Falklands Campaign

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:09 pm on 21st December 1982.

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Photo of Mr Patrick Duffy Mr Patrick Duffy , Sheffield, Attercliffe 9:09 pm, 21st December 1982

The Secretary of State told his right hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Prentice) that his problem was a conflict of resources. The charge by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), not for the first time, was that the Secretary of State's essential problem was a conflict of priorities. When the Secretary of State recalls the first five speeches made by his hon. Friends, he will note that they had some reservations about his policy and the White Paper. That suggests that they also quarrel with his priorities. I, too, seriously question his priorities.

I suggest that the first lesson offered by the Falklands is that we must relearn many past lessons. The most important of those is the fact that the only certain thing about war, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Toxteth (Mr. Crawshaw) said, is its uncertainty. The Falklands conflict was demonstratably the wrong war, fought in the wrong place at the wrong time, based on wrong intelligence. It suggests that we must handle this White Paper with the care with which some of us handled the Secretary of State's previous White Paper. It would be a bold Member who would say that the Secretary of State's successor would not come to the House in, perhaps, measurable time with another restatement of defence policy.

The second important lesson is that the Falklands conflict challenged many of the basic assumptions entertained by British defence planners since the mid-sixties, which so many previous Ministers of Defence accepted and reflected in their exchanges with hon. Members. The first was that the United Kingdom would never undertake any sizeable military operation overseas without direct assistance from its allies. I was brought up on that in the Ministry of Defence.

The next assumption was that we would never again be required to carry out an opposed amphibious assault. I always understood that to be the basic Royal Marine doctrine. The next assumption was that the fleet would not require a mobile repair facility. I should know whether that doctrine existed four years ago. The final assumption, as I said so many times from the Dispatch Box, was that the fleet would not be required to operate without shore-based air support. Yet this afternoon we heard the Secretary of State discount Great Britain's traditional maritime role.

The third lesson is that even more attention needs to be paid to mobilisation and readiness, lest a potential aggressor is tempted into a miscalculation. That troubled my right hon. Friend the Member for Lanark (Dame Judith Hart). The Falklands emergency called for the transfer of 8,000 men over 8,000 miles. An emergency in Western Europe will call for the transfer across the North Atlantic of 1 million men over 3,000 miles.

If the bulk of those reinforcements have not arrived in Europe before the start of a Warsaw Pact attack, the level of the Alliance in-place forces may not allow SACEUR to hold the Warsaw Pact's first echelon of forces by conventional arms for more than a few days, as the Secretary of State knows well.

If one listened to the Secretary of State, one would believe that our problems are largely located on the western front, but they are equally located in the North Atlantic. After listening to the Secretary of State, one would believe that there is no problem in obtaining reinforcements and supply, that our ships are not out of date and that there is no need to worry about their numbers being reduced.

The Falklands campaign reminds us that, even with the maximum practicable levels of pre-positioning of United States equipment and supplies in Europe, a massive flow of reinforcement and military re-supply ships and aircraft, in the face of incredible difficulties, will be required to counter effectively any large-scale conventional Warsaw Pact attack in Europe. Yet the hon. Member for Petersfield (Mr. Mates) said that the Falklands campaign impressed him most on logistical grounds. I believe he said that it was a logistical miracle.

We can imagine the kind of problems to which reinforcement and supply in the North Atlantic will give rise. We must ask ourselves whether the Secretary of State might be relying too heavily on SSNs and MPAs. I value them both immensely, but I do not see how, as I said in an intervention, we can manage without surface ships also. We must have the right balance and mix. The Secretary of State has used the word "balance" more than once in recent weeks. If only on grounds of communication, command and control, we need surface ships to see that SSNs and MPAs are effectively deployed. I know of no professional close to the problems of reinforcement and supply on either side of the Atlantic who does not take the same view.

The fourth lesson is that we can redress to some extent the imbalance in conventional arms by exploiting and enhancing civilian assets. Modern missile systems are much cheaper and more important than the platforms from which they are fired. I am not simply in love with the past or simply in love with ships, although I served in them. I love them, but I am not being romantic.

I recall not merely the armed merchant cruisers of the last war, but the guns that were shipped in ordinary merchant ships and which, in some cases, saved the ships. It is arguable that rapidly convertible merchant ships that could be used to launch missiles would enable us to spend defence money better. I should prefer that to the construction of expensive warships. They can certainly provide platforms for missiles. There has been talk of Arapaho for more than 10 years. We do not seem to have progressed far with it. In less than 10 days, under the pressure of events in the Falklands, a number of United Kingdom merchant ships were converted into operating platforms for a variety of functions, including Harrier and helicopter operations.

The fifth lesson is that merchant ships, contrary to the view of the Secretary of State, are as vulnerable as the defences with which they are equipped. The hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed) made that point strongly. Ships of the task force were armed with a variety of surface-to-air missiles and guns, but only two frigates had defences against Exocet missiles or very low flying aircraft. Lack of airborne early warning compelled the commander of the task force to deploy destroyers on radar picket duty. It was this that cost HMS "Sheffield" its life. It was on such duty when it was hit.

Those on the ship did not know what had hit it. It had no warning of the attack. No electronic counter-measures were used against the missile's radar guidance system, nor was chaff dispensed, although it was used on other occasions with varying degrees of success. Had HMS "Sheffield" incorporated more Sheffield steel in the hull and bulkheads, it would not have been dispatched quite so easily, if at all, by the Exocet missile. That missile is primitive alongside the type of missile that our fleet might have to face in the North Atlantic.

All the ships and aircraft lost in the Falklands campaign are to be replaced. It is not just a question of replacing destroyers, frigates and Harriers. They must, in future, have modern effective defences against modern attack systems, which the task force did not have. Ships engaged in operations anywhere in the world must in future have airborne early warning of aircraft or missile attack, especially missiles. Had British ships of the task force been equipped with both Sea Dart and Seawolf and more effective passive and active electronic counter-measures, and had aircraft been equipped with modern defence suppression systems, the casualties would have been much lighter.

The sixth lesson is that Britain has demonstrated its ability to provide a rapid deployment joint task force more quickly and more efficiently than was thought possible. It was used well beyond the NATO area of responsibility and without help from any other power in the mobilising of the force or the conduct of the operations. Other NATO countries should surely be able to form a similar contribution, although perhaps smaller, to help to keep open the oceans of the world, particularly the oil routes from the Gulf.

The seventh lesson is that we neither take NATO for granted nor rely on it too much. During the Falklands crisis it was in the House seen much less as a guarantee of security and much more as a means of obtaining political support from sometimes reluctant allies. NATO was founded on clear principles, but within the Alliance, as within the House, there was some fudging of principles and interests. The crisis also highlighted the difference in view between those who interpret world events solely in the context of the NATO Alliance and a growing number, I suspect, who view such events in a world-wide context.

Perhaps the most important lesson is the manner in which it pointed up the need to uphold the credibility of deterrence. Had we failed to pay the price that was required, the world would inevitably have had to pay a higher price on some subsequent occasion. None of us can seriously dispute that deterrence has been strengthened and that as a result of what we did in the South Atlantic the world is now marginally less dangerous.

The Falklands campaign was well planned and executed, when all the odds seemed to be against a successful operation. But it enjoyed leadership of the highest quality from the chiefs of staff, the commander in chief of the fleet and the task force commander. They were sustained by men who, in their quality, training and dedication, are without match in the modern world. That combination set the pattern for the successes that followed.