Orders of the Day — The Royal Navy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:36 pm on 19th July 1982.

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Photo of Mr Geoffrey Pattie Mr Geoffrey Pattie , Chertsey and Walton 9:36 pm, 19th July 1982

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) also referred to HMS "Phoenix". There has been a persistent misunderstanding about the future of damage control training following the proposed closure of HMS "Phoenix". The intention is, and always has been, to retain all the training simulators and other practical training equipment on the "Phoenix" site. Only the theoretical and classroom training will be moved to the nearby HMS "Nelson", thereby saving on manpower. The full range of damage control training will continue, modified or even intensified in the light of any lessons from the South Atlantic.

I have spoken entirely in terms of the task force, but we must not ignore the crucial role of our nuclear submarines, which effectively swept the sea clear of Argentine warships by their very presence. The vital role played by the surface ship in the task force is not meant to imply that no questions have been raised as a result of the Falklands conflict on matters such as warship design, outfitting and weapon fits. Many hon. Members have raised such questions in the debate.

Over the years, modern technology has led to a major reduction in weight of many equipments, several of which are close to the centre of gravity of a warship. Steam turbines have given way to much lighter gas turbine diesel installations; gun systems with ammunition have given way to missiles; older computers are now replaced by microprocessors; and heavy cables are replaced by the data bus. In total, these produce considerable weight savings below main deck level.

If a vessel is to retain its stability, given similar hull forms, such weight reductions low down in the ship must be matched by savings in higher placed weights, generally weapons and over-water sensors. The Royal Corps of Naval Constructors at Bath is dedicated to the long narrow hull on the basis that speed is a function of length, even though length will increase size and cost. Many other navies take this long and thin view, but that does not necessarily mean that the traditional philosophies are sacrosanct for all time.

There are signs that the school of thought that lays greater emphasis on beam width and, therefore, on unstable payload may be about to come into its own. My right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton made an interesting point on this topic. The Government believe that it is necessary to encourage much fresh thinking. Similarly, we need radical assessments of potential fire hazards and the compatibility of modern weapons systems.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton went to the Lord Hill-Norton point by asking whether we could refute his Lordship's claim that, had the Falklands crisis occurred three years or so from now, we would not have been able to meet the challenge. I attempted to meet that point on the second day of the defence debate, when I said that we would then be losing four ships out of 42—with the "Invincible" decision, it is now three—and I asked the House rhetorically whether it seriously believed that, by the end of 1984, we would not be able to mount an operation similar to that mounted in the South Atlantic this year with three fewer warships than we now possess. The answer to Lord Hill-Norton should be along those lines.

My right hon. Friend spoke of his wartime service on Woolworth carriers and, as he will remember from our service on the Public Accounts Committee, condemned the danger of gold-plating. He also extolled the virtues of the Arapaho project and reminded the House of the great importance of merchant ship conversions. He also drew attention to the urgent necessity of having airborne early warning. As my right hon. Friend said on another occasion, the Searchwater radar has been tested in a Sea King as one possible method by which we might try to achieve early warning cover.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton asked whether we intended to reintroduce a sea-going heavy repair capability. Some time ago we disposed of HMS "Triumph", but during the Falklands operation a sea-going heavy repair facility was provided rapidly from commercial sources. We are examining this facility keenly to see whether we can use it more permanently.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) spoke cogently and reminded the House that when we came to office in May 1979 the morale of the Armed Forces—exemplified by the low retention rate, and the queues of people waiting to get out of the Services—was at rock bottom. The Armed Forces will take years to put those shortages right. We are still suffering from the shortages of skilled men in the junior ranks as well as at senior NCO level that we inherited from the Labour Government.