Orders of the Day — Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:22 pm on 6th July 1982.

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Photo of Mr Patrick Duffy Mr Patrick Duffy , Sheffield, Attercliffe 8:22 pm, 6th July 1982

I pay tribute to Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet, and his forces, on a brilliant feat of arms in the Falkland Islands campaign. I am thinking especially of the task force commander, Rear Admiral John Woodward, the ships' companies of the task force, General Moore and the soldiers and marines in his land forces, the men of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, the mercantile marine and the men and women who, stretching back to the United Kingdom from deep in the South Atlantic, made possible a most impressively improvised logistical tail.

However, I reserve my special congratulations and my sympathy as well as admiration for the task force commander, Rear Admiral John Woodward. This was the first war that has been conducted almost on television. Unfortunately, he had to cart around in his flagship what appeared to be half of Fleet Street. As a result he now has to contend in the writing of his dispatches with judgments that have been made up and down the country by tens of thousands of armchair strategists. Some have already been arrogant enough to commit themselves on paper. Not surprisingly, they have been members of the press.

Rear Admiral Woodward deployed his task force at an almost unprecedented distance from home base in the harshest possible environment and in the face of threats about which we can relax now, but he could not then. He was shipborne for weeks on end, planning as he went along. He was in regular contact, perhaps not always for his peace of mind, with Northwood and Whitehall. Despite all those factors he achieved his objectives and preserved the core of the fleet.

As has been said by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross), a former sailor, the wonder is that there were not more losses. What losses there were were on the fringe. They were mainly of radar pickets. We grieve for those who were lost on the ships and those who were injured. But the wonder is that there were not more. As has been said today and last Thursday, it was a close run thing. Our eventual judgment will be that we are all enormously indebted to the man who carried the greatest responsibility on his shoulders, Rear Admiral John Woodward. He fulfilled the highest traditions of the Royal Navy.

Those of us who have been fortunate enough to he in the Chamber for the whole of the debate will have been immensely stimulated by the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan). I have taken the liberty of telling him that he gets better. His speech today was a tour de force. Although he was most provocative there cannot be any hon. Member who was not interested and, perhaps, charmed by what he had to say. Not even the Secretary of State, to whom he dealt some heavy blows, could have resented what he said. He backed up his charges with argument. The points that appealed most to me related to the continuing argument about a long or a short war. I agree that it is likely to be a long rather than a short war. If we allow ourselves to fall into the frame of mind that accepts that it will be a short war, we have lost before it begins. I include the Secretary of State and even some of my hon. Friends in that category.

I also liked what my right hon. Friend said about there not being the right mix in our forces. He pointed out that the present structure was wrong, that there was a need for more balanced priorities and, therefore, more balance in our contribution to NATO. As he said, the matter can be reduced to a question of choice. I especially like his suggestion that the Labour Party has become the Navy party. Above all else, we must think hard about the charge that the structure of our forces is now unbalanced. Several hon. Members, notably the hon. Member for East Grinstead (Sir G. Johnson-Smith), insisted that the balance was right. I shall deal with that first.

It is clear, upon examination of last Thursday's debate, that many hon. Members are prone to forget that we are members of an alliance. All of us are liable to fall into that trap, but we must assess defence needs against the background of that alliance's strategy and objectives. Both we and NATO must get our priorities right. The greatest problem of alliance planning, given the explosion in defence costs, is, as the Secretary of State said, resource allocation. I am sure that my right hon. Friend recognises that the budgetary constraints that bear heavily on the Secretary of State now are likely to intensify rather than to be relieved.

That explains the growing call for burden sharing in the Alliance. It must point to a division of tasks between the members of the alliance. It points clearly to one of the major points of my right hon. Friend's argument. The United Kingdom should make its prime contribution, on a comparative task basis, on that which we do best, the historic maritime role.

At the moment, Britain is trying to make an all-round contribution to the Alliance. We are trying to do too much rather than doing that which we are best equipped to perform, historically, geographically and from the point of view of performance. As a result, there is too much penny-pinching between and within the Services rather than concentration of scarce resources in an efficient and comprehensive Service. That is best illustrated by the Secretary of State's cuts of the surface fleet.

It is extraordinary how complacent some hon. Members have been today, despite what was said last Thursday. They have still not fully understood the seriousness of the Secretary of State's attacks on the Navy. It is no good the Secretary of State arguing—the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill) accepted it—that we will go sub-surface in compensation. The Government have ordered only two SSNs in the past three years. They will do well to get one more out of existing capacity before it is commandeered for Trident which, as my right hon. Friend said, is substantially responsible for the present lack of balance. The House wants a balanced and interdependent force of not only SSNs and maritime patrol aircraft but also escort vessels and other surface units.

Overall, greater precision in alliance priorities is required if we are to provide for the most efficient use of increasingly scarce resources, because the problem will continue and become more pressing. We are unlikely to achieve such precision, however, so long as we insist on maintaining the appearance of making an all-round contribution to the Alliance, rather like the United States. Furthermore, those same budgetary constraints, which are now also bearing more and more on the United States, could increasingly push us into a high risk strategy in the Atlantic in relation to reinforcement and resupply. Again, my right hon. Friend issued the sternest warnings about that. That commitment is largely ours in the East Atlantic and Channel. We can take no chances on that, because to do so might lower the nuclear threshold.

Why does the Secretary of State persist with his 1981 defence review in the form and content of his 1982 Defence Estimates? Why is he intent on cutting our naval strength in the face of the ever-growing Soviet maritime threat that has been described by hon. Members on both sides of the House today? The effect on the Navy of his 1981 defence review has been dramatic. In addition to being saddled with virtually the whole bill for Trident, the naval programme has had to suffer cuts of £5 billion to £6 billion for the next nine years. Let me put that in perspective. Those cuts amounted to more than twice the funds lost by the Army, and more than seven times those lost by the RAF—on top of unbalanced and substantial reductions the previous year. Consequently, our overall military balance will be impaired and our flexibility to meet the unforeseen will be eroded.

As my right hon. Friend reminded the House, we need only recall the cod war, the Beira patrol and the Gulf of Oman requirement, as well as the Falklands crisis, to appreciate examples of operations arising at short notice. They demonstrate typically the flexibility of maritime power through its presence and the wide range of options that it offers to diplomacy.

In our lifetime, there can have been few more convincing demonstrations of the flexibility and effectiveness of sea power than that shown in the Falklands crisis. Nothing else would have done the job. Precisely the same forces appropriate to peace-time presence world wide through our annual global deployments and the exercise of deterrence within the NATO area were suddenly called upon to submit to the test of war, seemingly on the other side of the world.

Fortuitously, the Falklands crisis occurred before the cuts in the Navy's front line capability had gone too far down the road. As the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) mentioned, at the height of the crisis a party political handout was printed and circulated to local Conservative parties. I have a copy with me, but I need not discuss its points in detail. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned one or two of them. By dint of selective quotation, it sought to show that the doubts increasingly being voiced were groundless and that last year's defence review had—believe it or not—given the Navy more money, better capability, and so on. Like the defence review itself, that public relations exercise was a con trick. It was a catalogue of half truths or, as The Times put it on 21 June 1981, some sleight of hand in ministerial explanations. Even some members of the Government have been saying that if Argentina had waited until 1985–86 it would have found more Royal Navy ships afloat. As I shall show, the Secretary of State said that in the House a few weeks ago, although not in relation to Argentina.

Let us briefly examine one or two of those claims. The number of ships, for example, is vital not merely to our assessment of the defence review but because if offers useful comparisons between the performance of the Government, the Ministry of Defence and No. 10 and that of the previous Administration of the kind that have already been made in the debate.

The word "operational" is open to several definitions. Leaving that on one side, we are facing a steady decline in the number of warships in the conventional fleet. When the Government took office there were 98 major warships—frigates and above—as well as submarines other than Polaris. By April 1982 the number was down to 86. Current plans, despite the Secretary of State's shipbuilding announcements last Thursday, show a further decline by the end of the decade. It follows that the statement by the Secretary of State in the House on 17 April that we cannot be criticised for cutting back the conventional Navy, when it is far larger today than it was when we took office, and so it will be in the late 1980s."—[Official Report, 7 April 1982; Vol. 21, c. 1050.] is simply not true. Certainly new ships are entering service, but, as the Secretary of State said to me at Question Time yesterday week, this is almost overwhelmingly the result of orders placed by the Administration of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East.

The planned numbers of carriers, destroyers, frigates, nuclear submarines, Sea Harriers, Royal Marine Commando groups, assault helicopters, and Royal Fleet Auxiliaries are all fewer than those inherited from the Labour Government. Recent orders show that the shipbuilding figures in the handout are, again, highly selective. Of the 27 major warships that have entered service since 1979, or will enter service over the next five years—there is some interesting information to be found in answers to written questions in Hansard—only four type 22 frigates and two SSNs have been ordered by the Government. That is only four out of 27 major warships.

Furthermore, the Government have so far placed orders, before last week's announcement—and that was for only one ship—which average only half the value per year achieved by the Labour Government. That is an average expenditure of £300 million per year—the handout claims £400 million for last year—compared to £600 million per year under the Labour Government.

However, the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces was brazen and misleading enough when replying to the debate last Thursday—I am sorry he is not here tonight—to refer to the Government's inheritance of a defence machine which was starved of funds and equipment".—[Official Report, 1 July 1982; Vol. 26, c. 1129.]