The Royal Navy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:20 pm on 29th November 1984.

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Photo of Mr Paddy Ashdown Mr Paddy Ashdown , Yeovil 8:20 pm, 29th November 1984

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that from the time Polaris was considered the Liberal party has been opposed to the independent nuclear deterrent. So it remains. In my opinion, we do not need an independent nuclear deterrent for Britain, and that is the opinion of my party. It always has been.

The price we have paid for all this is a spurious non-existent independence. The Trident decision undermines NATO in the sense that it undermines NATO's political will and its capacity to have the conventional forces which it needs. If the Minister believes that Britain can defend herself independently, he is entitled to believe in the folly of an independent deterrent. Anything less means the removal of a resource that is vital to NATO. In addition, it undermines the non-proliferation treaty and our support of that treaty. Furthermore, it is a unilateral act and, after all that, it is not even independent. The question of cost was eloquently dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Member for Devonport. It may be £10 billion or £12 billion. No one knows precisely.

When I say that the threshold will be lowered, I mean that there will be a reduction in the conventional forces that we need. The Minister made glowing comments about the Royal Marines and the need for a decision on the replacement of Intrepid and Fearless. But for the Falklands crisis, those ships would have gone to the knacker's yard. We are now told that they are to be spun on until the mid-1990s. I am very worried about their effectiveness at that stage. I hope that the Minister will take a decision very soon.

Without Fearless and Intrepid, we shall not have the capacity to do what I, as a Marine officer, had to do. We shall not be able to carry out the vital job of deterrence in northern Norway. The Minister said that we were determined to be able to do that. But the contingency plan to carry Royal Marine commandos to northern Norway in the absence of Fearless and Intrepid is to take them there in a Sealink ferry. That may satisfy the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed), but anyone who believes that one can land in hostile territory and hostile conditions on the northern coast of Norway in a Sealink ferry is living in cloud-cuckoo-land. Unless Fearless and Intrepid are replaced, we shall be unable to carry out that task effectively. The Minister's decision is therefore vital. We are worried that expenditure on Trident will interfere with our ability to perform that vital NATO task.

I am particularly concerned about escort vessels because that is the centre of the problem. For all the Minister's good words, the supreme commanders of the Atlantic fleet and C-in-C fleet have recently said that our commitment to the north Atlantic fleet in escort vessels is now 40 per cent. lower than is required. It is a disgrace that the Government of a maritime nation cannot fulfil even its current maritime commitments to NATO, and that is just the present position. What will happen in the near future?

The type 23 vessels now coming on are the key. The first was due to be produced in 1984 with the frigates coming on series in the 1990s. We now understand that the first—the Norfolk—will come off in 1989 and the rest following the sea trials of the first of class. Those trials may well take six or 12 months, so it is likely that we shall not be into series production of type 23 frigates until the mid-1990s. Will the Minister confirm that estimate when he winds up the debate?

I ask the Minister now to follow me in a little mathematics. When asked by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) how many ships were launched last year, the Minister with responsibility for the Navy made the astonishing admission that he did not know. He may not know this, either. According to my calculations, assuming an in-service life of 25 years—I should be interested to know the length of life on which the Ministry is now working—we shall have only 52 escort vessels. Of those—one Bristol, two County class, 12 Sheffields, 13 Broadsides, 6 Amazons and 18 Leanders—only 30 are likely to be immediately available in the front line, the rest being in for maintenance, repair and refit. Taking the much more likely case of a 20-year in-service life, the figure reduces to a total of 38 with an operational fleet of 20. Is that what the Minister wants? Is that how he proposes to honour his NATO commitments? And even that would mean keeping our 13 Leanders until their last gasp.

Our Navy is already weaker in relative terms than that which faced Hitler in Operation Sealion in the early 1940s, and the cost of Trident wilt merely make things worse. For any conceivable scenario, the Trident missile decision will make us not stronger but weaker both in fulfilling our vital responsibilities to our NATO allies and in our ability to conduct our own defence. The cost of a type 23 was originally announced as £67 million. It is now believed to be £110 million. There is a desperate need for the Minister to take urgent steps to increase the escort fleet as quickly as possible. If the decision on and production of the type 23 cannot be speeded up I hope that he will very quickly go for the Mk 3 offshore patrol vessel equipped with a helicopter. That vessel could be built in a year at a cost of about £35 million. I hope that he will take that decision very early indeed.

Finally, I wish to develop some technical points on torpedoes relating to the issues raised by the hon. Member for Bristol, East. I believe that a major scandal is now occuring in our procurement of the new series of torpedoes. Our current heavyweight torpedo is the type 24, the so-called Tigerfish. This followed a naval staff requirement laid down in 1959. It was supposed to be in operation in 1965 but actually came into operation in 1972. As has been pointed out, that torpedo showed significant inadequacies and failures in the Falklands campaign, during which several were fired. As a direct result, a modernisation programme is now under way.

The update programme was initially announced at £12 million but I am told that it will run out at £70 million. Even then, its design is nearly 30 years old, its maximum speed is 35 knots and its maximum range about 15 km. It is already completely unable to cope with the modern class of Russian submarines in terms of its ability to catch them or to dive deep enough. The updating will require not just a new propulsion unit but better propulsion mechanisms, a replacement sonar, replacement electronics and the solution of certain auxiliary supply problems. It is liable to be at best inadequate.

The long-term replacement for the Tigerfish is the Spearfish. The cost of 100 pre-production models is £500 million and the defence Estimates recently published made provision for a further £775 million for the development of the new Spearfish. That is a total of £1,250 million for the development of a torpedo which is not even running adequately. I am told that it uses a very unsafe fuel called HAP/OTTO— for the technically minded, that is hydroxalymine perchlorate and a mixture of the OTTO fuels—and that even now that mixture has never been put together adequately so as to make the torpedo run effectively without a severe risk of detonation. Indeed, I understand that there have been two explosions at Ministry of Defence establishments testing that fuel.

We need a replacement torpedo capable of carrying out the tasks required in a modern naval environment, and we need it now. We cannot expect the new Spearfish programme adequately to achieve that. Having spent more than £1,000 million producing a torpedo that is not even running properly, I suggest that the Minister might do better to fill in the gap by buying some United States Mk 48 torpedoes which I gather would cost about £150 million for a fit of 200.

Regrettably, that is not the end of the torpedo problem. We are also developing a lightweight anti-submarine torpedo to replace the US Mk. 46. I understand that that torpedo has been developed and is coming into service. It was announced that it would cost about £200 million, but the actual cost is about £1 billion. It has already been admitted that that new lightweight torpedo is incapable of catching the Russian submarines that are currently at sea. I understand that it was admitted last year to the Select Committee. A total of more than £2 billion will therefore have been spent on producing torpedoes which appear not to work or to be incapable of catching the current class of Russian submarines they are supposed to catch. I hope that the Minister will address those points.

The development of an effective conventional Navy, capable of honouring our commitments to NATO, is placed severely at risk and in jeopardy, because the Government wish to have an independent, unilateral weapon when that independence is spurious and does not exist. That expenditure will so corrupt the Naval budget that we shall have a Navy which is in all senses not stronger but weaker. That is the reason why the Government should cancel the Trident decision.

I predict that the time will arrive—it is not far away—when the Minister will have to face up to reality and, no doubt, announce the cancellation of the Trident missile programme. The alliance looks forward to that day with some pleasure.