Orders of the Day — Defence Estimates 1985

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:04 pm on 13th June 1985.

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Photo of Mr Keith Speed Mr Keith Speed , Ashford 7:04 pm, 13th June 1985

I hope that the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) will forgive me if I do not comment on his interesting speech.

The debate has been characterised by a total muddle and incoherence by the Labour Front Bench on nuclear policy. It is clear that, in spite of the protestations of Labour Members about this White Paper, they would spend not a penny more—indeed, very much less—on defence. To put it mildly, there was also a difference of opinion between the Liberal and Social Democratic parties.

The debate has been characterised by an optimism on the part of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that increased competition plus the speculative nature of the forward programme will in some way ensure that it will be all right on the night. I do not entirely share his optimism. However optimistic or pessimistic the view of my right hon. Friend or the Select Committee about the amount of money that will be available for the equipment programme, no one has argued that in real terms there will be an increase over the next few years. Indeed, we have heard to the contrary, and all we have discussed so far is by how much it will decrease.

Yesterday, as reported in column 913 of the Official Report, my right hon. Friend said that over a 10-year period costings become increasingly speculative. That is undoubtedly true in respect of some projects and some items of equipment and stores. But the House will be aware that a new frigate, submarine, aircraft or armoured fighting vehicle takes about nine to 10 years from the design stage to the in-service stage. Therefore, many hon. Members — both those who served on the Select Committee and those in the House—fear that equipment that will be needed to replace outdated weapons and capabilities by a specific time will not be available because of financial pressures.

The cat was let out of the bag in one of the Select Committee's evidence-taking sessions. In paragraph 675 on page 129 of the report, I asked the Assistant Undersecretary (Systems), Mr. Reeves:

If you pluck a year out of the air—1990—and take the three programmes the Type 23, the EH101 and Trident…those three programmes would represent a major part of the Royal Navy's equipment programme". Mr. Reeves replied:

I think you have interesting and contrasting building blocks here. Trident has a certain political commitment; the EH101 has a certain international commitment; the Type 23 and its expenditure pattern has an element of discretion attached to it. Those three instances could be multiplied several times and you would find these building blocks with different degrees of solidity. I then said:

Because of the Italians and the total commitment to Trident, the Type 23 programme looks as if it will go pretty far right. Mr. Reeves replied:

I did not say that. I then said:

No, but we can draw our own conclusions", as indeed we can. That is what worries the Committee and many hon. Members.

When we talk of flexibility, we talk not about cuts but about pushing items of equipment further right. In a nutshell—and my right hon. Friends know it—the fact is that in the next 10 years a great deal of new conventional equipment will be required by all three armed services to keep our forces up to date and able to meet the threat that faces us. In addition, there is to be massive expenditure on Trident. There will also be an equipment budget which will be declining in real terms from an admittedly high plateau. Within the next few years there will be substantial problems for the MOD. I would describe it as a defence review in a stealth configuration. I hope I am wrong, but I believe that I am right.

A number of hon. Members have referred to amphibious warfare. I regret the remarks made by the Secretary of State yesterday about lobbies from the Royal Marines, Royal Navy or wherever trying to embarrass Ministers. On reflection, I think that my right hon. Friend will wish that he had not made that remark. It does him no credit and was totally out of character.

Paragraph 428 of last year's Defence White Paper stated: We are currently examining the provision of future amphibious capability once the existing specialised ships come to the end of their lives in the 1990s". Paragraph 430 of this year's White Paper states:

We are considering a range of options for providing a future amphibious capability once the existing specialised ships come to the end of their planned life". We have heard that the same decision has been taken for next year, so presumably the type can stay in place for next year's White Paper. That is not good enough.

The French have a similar capability with their Orage and Ouragan ships, which are the same age as Fearless and Intrepid, but are replacing those ships with the new TCD 90 class and ordering not one or two but three for delivery by 1993. The Royal Marines have a right to be fearful about this. Only three or four years ago their whole existence was in jeopardy. Fearless and Intrepid were to be disposed of prematurely and only the Falklands war and certain other matters prevented that.

The Select Committee stated clearly and unequivocally in paragraphs 25 to 27 that there is an urgent need for an early decision to replace those aging vessels. Those of us who went last week with the Select Committee to NATO's northern flank in Norway had discussions with NATO commanders and Norwegian forces and generals as well as with Norwegian politicians. We were left in no doubt about the overwhelming political and military importance of our amphibious capability. If Ministers are thinking of replacing that capability by airlifts, I must tell them that they are wrong. The importance of amphibious capability lies in its flexibility. Having seen the thousands of islands around 68° and 69° north, we realise that that flexibility is vital. Equally, if Ministers think that they can get by using merchant ships, I remind them that, in view of the lack of damage control in such vessels, even a minor accident can quickly put them out of action, as shown by the accident off the coast of Holland a few days ago. I am arguing not for a one-by-one replacement of Intrepid or Fearless but for urgent and positive decisions, perhaps with a small number of less expensive ships. That decision is needed quickly by the Royal Marines and our northern flank partners and not least by the Dutch with whom we work.

The contribution of the Merchant Navy is vital and the Select Committee has now produced a report on this. Some argue that it will be a short war next time so it does not really matter, but in my view that is nonsense. In a report to Congress a year or so ago Mr. Weinberger warned of the fallacy of assuming a short conventional war and spoke of

enhancing the readiness, mobility and sustainability of our forces". Part of that sustainability is the need for 600 merchant ships in the first month of any crisis or conflict to steam across the north Atlantic to these islands and to continental Europe with men, reinforcements and supplies. The harsh fact is that not just this country but other NATO countries are allowing the merchant fleet to run down to a dangerous extent. I remind the House once again of what was said by the man who in the autumn will become the new Chief of Defence Staff. After the Falklands crisis, Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse said:

I cannot say too often or too clearly how important has been the Merchant Navy's contribution to our efforts. Without the ships taken up from trade the operation could not have been undertaken and I hope this message is clearly understood by the British nation. Admiral Fieldhouse understands that very well; but do Parliament, the Government and the country understand it?