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

There are many other consequences of the 1981 defence review that time does not allow me to mention. I shall content myself with referring to only two.

Mid-life modernisation of destroyers and frigates is to be abandoned. That will result in increasing obsolescence in the surface flotilla weapons systems. I can understand the Under-Secretary of State's dilemma, but he should reconsider this again, not merely on account of the dockyards and support depots that are to be run down or closed but because it could prove to be a false economy. The second consequence of the review is that between 8,000 and 10,000 officers and men are to be made redundant by 1986, with a similar number in the last half of the costing period.

Like many hon. Members, I wish to examine some of the lessons of the Falklands for the Royal Navy. The main lesson is the need to be able to cope with unexpected situations. We must retain flexibility and versatility as well as an adequate capability in our future Fleet. We were able to deploy quickly and effectively for the Falklands operation because we were living on the fat of the pre-1981 defence review. This did not amount merely to the ships and weapons systems that I have mentioned. There was also the setting up of the merchant shipping register in 1978. Did that not work brilliantly? Is the situation not contrary to the claims made last Thursday by the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces?

Inherited from the previous Labour Government and available for the Falklands crisis were 55 running destroyers and frigates. Even so, others had to be brought forward from the disposal list. Moreover, there were still three carriers if one includes "Illustrious" and five dockyards with no rundown in manpower. By the middle of the decade, we shall have only about 50 destroyers and frigates, of which as few as 42 might be operational, perhaps only two carriers in service, two dockyards and about 10,000 fewer naval officers and ratings. Afloat support will also have been seriously reduced.

Greater risks will be taken with manpower and support. The fleet will possess markedly less flexibility. Two absurdities stand out against the background of the Falklands crisis. The first is the projected sale of "Invincible". The second is the cancellation of planned improvements in the Sea Dart weapon system. Its performance in action in the Falklands crisis was entirely as expected. It did not disappoint. It could not do any better. We are not now in a position to put in hand an improvement to the system. That is the responsibility of the Government.

We must retain three carriers, including "Hermes", until "Ark Royal" is available in mid-1985. The Aussies have given us the opportunity but, contrary to the optimistic view of the hon. Member for Stretford, they clearly wish to return to the status quo ante. The Aussies will not let us off this hook if they can help it. We shall have to watch the sales pitch. We must improve the capability of surface forces, especially against aircraft and missile attack. We must have 50 destroyers and frigates in operation with none in the standby squadron. The dockyard capacity at Portsmouth must be expanded beyond the level announced last week. There must be consequential support ashore.

Perhaps most important, given the Government's handling of the defence review or, as The Times put it, the Government's "sleight of hand", we need to look closely at battle casualty replacement. We cannot replace the two type 21s. We can replace the type 42 but cannot improve its missile system following the Government's decision last year. Realistically, we can only look to the type 22s. But the Government did not make a good start last week with its announcement of a single type 22 order. There is a time factor as with the "Fife", "Glamorgan" and "Bristol", which are to be retained. They can have a life expectancy of only six years before their missile systems become inadequate. Will the type 23 be ready by then, and in what numbers?

On the Government's record to date, we can entertain little hope. We run the risk of being dangerously deficient at sea by the end of the decade. That is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East has suggested that the Opposition are now perhaps the Navy party. We know the dangers to which it may be exposed late in this decade if the Government's cuts in the surface fleet are allowed to pass.