Orders of the Day — The Royal Navy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:48 pm on 19th July 1982.

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Photo of Dr David Owen Dr David Owen , Plymouth, Devonport 7:48 pm, 19th July 1982

A year ago, when the House debated the cuts in the Royal Navy, there was great apprehension in the Royal Navy and in the Royal Marines. The Royal Navy faced a larger percentage cut than it had ever faced, other than in the 1920s, and the Royal Marines were anxious about what would happen to them when their assault ships were phased out.

We have now had a considerable change of heart. Four ships in the Royal Navy will be retained—HMS "Endurance", HMS "Invincible", HMS "Intrepid" and HMS "Fearless". Those retentions are welcome, though they have very serious implications for the future shape of the Royal Navy.

A great deal has been said about the withdrawal of HMS "Endurance". It was perhaps the most costly decision of the last defence review, because I remain of the belief that that was a fatal trigger in convincing the Argentines that we were not serious about our commitment to the Falkland Islands.

We must learn a lesson from the ability to deploy naval forces. They are a deterrent. They do not always need to be a declared force. The virtue of HMS "Endurance" being in the South Atlantic is its political presence. It is not a major fighting vessel. The grave danger of reducing naval hull numbers and, perhaps more important, not fulfilling what I believe is the utmost priority, which is increasing the availability of submarines, is that one cannot meet the demands of preparatory deployment.

The lesson of the 1977 episode was that sending the hunter-killer submarines was a preparatory deployment. It did not have to be declared. It did not have to be known by Argentina. It had to be ready to be used within an hour's notice in case of an invasion. If we are to deploy worldwide, because of the distances travelled, we have to make preparatory actions and be ready to deploy our naval forces, and then frequently find that they are not needed. That requires numbers.

In fairness to the Secretary of State, it must be said that he took the decision to retain HMS "Fearless" and HMS "Intrepid" before the Falklands Islands incident. The decision on HMS "Invincible" should be seen in the context of the commitment to "Fearless" and "Intrepid". One of the justifications for the third in the class is that it is a useful addition to an amphibious lift capacity. We saw that in the effectiveness of the Sea Harriers in supporting the land forces.

We must look on the amphibious capability as a major specialised commitment by the United Kingdom. I hope that as a result of the Falklands exercise the Ministry of Defence will not return to the old chestnut about whether there is a future for the Royal Marines. If there was ever a full justification for the Royal Marines, it was the Falkland Islands. We wish to hear no more of the inter-Service rivalry and the question mark over the Royal Marines. They have earned, as they have so often in the past, not just our affection, but our admiration, for their determination, courage and skill. We have rightly paid great tribute to the Special Air Service, but no one should forget the contribution made by the Special Boat Section of the Royal Marines. When that story is told, I am sure that it will strengthen the need for that capacity.

In my view, the amphibious capacity cannot be justified only in the context of Europe and the NATO defence policy. Our decision to have an amphibious capacity is a contribution to a world-wide deployment. That is right, although it is a costly commitment. The justification for HMS "Invincible" can be made on that score.

The way in which the decision on HMS "Invincible" is being made is, in my view, quite disgraceful. After all, the Government told us that they intended to sell it to the Australians a year ago and we have been given no real justification for the reversal of that decision. Nor has there been any serious discussion about what many people believe would have been a more serious option, namely, to let "Invincible" go to the Australians, carry on with HMS "Hermes"—frankly, it is not an attractive option to offer "Hermes" to the Australian Navy—and build another through-deck cruiser, which could be available to replace "Hermes". The great advantage of that deployment would be that we would have a modern compatible "Invincible" with the Australian Navy, able to be deployed in the South Atlantic, and the capacity, with a warm friend and ally, to have three of those vessels at sea at times, and always two.

It is time that we looked at the Royal Navy and the Australian Navy operating together. Never has the generosity and firmness of the Commonwealth been more apparent than during the Falklands campaign. There was the amazing offer by Australia to rescind the previous contractual arrangement. We owe it to our Australian friends to demand more justification from the Government for not taking that more attractive option. It would have the merit of another order for a through-deck cruiser for Tyneside. It would also have the merit of providing a major capacity in the combination of Australia and ourselves. It would give us a useful deployment in an area where we ourselves can never permanently deploy, now that we have rightly come out east of Suez. I hope that we shall be given more justification by the Government for their decision. If the Australians suggest that option, I hope that it will be given serious consideration.

Of course, there will need to be an increased dockyard load capacity. Three extra big ships will need refitting. That requires a decision about Portsmouth. I personally believe that it would be better to have Portsmouth as a dockyard, not just as a fleet maintenance base. It could expand to meet that capacity.

We have not been told what is to happen to the dockyards. If they are to be reduced, there will need to be improved productivity. We need to be told how that increased productivity is to come about. A decision will have to be taken on whether there is to be a dockyard trading fund. Will we start to treat the dockyards as an integrated industry, or will they have to continue to operate within the rigid bureaucratic framework of the Government's industrial Civil Service, with all the problems of running a major industry? Or will they be given the right to manage? Will the three dockyards, Rosyth, Portsmouth and Devonport, be developed into a modern effective industry?

With that there must be a commitment on wage levels. Dockyards should be in a position to compete and attract the skills that are needed there. They must attract, particularly for nuclear refitting, men of considerable skills who can undertake shift working and working in difficult conditions. The present wages and productivity arrangements in the industry are not satisfactory. I want to know more about how the Government intend to improve productivity. It may be necessary to have some overload to get increased productivity. Many of the procedures need streamlining. Above all, greater independence is needed for dockyard management. That management should not constantly have to refer back, not just to the Ministry of Defence, but endlessly to the Treasury, to be compared with the whole of the Civil Service.

We have had no satisfactory explanation why the Government have not announced immediate orders for type 22s. The decision to replace was welcome, and perhaps in winding up the debate the Minister will tell us why immediate orders were not placed for the four replacements. It may be better to have fewer destroyers and more frigates. I am still worried, as I was a year ago, because 42 frigates and destroyers are insufficient to meet the overall deployment needs. I hope that we shall be given figures of the average out-of-area deployment commitment for frigates or destroyers over the past 10 years, and how the Government intend to meet their NATO commitment with the likely pressure for out-of-area commitment on historic evidencee. There is no evidenc that in the next 20 years there will be fewer demands for out-of-area deployment. If we are to have only frigates, I for one would settle for that.

I share some of the Secretary of State's scepticism about the vulnerability of surface ships, particularly the large ones. They need to be gathered around a grouping of ships in which the "Invincible" class is the fulcrum. They are very vulnerable when they are not deployed in a group.

The real problem which the Government have never faced is that a great deal of their economies could have been justified if they were changing the balance within the Navy. Some of the reductions could have been justified if we were to see an increase in the hunter-killer submarine build rate, but we are not. In fact we are seeing a slowing-down in that rate. We have never yet had a satisfactory explanation of what is to happen to the hunter-killer submarine build rate if Vickers is completely taken up with the Trident submarine programme.

I am opposed to that programme, but I face the reality that it might go ahead if the Government stay in office. It would be extremely damaging if we were then to pay that price, which will be heavy in many other aspects for our conventional forces, and also be forced to reduce even further the number of hunter-killer submarines. How do the Government intend to maintain the hunter-killer submarine build rate?

It is no use talking about the eighteenth submarine when the initial ones are now becoming very old and are having to be phased out. There must be a continuing programme of building hunter-killer submarines if we are to maintain that rate. I believe that 20 submarines is an absolute minimum. All of this is expensive, and it is true to say that in the single Service debates, there is a danger that we do not face the questions of choice.

I am prepared to face that choice. I am prepared to ask questions about the intermediate surface ship, that is, between the frigate and the "Invincible" class. We should make a decision on the matter in the light of the evidence from the Falkland Islands. I do not want to prejudge the matter. We should see whether the benefit of having the Sea Dart is so strong that we feel it is necessary, or perhaps we can find a way of having some area defence missile deployed on frigates. After all, we are moving into new missile technology and we do not necessarily have to use the same technology as before.

Some serious questions in terms of the military aspects will obviously arise as a result of the Falklands inquiry. Many of us will want to examine those carefully. The Government have a responsibility to commence the build-up of the Navy at the earliest possible moment following the sinkings off the Falkland Islands.

It is not enough to wait for another four months. That is an economy measure, but the Government are not admitting as much to the House.

I have another point to make. It is a small matter, but it has been mentioned by a number of speakers. I hope that as a result of this successful combined operation—Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy—we shall see a more flexible attitude in the Ministry of Defence to senior appointments. For example, it is a tragedy that General Moore is being retired. I have felt for some time that some of the exceptional Royal Marine senior officers have never had the recognition that they deserve. I look forward to seeing the day when we have a Chief of Defence Staff who comes from the Royal Marines. When I look at the number of distinguished commandant generals that we have had in the past 20 years, I can think of at least two who would have merited being appointed Chief of Defence Staff. We have a right to demand a fresh examination of this matter.

Tribute has been paid to the present Chief of Defence Staff. I should like to add to that tribute. He is an outstanding officer. We were extremely fortunate to have a naval officer as Chief of Defence Staff during the Falklands crisis. We owe him a great debt. The Government owe him an even greater debt for loyally accepting the cuts in the Navy over the past year. He must have been bitterly opposed to them, yet he put his loyalty and commitment to the Armed Services as a whole first. It is right that the House should pay tribute to his outstanding period of office and, once again, pay tribute to what was by any standards a remarkably successful venture.

I use the word "venture". When we examine the results of the analysis we will discover how close to the knife-edge we were during many of the weeks of the Falkland Islands war. It serves to re-emphasise, if it needed to be done, that some of the decisions of a year ago which resulted from Treasury pressure, and which have been proven in the harshness of war to be wrong, are decisions which we cannot ever again allow to be imposed on such a narrow basis. The House has a responsiblity, which goes across the parties, to refuse to approve the Government's proposals when it thinks that things are going wrong.

In retrospect, all of us must recognise that we ought not to have allowed the previous defence review to go by unchallenged. In a sense, we were to some extent diverted by the argument over Trident. That is a major argument, but the imbalance in the conventional forces, and the imbalance between the three Services, which was the basic flaw in the previous defence debate, went by unchecked. The fact that the Chief of the Naval Staff exercised his right to go to the Prime Minister as frequently as happened during the previous defence review ought to have been taken more seriously by the House.