Orders of the Day — The Royal Navy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:52 pm on 19th July 1982.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Edward Du Cann Mr Edward Du Cann , Taunton 5:52 pm, 19th July 1982

The numerous occasions on which my hon. Friend the Minister of State was interrupted by hon. Members on both sides of the House—with typical courtesy he invariably gave way—illustrated the deep anxieties that are felt in all quarters of the House about the strength of the Royal Navy. The Falkland Islands campaign has undoubtedly brought them to wider notice.

As my hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) have said, we should be proud. The Armed Services of our nation, which are manned entirely by volunteers—they had admirable support from our civilian Merchant fleet and from many other quarters—achieved a memorable success. It was refreshing to find all concerned operating in a spirit of "Let's get things done" rather than in, alas, what has become the habitual British approach of asking "Why should we not do this?"

In the inhospitable waters of the South Atlantic our country and our people, against all odds, and not for the first time in our history, defended principle, freedom and our heritage against a treacherous assault, and did so with splendid success. We should all rejoice in that.

It is not inappropriate in a Navy debate to say how brilliantly the Army and the Royal Marines operated. Who could have foreseen that with so few casualties they would be able to conquer an entrenched enemy on more than one occasion comprising about 10,000 soldiers? It was an essay of courage, daring and skill.

A cynical Foreign Secretary of the past once remarked that the Army was a projectile to be fired by the Navy. That, of course, is absurd, but it brings me to the point that I wish to make. Without a strong maritime capability the Falklands operation would have been impossible. This debate should not be, as it has been a bit over the past half hour or so, a discussion about who ordered what ships and when, significant though that may be in the party battle. What matters to the nation is the Royal Navy's future. We must ensure that it is at all times adequate for the demands that may be made of it.

We have it on the authority of Lord Hill-Norton, former head of the Navy and Chief of Defence Staff, that if the Falkland crisis had come three years later Britain would not have been able to muster the task force that it needed. What are we doing and what must we do to disprove that apparently informed assertion?

I do not agree with the right hon. Member for Llanelli that the Government do not have a clear strategy. It seems to be entirely clear. I accept unhesitatingly the first emphasis of the Government's defence plan. The West has no choice but to strengthen its collective defence in the face of the fearsome aggressive Soviet threat. The decision to modernise our strategic nuclear deterrent is right.

Certainly our first responsibility is the defence of these islands. However, we are running grave risks in the way in which we are proceeding. Some of the decisions that we are making seem to be possibly mistaken. I hope to show how they can and might be changed.

In the Falklands campaign it took about 18,000 men in ships to land 9,000 troops. There were nearly 100 ships involved, including 1 million deadweight tanker tonnes. Also involved were the QE2 and the "Canberra", the only large passenger ships that were available. We must not forget how valuable the ships of the hydrographic fleet were which took part in the exercise—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am glad that that assertion meets with the warm endorsement of the House.

I shall now give some more general statistics. The analysis that I am about to quote is a private one. It is astounding that official statistics are not available. On any one day in the year probably 10,000 ships of the world's merchant fleet are at sea. About 40 per cent. of them, or 4,000 ships, are in European waters. Many more are en route to or from European waters. It is estimated that about 500 tankers are en route to Europe on any one day.

What are the conclusions that one can draw—without detail—from these statistics? Whether we speak of the defence of British people overseas or on these islands, the defence of our Allies, our interests or our trade, the ability to bring food and raw material from outside, sometimes from many thousands of miles away, we need a strong, mobile and adequate Navy with a world-wide capability.

I warmly welcome the intervention that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made a few moments ago, which was especially significant. We are awaiting the publication of a new White Paper, which will be available in about four months' time. I hope that in it we shall have a clear analysis of the United Kingdom's defence requirements and not merely a statement of what can be afforded as a sort of compromise between the Treasury and Defence Departments.

Apart from our defensive-offensive nuclear capabilities we need the ability, in conjunction with our Allies, to keep the United Kingdom and Europe provisioned, fuelled and furnished with material, plus the ability to land and supply British and Allied forces anywhere in the world. We need to discuss much more than we habitually do the most costeffective method of realising these objectives. To those who say "We cannot afford it" I reply "We cannot not afford it".

In using such terms as the "Eastern Atlantic", drawing imagined and arbitrary lines across the world's oceans and in talking of convoys from a certain point in mid-Atlantic, arbitrarily chosen, to home waters, we risk developing a Maginot-line mentality. That seems to me to be deadly dangerous.

At the outbreak of war in 1939 Germany had fewer than 60 submarines. In 1943, at the height of the submarine battle and when the United Kingdom so narrowly escaped disaster, Doenitz commanded 139. There are 450 in the Soviet fleet today, one-third of them nuclear-powered.

By 1945, at the end of the war, the Allies had about 5,000 escorts. Today NATO could mobilise about 250. That is all. We have little in the way of a fleet of distant-water trawlers in reserve, and a trivial number of minesweepers. It is worth remembering that in 1939 the fishing industry contributed 450 deep-water fishing vessels in support of the Royal Navy. Today there are only 16 deep-water fishing vessels. They are supposed to be out in two years' time. There are a mere 58 middle-water vessels, all about 20 years old.

Like it or not, we are in the numbers game. We need many more ships—not just a few. The question is, how? I believe that this is feasible. In days gone by we had at least six rates in our line of battleships. In the last war we had the same. My naval service was short and undistinguished. I first served in a Woolworth carrier, as it was called, which was a converted merchant ship. It was a fifth-rate ship, so to speak. But what a job those Woolworth carriers and other ships like them did.

I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that we need to reintroduce that concept now. By so doing we could easily save money. Not all our ships have to be gold-plated. Not all have to carry everything. Not all have to be first-rate. We shall never build adequate numbers of mine countermeasures vessels, for example, if each costs £35 million, as the Hunt class does, according to the White Paper. The same goes for offshore patrol boats, which cost £14 million. The same certainly goes for the so-called cheap frigates. The type 23 will cost over £100 million.

Another aspect of the same point is that the capacity of some of our expensive ships—carriers such as "Invincible"—is pretty tiny when all is said and done. It carries a mix of 16 or 17 different aircraft. We could do just as well with converted merchant ships, at vastly less cost. Ships such as the "Invincible" cost £350 million. In the United States the new carriers cost 10 times this sum. But a very large cargo carrier costs only some £25 million. Cheaper ships are assuredly practical. They are one way, perhaps the only way, to achieve a better balance in the Royal Navy.

It is heartbreaking to observe the inadequacies of the fleet and the muddle between different types of ships. Heartbreaking also is the abandonment of such essential aspects of naval strength as coastal forces and maritime early-warning radar, which in the Falkland Islands nearly proved fatal to us. The proposal that the fleet, wherever it may be, will be safeguarded in future by 34 land—based Nimrod aircraft is absurd, as is the concept that the fleet will always operate below cover to be supplied by shore-based aircraft. It is a scandal that we had no early warning facilities in the Falkland Islands campaign. I hope that that is one thing that my right hon. Friend will put right.

There are other aspects of design. We shall no doubt learn the Falkland Islands lesson about the location of control rooms, flammable material, the extraordinary inadequacy of damage control arrangements and the like.

I should like to make another point about design to my right hon. Friend as he has been courteous enough to listen to the debate. Three years ago my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) and t discussed ship design with Ministers at the Ministry of Defence. The concept of building only narrow ships is wholly wrong. Broader-beamed ships are entirely possible today with modern hull formations and would give a vastly better platform. Not only that, but they could accommodate without disadvantage such as aluminium superstructures many of the heavy weaponries which today must be put at a higher level than in the past.

I hope that my right hen. Friend will consider going out to private tender for certain naval shipbuilding essays in the future. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement will recall that when he was a member of the Public Accounts Committee, and I was its Chairman, we visited the installation at Bath. It is after experience on the spot that I make that recommendation.

Our fleet was at sea for 90 days. That was a tremendous strain on the men and on the material. Both came through splendidly, but how that emphasises the need for adequate bases all over the world, such as Gibraltar, Ascension Island and Simonstown.

We must have an adequate strategic dockyard capability. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will recall this, too. The Public Accounts Committee went to see the nuclear refitting capability at Chatham. We saw the work that was being done on frigates. We reported to the House on those matters. I speak of what I have observed at first hand as Chairman of a Select Committee. In my view, the problem with the dockyards is a problem of management. All the evidence is there for everyone to see. There have been delays and overruns of costs—a lamentable record. However, that is not a reason for closing the dockyards, if we run the risk of there not being adequate capacity to refit ships in the future in line with the strength of the fleet. That is a reason for introducing new management. That is the tack that I recommend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to pursue.

We should reintroduce the seagoing heavy repair facility, which we have apparently abandoned. We needed that badly in the Falkland Islands. We still need it.

My next point has been acknowledged to some extent by my hon. Friend the Minister of State. I warmly welcomed what he said. If the Royal Navy is the front line of this nation's defence, the Merchant Navy is not the second, but it stands at the side of the professional fighting service. Since the war I have watched the British merchant fleet decline in size. That decline took place notably in 1981, when we lost 6·3 million deadweight tonnes. In the past six years we have lost two-fifths of the whole fleet. The fishing fleet has also declined. It is time to cry "Halt" to that process. We can debate in detail what might be done to bring about a practical halt, but a halt there must be.

Let us be realistic. In the South Atlantic we won a brilliant victory, although disaster was never far away. That is the truth. It is the reality. Against a more competent enemy, particularly an air force under better direction, our ship losses would have been far greater. The Government's task is to see that the practical lessons of that experience are learnt and acted upon. The responsibility of all of us on these Back Benches, especially those who, for many reasons, love and respect the Royal Navy, is to insist on nothing less. I see no reason why we should not have a Navy that is wholly adequate for the tasks which the nation might see fit to vest upon it, provided that we adopt a radical and determined new approach to our duty. I hope that that ambition will come out of the White Paper in four months' time.