Orders of the Day — The Royal Navy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:16 pm on 19th July 1982.

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Photo of Mr Patrick Duffy Mr Patrick Duffy , Sheffield, Attercliffe 7:16 pm, 19th July 1982

I wish to associate myself at the outset with those right hon. and hon. Gentlemen who have paid tribute to our Servicemen in their magnificent victory in the Falklands. I never doubted the outcome, because I have been fortunate enough in recent years to encounter the professionalism and morale that I believe characterise our Servicemen to as great a degree as can be found in any Services in the world.

Some of our American friends, including some of their most distinguished commanders, believe that no other country could have shown such a high level of professionalism and morale. That, allied to the tactical direction of the forces by the commanders, in whom we were most fortunate, were the decisive factors. It is sometimes difficult to believe, after reading the press, that we had such a distinguished victory, one that in global terms was worth more than 100 World Cup victories. Some of the press is niggardly towards our Service men—from the task force commander, Rear-Admiral John Woodward, through his captains in the various ships, General Moore, Brigadier Thompson, the individual marines and paratroopers, to members of the mercantile marine. If we continued to acknowledge their feat for a long time, we should still not have paid them the tribute that they deserve.

I have argued repeatedly in the defence debates, in which I have been fortunate enough to be called, that we are not sufficiently aware as a country even now that we are a member of an Alliance, and that the most sensible and cost-effective policy for that Alliance is to employ resources on the basis of a division of tasks. We do not specialise enough. It is clearly more sensible for countries such as West Germany, which have abundant expertise in the geography of Central Europe, to concentrate on the central front.

The right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) and the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) argued that the role for the United Kingdom, with its maritime edge, is to maintain the lead at sea. It cannot be said too often that Britain is ideally placed to do that, adjacent to the Greenland—Iceland—United Kingdom gap. We would bear the brunt of North Atlantic operations in the early stages of a war. We could do more. We could provide defence in depth against a maritime threat and support for the northern flank of Norway, as well as preserving the sea lanes for communication, reinforcement and supply. But in his 1981 defence review the Secretary of State took steps that will leave Britain dangerously deficient at sea by the end of the decade.

NATO's sea power, which exists primarily to keep open commercial sea lanes for the world, is tightly stretched. British naval losses in the South Atlantic of four ships sunk and 12 damaged can only add to the burden. But the Secretary of State has chosen this time to cut the fleet. In the financial year 1982–83 the strength of the Royal Navy will continue to decline. One SSN, three destroyers, one frigate and two mine countermeasure vessels, all ordered by the Labour Government, will join the fleet. But 17 ships, including one SSN, two destroyers and four frigates, are listed for sale or scrap. The right hon. and learned Member for Hexham has been the only speaker to mention that so far. In the past fortnight, we have been told that three destroyers—"Bristol", "Glamorgan" and "Fife"—will be retained. But they cannot be run on beyond four or, at the most, five years; for example, their missile systems will be inadequate.

But the Russian naval forces that we face have in the past year increased the number of anti-ship missiles with a range of over 120 miles from 130 to 350. As The Economist observed, those missiles make Exocet look like a dinky toy. The number of major surface ships in the Soviet fleet has dropped by one to 52, and it has improved its missile capability dramatically. Its force of hunter-killer submarines available for service in the East Atlantic has risen from 83 to 85, while the total in NATO's navy has dropped from 71 to 43. There is a growing belief that some of the Soviet SSNs will soon be deployed in the South Atlantic. A Soviet SSN base in West Africa which has haunted our thoughts for many years may soon become a reality.

Although in part the reductions in Western strength represent the diversion of American naval forces to the Gulf, there is no escaping the fact of the increasingly desperate plight of NATO's naval defences. Poignantly, it is only in carriers that NATO continues to enjoy an edge over the Warsaw Pact; yet the Secretary of State also sought to make cuts in our carrier strength. He has now had second thoughts. But as recently as 23 February., when we had spirited exchanges from both sides of the House with the Secretary of State about the importance of our carrier strength End the fact that it should be in excess of the two, he stated: I do not believe that any Government of either party would order ASW carriers today —[Official Report, 23 February 1982; Vol. 18, c. 735.] If the Secretary of State believes that he can palm "Hermes" on to the Australians he is in for a surprise. He might get away with the lease of an Invincible class carrier. He should put in hand another Invincible order with Swan Hunter. That is the news that both sides of the House wish to hear. We are united in the belief that we need more than two carriers. But we shall only gel them if we honour our obligations to the Australians and to our Navy. Perhaps we can do a package deal with the Australians if we get the order for another Invincible class carrier.

I am not merely taunting the Secretary of State for changing his mind about the carrier. He is beginning to retreat a little—he will have to retreat a good deal more—from his 1981 defence review. Why did he persist with too much of it in the form and content of the 1982 estimates? Why is he still intent on cutting our naval strength even in face of the ever-growing Soviet maritime threat? Why is he abandoning naval yards such as Cammell Laird on Merseyside, Swan Hunter on Tyneside and Vosper at Southampton? They have served Britain well for generations.

The Secretary of State has sought to conceal the facts to still the doubts increasingly voiced on the Conservative Benches. I cannot see any orders for surface ships, certainly in the forecast period, that will take up the capacities of yards other titan Yarrow on the Clyde and Vickers at Barrow. I cannot see where Swan Hunter, Cammell Laird and Vosper will be employed. We need more information than we have been given this afternoon. Where will the orders for three ships a year that the Minister mentioned go?

By dint of selective quotations in party handouts, to which the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) referred in the previous defence debate, the Secretary of State tried to show that last year's defence review had given the Navy more money, better capability and so on. That will not do. Like the defence review, that PR exercise was a con trick—a catalogue of half truths. On 7 April, the Secretary of State stated: 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.] That is not true for the reasons that my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) laid bare in a powerful speech.

New ships are entering service, but, as the Secretary of State admitted to me in the House last month, almost overwhelmingly, and for the reasons that my right hon. Friend described, that is as a result of orders placed by the Labour Government. That is precisely why we were able to deploy for the Falklands so quickly and effectively. We were living on the fat of the pre-1981 defence review, thanks to the Labour Government.

The Falklands campaign typically demonstrated the flexibility of maritime power, by its presence and the wide range of options that it offers diplomacy. Without waiting for the official technical assessment of the campaign, many important implications for the Royal Navy have emerged. Some have been discussed; I wish to refer to others. In combination, on balance, they further invalidate the 1981 review. The more important points that emerge from the tentative assessment of the campaign include the vulnerability of surface ships to mass saturation air attacks. However, it should be borne in mind that the damaged ships stood up to punishment remarkably well and most stayed afloat.

There must be more emphasis on battle and sea worthiness and less on comforts. We must look more closely at Soviet experience and even at 1939–1945 German experience. Ships last about twice as long as their weapons and electronic systems. It is, therefore, cheaper to refit ships than to build new ones. I hope that the Defence Secretary will consider that.

We must not forget the urgency of airborne early warning. We need a better balance between the active and passive effects of early warning and ASW sonar. There is the vindication of the Sea Harrier concept and the need for more effective surface-to-air missiles and associated fire-control systems. We must remember the requirement for naval point defence weapons. Ships must be provided with close-in defence against anti-ship surface-skimming missiles. A gun system such as Seaguard and not merely Phalanx is as necessary as Sea Wolf. Sea skimmers will not remain skimmers, as evidenced by the mode of the Sub-Harpoon.

There is the need to revise warship construction methods and use of materials to reduce fire hazard. Firefighting techniques and equipment must be updated. It is difficult to accept that only recently the Government considered closing HMS "Phoenix", our damage control centre. We must have confirmation of the value of naval gunfire support for shore bombardment. There is a need for more than a single 4·5 inch gun on most ships and more anti-aircraft guns on all ships.

We must remember the requirement for shipborne and airborne jammers and anti-radiation missiles for use against aircraft, ships and ground-based radars. Is it true that only two to three weeks before the Falklands crisis the Navy turned down a jammer which could have integrated with electronic warfare equipment? The present equipment is not capable of a quick reaction.

We must remember the great importance of well-trained special forces such as the SBS and the SAS. We must have confirmation that the Royal Marines retain their amphibious role, as well as that of helicopter assault, and that the Royal Navy has its armed amphibious ships to permit that. The significance of the joint operation of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force from carriers must be accepted. The value in flexibility of the mercantile marine and the need to persuade the United States to go ahead with the Arapaho project must be accepted.

If we act on the lessons of the Falklands and correct the specific deficiencies in the Royal Navy's defences, British ships will be less vulnerable. The Navy will then survive a fiercer air war than was fought over the Falklands. It could operate alone on the doorstep of most countries and could even operate effectively against the Soviet Union in places where Russian aircraft fly at extreme range in limited numbers. I am talking about the Royal Navy acting alone and not in its NATO role.

The Falklands conflict confirms, rather than undermines, the invaluable role of sea power in projecting military force in unpredictable places across vast distances. That confirms the confidence that I expressed in the House at the outset of the crisis in the Royal Navy's capability to do precisely what it did—and it did it brilliantly.

That is what the Navy did on its own in the vicinity of the Falklands and what it can do elsewhere. In the Navy's more likely and assigned NATO role the Service is indispensable. Its nuclear-powered submarines will exercise an outstanding deterrent effect against surface warships. Invincible class carriers, working ahead of major United States carrier battle groups, will fill a key ASW role in countering the Soviet submarine threat. The Falklands conflict has demonstrated that the Sea Harrier-light carrier concept is sound in the NATO context. But will Britain be able to muster the requisite number of surface warships to fulfil her obligations in the North Atlantic and out of the area?

It is not enough for the Defence Secretary to justify his 1981 defence review on the ground that the arrival of shore-based high performance aircraft with precision guided surface skimming missiles, as well as nuclear powered submarines with almost unlimited mobility and concealment, has profoundly altered sea-air strategy. It is not enough for the Secretary of State to tell us, as he did this afternoon, that he is not dedicated to the notions of short war. Some of us are convinced that he is.

We take nothing away from the Secretary of State when we say that, but we recall all his utterances in the House and we believe that we know our man and what goes on in his mind. I am in no doubt that he is a short war scenario man, a submarine and maritime patrol aircraft man and a Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap man. He believes that he can bottle up the Soviet Navy. He may be right, but I believe that that is a high-risk strategy and that we should not put too many of our eggs in one basket. Therefore, we should have more surface ships.

At that point my right hon. and hon. Friends divide from the Secretary of State and I know of no one on his side of the House who supports him in his belief that we can cut our surface strength and invest more heavily in sub-surface strength and maritime patrol aircraft. It is not enough for the Defence Secretary to continue too far with his 1981 defence review on the ground that the sea-air strategy has changed.

As Vice-Admiral Sir Ian McGeoch warned in a letter to The Times a fortnight ago, the power of surface warships to fight both aircraft and submarines should not be underestimated, nor should it be overlooked that come what may, the shipping which has to be protected moves on the surface". It is not enough for the Secretary of State to claim that he is going sub-surface. He has ordered only two submarines in three years. He would do well to squeeze one more out of existing capacity before it is commandeered by Trident.

The Defence Secretary's goal should be a balanced and interdependent force of escort vessels and other surface units, as well as nuclear-powered submarines and maritime patrol aircraft—all capable of providing ocean operations support groups in a NATO context. Increasingly it appears that we shall have to allow for the possibility of providing for that in an out-of-area role.