Royal Air Force

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:57 pm on 2nd February 1984.

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Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith 7:57 pm, 2nd February 1984

I listened with care and interest to the Minister's opening speech which, by any standard, represented a competent and detailed survey of the needs and duties, present and future, of the Royal Air Force. But something was lacking—to an extent it has been lacking from a number of speeches by Conservative Members — and that was the political analysis underlying those needs and duties.

It was possible to deduce from the Minister's remarks what he considered to be the strategic and tactical tasks of the RAF. However, it was not easy to deduce the political underlying strategy—the tasks that the Government see the Royal Air Force having to fulfil in the changing relationships that are occurring between the nations of the world. That is where there is a major gap, and I shall deal with that.

It is almost as though Conservative Members were looking in detail at a number of advanced technological projects—going into them in detail and being even more expert than the experts—forgetting, to some extent at least, that their main role here is as politicians. They are not expected to be able to out-expert the expert. The problem is that the Government have taken a number of political decisions that have had all sorts of implications for the RAF and the other two services, and I shall deal with that aspect, too.

The Tory party's track record in terms of reading the intentions of other nation states is not good. It is the party which, to a large extent this century, has been responsible for getting this country involved in wars, whether it be the Falklands, Suez, the second world war or the many colonial wars in which we have been involved. The Conservatives have not been good at reading the signs. They have tended to underestimate the threat in the first instance, as happened in the Falklands, and then to overestimate it, so getting their reactions wrong, as my hon. Friends the Members for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) have shown.

I am reminded of Albert Einstein's forceful statement of the 1940s. Perhaps we should always bear it in mind when discussing defence matters. He said: The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking. That is the major problem that underlies the Government's strategy on defence.

I said that I would elaborate what I meant about the political strategy not having been thought through. With regard to cruise, the Minister mentioned the importance of combating "stealth" technology by using infra-red techniques. Although I must study what he said more closely in Hansard tomorrow, I understood him to say that that is one way in which to deal with the proposed Russian development of a missile which is equivalent to the American cruise missile system which employs a considerable amount of stealth technology.

It is only a few months since the Government, especially the Secretary of State for Defence, the Prime Minister and their allies of the time, the Social Democrats, were saying that if the West went ahead with the deployment of cruise and Pershing, it would be only a matter of time before the Soviet Union came to the negotiating table to discuss a limitation on those types of arms. That has not happened. There is still time for that to happen, but the signs are that it will not. There are many good reasons for that. One is that the Russians, rightly, regard cruise as an especially dangerous threat. A second reason—extremely important in terms of the arms race that has developed between the East and the West—is that both super-powers are now trying to match each other on weapons systems. That is dangerous in terms of deterrence and the arms race as it tends to accelerate that race out of control.

The implication is that the Government now accept that the Russians will deploy their own type of cruise missile which is of a similar technological standard to the United States' missile system. That immediately poses another problem for the Minister, as the Royal Air Force now has the added duty of identifying in advance cruise missiles which are directed at Britain and which employ the advanced technology which is used in the United States' system. That threat was not supposed to occur because the Government believed that, by deploying cruise and Pershing, they would dissuade the Soviet Union from taking such action by persuading it to come to the negotiating table. That did not work. It was a failure of the Government's political thinking that led them into that trap.

It is important to note that the threat will reach its peak at roughly the same time as Britain is picking up the bill for Trident. It has been said that Trident will cost £10 billion. By the time that we pick up the bill, especially in view of the strength of the dollar, I suspect that the cost will be considerably higher. That implies an enormous squeeze on the rest of the defence forces. Indeed, the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) said just that. That is one example of how the Government have got their political strategy wrong.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow mentioned the Falklands. That is a classic example. The Government got themselves into a mess by misreading the signs. Having done so, and having got a military victory, thanks to the armed forces, they now have an enormous burden. My hon. Friend was right to point out that to defend the Falklands with the advanced aircraft that we are using there is to make a judgment about the future intentions of the Argentine Government. There is little sign yet that the Government have taken on board the fact that a democratic Government has been elected in Argentina and that they are unlikely to invade. I am not arguing that we should withdraw all our forces from the Falklands, but we do not need a defence posture anything like the size of -the one in the Falklands now.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow raised the important point of having a Select Committee on security services to consider the information that was relayed by the Nimrod that was on patrol over the Falklands at the time. I should like to develop what my hon. Friend said. Such a Select Committee is necessary in its own right as a means of making the security services answerable to the House. However, I believe that it could have prevented the Falklands crisis. If much of the information that was available to the security services immediately prior to the Falklands invasion had been brought more forcefully to the Government's attention — that might have happened through the Select Committee procedure — the Government might never have got themselves into a mess in the first place.

I disagree with my hon. Friend only in regard to Privy Councillors. I believe that ordinary Members should be involved. Until we give Back Benchers the full responsibility that they deserve and should have as elected representatives, we shall undervalue their role. A good general rule can be applied in these matters: if people are given responsibility, they normally behave responsibly. There are always exceptions, but that applies as much to Privy Councillors as to ordinary Members.

The Minister rightly spoke a great deal about Tornado, but he hardly mentioned its nuclear role. For that matter, he did not mention the nuclear role of Buccaneer and other aircraft. Tornado is a key aircraft in this respect. We have had no serious debate by the Minister or other Conservative Members today about the stage at which nuclear weapons will be used by Tornado or equivalent aircraft. We know that the West is not prepared to have a no-first-use stance on nuclear weapons. I regret that, as I believe that it is a major error of policy judgment. However, if that is our stance, we must be clear about when we shall use aircraft that carry nuclear weapons. The Government may have it all nicely worked out, but I doubt it. If their record is anything to go by, all the evidence is against the theory that they have a well-worked-out strategy.

The Government consistently increase defence expenditure. It is the one item on which the Conservative party loves to make public expenditure. I do not criticise hon. Members for defending employment in their constituencies — in view of our mass unemployment, I can understand that — but if we have to justify defence expenditure on the basis of employment we shall be getting into dangerous water, because the military-economic complex to which Eisenhower referred will become a real and grave danger.

I have for many years contended that one of the reasons for Britain's underlying economic weakness is the great amount that we spend on defence. Since the 1950s we have consistently spent more on defence than have our major competitors.

Even more worrying than that, and particularly pertinent in many respects to the RAF and avionics side, is that we have spent more than any other country on research and development. The figures are never strictly comparable—I recognise the problems in measuring this —but over 50 per cent. of all Government research and development is on defence. For Germany and France the figure is approximately 30 per cent. For Japan, the figure is less than 10 per cent., although I believe it is now increasing dramatically.

It is no accident that companies such as Plessey and Marconi, which are deeply involved in advanced weapons technology, are making good profits. At the same time, many of their leaders speak out against public expenditure, which I find somewhat contradictary. That is at the expense of all the other companies which would normally be competing with the Japanese, the Germans, the Americans and the French in other advanced technology areas, but have been swept out of the market place.

It is no surprise to me that the Japanese have overtaken us in most areas of electronics, except defence, because that is where we have been putting our R and D efforts for the past 30 years, and that we have been left seriously behind. At the end of the day the Government have to remember that we can have all the sophisticated arms possible, but, unless we have a sound economic and social policy, we shall be a weak power. It did not take only the Shah of Iran to remind us of that pertinent and important lesson.

Finally, I wish to ask the Minister a question. Before doing so, I must apologise in advance. I do not normally leave the Chamber before the end of a debate, but I regret that I shall have to leave by 9 pm at the latest. The Minister may not be able to answer this direct question immediately, but I have raised it elsewhere with a colleague of mine. We wish to know what is happening about Short Brothers in Belfast. I gather that talks are taking place about privatisation. If those talks go ahead and result in privatisation, it is particularly important, in view of the nature of the equipment produced there, that the House be informed about the safeguards that the Government intend to impose—in particular, to whom the shares will be available and whether they can go overseas. The sooner we have an answer from the Government on that issue, the better.