Orders of the Day — The Royal Navy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:59 pm on 19th July 1982.

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Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian 8:59 pm, 19th July 1982

I am jarringly and screechingly out of tune with the consensus of the debate, and not only with the Government, but with some of the things that have been said from the Opposition Front Bench. I wonder what would have happened if my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) had made today's speech and gone to himself in a previous incarnation as a successful Treasury Minister in a previous Labour Government, or if he were to make it and go to himself as Chief Secretary to the Treasury in a future Labour Government.

We should spend less on the Navy; we should concentrate on our obligations to NATO in the North Atlantic; we should eschew a world-wide role and spend anything that we save on investment in the railways, the National Health Service and many other things. If we take the attitude that what we have we hold, candidly, defence cannot be pruned; but if we say, as I and many of my right hon. and hon. Friends do, that we must prune defence, then we cannot in honesty say that what we have we hold.

From 3 April I was consistently against the sending of the task force. I am for NATO in the North Atlantic, and I am astonished that we appear to be shaping the Fleet and gearing its use to the Falklands. That is what the retention of HMS "Invincible" is all about. Never has a tail wagged a dog in such a way as the defence policy of this nation is being wagged by the Falkland Islands problem. It would appear from the debate that the view of many hon. Members is that we should have a semi-permanent, if not permanent, commitment in the South Atlantic. I dissent from that view.

With regard to the Navy there is another issue. After the awful night that we heard that HMS "Sheffield" had been struck and the Secretary of State for Defence announced the tragedy on that unforgettable occasion, should we not have learnt that possibly 5,000 years of naval history had changed more than a little? If an Argentine Exocet could do that to HMS "Sheffield", what about the more sophisticated equipment in the hands of the Russians? The question has to be asked: what future do surface ships have in naval warfare? Is it wise to have a great spending programme on surface ships?

I heard the Minister talk about British power in purely national terms. He then talked about equipment cost growth, and fairly said that a type 22 now costs £130 million, or three times the real cost of the "Leander" that it succeeded. He talked about the accelerated costs of recent years. That is absolutely true. He said that costs showed every sign of continuing to accelerate. That referred to the rise in real costs. I say to hon. Members on both sides of the House that the bills that are being run up for a Treasury of either a Labour or Conservative Government are enormous. I wonder whether, in paying those bills for capital ships, we are not preparing for the

By the middle of May a few of us were asking a cacophony of pertinent questions. Was Britain prepared to restructure the Fleet in such a way as to keep a portion of it 8,000 miles away for the foreseeable future? Why was the Royal Navy task force sent south without adequate air cover? I ask those questions not with hindsight. I interrupted the Prime Minister with such questions at the time. Was it thought that the original Harriers packed into "Invincible" and "Hermes" were sufficient to maintain standing patrols and to prevent Exocet-carrying Etendards approaching close enough for a lethal strike against "Sheffield"? I recognise the bravery and skill of our Navy, but those questions must be asked.

Why was there not adequate airborne radar surveillance? Why was Sea Wolf, which is the most effective available missile to counter Exocet, not in place on the destroyers? Why was the destroyer that had to be placed on radar control under-equipped to protect itself from a missile strike? As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) said, similar Soviet destroyers positively bristle with defensive weaponry. By comparison, "Sheffield" was naked. I do not ask these questions pejoratively. Hindsight is marvellous. There may be adequate answers.

I interrupted the Minister to ask what it was about the materials used in British warships that it needed only one missile hit to turn the ship into a blazing inferno which had to be abandoned. Are other ships as fire vulnerable as "Sheffield"? If so, what would have happened had a super Etendard got the promised wing tanks from the United States, extended its range and penetrated with air-launched Exocets the defensive screen to find a way into a carrier's hangar deck full of Harriers and fuel? It was a close run thing. Thanks to the American Customs, vital parts were embargoed at the last moment at an American airport. We must be grateful to the Americans for that.

Why did a significant number of deaths occur through fumes from melting insulating material covering the miles of cabling in a modern warship? The danger of poison and fumes was foreseen. Why did the Navy not act? We should know the Navy's justification, if it does not accept the criticism. I am not the only hon. Member to raise the question.

There are hardly less acute questions for the naval air strategists. Was it safe to rely on dog-fighting aircraft like Harrier when the stand-off success of the super Etendard suggests that there was little occasion for classic air dog fights? Has not stand-off weaponry, coupled with improved communications and intensely accurate targeting, transformed modern warfare? That relates to my question about the future building programme for surface ships. Was not the sinking of "Sheffield" the turning point? Never again can a capital ship be deemed relatively safe and protected from air-launched surface-skimming missiles.

The Minister of State said that there will be a thorough evaluation of the campaign and that it cannot be done until everyone has returned. It should be the subject of a day's debate in the House and a full report.

This is probably not the time to raise the question of weaponry and exports in detail, but some people are worried about exports and end-user certificates. People are worried that the Nelson eye is being turned to the end-user certificates. Shakespeare said "Now thrive the armourers". All round the world the tag "Falklands tested" means a lot, not only for British weaponry, but for French and other weaponry. The bravery of our Service men is not in doubt, but on 2 April how many hon. Members in the House who favoured the dispatch of the task force thought that we should lose four navy ships and much else?

I have some specific questions to ask. This is the time to pose a question formulated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) and a number of others. Why was it necessary to give the orders to fire the torpedoes that sank "Belgrano"? There might have been an operational reason. Perhaps her escorting destroyers were carrying surface-to-surface Exocets. We have never been given a full explanation. The commander of "Conqueror" returning to Scotland said that he was given superior orders from Northwood. I can assume only that the orders came directly from the Prime Minister.

The President of Peru and many others claimed that the sinking of "Belgrano" was also a deliberate sinking by the British of the Peruvian peace negotiations, which might have been successful. There is a case to answer. I hope that the inquiry will put its mind to that.

Some light must be thrown, one way or another, on a Sub-Committee meeting of the War Cabinet of 19 March. Adam Raphael of The Observer said that submarines were asked for. I do not say that he is right, that the Foreign Office is right or that the Ministry of Defence is wrong, but I can see no reason why we should not be given a factual statement instead of having to rely on innuendo.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli rightly asked about the statement by the captain of "Endurance". I hope that he will receive an answer to his pertinent questions. I ask another pertinent question. It is said in the press that divers are going to the bowels of "Sheffield" to recover sensitive equipment. There should be a denial, if one can be given, that the sensitive equipment involves nuclear depth charges. If nuclear weapons were brought into the Western hemisphere there may be a serious breach of the agreement by Western hemisphere States that the nuclear weapons of any other country shall not be brought in. That is important, and the matter should be cleared up. I prefer to believe that none of our ships was carrying nuclear weapons. If that is so, the Government should say so and put and end to the speculation.

Much of the truth should come out when the Committee under Lord Franks reports. I have asked the Prime Minister questions about that Committee. The House was not told the Thursday before last, when we agreed to the Franks Committee, that Lord Franks had the appalling burden of having to go into hospital for a cataract operation. Is it fair, reasonable or sensible to ask a man in his seventy-eighth year, however distinguished, with the problem of cataract which needs rest, to go through the complex papers involved? Distinguished blind lawyers and others operate well, but not to be able to read and to have to start having papers read to one in one's seventy-eighth year is not reasonable in terms of the chairmanship of an investigative committee of this importance. I hope that this week the Government will come forward with a statement either to say that Lord Franks is fit for the job or to suggest who his successor might be.

It is well known to my colleagues that, unlike most of them, I think, alas—I take no joy in it—that we are at the end not of the Falklands crisis but of phase one. In no way will any foreseeable Government of Argentina ever surrender their claim and, heaven help us, the threat of hostilities, if not actual hostilities, is likely to go on for the lifetime of the youngest among us.

This raises the issue of how we supply the Falkland Islands when no other Latin American country is likely to act as a substitute. This means convoys, and we ought to be given a clear estimate of the costs of it all. I find that they are mind-boggling. I can only speak for myself and for some of my colleagues on the Opposition Back Benches. I do not presume to speak for other people. But for a nation that cannot find the investment for its railways, that cannot pay its hospital service workers properly and that cannot do many other things, it is a gross misjudgment of priorities to go forward with the kind of naval expenditure for which most hon. Members have asked.