Orders of the Day — The Royal Navy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:54 pm on 19th July 1982.

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Photo of Mr Geoffrey Rippon Mr Geoffrey Rippon , Hexham 6:54 pm, 19th July 1982

I do not dissent from what the right hon. Gentleman says. I am sure that they are necessary. I am glad therefore that the Government have changed their mind. The role is clear. That has been made evident by others more competent to speak on the matter than myself.

It is clear that the proposed loss of 17 destroyers and frigates with their embarked helicopters—we are, happily, to have more helicopters—could not be explained as strengthening our anti-submarine capability in the Atlantic. So far so good. A number of lessons have been learnt for which many Conservative Members are grateful. My right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), in a powerful speech, referred to technological change, as did the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. One of the hardest lessons learnt in the South Atlantic is that the anti-aircraft missiles and anti-aircraft defence systems were inadequate. We also lacked an effective airborne early warning system.

In the changed circumstances, the Secretary of State, I hope, will see that the Treasury is not allowed, as it has done so often in the past, to delay the development of modern weapons although the need for them has been established. I used to have some responsibility for dealing with matters related to guided weapons and electronic counter-measures. These are, I suppose, protected under the 30-year rule, and I must not say much about them. But the biggest item in much of our defence expenditure is, I believe, the cost of Treasury delay. A battle with the Treasury has to be fought over and over again. The Treasury never gives up. It always comes back. It has done more, probably, than any single organisation to undermine the defence and economic strength of this country—much more than the Foreign Office.

I must not, however, be diverted. The prime characteristic of modern weapons is that they are highly lethal. They are now approaching the stage where, if a target can be seen or detected, it can be hit. Herein lies the growing importance of electronic countermeasures to which the Soviet Union has for a long time given high priority. I know that my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement is seized of the importance of the matter. He talked frequently about it when the Conservative Party was in opposition. Against this background, it cannot be disputed that naval strategy and tactics, including convoy techniques, have to be reviewed in the context of the detection and tracking of surface vessels and their vulnerability to a growing range of target—locating and sea—skimming missiles.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton has already said, the emphasis in the future must be placed to a growing extent on the development of a number of smaller ships in larger quantities. This must be accompanied, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State himself has recognised, by an increasing number of submarines. On the issue of submarines, I am glad that the Government are reviewing the position of Portsmouth dockyard. I believe, however, that my right hon. Friend should also re-examine the future of Chatham. I have read all the powerful speeches on this subject by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Sir F. Burden). My hon. Friend is not merely making a constituency point, although the closing of any dockyard or defence industry has great repercussions on the economic life of an area. My hon. Friend's argument is essentially a national one.

The closure of Chatham will remove a nuclear submarine refitting yard, which is essential, I believe, to the further expansion of the nuclear submarine force. It will eliminate essential conventional facilities and a command support base critical to our reinforcements routes to Europe. I agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton had to say about the importance of bases generally.

The House should know, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham told the House on 22 July 1981, that Admiral Sir William Pillar, then Chief of Fleet Support, who therefore had to choose his words carefully, had told the Select Committee in 1980 that he would not pretend that a proposal to close the Chatham dockyard facilities would be without risk. I do not believe that we should take that risk.

The House will recall that the then Secretary of State for Defence gave in August 1980 a firm commitment—there is no other way to describe it—that the four home dockyards would be required and maintained and that there was more than sufficient work to keep them occupied for the foreseeable future. I welcomed warmly the defence White Paper of 1980 and the policies enunciated by the then Secretary of State for Defence. I could not, and did not, do so last year. It was rumoured, although, of course, I know nothing of these matters, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs was removed from the Ministry of Defence because he would not bend the knee to the Treasury's demands. I can only say that I hope that my right hon. Friend is now in a stronger position to carry on this battle with the Treasury and his weaker brethren in the Cabinet. They are the wets on this matter.

The danger is that, by cutting naval forces and their support facilities, we are adopting what is in effect a short war policy; that is, a war of only a few days. I noted with interest the intervention of my right hon. Friend in which he remarked that he was not saying that all the danger existed on the central front in Europe, that he was not saying it would only be a short war but that it might be. What worries me is that the thrust of our defence strategy now is on the basis of a short war. That is dangerous.

I support the Trident programme. I do not believe, however, that it can be regarded as an alternative to adequate conventional forces. The Opposition think differently. One has to face the fact, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) said, that over the longer period the cost of Trident is 3 per cent. of our defence budget. One danger of dealing with the Treasury is that it likes the nuclear option because it is cheaper—not because it is more expensive. In order to achieve cuts in next year's budget, the Treasury allows expenditure that it hopes to stop at a later date.

The Secretary of State, in his forward—the only up-to-date part of this year's defence White Paper—says: The events of recent weeks must not, however, obscure the fact that the main threat to the security of the United Kingdom is from the nuclear and conventional forces of the Soviet Union and her Warsaw Pact allies? The critical question is where that threat lies. In my view, which, I think, is shared by some of my hon. Friends, the threat is global. It is no longer confined to NATO's central front. The greatest danger lies in the areas of vital interests such as the oil-producing regions of the Middle East and the raw material sources of Southern and Central Africa. We may not be able to amend the North Atlantic Treaty to abolish the now meaningless boundary Imitations represented by the Tropic of Cancer, but the remorseless march of events, such as the growth of the Soviet blue water navy—the extent of which is enormous, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton pointed out—Afghanisatan, and the anarchy in Iran, mean that the Alliance is inevitably committed to defending its interests worldwide.

We cannot do everything, but I believe that we are right, by history and geography, to make the maritime role our priority. Whatever contribution we can make to the central forces in NATO, it does not override the priority that we owe to ourselves and the United States of America in the eastern Atlantic.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who deals with procurement matters is one of the members of the Government who showed great wisdom and foresight in Opposition. I should have liked to write this into the record as one can in the United States of America, but I can only commend his pamphlet published by the Conservative Political Centre in 1976, called "Towards a new Defence Policy", in which he says: If we fail to realign our defence effort to the challenge that is now being presented, then we will pay the price at some stage in the 1980s.We in Britain have a lot to lose. Our offshore resources could be attacked, the vital sea routes on which we depend for half our food and raw materials could be cut, (The Russians already have more than three times the number of German U-boats that paralysed Allied shipping in World War II) and Western Europe could be 'finlandised' without, paradoxically enough, the use of the much vaunted military machine on the central front". I gave my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary notice that I was going to quote him, as is proper on these occasions. Later, he said: If it is agreed that Britain should significantly increase its naval presence and maintain the RAF contribution in Germany, the next question is to ask whether there is any particular magic about the number of 55,000 men stationed in BAOR. He points out our treaty obligations, about which we know, the fact that we have lost our support costs, and suggests that we might renegotiate the position with West Germany and our allies. If we have to make some reduction, it should be there rather than in our maritime force.

No less penetrating is the book my hon. Friend wrote with Mr. James Bellini entitled "A New World Role for the Medium Power", an extract from which is published, for those who wish to read it, by the International Institute of Strategic Studies in "Survival" in September-October 1977. He describes how the post-war record in defence planning has been one of defence options sacrificed for non-defence reasons". He goes on to explain that, while economics play their part, it frequently happens that the Treasury argument is translated into a bogus strategic reason.

Of course, we have to put a price on defence. How do we do that? Here again, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, and I hope that his view remains the same as when he said: The difficulty about defence expenditure is that no one can ever say what is the correct level. While it is not being suggested that Britain has at the moment no defences, we are not by any means adequately defended and the public would be horrified if they knew the real truth. Any responsible Government should aim to get its defence expenditure up to a level where it feels happy with the ability of its forces not only to deter but to contend with a threat, and then hold expenditure steady allowing for inflation. There is no sensible way in which such a task can be approached within an arbitrary percentage of GNP or even a global cash figure.Other spending departments will howl and cabinet ministers in any government will fight their departmental corners, but defence is not about spectacles, or teeth, or schools, or roads, or pensions or housing, it is about survival. I believe that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is right, and I hope that he will prevail in those battles against some of his less forceful and sensible colleagues.

The Conservative Party and Government cannot claim to be strengthening our defences if all they are doing is to maintain the Labour Party's commitment to a real annual increase of 3 per cent. If there has to be a guideline, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley), who spoke in one of the earlier defence debates, that it should be 4 per cent. That is not a figure plucked out of the air; it is the considered view of the Supreme Allied Commander in NATO, General Rogers. I believe—I think this is confirmed by the response to the Falklands crisis—that the British people will be ready to bear whatever cost is necessary to ensure that we are adequately defended.

As the Prime Minister said in a notable speech in Brussels on 23 June 1978—I have kept this fading copy for all these years: Our first duty to freedom is to defend our own. Defence must be our first consideration. As we have seen in Britain and elsewhere, there are always politicians ready to neglect defence in favour of other expenditure which is more immediately rewarding and which they suppose will therefore be more popular. I believe that such politicians underestimate those whom they represent. I think so, too.