by some as provocation but will in any case, make a strong political and emotional impact in the countries concerned". Those of us who live in the shadow of the Falkland Islands war know that the decision to send a task force while negotiations were still proceeding was regarded by some hon. Members as provocative. By stationing our Air Force and ground forces on the Continent of Europe we avoid falling into that trap. The problem becomes simpler and our forces, as my hon. Friend rightly said, will be seen to be acting as a true deterrent.

I do not want to rehash the Trident argument, but I believe that it would be folly now for a British Government to give the signal to the Soviet Union that we no longer believe that Trident or a British nuclear missile system has any strategic role to play. From the figures that I have heard today the cost arguments do not prove that on these grounds alone it should no longer be in our budget.

The costs in terms of proportion of defence effort and equipment do not at any time, as I understand the figures from the Government White Paper, exceed those that we have comfortably afforded or, if we have not comfortably afforded, agreed should be part of the cost of the development of a conventional aeroplane such as the Tornado.

There is also the wider political argument. As someone who respects the United States enormously, I say that it is prone to making political miscalculations and misjudgments along with the rest of us. If the Russians thought that they could take the risk of attacking the Alliance in the mistaken belief that the United States would not be prepared to use its nuclear weapons, they would have to take into account a nuclear weapon force which is British and European based. If we were to deny ourselves that, the risks and uncertainties of starting a war would be that much greater.