Even by its own standards this last year has been a busy one for the Royal Navy. Since the Navy debate last year, our ships have made almost 500 visits to a total of 70 countries, among them the first visit for more than four years to Somalia and two highly successful visits to Mauritius. Royal Navy ships have continued to fulfil a vital role in the Gulf, providing reassurance and, where necessary, assistance to our merchant shipping in that troubled area. They have continued to provide a presence in the south Atlantic and in the Caribbean and they also make an important contribution to the prevention of illegal immigration into Hong Kong. In the NATO area, the Navy has continued to exercise and deploy, helping to maintain the peace through its deterrent power and practising the war roles which we hope it will never be called upon to fulfil.
Last September, 20 British warships and RFAs took part in the major NATO maritime reinforcement exercise, Ocean Safari, which involved 150 ships and 250 aircraft from 11 NATO nations. Earlier last year, the Royal Marines, who form our contribution to the United Kingdom-Netherlands amphibious force, participated in another NATO exercise, Cold Winter, in Norway, which proved to be the most complex yet of its series and demonstrated the flexibility and adaptability of our amphibious forces. Not only has there been extensive cooperation with allied navies, in the Gulf as well as in the NATO sphere, but the Royal Navy has also contributed significantly to that much closer relationship between our own three services that has been developing in a most encouraging way in the past few years.
The major improvement of recent years in the ability of the Royal Navy to carry out such a wide range of activities effectively is the direct result of the far greater resources that the Conservative Government have devoted to defence than were provided by our Labour predecessors. After allowing for inflation, defence spending is now 20 per cent. higher than it was in 1979. In practice, that means that we have spent more than £16 billion more in real terms on defence than if spending had remained at the level we inherited, and more than £4 billion extra has been devoted to the Royal Navy.
That additional expenditure is reflected in the comprehensive ship building programme that we have followed since coming to power. During the past eight years, 61 ships have been ordered for the Royal Navy with a cost, at current prices, of more than £6 billion. They include 12 frigates, 11 submarines — including two SSBNs—and 25 mine counter-measures vessels.
In 1987, four new ships joined the Fleet: the SSN HMS Torbay, the type 22 frigate HMS London, the Hunt class MCMV HMS Berkeley and the new RFA Sir Galahad. This year, four more type 22 frigates are due to be accepted from their builders, the first of which, HMS Cornwall, joined the Fleet two weeks ago. The training ship RFA Argus has today been accepted from its builders, leaving 26 major ships and submarines on order, with a value of about £4.5 billion.
In view of the Minister's criticism of the last Labour Government, will he tell us why, under this Government, the size and numbers of the surface fleet have continued to diminish year by year; why all the latest surveys suggest that the present surface fleet is the smallest in the history of the Navy; and why some who are inclined to support the Government nevertheless ask whether the Navy can any longer meet its worldwide commitments?
I shall come to the issue of availability of surface ships later in my speech. It is clear that the destroyers and frigates that we have are fully capable of carrying out the tasks that are needed.
I have just given way. I shall come to that point later.
Before looking at our naval activities further afield, both in the NATO context and elsewhere, 1 should say something at the outset of the role of the Royal Navy in our home waters. The direct defence of our own islands was a primary task of the Fleet in the days of the Armada, 400 years ago this year, and it has remained so ever since. Not surprisingly, it is a task which has increased enormously in complexity as a result of the huge advances in technology in the 20th century.
Today, the naval defence of our home base is provided not only by ships and submarines in the eastern Atlantic and the Norwegian sea, but in our home waters. The Royal Navy, ably supported by the Royal Naval Reserve and the Royal Marine Reserve, remains alert to the threat of mines in coastal waters and ready to defend key points, ports and anchorages.
It is worth remembering, too, some of the other roles which the Royal Navy performs at home. Apart from providing a valuable element of our military search and rescue services, the Royal Navy helps to safeguard the United Kingdom's fishing interests and North sea energy resources, as well as supporting the Royal Ulster Constabulary in the difficult but important task of patrolling the Province's 150-mile-long coastline.
Meanwhile, the Royal Navy's contribution to NATO remains the central ingredient—
The Minister mentioned air-sea rescue in passing. In the RAF debate we received what we assumed to be fulsome assurances about the future public ownership of that facility. Before the Minister leaves the subject, will he comment on the prospective arrangements for Lee-on-Solent, which, I understand, may be different from the impression that the Minister sought to convey in the last debate? What is happening to Bristow's role in Lee-on-Solent? That, surely, has an impact on some of the Royal Navy services.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Solent is one of the busiest areas for civil shipping and boating. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has decided that he wants to add extra cover in that area for civil purposes. That does not affect the fact that cover for all military and many civilian services will continue to be provided in the area, but from Portland rather than Lee.
My hon. Friend will respond later to the other points that will no doubt be raised during the debate. I think that I should get on with my speech.
Yes, but if I give way every moment, it ceases to be so.
Meanwhile, the Royal Navy's contribution to NATO remains the central ingredient of the United Kingdom's maritime defence effort. The successful defence of western Europe, in the event of Soviet attack, would depend on NATO's ability to ensure the safe passage of seaborne reinforcements and supplies across the Atlantic, the Channel and the North sea. Britain provides nearly 70 per cent. of the maritime forces that would be immediately available to NATO in those areas, prior to the arrival of Unites States reinforcements. The Royal Navy would thus make a key contribution to NATO's strategy of forward defence, seeking to contain and intercept Soviet maritime forces in the Norwegian sea before they could reach the wider expanses of the Atlantic.
As in the second world war, the submarine is likely to pose the greatest threat to our reinforcement and resupply routes, and it is in that connection that the massive expansion and modernisation of the Soviet submarine fleet constitutes such a threat to the West. I do not believe that the Soviet Union has any current intention of attacking NATO by land or sea, but, with its history of sudden changes in policies and leadership, we can afford to take no risks.
It is difficult indeed to see the huge build-up of Soviet submarines as part of a purely defensive strategy. In the 1970s and 1980s the Soviet navy has built up a submarine fleet of about 400, of which over 200 are nuclear-powered; and new submarines are still being completed at an average rate of about one every six weeks. However, it is not only the sheer size of the Soviet submarine fleet which poses a major potential threat to NATO. The new classes of SSN, such as the Sierra and the Akula, show clear design improvements over their predecessors; modern Soviet submarines are much quieter, making their detection increasingly difficult. At the same time, older submarines are being modernised and their capabilities significantly improved.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the priority for our major investment in the Royal Navy's equipment has been to provide an up-to-date capability for anti-submarine warfare. For this reason we have developed new weapon's such as the Stingray and Spearfish torpedoes, as well as greatly improved means of detection through towed arrays and other surface ship and submarine sonars.
Many forces contribute to the overall anti-submarine effort. Our nuclear-powered submarines will be crucial in the forward areas, and RAF maritime patrol aircraft will also have an important contribution to make. But surface ships are an essential part of that effort because they can remain on task for long periods, yet react quickly to contacts over a wide area.
HMS Cornwall, the first of the type 22 batch 3 frigates, well illustrates the scale of our investment in that area. Her weapons include a highly capable hull-mounted sonar and a towed array passive sonar that will enable detections of submarines to be made at very long range. She can then prosecute contacts using the Lynx helicopter armed with Stingray torpedoes. Finally, her comprehensive communication system enables her to assist in the co-ordination of an ASW battle with a variety of other surface, air and submarine units.
Many people will be pleased that the captain of Cornwall is Captain WrexfordBrown. Would he have been given accelerated promotion if in any way he had been responsible for losing his submarine's control room logbook?
I do not want to speculate on the processes of promotion in the Royal Navy, but we have many good captains, and he is one.
HMS Cornwall is also well equipped in the anti-surface and anti-air roles. She is the first Royal Navy vessel to deploy the Harpoon anti-surface ship missile, and the first to deploy the Goalkeeper close-in weapons system for anti-missile defence, in addition to the well-proven Seawolf. That element of HMS Cornwall's equipment reflects the fact that the past year has seen a major step forward in the air defence of the Fleet, the universal importance of which has been demonstrated by developments in the Gulf. To that end, we have accelerated our plans for the introduction of Phalanx into the type 42 destroyers, and we also placed an order in January for full development and production of the lightweight Seawolf missile system.
HMS Cornwall is a good example of the point made in last year's Navy debate by my predecessor, that the acid test of the Royal Navy's ability to perform its role effectively is not simply ship numbers, but its overall capability. Nevertheless, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) pointed out earlier, there have been suggestions recently that we do not have enough operational destroyers and frigates, and that few of them would be available for the defence of the waters around the United Kingdom.
I am glad to say that the real picture is very different. Of course, some of our ships are engaged in tasks out of area, but they could be recalled in the event of an emergency. We currently have 49 destroyers and frigates in the Fleet, of which no fewer than 43 are available for operational deployment immediately, or within a short perod if required.
In addition to the nine frigates currently on order, we have now received and are assessing tenders for up to four more of the highly capable type 23 frigates. Looking further to the future, in January—
I am grateful to the Minister of State for giving way. Can he tell the House something about the Government's plans in relation to those four tenders? Is it still the Government's intention to order four boats? Will he give the House the assurance that when the Government decide which yards are to get the order, that will be done on the basis of cost?
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a definitive answer to that question, because decisions have not been taken. However, I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement will deal with procurement matters, including the procurement of ships, when he replies to the debate, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. He will have heard the hon. Gentleman's point.
Looking further to the future, in January the United Kingdom signed the memorandum of understanding for the project definition phase of the NFR 90 — the proposed NATO frigate which could eventually provide a replacement for the type 42 destroyer at the end of the century. In doing so, however, we have made it clear to our partners that our continued participation is conditional upon an agreement of a timetable that is both realistic in technical terms and consistent with the time scale for progress with the ship's major weapons systems.
On the point about the NFR 90, my hon. Friend will appreciate the enormous political significance that is attached to the commitment of the United Kingdom Government to a joint project with our NATO allies. I hope that he will assure the House that technical details — I know that some can be important—will not stand in the way of full-hearted co-operation.
I assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Ministry of Defence fully appreciate the international significance and importance of co-operation with our allies in equipment of that kind. Equally, I am sure that he would not expect us to agree to go full ahead with the project unless it was on a realistic basis, which is the condition that we have suggested.
Having left the Treasury, I think that I shall leave the Treasury to answer for itself.
The plast year has also provided further proof of the unique capacity of the Royal Navy to support our interests and connections worldwide. Royal Navy ships, and especially destroyers and frigates, can be used for a variety of purposes on the international scene. On the way to and from tasks both in the NATO area and beyond, our ships are frequent and welcome visitors in the ports of friendly and allied states. A ship can be dispatched almost anywhere at short notice, if need be, and provide us with a range of diplomatic or military options. Indeed, history, including quite recent history, is full of illustrations of the usefulness and flexibility of sea power.
The Royal Navy's Armilla patrol in the Gulf is just the latest example. It has been a busy year for the patrol. Since our last Navy debate, seldom has a week passed without news of events in the Gulf, and in particular of the so-called "tanker war". Throughout the year we have seen on television the results of attacks on merchant ships in the Gulf, many of them innocent victims caught in the middle of the conflict. During this period, the Armilla patrol has continued to carry out its task in a quiet but effective way. In 1987, the patrol accompanied no fewer than 405 merchant ship movements through the Straits of Hormuz. No ship eligible for Royal Navy protection has been attacked while in the vicinity of the patrol. That is a record of which the Navy can be justly proud.
I can give the figures, as I have done, for British shipping, but, in view of the large number of foreign ships which have gone through the Gulf, I am not sure whether I can provide an accurate figure. I require notice to reply to that point.
I understand that the information was made available to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and that 80 per cent. more foreign ships than British ships went through the Gulf. Our shipping is in a rather special position, largely due to the efforts of our men who are serving in the area and to whom we must be grateful.
I believe that the hon. Gentleman is correct. I particularly welcome his comments about the contribution made by the Royal Navy in that difficult and dangerous area.
The House will recall that, at the end of July, a new threat was posed by mines laid in shipping lanes, one of which was to cause damage to the merchant ship Bridgeton. Shortly afterwards, mines were found off Fujayrah, within Armilla's area of operation. Accordingly, four Royal Navy mine counter-measures vessels were promptly dispatched to the Gulf in support of the Armilla patrol. During their operations to date, our minesweepers have successfully disposed of 10 mines, representing a major contribution to safety of navigation for all shipping in the area. Recently we have been able to reduce the number of our minesweepers in the Gulf from four to three in the light of our experience in operations to date and the very close co-operation which I am glad to say we have developed with allied navies, in particular the Dutch and Belgians.
I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House would wish to join me in paying tribute to the outstanding contribution made by those serving in the Royal Navy in the difficult and demanding circumstances of the Gulf. In recognition of those exceptional conditions of service, I am pleased to be able to tell the House that free aerogramme letters will in future be provided to all those serving in our ships in the Gulf area and to their families at home. I have asked the naval staff to make arrangements to introduce this service as soon as possible, and they expect to be able to do so within the next few weeks.
Last autumn, the Royal Navy's out-of-area capability, as well as that of the other two services, was thoroughly tested during Exercise Purple Warrior, the major triservice amphibious exercise held in the Irish sea and southwest Scotland. A force of 39 ships, including HMS Ark Royal, Illustrious and Intrepid, took part with two brigades and support from over 100 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. Twenty thousand service personnel took part, of whom approximately 10,000 were deployed ashore. The exercise was an outstanding success in many ways. In particular, the complex command and control structure of joint amphibious operations was thoroughly tested and proven, and significant benefits were achieved in integration and co-operation between the three services.
Having myself acted as host at a dinner in Stranraer to the 34 observers from 20 states which accepted the invitation to observe aspects of the exercise under the terms of the Stockholm agreement, I can affirm from my own experience the value which I believe those arrangements have in encouraging personal contact between representatives of Warsaw pact and NATO countries, something which I am sure can contribute to a lessening of suspicion and mistrust between us. Over the years that could prove to be one of the most important elements in improving the security of Europe.
I do not know whether the Warsaw pact countries carry out amphibious operations in the same way as we do, but, as the hon. Gentleman will know, there is an arrangement whereby all exercises over a certain size automatically qualify for reciprocal observation under the Stockholm agreement. Western observers have witnessed some exercises on land during the past year.
Looking much further afield, I was very pleased to be able to announce a few weeks ago that the Royal Navy will be making a group deployment later this year to the far east and Australia. The task group is set to leave the United Kingdom in June, and the focal point of the deployment will be the Fleet review in Sydney early in October. Named Outback 88, the Royal Navy task group will consist of HMS Ark Royal, as flagship, with HMS Edinburgh and HMS Sirius, together with the Royal Fleet Auxiliaries Fort Grange, Olwen and Orangeleaf. It was a previous Sirius which led the orginal first fleet two centuries ago and it is fitting that her namesake will be able to represent the Royal Navy at the Australian bicentennial celebrations this year.
Throughout the six months' deployment the ships will exercise with the forces of our friends and allies, including two exercises with nations which are party to the five-power defence arrangements, and also separately with the United States navy and the Royal Australian navy.
The task group will sail and return via the Suez canal and on current plans the first point of call will be Malta. Thereafter, the deployment will include visits to Singapore, Brunei, Hong Kong and Thailand. Those visits will be a valuable opportunity for the Royal Navy to renew links with other navies and with countries which cannot easily be reached during normal operational tasking. They also provide an excellent occasion to display a wide range of defence equipment in a realistic environment, which I hope British industry will be ready to exploit.
While speaking of exercises, let me also say a word about the Falklands —a theatre in which co-operation between the three services has flourished, particularly since the construction of the new complex at Mount Pleasant. Exercise Fire Focus, which takes place this month, will be the first occasion on which we are able to exercise the procedure for reinforcement in line with the policy that we set out in our White Paper after the conflict in 1982. During the past couple of years, completion of the airfield and the development of contingency plans for the rapid reinforcement of the Falklands have enabled us to halve the size of the resident garrison.
Such a substantial reduction of the military presence in the Falklands serves to confirm that our purpose is entirely defensive, but, in the light of recent history, it would not have been a responsible step unless we were in a position to bring more troops to the islands at short notice in case of need. It is, of course, our profound hope that actual reinforcement of the kind that we will be exercising will never have to be put into practice, and I believe that the very fact that we would clearly be able to do so will help to ensure that such circumstances do not again arise.
Fire Focus will involve the movement of no more than one battalion group and a small number of aircraft, with fewer than 1,000 men in all. Although that is, of course, no indication of the numbers that might have to be moved in a real emergency, it is the minimum required to conduct an effective test of the process of reinforcement. Some of the stories about the scale of the exercise have been so enormously exaggerated, I am not surprised that they have given rise to misunderstanding in some quarters. Therefore, I am very glad to have the opportunity to set the record straight.
International reaction to the exercise has been greatly coloured by the exaggeration of its scale. I would merely repeat, for the benefit of those countries where there may have been such anxiety, that we have decided to establish the exercise on the basis of the minimum required to make an effective exercise of the process of reinforcement, which we hope that we shall never have to use for real.
The Royal Navy's most important resource is, of course, its manpower.
We do not discuss operational matters. However, I have no doubt that the presence of a Royal Navy vessel in the area has contributed to the stability of the Falkland Islands conservation zone for fishery purposes. Incidentally, I think that it has been of great benefit to the Falkland Islands' economy, and that is something that we welcome greatly.
The Royal Navy's most important resource is, of course, its manpower. This country is outstandingly well served by the men and women of the naval services. Currently the Navy, the Marines, the Nursing Services and the WRNS number just over 10,000 officers and about 55,000 ratings in total. During recent years the Royal Navy has progressively transferred manpower and other resources from the base areas to the front line, and fighting ships and their direct support now account for 70 per cent. of the Navy's uniformed strength. The overall result is a much more streamlined and effective Navy than we inherited in 1979, and the drive towards great efficiency continues.
That brings me to the question of recruitment and retention. When one considers the enormous demands made on the members of the naval services, particularly those filling appointments at sea, the retention rate for those very highly trained people is pretty healthy. The level of premature retirement applications has broadly stabilised during the past 18 months at a level far below that experienced when this Government took office.
The retention of trained people is, of course, crucial to our manpower plans, and we are always seeking to improve it. The stress of separation and service at sea are an inevitable part of naval life, but that does not mean that we should take their acceptance by our naval personnel for granted. Much has been done in recent years to consider the needs of the sailor at sea, and we are looking into possible ways of improving conditions of service for seagoers.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that, although what he has just said was true a year ago, the curve has, regrettably, gone the wrong way and that the retention rate of officers and senior ratings with mechanical and electrical qualifications is declining?
The figures have been similar over the past 18 months or so. I can assure my hon. Friend that that is not something about which we are complacent.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that, broadly speaking, the projections for manning in the Royal Navy, as outlined in Cmnd. 8288, have been maintained, even though the numbers of ships have, mercifully, not declined to the extent anticipated? Will he please bear in mind the fact that that causes stresses and strains for the families of men in the Fleet and that everything possible must be done to ensure that the separations are not too long? If he does that, the premature outflow of people will be minimised.
I accept entirely my hon. Friend's point about the problems of separation. Indeed, I hope that the words that I have already used will show that we recognise the problems that that can cause.
Last year was one of the most satisfactory for naval recruitment in a long time. We are not, however, at all complacent about that. Like many employers, the Royal Navy is conscious that a progressive reduction in the numbers of young people joining the labour market over the next few years is likely to pose a considerable challenge to recruiting. Many of the young people now seeking employment are well qualified and have high expectations of themselves and of any potential employers. The Navy wants their qualifications, and it provides a well paid and challenging career.
The Government remain committed to expanding the Royal Naval Reserve and the Royal Marine Reserve. It is to those men and women that the nation would look to provide an important element of our wartime manpower and, in the case of the RNR, to man the majority of its mine counter-measures forces. We appreciate that, with competing demands of work, family and activities outside the reserve, finding time is not always easy, and we are therefore grateful not only for the dedication of those concerned but for the understanding of the many employers who allow the reservists time off work to carry out periods of continuous training.
On Monday, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces announced the funding of a national television campaign to explain the attractions and importance of reserve service. I hope that will encourage more employers to recognise the debt we owe to those who join the reserves. We should not forget the civilian volunteers in the Royal Naval Auxiliary Reserve, which celebrated its silver jubilee last year. The importance of their potential role at key United Kingdom ports and anchorages in the event of hostilities is fully appreciated.
One of the most demanding, as well as one of the most vital, tasks which our sailors have to discharge is the maintenance on patrol of our Polaris submarines. Throughout the past year, as in every year since 1969, the Royal Navy has continued to maintain at least one Polaris submarine on patrol at all times, thus ensuring the constant readiness of our nuclear deterrent. Although the Government"s policy of maintaining the British strategic deterrent was so emphatically endorsed by the electorate last June, the present Leader of the Opposition is equally determined that it should be abandoned.
I hardly need remind the House that the Labour party's policy of one-sided nuclear disarmament would pose great risks for Britain. It is not only a dangerous policy; it is a profoundly illogical one. For the Labour leadership to claim that they would remain good members of NATO, while repudiating the whole nuclear dimension of NATO strategy, is simply dishonest.
The logical consequence of the Labour party's nuclear unilateralism would be to pull out of NATO altogether, and, as the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) suggests, to adopt a policy of non-alignment in defence and foreign affairs. To do as Labour proposed in the last election—scrap Polaris, cancel Trident, expel all United States nuclear weapons from Britain—in short, to deny the whole concept of nuclear deterrence, but at the same time to take shelter under the protection of the NATO nuclear umbrella provided by the Americans, is a nonsensical policy.
No wonder there is talk in the Labour party of trying to find some form of compromise. One idea is that Polaris and Trident should be negotiated away as part of the wider disarmament process. The fact is that, for the foreseeable future, the British nuclear deterrent is of fundamental importance not only to our own security but to that of NATO as a whole. By providing a second centre of nuclear decision-making, it greatly complicates the assessment of the consequences of aggression against NATO and so makes such aggression itself much less likely.
Another idea canvassed by some in the Labour party is that, regardless of multilateral negotiations, or if such negotiations were not to succeed, a Labour Government would negotiate Polaris and Trident away for equivalent reductions by the Soviet Union. As the Soviet Union would still have more than 10 times as many strategic nuclear warheads as the United Kingdom with Trident, even if the proposed START agreement between the superpowers were to reduce their number by 50 per cent., such a bilateral agreement between Britain and the Soviet Union would be worse than uselees.
If there are two parties to a duel, one of them with 10 bullets and the other with only one, it is an unequal contest. But if one has nine and the other has none, then it is no contest at all. In the words of the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore):
It would be simply folly for Britain to unilaterally abandon its new Trident fleet. And it would he equally foolish for us to negotiate it away on a bilateral one-for-one basis
with the Soviet Union. The arithmetic is obvious. The possession by both France and Britain of an independent nuclear capability remains a major counter and deterrent so long as the Soviet Union itself possesses nuclear arms.
It is good to know that there are still a few voices of sanity on this subject in the Labour party, but it is a sad fact that they are now so heavily outnumbered.
I want to refer to the analogy that the Minister has made with bullets. The hon. Gentleman talked of our having one and the others having nine. What kind of contest would there be with nuclear weapons? How many nuclear weapons does he believe that Britain could use, and in what scenario would we use them?
I thought that the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) was to be one of the voices of sanity among the Opposition, but I despair of that. She knows, as everyone in the House should recognise, that a nuclear deterrent is to deter war, not to fight it. We believe that the effective deterrent that we have maintained for the past 40 years is the best chance of making sure that a war in Europe does not happen again.
Before the Minister moves to another subject, may I take this opportunity to remind him of the complete contradiction of the Opposition's policies. In their general election manifesto, they committed themselves to cancelling Trident and phasing out nuclear energy, as well as increasing the hunter-killer programme, although those submarines are nuclear-powered. That is completely inconsistent.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Franks) is quite right about the inconsistency of the Opposition. It will not have gone without notice that whenever embarrassing subjects are raised, all the Opposition can do is to resort to barracking.
So that we can put the record straight, we have made it clear, in relation to civil nuclear power, that our policy is to phase it out. We also made it clear that, in relation to nuclear submarines and military use, we would retain nuclear generation for conventionally armed nuclear submarines.
Let me conclude, as my speech has continued longer than it should have done, on a note that I trust will meet with more general agreement.
In all its roles, the Royal Navy makes just as important a contribution to our defences today as it has done for many centuries. We owe our respect and gratitude to all those whose skill and dedication continues to maintain the highest traditions of the senior service.
I start by echoing the Minister's appreciation of the sterling efforts of the senior service. I recognise that it often has a difficult job to do in hard conditions. I am not surprised that the Minister took the opportunity to set the record straight in this debate about Fire Focus. While he was opening this debate, I took the opportunity to read again what he said in the previous debate. Certainly, the small-scale operation in the Falklands called Fire Focus, which we have heard about today, is somewhat different from the first full-scale reinforcement exercise that was described so fulsomely in the Royal Air Force debate a few weeks ago. The Minister has taken rather a gung-ho approach, however, and his retractions today will not do anything to reduce the anxiety in Latin America, and indeed in the whole of America, about what is at least a gaffe by the MoD in building up the image of a modest exercise.
We recognise that if troops are in the Falklands they must be exercised and trained, but it is evidence of the bellicosity of the Government that the most puny little exercise is blown up by the tinpot generals on the Conservative Front Bench. They take every opportunity to preen and inflate themselves, although admittedly the present Secretary of State does not need the hairnet of his predecessor when he went on these excursions. Nevertheless, the Government take every opportunity to blow up the significance of their military activities, often in a destabilising way that causes far more harm than it is designed to avoid.
To return to the debate, I believe that Opposition Members and those on the Conservative Benches who participate regularly in defence debates—I can see some real kind faces there—value services debates. With the reorganisation of the Ministry of Defence, it was feared that the identity of the individual services would be lost. I expect that many of my hon. Friends who have served in the Royal Navy or who have constituency interests relating to warship building and other similar industries, always like to argue in these debates for further procurement announcements. Today, I am afraid that we shall have to wait until the Minister's wind-up for reference to the procurement side of the Ministry of Defence. There has been nothing so far, not even an updating or comment on the royal dockyards, which have been operating for 10 months under privatisation. I expect that some of my colleagues will wish to refer to procurement as the debate continues, and I hope that I shall be able to refer to some procurement problems that the Opposition thinks should be aired.
At present, despite the optimistic noises coming out of Geneva and meetings between American Secretary of State Shultz and his Soviet counterparts, there is still heightening tension in the northern waters and problems are being created by what is now generally known as the forward defence strategy. We realise that much of what has happened in the past few days in Brussels has still to be assessed properly, and we might have to wait until the Estimates debate before the outcome is considered.
We hope that the Prime Minister will report to the House the events of the NATO summit. One of the regrettable aspects of the conduct of Ministry of Defence affairs under this Administration has been the failure of Secretaries of State to make a statement to the House when they return from NATO meetings. If the Prime Minister does that on Monday that might be the start of a change in approach, and we might be given more information about what takes place at NATO summits.
Much of the discussion, as I understand it, at the NATO summit has been concerned with central Europe and the modernisation of compensation, call it what you will, for the short-range weapons. It is inevitable that the greatest interest shown by the countries that have been making the most noise will be in relation to central Europe. Nevertheless the United States, Norway and the United Kingdom must be aware that changes in the ladder of escalation, and the removal of some of the rungs of the INF treaty and subsequent changes will result in a significant heightening of maritime strategy. As a result of that maritime strategy being applied nearer to Soviet bases in the Kola peninsula, there will be increased problems, and dangers, which are recognised by Norway but seem to be ignored by this Government and the United States.
I realise that the capabilities which must exist to meet the perceived threats and challenges are the result of a compromise between resources and needs, but as long as we have the massive expenditure on the Trident programme, anything else we seek to do in the Navy will be gravely limited, which will have a deleterious effect on our contribution to the Alliance and will weaken the overall defence of these islands.
In the 1987 Statement on the Defence Estimates we were told that the Navy had four tasks:
the interception and containment of Soviet forces in the Norwegian sea;
direct defence of reinforcement, re-supply and economic shipping, in conjunction with US and European maritime forces, and supported by the RAF;
anti-submarine defence of the NATO Striking Fleet Atlantic; and
protection and deployment of the combined United Kingdom/Netherlands Amphibious Force to reinforce the Northern Flank of NATO.
The first three tasks indicate a change in strategy. The Royal Navy is now integrated in the United States forward maritime strategy. Instead of using Royal Navy destroyers and frigates as convoy escorts, the vessels, together with the Royal Navy anti-submarine carriers such as HMS Invincible, HMS Ark Royal and hunter-killers, will attempt to fight the next war in the Norwegian and Barents seas. Their task will be to destroy the Soviet fleet, destroy the Soviet means of second strike and their nuclear submarines in their bastions, and to launch attacks on Soviet territory.
United States and Royal Navy ships are armed with a range of conventional and nuclear weapons. Their nuclear inventory consists of gravity bombs, which can be dropped by Royal Navy Sea Harrier aircraft, and nuclear depth charges carried by frigates and destroyers. An increasing number of sea-launched cruise missiles are being fitted to United States ships. In a crisis it is clear that the Royal Navy and US Navy warships would surge forward to apply coercive diplomatic pressure, to contain the Soviet fleet and threaten the Soviet means of second strike.
In peacetime, in order to prepare for the strategy, the Royal Navy and US navy warships are operating in the Barents sea, shadowing Soviet ships and submarines. The danger of the tactic of shadowing ships was illustrated just a couple of weeks ago in the Black sea, when two United States and Soviet warships were in very close proximity. The Royal Navy could be similarly involved in northern waters. While the Ministry of Defence is quite relaxed about that, I have gained the impression from talking to people in the Norwegian Government that they are not quite so relaxed about it and are far more acutely aware of the high-risk strategy in the northern waters.
Is the hon. Member suggesting that the Royal Navy should deny itself the right of free passage in international waters just because of the risk of accident, collision or some other eventuality? Surely it is necessary that the navies of the free world should exercise their fundamental right in international waters?
The hon. Member is confusing the two issues. If he allows me to answer the question, he can make up his own mind. It is clear that the long-standing convoy protection and support role and the plugging of the Greenland-Iceland-Norway gap have long been accepted as legitimate tactics and part of the strategy for the defence of these islands and the Atlantic convoys. We are seeing a change in the strategy; a pushing further forward into areas where the Royal Navy is participating in ways that it has not done before.
The United States navy, under the direction of Assistant Secretary of State Lehman, developed the strategy as part of the campaign for the 600-warship navy. The Lehman approach was graphically described in a metaphor, which would probably appeal to the Prime Minister, as "bearding the bear in its lair". That is highly provocative and not greatly appreciated by the people of Norway. It could create problems and dangers in northern waters at a time when we are led to believe, according to "Jane's Fighting Ships" that the Soviet Union is curbing some of its activities in the Barents sea. There is a long report in today's "Jane's" about the way in which the Soviet Union has been reducing its activity. It is not clear what the motives are; seeking to adopt a lower military profile or attempting to save money, co-operation—
When I finish the point, I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
The point I am making is that even if we distrust and are suspicious of the Soviets, they appear to be seeking to reduce the tension in the northern waters. Gorbachev has already suggested having talks about reducing the tension. I am not one of those people who embrace everything Gorbachev says. He is not necessarily the kind of man we should do business with. We ought to put his remarks to the test, and the test can only be put in serious discussions. The offers made in Murmansk last October have not been taken up yet or adequately considered by the Alliance.
The hon. Gentleman has raised an interesting point. It is difficult to do justice to it in putting a question to him, but he should tell the House that the idea of moving our submarine force closer to the Soviets, into the Barents sea, is based not just on a provocative view of the Lehman strategy for the Navy but on the fact that Soviet technology has changed. The Soviets have gone further away from the United States with their submarines by developing long-range weapon strike systems. If we are to shadow their submarines, we have to move closer to them. It is a matter of geography and good naval tactics; nothing more or less.
The hon. Member could be answered by the point that we have Trident and the Soviets have their weapons systems. Perhaps if we were to talk seriously—I hope we will—in the context of START, in a year we could say that because of the reduction in the Soviet threat we could talk in a different context. On this point the hon. Member and I will have to agree to disagree.
At a time when there seems to be an opportunity for certain localised initiatives to be taken, it would be foolhardy of us to urge the Alliance to ignore the initiatives. That is the point I have been trying to make in the context of the Murmansk speech by Secretary Gorbachev. Our position is not enhanced by reports such as those in The Times of July last year which showed HMS Superb joined with the USS Sea Devil and USS Bullfish surfacing at the north pole.
Why should not the Royal Navy submarines surface at the north pole and exercise their right of freedom of navigation on the high seas? It is typical of the appeasement policies of the Opposition Front Bench that just because a couple of Soviet warships in international waters should have deliberately collided with a couple of United States warships, they are now telling us that the Royal Navy should not be allowed to go anywhere close to Soviet shores.
I am sorry that I let the hon. Member in. I did so because I expected something more than the usual old claptrap, but I will respond on this point. Since that time, and since Gorbachev's speech in October, I do not think that such an incident has happened again, and for that I am grateful. I hope that this will mark a better understanding between the Soviet Union and the Alliance, instead of the provocative and—to use the expression I used at the beginning of my speech—gung-ho mentality that seems to pervade the Ministry of Defence.
Order. A lot of hon. Members wish to take part in the debate. Perhaps hon. Members who are waiting to catch my eye would save their interventions for their speeches.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We know that Defence Minister Yazov will be meeting Secretary of State Carlucci in the near future to discuss strategy and military doctrine in its wide sense. According to press reports, one of the matters on the agenda will be the very point that the hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) has made. One of the encouraging things we see in prospect at a discussion of this nature is that problems of this kind will be discussed frankly. I only wish that the Government would assist this process by giving vocal support for this kind of discussion, because we have yet to see from the Secretary of State—who I am glad to see is in his place — any such expression of enthusiasm or support. It is from such informal discussions that the other things that we all want will develop.
I have referred to the forward strategy and deployment of our Fleet in northern waters. This stretches the capabilities of the Fleet and brings into question our ability to discharge our responsibilities in the other parts of the maritime strategy, as laid out in the Estimates. Obviously, the convoy support role is critical for two reasons: first, because we recognise that material has to be transferred in time of crisis from the United States to Europe, and, secondly, because it is with our Royal Navy above all that responsibility for that protection will rest.
We have heard from press and other reports that the Select Committee has been looking into this function and has been taking evidence. I do not think that we are at liberty to speak about this in any context but press reports at the moment. We see that this Fleet protection role is being gravely stretched and strained by the small size of our Navy. Members of the Opposition are not too clear about exactly how many craft are available to the Navy.
Some weeks ago we heard an estimate made by Mr. Desmond Wettern, who has a certain expertise in these matters. Over the years he has caused a fair degree of discomfiture to the MOD and has tended to require it to be more frank than it would otherwise be. In conjunction with the Maritime League—not an organisation that is noted for its appeasement tendencies, but a non-political organisation made up of people who are very strongly committed to the Navy, and enjoying the support of hon. Members from all parties—he set a figure of 28 ships being operationally available to the Royal Navy.
We have heard today that the figure is now 43. Yesterday morning I heard an official giving evidence to the Select Committee in which he said that the figure was 36, but it now seems that seven have been found overnight. It may be that we shall get another seven before the Estimates debate and get back to 50.
I believe that many Opposition and Government Members will want to come back to this. It is only the understandable, but in this case, I think, culpable, loyalty of many Government Members to their Front Bench that prevents their taking this up with the vigour that they might well show once they get the evidence properly sorted out by the Select Committee and its report comes out. I hope that that report will be available for the Estimates debate later in the year, because this is a matter that exercises the mind of anyone who has at least the best interests of the defence of this country and the maintenance of the good name of our senior service.
The fact that we have a smaller Fleet means that, of necessity, we need to have more people at sea for longer periods. This is one of the most distressing aspects of the impact of the cuts in our Navy, because of the damage that it does to the manpower and the morale of our service men and service women.
It might be said that the Minister's brief was somewhat economical with the truth in relation to figures concerning manpower. He said that they had stabilised. On 15 February I asked the Secretary of State for Defence questions about the numbers of Royal Navy artificers who had left certain branches in each year since 1979. I was told that in 1986, 70 air engineers left and in 1987, 75 left, while in 1979 the figure was 29. The figures for marine engineers were, in 1986, 371 and in 1987, 345. The figures for weapon/electrical engineers were, in 1986, 444 and in 1987, 357.
The numbers leaving prior to completion of engagement have been higher in some years than in others. In 1986, the figure for marine engineers was 189, and in 1987, it was 176. The figures for air engineers leaving before completion of engagement were 18 in 1986 and 22 in 1987.
These figures may well give the Minister some comfort. They may well have stabilised. And, of course, in every debate of this nature we are told what it was like in the days of the Labour Government. In the days of the Labour Government there were at one point 1·7 million people out of work, and by April 1979 that figure was down to just under 1·3 million. We are now talking in terms of 2·9 million to 3·5 million, depending on which set of fiddled unemployment statistics one chooses to base one's argument on.
If there is one rule of recruitment for the services it is that unemployment is the best recruiting sergeant. There must be something wrong with a service with such long-standing traditions, which over the years has had a great reputation for morale and has provided people with the best possible training, if people are continuing to leave in the numbers that they are, to the detriment of the service as a whole.
If we have strains on our Fleet, if we have a loss of manpower and morale, and if there is a time of crisis, we have to look for additional support for our Fleet, as we had to do in the Falklands exercise. We have to look to the merchant marine.
The somewhat inelegant acronym, STUFT, is a word that I would not normally use in this House, but for this purpose. Ships taken up from trade are the backbone of the support that our navy expects in a time of crisis. Certainly the military requirements are seen solely in terms of ships taken up from trade for direct naval purposes. Yet ships so utilised cannot be used for their primary transport function and could represent a significant drain on our vital shipping resources, especially the fast cargo liners which are vital for reinforcement and re-supply.
There were 193 British-registered large ocean trading vessels, that is container and roll-on/roll-off ships, in March 1987. I understand that the figure this year is expected to be about 130. This deterioration in numbers is significant for more than one reason, the obvious one being, that on the one hand, it denies us naval support and, on the other, the facility for transporting the material. What is also significant is that it denies us skilled naval personnel because, as we lose each ship, so we lose the services and the skills of trained merchantmen.
The de-flagging of ships and the recruitment, by some of the unscrupulous shipping lines, of cheap foreign labour to work in intolerable conditions, creates problems. I cannot see why poorly paid foreign nationals would necessarily want to come to the defence of this country, a country which has done nothing to improve their working conditions and pay.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman makes these points to the National Union of Seamen before it calls its people out on strike and asks them to take other industrial action. There are major problems, and increasingly shipowners will be unable to rely on British crews if we have these strikes. So I hope that he will put these views very strongly to the National Union of Seamen.
If the hon. Gentleman is arguing a case for the low pay of British merchantmen, he can do so in Portsmouth and see what he gets for his labours. Hon. Members on the Opposition Benches believe that our sailors in both the merchant marine and the Royal Navy are entitled to the best possible working conditions, pay and opportunities for reasonable periods of leave at home —because the Government's policy means not just the removal of the opportunity for merchant navy support, but the problem that many of our naval seamen are spending far too long at sea and far too short a time with their families. That is, above all else, the reason why we are seeing this decline in manpower and morale.
The lack of resources can be attributed to the distortion of the defence budget by Trident. In the past few weeks we have had a series of disclosures. We have had the rent-a-rocket scandal. We do not yet know whether we will own all our D5 missiles or just 80 per cent. of them. We have gone through the arithmetic and we get the usual Panglossion stuff from the Minister, that everything is fine and up-to-date. According to reports which appeared in The Independent about production of warheads, staff shortages and the difficulties with the facility at Aldermaston, it is quite possible that there will be considerable delays in the production of warheads.
I know that the Secretary of State said recently that everything was up to date. This may well be true if he is describing the position that we are expected to be in at present, but we may well find ourselves before too long in the position of having the first submarine but no missiles or warheads; we will probably have missiles if the Americans are prepared to grant us them but not warheads because that is the British part of the operation and we cannot produce them in time.
Perhaps when he replies tonight, the Minister will confirm the position on the production of warheads for the Trident system. Perhaps he will tell us the position regarding the facility at Aldermaston. We have had these arguments before in this Chamber, and somehow the reasons are always based on either commercial considerations or security. It does absolutely nothing for security for the House to be given either evasive replies or obfuscating statements from the Government Front Bench. We want the position clarified. We believe that defence and security matters must of necessity be subject to a degree of confidentiality, but that this Government's desire to cover up and conceal is out of all proportion to the nature of the problems that we are discussing.
We had from the Minister, in the last few minutes of what I imagine he would seek to call his peroration, the apologia for the British nuclear deterrent, so-called. When the Minister replies, will he say to what extent in the Trident programme the Government have considered the consequences of a treaty being produced from the strategic arms reduction talks? If we have a 50 per cent. reduction — and all hon. Members would want such an eventuality—that would not be an end in itself but only a means to an end. We are entitled to some thoughts from the Government on how they would meet their responsibilities in a phase two of START.
It is certainly the intention of the present incumbent in the White House and of Secretary Gorbachev to seek to secure a nuclear-free world. We know that the Prime Minister does not like such talk, that she finds it completely otiose and unacceptable. It seems that other Conservatives in other parts of the world, in Moscow and Washington, are prepared to view this, with some equanimity, as something to be desired. So it will be useful if we can have some indications of the Government's thinking on this strategic matter. It ill behoves the Government to carry on addressing the problems of defence and security in a provocative and bellicose manner which completely ignores the change in the climate of world opinion and denies Britain access to any of the meaningful discussions that take place.
Our reading of the limited reports from Brussels is that, rather than being a triumph for the Prime Minister, the meeting has been a massive rebuttal of the Prime Minister and her Secretary of State — the man who went to Monterrey a few months ago, arguing not for modernisation but for compensation and ending up with "modernisation wherever possible".
I am just about to finish.
The Opposition believe that what has happened at Brussels marks a turning point in the attitude of the alliance to those who seek to jack up the arms race at every turn. What is a matter for regret is the fact that, as long as the Government keep their head in the sand with regard to the Royal Navy we will have to go on raising the questions of the inadequacy of the surface fleet, the poor morale and the drop in manpower.
Hon. Members, not only on the Opposition Benches but also on the Government Benches, who have some affection and respect for the contribution that the Royal Navy makes to the country's defences, recognise that we have the wrong strategy and the wrong priorities. These in turn, cause some of our finest and most committed people to give up in disgust and disillusionment — something that we deplore.
Order. I see that 20 or more hon. Members want to take part in the debate. Arithmetic suggests that if speeches average about 10 minutes we may avoid disappointments.
I hope that the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) will forgive me if I do not go through what he has said in detail, but one thing I must say because he provoked me somewhat. He must recall the days when we Conservatives took over from the Labour Government and when service pay had sunk lamentably low. The lifeblood of our forces was being drained away, and applications for premature voluntary release were being made—as a former Navy Minister, perhaps I may be allowed this phrase—at a rate of knots.
The first thing that we did on coming to office was to deal with the pay of our armed forces. That at once stopped the outflow of what might have been described as middle management in the armed forces. Many chief petty officers, lieutenants and middle management were leaving, Admirals are important, but I think that all hon. Members would agree that the middle ranks are also vastly important. In the Army, sergeants, staff sergeants and captains are very important. It was the middle ranks who were leaving when we took office.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Clackmannan agrees. I find it a little rich that the hon. Gentleman should take us to task about a problem which has been dealt with in the past. I have every confidence that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will deal quickly with the matter if he thinks that the position is deteriorating. If not, it will be drawn to his attention by many of his hon. Friends and, I suspect, by Opposition Members. We will keep an eye on things to see that nothing too disastrous happens.
It is right and proper that we should continue to have single-service debates. Quite a few of us were worried about the reorganisation of the Ministry of Defence when single-service Ministers were abolished. One thing which appeased us and led us not to take too strenuous a view against the reorganisation was that we were assured that time would be made available for the House to home in on each service. I am glad that the procedure has been adhered to. We can deal with matters of some detail though not the minutiae. What would not be appropriate in a two-day debate on the Defence White Paper is appropriate tonight. I welcome very much the fact that the debate is taking place.
We are proud that the Royal Navy is the custodian of our independent deterrent. As long as we remain in government, that will be perpetuated by the D5 unless there is a major breakthrough in the arms reduction talks on both sides of the iron curtain. The chances are that we shall be going for the D5. I look forward to hearing later from the Front Bench, but I understand that we are getting the D5 for the Royal Navy for the same reasons as the Labour party updated the deterrent when it was in power.
The Labour Administration updated the Polaris weapons system by bringing in the Chevaline system. They did so without telling anyone. It is rich for Labour Members to talk sometimes about lack of open government when a former Labour Administration did that. Some of us got wind of it, but we thought that it was not appropriate to blow it because we agreed with what the Labour Government were doing. They had such trouble with some of their own supporters that if we had let it be known that they were updating the deterrent, they might have been forced not to do so. We had a shrewd idea about what was happening but, for patriotic reasons, we did not let it become public. Opposition Members should not criticise us for lack of open government when we consider their track record.
Sometimes people ask if our deterrent is independent. Of course it is. Once it is operational, the deployment of the boats will be under our control. It is appropriate that there should be full co-operation with our allies about deployment, but in the last resort it is an independent deterrent. It might be difficult to paint a scenario in which we would want to use it independently, but it is useful to have it under our control. It is another centre of decision making. The tough men of the Politburo might think that if they were to attack us our American allies would not come to our assistance. While we maintan the capability of inflicting unacceptable damage on the other side, that makes us all the more secure.
I know that the Royal Navy is proud to have the independent deterrent within its control. It will be updated by going for the D5. I hope that in the reply to the debate we will be given more detail about cost. It is considerable, but as a proportion of the Defence Estimates it is relatively small; its importance transcends the small portion of the defence Vote which is necessary.
That might be described as the top end of the Navy requirement. At the other end I should be interested to hear what my right hon. Friend has to say about the number of frigates. There seems to be a muddle about the numbers game. I am not good at numbers; I am rather a matches man. Like Randolph Churchill, every time I see a decimal point I think of those damned dots. Various numbers of frigates have been bandied about. I hope that my right hon. Friend will clear the matter up. The British Maritime League has circulated a document on the Defence Estimates in which it suggests that the total number of hulls is 46 and that it is expected to drop to 41 —far below the 50 major vessels about which we have had oft-repeated assurances. The surface fleet is of vast importance and my right hon. Friend should give us more information about it.
The right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), a former Navy Minister, would have virtually done away with the surface fleet because he was hooked on the idea of the hunter-killer nuclear submarine as the battleship of tomorrow. We need a substantial surface fleet, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will tell us how many vessels he expects will be in service.
This is an occasion when we have the opportunity of mentioning the Royal Marines and their tremendous amphibious capability. They are deployed now, as they have been all along, in Northern Ireland. I think that 40 Commando has just gone there. It is appropriate in a Navy debate that we should pay tribute to what the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines do on the ground in Northern Ireland and what the Navy does through the Granada patrol which prevents gun-running into the Province.
Perhaps in his reply my right hon. Friend will deal, too, with the deployment of the Royal Marines on Carlingford lough, which is very important. That was suggested by some of us much earlier to stop gun-running across the lough. I understand that the ship that was there has recently been replaced. I hope that in his reply my right hon. Friend will tell us how the Royal Marines are operating in South Armagh, which is often known as cowboy country, and will update the position on the Granada patrol. In these debates we can deal in more detail with such matters than is appropriate on the Defence Estimates.
The royal naval school at Holbrook is not often mentioned in the House. I have had the privilege of being on the board for a considerable time. When I was a Navy Minister I was chairman of the governors on the board of management, on which I still serve, together with Opposition Members. I greatly admire that school, which vastly values its connection with the Royal Navy. It is valuable in providing recruits, although not in large numbers, and particularly in providing the children of seafaring folk with a good, sound and fairly robust education. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will have a word to say about that.
It has been suggested that that school should be co-educational, and I think that that would be a very good thing. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy), who is a former Navy Minister, shakes his head. I know that Opposition Members are deeply conservative about these matters. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I believe in co-education. We have a very good school in Holbrook and it is right to pay tribute to the work that it does.
I promised that I would be relatively brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I end as I began, by paying tribute to the calibre of the personnel in the Royal Navy. Whenever I visit a frigate, shore establishment or the Royal Marines, I am amazed at the professionalism, keenness and pleasantness of the young men in our armed forces. One might argue that too high a proportion of our best young people go into the armed forces, but I would never deploy that argument. It is a fault for the good that so many high calibre young people go into the armed forces. I am glad that we can focus attention this afternoon on the Royal Navy, with which we are all very proud to be associated.
I am probably the only hon. Member to have been on two of Her Majesty's ships in the past two weeks. I refer to the visit to the Tyne of HMS Ark Royal, and, last weekend, HMS Illustrious. Both ships have completed their tour of duty in northern waters and are now making their way south for a short period of leave. I was impressed by the enthusiasm with which the ships were received on Tyneside. Swan Hunter, the prime shipbuilder in the country, North Tyneside borough council and the Tyne and Wear development corporation made arrangements to ensure that the ships came up the river and were berthed safely and that their crews enjoyed the traditional Tyneside hospitality.
It crossed my mind that in a year or so at least one of those ships would be coming up for a refit. I am sure that Swan Hunter will submit a tender if invited, and I hope that the Minister will consider that tender carefully. If he does, he will not only get the ship into the right place and a good job done on it at the right price but he will get it returned to the service in the time allocated.
The affection of the people in my region for the senior service has long been established. For generations, men have served on famous ships built in the region. Both HMS Ark Royal and HMS Illustrious were built on the Tyne, and when I made my layman's tour of inspection, both ships presented a clean and smart appearance. I shall not dwell on the subject of morale. All ranks were present at the receptions after the tours. I am a bit of a chatterbox, so I talked to many of the men. I found that morale was good. Not one of the men raised the issue of pay.
I talked to chief petty officers who were ending their period of office after 22 years. I even met one who had served 25 years. I talked to men of different ranks and in different appointments who had served for 17 or 18 years. They enjoyed their work.
The Minister will be pleased to know that I talked to the one Royal Marine on HMS Illustrious. It shook me to realise that there was only one Royal Marine on a ship of that size, out of a crew of about 1,260. When I asked him about it he explained to me, with a pained expression, that he was only the link man and that, if necessary, the same vessel could carry 800 men into active service virtually overnight.
We should not exaggerate the problem of pay in the services. I think that the pay is about right and that even if it is not, the tales that we hear about people drifting away from the services because of the pay are slightly exaggerated. But I know my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) disagrees.
I am rather disappointed that the Minister did not refer to AOR 2, the contract for which is still up for grabs. I recall the arguments that took place over the contract for AOR 1. I should inform you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the AOR 1 is the auxiliary oil replenishment vessel, and AOR 2 is a similar ship to AOR 1.
In that case, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you should have checked me earlier, because I am sure you knew what an AOR was.
After keen lobbying, the contract for the AOR 1 went to Belfast. Some people in the north suspected that that was for political reasons and that it was not to do with competition. The contract went to Harland and Wolff. I understand that that ship has not been completed within the stated period and that there is an overrun on cost. If that is so, why has not the Minister told us about it?
Is it not time that the ship was towed away from Harland and Wolff and brought around to Swan Hunter for completion? Will the Minister see whether that is possible? We have done that in the past. We took HMS Cardiff from somewhere else and finished it to schedule. The Swan Hunter group deserves AOR 2 and it will get it by competitive tendering.
I am trying to stay within the 10 minutes suggested, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I should like to deal with the four frigates. I think that they should be ordered in one batch. That would be better than giving one to this yard, one to that yard and one to the other yard. Such a decision would be partly political and probably a bit more expensive than allocating the four orders in one batch. Swan Hunter has undergone dramatic changes since privatisation and is now fit and lean. No doubt it will compete with any other yard in the United Kingdom and I am confident that it will get the order if the four frigates are allocated in one batch. If that happens, the savings to the taxpayer will be considerable.
I do not know much about the NFR 90, although we look forward to its coming into service. Perhaps the Minister will give us an idea of the time scale for this European-designed vessel—if it ever comes to anything, bearing in mind our experiences of the European Economic Community. As I understand it, it will not come into operation until the end of this century or the beginning of the next century, but I gather that feasibility studies are taking place. Can the Minister tell us what progress has been made with those feasibility studies? I believe that the House is entitled to know.
This afternoon mention has been made about encouraging volunteers to the senior service. I recall that, some two years ago in a debate about the Army, I mentioned men who were unemployed volunteers finding the financial incentive of such service blunted because of tax claims on their allowances and bounties and the fact that their unemployment benefit was deducted. I gather that, since then, that problem has been partly resolved. I believe that that problem was a disincentive especially in areas such as the north of England and some parts of Scotland and Wales, where there are some first-class volunteers for the armed services.
I believe that there should be no hindrance with regard to the financial provisions made available to such volunteers. If I have any influence with the Chancellor I hope that when he makes his Budget Statement on 15 March, he will say that all earnings that volunteers receive for their services will be exempt from income tax. Those volunteers are committing their time and leisure to the services, and they should be exempted from such tax.
With those remarks, I shall leave the rest of the debate to my colleagues, who I am sure will be prodding the Ministers for their views on some urgent matters.
It is a fortunate coincidence that the Navy debate is taking place at the same time as the NATO summit. This is an accident, but it gives us an opportunity not just to deal specifically with Royal Navy matters, but also with the maritime strategy of the Alliance to which the Royal Navy makes an important contribution.
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces gave an extremely lucid account of the Government's thoroughly responsible stewardship of the Royal Navy. It was a somewhat nuts-and-bolts account, as is fit and proper for a single-service debate. However, I believe that the House all too rarely has the opportunity to debate maritime strategy and that is what I wish to discuss tonight.
I believe that it is absolutely right that, at the summit in Brussels, the leaders of NATO should address themselves to the most pressing issue which the Alliance faces—how to render our overall deterrent effective in the new era into which we are entering after the decision, in principle, taken between General Secretary Gorbachev and President Reagan to sign an accord to eliminate land-based intermediate nuclear forces. That decision renders more important rather than less the contribution of the French and British national deterrents and of sea-launched nuclear deterrent systems to the overall Alliance deterrent.
At subsequent summits I hope that the leaders of the Alliance will address themselves to another pressing and urgent matter—how to secure a more equitable sharing of the burden of Alliance defence among the members of NATO.
The hon. Gentleman has been extremely careful in his use of words and he mentioned sea-launched missiles. Would he include cruise missiles in that category, or is he talking about existing or prospective French and British deterrents? We have had discussions about sea-launched cruise missiles and I remember that the former Minister of State was strongly opposed to those missiles because of verification problems. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is developing a theme, but I believe that it would be useful to examine his premises closely before he develops his argument further.
I was implying that we would do well to recognise that the Soviet Union has a formidable sea-launched nuclear cruise missile capability as well as an increasingly formidable strategic ballistic missile capabil-ity. Furthermore, NATO will become more reliant rather than less on sea-launched systems such as Trident and the new generation of modernised submarine-launched missiles coming into service in the Royal Navy, together with the force de frappe of the French Navy.
In the long overdue process of re-examining roles and responsibilities within the Alliance, I hope that its European members in particular will come to terms with today's reality, the decline of American economic power. That decline has been coupled with a decline in the ability of our United States ally to undertake all the roles and responsibilties upon which we have come to rely. It has been extremely useful and convenient to us that, in the 40 years in which the NATO treaty has existed, our American friends have been the dominant partner in the Alliance. I am sure that they will remain so, but it is clear that America will not, for ever and for aye, be able to do all the things which we have found so militarily convenient in the past.
If we consider burden sharing within the Alliance rationally and coolly, we recognise certain cardinal facts. The first is that the United Kingdom is the sole nation among the leading countries of Europe, either East or West, that does not have any form of conscription or national service. Secondly, we are geographically placed in a special position to the rear and flank of the Alliance. Thirdly, due to history and the development of our economy over the years, we are, especially in comparison with European members of the Alliance, dependent upon access to overseas markets and overseas sources of raw materials.
NATO strategy has been extremely effective and the strategy of flexible response has, to date, thank God, deterred war in Europe, but as the challenging document produced by the Iklé commission on integrated long-term strategy points out:
the strategy has also had some setbacks. Soviet power has bypassed the lines we drew and has pushed into Southern Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the Caribbean and Central America.
The Soviets have learnt the potential of long-range power projection, which air power and, above all, sea power afford. The Soviets have made gains, in part because of the enhancement of sea and air power at their disposal, and access to positions of considerable strategic influence world wide.
I do not believe that the threat to our security interests rests above all on the central front. I believe that the threat is multi-dimensional and global and that this threat will grow unless the Alliance finds appropriate means to contain it. For Britain it means that we should revert to a strategy that is flexible and makes use of the special skills and talents which are afforded by professional, long-service Regulars. Navies and air forces require levels of technological competence and the ability to operate sophisticated equipment which are not found to the same extent in armies.
We have noticed with great interest the ever closer understanding on defence matters between the Federal Republic of Germany and France. Anything that brings two leading European members of NATO closer in co-operation is to be welcomed. French strategic doctrine is evolving so that they, through the force d'action rapide, are better able to support the Germans on the central front.
We, however, are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the present level of commitment—to which we are required to adhere by the Brussels treaty—of 55,000 men and a tactical air force on the central front, given that our defence budget is declining in real terms. The consequence is that our strategy is inflexible. We are faced with choices which are extremely difficult to make and which threaten an imbalance in our overall defence planning.
To take one example, the press—in particular, The Independent—has suggested that we need another 500 Challenger tanks for the British Army of the Rhine. I do not believe that tanks in situ on the north German plain are the most effective antidote to armour. Intelligent munitions, fire-and-forget weaponry, and above all air power are the best antidote to armour, particularly for a defensive Alliance which does not know when or from where the threat will come, and which will need to concentrate the maximum force against it. This is particularly so for an island maritime member of the Alliance.
We risk an imbalance, and it must make it harder—to take a maritime example—to provide the necessary replacement of the amphibious vessels, Intrepid and Fearless, with purpose-built amphibious vessels of some new class in the near future.
The threat is not just global, but in the European area it seems highest on the northern and southern flanks. The Mediterranean flank of the Alliance, from the Balkans to the Iberian peninsula, is politically unstable. The North African littoral has regimes that are unpredictable at best and potentially dangerous at worst. The Soviets, at the northern extremity of Europe, have the greatest concentration of military power anywhere within the Eurasian land mass on the Kola peninsula.
The hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), in a most interesting speech, challenged the forward naval strategy. I am sure, for good naval reasons, as explained by my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith), that it is necessary for us to deploy forward naval forces. To do so presumes, first, a willingness to get those forces in place early enough, and, secondly, that the Alliance retains control of northern Norway. Without the control of Norway it would be hard for NATO to win a future battle of the Atlantic. One does not need to read Tom Clancy's stirring tales to recognise the basic strategic truth of this fact. It is particularly important that we should be able to reinforce our Norwegian friends because they do not allow nuclear weapons or foreign troops to be stationed on their soil in peace time.
We should recognise the fact that an equation which was already loaded against us on the northern flank may be made even more unfavourable if our Canadian friends, for understandable reasons, go ahead with their declared intention no longer to commit a sea-transportable brigade and two air squadrons to the northern flank.
It is high time that the leaders of the Alliance sat down and coolly and rationally reappraised roles and responsibilities within NATO. As part of that reappraisal, Britain should do more at sea and somewhat less on land in central Europe. The Statement on the Defence Estimates for last year pointed out that we spent no less than £3·757 million on the central front and only £2·632 million on our maritime commitments to the east Atlantic and channel command areas.
We need, as the Defence Select Committee under-stands, to keep our surface fleet up to date. Perhaps above all, we need to be the leading nation among the European members of the Alliance, with a formidable attack submarine capability, as that is the best instrument against hostile submarines.
Last but not least, we need maritime air power in its fullest dimensions from organic naval air power to land-based maritime patrol aeroplanes to counter the ever-growing Soviet submarine threat.
We should never forget that the defence of western Europe rests not only on the Weser river but is ultimately secured by the ability to reinforce western Europe of our friends and allies in the United States. Without a secure bridgehead across the Atlantic, no long-term defence of our continent is possible, and no effective deterrent can be maintained.
The debate has come at an appropriate time. It brings home to us the key role that our strategic nuclear forces play, which are now embodied in the Polaris force and which will shortly he embodied in the Trident D5, which the Royal Navy is to acquire. It makes us think more deeply, in a changing strategic scenario, about how Britain can better play its part within the Alliance.
I am sure that the logic of all those arguments, which will be carried through in a spirit of goodwill in the Alliance, should lead us to modify our strategy to do rather more at sea, which our allies would welcome, particularly those who are potentially most exposed, such as our friends the Norwegians, on the northern flank.
I am sure that the House is grateful to the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) for giving his views on the strategic considerations in this debate. He highlighted—I am sure that this fact is known to all hon. Members—the growing strength of the Soviet navy, not only in terms of its increasing number of vessels but their increasing sophistication. That poses challenges to the strategy to be adopted by NATO in response.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the build-up of forces in the Kola peninsula and the consequences of that. If it is thought necessary to develop a strategy of more forward defence in that area, one should take into account the problems that it raises. Inevitably, such action is perceived as being a more aggressive and more offensive posture than if we were to adopt a position further back.
When there is concentration of so much military might, particularly in times of tension, the risks are very high indeed. We hope that the Government will try to support initiatives to increase confidence-building measures with regard to naval action. For example, the type of notification that is given, which was agreed in September 1986, for land-based exercises could be extended to sea-based exercises. There should also be an exchange of observers for those exercises. Such measures would make some contribution to reducing possible tension in the area. We all welcomed the INF agreement, the first historic reduction in nuclear arms.
I was corning to that.
The INF agreement was limited to land-based nuclear missiles. Inevitably, the next round of talks will include strategic missiles, many of which are sea-launched. No one would suggest that Britain should put Polaris or Trident on the negotiating table in the first round of talks seeking a 50 per cent. reduction. However, in the second round, we may well be asked to make a contribution, and it would be welcome if the Government would say whether they would be prepared to join in, and consider what concessions they would be prepared to make in the event of Britain being asked to play a positive role in disarmament.
In recent weeks there have been alarming reports in the press of incidents relating to the civil aspects of the nuclear submarine force, rather than to the nuclear weapons, such as the incident at Faslane on HMS Resolution. The hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) may well try to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to discuss the alarm that that caused in his constituency. I shall deal with the matter on a more general basis.
Obviously, for reasons of security, there is not much open discussion about the nuclear propulsion of many of our naval vessels. HMS Vulcan is situated immediately opposite my constituency, and there have been trials of a PWR reactor there for some time. When it was proposed by the civil nuclear authorities to build a reprocessing plant at Dounreay, the public inquiry was the longest in the history of Scottish planning. However, military nuclear installations can go ahead and develop without the need for any of the public discussion which would be required for a civil development.
After Chernobyl, there is undoubtedly considerable public anxiety about the nuclear industry. I hope that the Government will become increasingly open about the incidents that occur on board nuclear submarines, and about the nuclear developments that take place in their establishments.
In the Clyde area public safety scheme, the Ministry of Defence estimated that maximum design accident is likely to occur once in 10,000 years of reactor operation. We were not told the technical basis for that. It almost certainly predates the comment of the safety chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency who recommended that the chance of an accident causing severe core damage must reduce by 10 times for existing plants. That brings the likelihood down to one in 1,000 operational years. We have already had 200 operational years, so the chance of an incident resulting in severe core damage seems inevitably to be increasing. Therefore there must be more openness about the incidents that occur so that there can be greater discussions among scientists.
We should like to see details of the incidents referred to in the main article in today's edition of The Guardian. It would be welcome if the Ministry would update the figures, which only go as far as 1979. The figures suggest that up to then 475 incidents had occurred. We should like to know how many incidents have taken place since then.
Clearly, the operation of nuclear reactors requires the highest training of the men involved. That applies equally to training for the use of the increasingly sophisticated weaponry and electronic equipment. The hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), in a question answered on 24 February, elicited some important information about some worrying trends. The hon. Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed) also mentioned that highly trained people are leaving the Navy.
Why is that happening? What studies is the Department making into why men who have been trained at great public expense are now leaving the Navy? Is that trend reaching such a proportion that, although we shall have sophisticated equipment, in future there will not be sufficient men able to use it? Clearly, that goes to the heart of naval operations. There is little point in working out strategies and buying expensive hardware if we cannot retain enough skilled trained men who can use that equipment.
A number of hon. Members have mentioned the surface fleet. I seek a further assurance from the Front Bench that the Government's commitment to a surface fleet of about 50 frigates still remains. It seems that over the years the commitment has been reduced from 50 frigates to "about 50". There are doubts about when "about 50" becomes "about 45" and about whether the fleet will be reduced to the lower forties from the upper forties. It would appear that the present ordering rate is only about half the number that would be needed if we are to maintain our fleet of about 50 frigates. The response appears to be that many older vessels are to be kept in service for much longer.
That may be one solution, but the equipment on those vessels should not remain as it was. There are new and developing threats, and it is essential, if we are to keep older vessels, to ensure that they will use modern equipment and weaponry that will be able to meet the new challenges and threats posed by any potential aggressor.
Finally, both sides of the House have paid tribute to those who serve in the senior service, and on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends I too pay tribute, not least to those who currently serve in the area where they are most at risk—the Gulf. We have had a naval presence in the Gulf for some time, which was increased with the heightened tension at the end of last summer when, quite clearly the Iranians were planting mines.
It is a credit to our Navy that the quality and skills of our minehunters were internationally recognised. I certainly welcomed the action taken by the Government when they agreed to send out more support and protection to our merchant fleet. I stopped to consider that, if the Government had not done that, and if British merchant vessels had been involved in an incident and lives had been lost, those who challenged the Government's wisdom in sending out an additional minehunting force would have been first to complain that the Government were not performing their duty in providing adequate protection to our merchant fleet.
At the time, reasonable fears were expressed that by having a larger military presence in the Gulf, we could be sucked into the conflicts that were taking place there. Fortunately that fear has not materialised, but we should be ever conscious of it.
Although we have had excuses or explanations that it is almost impossible to integrate our vessels and create a United Nations naval presence in the Gulf, it is still worth making further efforts. Of course there are problems of integrating control and command, but the international threat to shipping is not necessarily directed at any particular country. Once mines have been laid, they can damage or destroy vessels from any country. The threat is to the international community, and the response could well be international. I very much hope that the Government will consider whether a United Nations-based naval presence could be created to police that very dangerous and tense area.
I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak in this debate. Conscious as I am that many hon. Members wish to speak, I am sure that I shall be forgiven if I concentrate on one aspect of naval defence — the Trident programme.
The nuclear deterrent has kept the peace in Europe for over 40 years, and I welcome the statement yesterday from Brussels at the summit meeting of NATO reconfirming our commitment to the nuclear deterrent.
It is perhaps worth while reminding the House that it was a Labour Government and a Labour Cabinet who, in 1978, took the decision to replace the aging Polaris fleet with the Trident submarine and missile. That decision is in stark contrast to the Labour party's policy statement in the 1983 general election, and in even starker contrast to the Labour party's 1987 manifesto pledge to cancel forthwith the Trident programme if elected.
It is perhaps worth while also reminding the House of the total contradiction which came then, and still comes, from the Opposition Front Bench. Unless there has been a change of policy, the Opposition are committed to phasing out nuclear energy on land, but are apparently committed to increasing nuclear energy at sea because the money that the Labour party reckons would be saved by cancelling the Trident programme will be committed to building more hunter-killer submarines that are nothing more and nothing less than floating nuclear power stations.
The decision having been taken in 1978 to replace Polaris with Trident, the first long lead orders were placed in 1981 and 1982. By 1983, 500 of the work force at the Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering company's yards in Barrow were working on the Trident programme. That figure has increased year on year so that over 5,500 at today's date are working on the Trident programme and over 9,000, when the programme reaches its peak in 1990–91, will be employed on the construction of Trident.
The order for HMS Vanguard, the first of fleet of the Trident submarines, was placed in April 1986, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister came to my constituency in September that year to open the new ship hall and ship lift and to lay the keel of the first Trident submarine. I understand that that project is proceeding on schedule and on time.
The launch date—by then, the traditional method of launching a submarine by a slipway will have been replaced by a ship lift which lifts and places the ship or submarine in the water—for Trident I is the spring of 1991 with a delivery date and commissioning by the Royal Navy in mid-1993.
Trident is being built by a privatised company. It is salutary to remind the Opposition that the most successful part of the naval defence contracts from the Ministry of Defence has, for many years, been the Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Co. Ltd. in Barrow. The Ministry of Defence has benefited from the company's privatisation. It is well managed, there has been an increase in productivity and it has a good work force. Perhaps no better example can be given of the new spirit and confidence than that 83 per cent. of the employees, when they had the opportunity in March 1986, bought shares in the new privatised company.
One of the interesting points that has emerged from this debate, contrasting it with earlier debates, has been the total silence of the Opposition Front Bench on the cost of Trident. I can well remember sitting in the House time after time listening to the wild figures being perpetrated by the Opposition. It is less than two years, perhaps less than one year, since we were being told by the Opposition that the cost of Trident would be £15 billion. In fact, the latest figures, given last month by the Ministry of Defence, show that there has been a reduction in the cost of Trident to just over £9 billion. That is at an exchange rate of $1·62 to the pound, which is lower than the current level, which has applied for some time. Whilst it is dangerous to make forecasts on the cost, from the experience of the past two or three years one can confidently expect the cost of the Trident programme to decrease rather than increase in real terms.
I am sure that the management of VSEL would be more than delighted to have an explanation. That incident involved a subcontractor in Scotland. I gather that a part of Trident III was lost off the coast of Scotland, and, in a second incident on the same day, part of Trident II was lost off Walney Island, Barrow. I understand that efforts are being made to locate those lost parts. Their loss certainly had nothing to do with the VSEL management. I am also informed that they are currently being replaced, so the schedule, timing and production of Trident II has in no way been jeopardised.
Trident is extremely cost-effective. At its current cost, Trident will take 3 per cent. of our total defence budget and 6 per cent. of our equipment budget. At its peak, that will rise to 6 per cent. of our defence budget and 11 per cent. of the equipment budget. I remind the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O' Neill) that on 2 February 1987 he told the House:
spending on new equipment as a consequence of Trident will fall by 30 per cent. in real terms between 1984–85 and 1989–90 and that by 1989–90 Trident will account for about 24 per cent. or 25 per cent. of expenditure on new equipment." —[Official Report, 2 February 1987; Vol. 109, c. 712.]
Those were the hon. Gentleman's words 12 months ago. He has been extremely prudent to remain silent in 1988 on the cost of Trident.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for preventing me from remaining silent. He is selective in his use of the English language, which I would expect from an English lawyer. I expressly referred to the new equipment budget. The hon. Gentleman has referred only to the equipment budget. Those are two different items. I do not have the figures with me, but I think if the hon. Gentleman reads the earlier part of my speech he will find that I drew a distinction between the two and it is consistent to talk in terms of new equipment as distinct from what he is talking about. We were saying then, as we do now, that Trident will account for 30 per cent. of our new equipment budget in the peak expenditure years.
I take that comment with the same pinch of salt that I took the cost of Trident being £15 billion.
I remind the House that the last submarine in the Trafalgar class, which is nuclear-powered with a conventional weapon, has been ordered and that its launch will be in 1991. I am pleased that the shipyards have recently been invited to tender for SSN 20, the successor to the Trafalgar class of hunter-killers, and I thank the Secretary of State for that.
I want to close my remarks by asking the Opposition to state clearly and unequivocally, in this debate, whether the Labour party is still committed to the cancellation of the Trident programme.
I am even more grateful that the hon. Gentleman took that opportunity to clarify his first monosyllabic reply. His words will come back to him over and over again during the coming months and years.
I close by reminding the House and the country that successive generations have enjoyed something that my generation did not—peace. I can well remember being a young child in the war years, and I can remember the horror of those years. Generations since have taken for granted the peace which we secured in 1945. We would be utterly foolish, and remiss in our duty to future generations, if we lightly abandoned our independent nuclear deterrent just to satisfy the political whims and philosophies of a moribund Opposition.
Unhindered use of the high seas worldwide, as well as in the north Atlantic, is vital to this country and all the nations of the Alliance. Raw materials essential to our survival come from all over the world. Worldwide tonnage of trade has tripled in the past 20 years, and 90 per cent. of it is seaborne. On the other hand, we are faced, in the Soviet Union, by a nation virtually self-sufficient in raw materials, with secure internal lines of communication. We cannot escape the fact, therefore, that in peace and war our ability to traverse the oceans with least risk is an essential element of the Alliance's ability to survive.
Yet for more than two decades Soviet maritime capability has been expanding at an unprecedented rate. We have not kept pace with that increase, and the former worldwide numerical superiority of the NATO nations' maritime forces slipped from 3:1 in 1949 to 2:1 in 1964, until today we are not sure how thin the margins really are.
There must be a logical explanation for this Soviet maritime build-up, which is far greater than that needed to defend the homeland. Whatever moderate and reasonable intentions we may read into the Soviets and their Warsaw pact allies—and in the case of detente and disarmament we unhesitatingly do that—it is important to look beyond those intentions at their capability. Capabilities provide options, while intentions can change overnight.
Soviet naval programmes reflect two priorities. The first is to expand forces ideal for sea denial. The second, as the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Franks) reminded the House in an interesting speech, is to create greater depth in Soviet power projection capability. In the event of a NATO-Warsaw pact confrontation, the pact's major sea goal will be to deny the allies the use of the Atlantic sea lanes. That consideration is reflected in the composition of Warsaw pact naval forces. The underwater threat today, for example, is as great as it was in 1942 and 1943. I remember how dark and grim those days were. It is only now, with complete access to archives on both sides, that we have the full picture. But submarines today are much more sophisticated than they were then. So the scale of the problem is similar to that which faced the allies in those dark days.
In spite of advances in methods of detecting submarines and the effectiveness of the weapons used against them, operational research in world war 2 showed that the submarine threat could be effectively countered only by adequate numbers of escorts and aircraft operating together as an integrated ASW force. Within the NATO Alliance, our country has the prime responsibility for providing those ASW assets, and more and more people are questioning whether we any longer have adequate numbers. We have heard that already tonight from the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) and from the hon. and learned Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck), a former Minister with responsibility for the Navy.
In the event of crisis, shipping will be exposed to the submarine threat unless the routes are secured by adequate escorts and ASW assets. All that shipping will be at the mercy of the mine, too, unless routes are also secured by NATO's mine counter-measures forces. It is on the doubts that have been entertained by many hon. Members—as well as by people outside the House — about the adequacy of escort and mine counter-measures vessels that I want to speak tonight.
In 1980, under a £1 billion modernisation programme, it had been intended to replace the existing obsolete mine warfare vessels with at least 50 new hulls. To date, perhaps only half of that planned number of ships has been ordered, and contracts due for the next four vessels of the SRMH type have been deferred until 1989.
I have tried to outline three maritime perspective. First, the sea is a unique international highway, a dynamic medium on which conditions change daily. Secondly, the freedom to use the sea in peace and time of crisis is vital to this country and the Alliance. Thirdly, the build-up of Soviet maritime capability far beyond its needs to defend its homeland poses a big threat to Alliance security. Alliance security in the maritime context, and in so far as it would devolve upon Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic would relate first, to the northern flank; secondly, to the reinforcement and supply of Europe; and thirdly, to support for the shallow seas campaign in the area between the United Kingdom and continental Europe. Yet the greatest shortfall in SACLANT's force levels — I remind the Minister of this; it is known to some of his colleagues — is in escorts. No amount of carriers, submarines or aircraft can prevail without the support of those escorts. Their lack degrades the ability of the other forces.
The 1987 Statement on the Defence Estimates spells out some of the Navy's tasks, but, in view of what I have said, I must ask how those commitments are to be met. The Minister claimed that 43 destroyers and frigates were available to the Fleet. He did not say that they were operational, or how they are assigned, or in what category. It is only that sort of information that will convince some of us of how far—
That is why I asked the Minister for further information. Without it we shall not be reassured—and neither will some of his hon. Friends.
The reader of the Estimates is invited to turn to various tables showing the current strength of the Fleet and the number of ships completed orordered in the previous financial year. I remind the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) that there are 54 destroyers on operation, or on standby, or undergoing refit, but two of them, the Aurora and Naiad, which are listed as fully operational, were paid off for disposal last April before the statement was made available to us, and perhaps even before it was published.
The destroyer Fife was disposed of seven weeks later in June. The frigates Sheffield and Coventry were not due for completion until this year. Similarly, the total of 32 submarines includes two, Orpheus and Sealion, which the House had already been told were due to be paid off last year for scrap or sale, along with the ocean survey ships Hecla and Hecate, which were also listed as operational.
From that, one can see what a confusing picture we are given by those Defence Estimates. A footnote shows that the main elements of the standby squadron which, incidentally, was revived only two years ago with a fanfare —the frigates Leander and Galatea—are also on the disposal list. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South then pondered on the kind of disposal list that his hon. Friends on the Front Bench are already drawing up for next year. My information is that it could run to as many as seven ships.
As the House has already been told once this evening, a British Maritime League survey shows that the surface fleet is quoted as being at
its lowest ebb in the Navy's history".
The people responsible for making that judgment care just as much as we do. They are not trying to degrade the Government. They say that only 28 destroyers and frigates are ready to meet commitments worldwide. We all know —we have just been reminded—that the position will only worsen as the average age of the Fleet increases. We also know—some of us keep reminding the House, and have done so for several years — that the rate of ordering new ships is falling behind the rate at which older ships leave the Fleet.
Exercise Purple Warrior was intended to try out the services' capability for amphibous operations outside the NATO area. It reiterated a number of lessons—none of them surprising — but whether such lessons are acted upon by Ministers will give a fair indication of how much the Government's avowed intention to maintain an amphibious capability can be taken seriously, because to date the Government have yet to place a design study. I know that they have set some money on one side, but the design study itself is the second step for which we are all waiting.
Not a single aircraft order was placed last year, nor is there any mention in the Estimates of the crucial importance of the Sea Harrier and Lynx modernisation programmes. Both are key elements for the maintenance and effectiveness of the British contribution in the east Atlantic.
The Minister made questionable claims about outflow and retention. The total number of male officers in all the services — there is no individual service breakdown —leaving prematurely at their own request rose in 1985–86 to 1,223 compared with 1,094 in the previous year, while the figures for service men increased from 6,113 to 7,215, yet we all heard the Minister claim that the position on outflow and retention was stable. That simply is not true.
Despite the Government's much publicised intention of two years ago — reiterated last year— to boost the strength of the volunteers in the Royal Naval Reserve by 40 per cent., the total number of male volunteer reservists on 1 January last year was 4,200—the same as in 1986, 200 more than in 1985, but 100 fewer than in 1981. We now know — and the Minister knows — that those reservists, unlike former reservists—I used to be one—are now a key element in the manning of the Fleet, and we need them.
In view of the time, I must come to a conclusion, but there is much more that could be said about the Estimates that would call into question some other statements that have been made this evening. I hope that if hon. Members cannot recall their earlier reading of the Estimates, they will return to them, because they deserve study. However, I think that the House has already got the impression that they are out of date, and I hope that we are not asked again to debate Estimates that are so woefully out of date.
The world gave a sigh of relief in December with the signing of the intermediate nuclear forces agreement. If it is succeeded in June by the signing of a START agreement, the world will have become a safer place in which to live.
One has only to look at events in the Gulf, however, to realise that, no matter to what extent East and West agree, to reduce their arsenals, there will still remain the need to retain some form of conventional forces simply to protect legitimate trading interests in areas of hostility. Much of the world's economy is still tied up in shipping, and it is the shipping routes which are a nation's jugular vein.
So, while the world can indeed sigh with relief at the reduction in the nuclear arsenal, there can be no let-up, certainly in the foreseeable future, in the need for a nation to maintain adequate maritime forces with which to protect its maritime interests. The failure of the Government to maintain adequate maritime forces, especially in respect of the surface fleet and in particular escort vessels, gives rise to grave concern, even on the part of many of their supporters.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy). I have, as done on several occasions. As one would expect from a former Defence Minister, he is thoroughly well-briefed and not a single hon. Member in the Chamber doubts his interest in the Royal Navy or his determination to see an improved and strengthened Royal Navy in the future—and, of course, many of my hon. Friends agree with much of what he said.
I listened closely to the speech of the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), who was also thoroughly well prepared. Listening to both those hon. Members, I thought of a line from Matthew Arnold about
The unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea.
How wide the gap is between those two hon. Members and the 100-plus members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament who have now joined the parliamentary Labour party. Those members of the Labour party decry service life and tradition whenever they get the chance and are contemptuous of NATO and our nuclear forces.
One is tempted to say something about the defence policy of the new party that has emerged in our midst. However, some of my sporting colleagues might say that that would be shooting at one-day-old chickens, so, although there is plenty of ammunition lying around, we shall wait for the official open season.
On hearing the meaty, almost fulsome, Front-Bench speeches, the main course, I thought that there might be a little role left for me as a sort of choccie going round with the coffee, but then I heard that the hon. Member for Clackmannan is coming back for seconds. He has had about three buns in between.
I shall try to be short and sweet. The Whips, who are always the waiters at these meals, tell me that there is increasing reluctance among new Members to take part in defence debates. Apparently, there is a feeling that it is all getting rather technical and difficult. I am not sure whether I entirely believe that. I have not noticed that my colleagues are overawed by speaking in public life when they do not know all the arguments and all the facts. I should like to think that, like me, they keep in their locker that marvellous quote by Gladstone:
Expert knowledge is limited knowledge.
I draw to their attention also the words of their Lordships of the Admiralty at the beginning of the 19th century when they formally stated that they regarded it as
their bounden duty to discourage to the utmost of their ability the employment of steam vessels".
My great grandfather was captain of HMS Warrior, which has since been restored, so I am sure that he would have wished to enter that debate.
In the 1920s, their Lordships
saw no use for aeroplanes".
I am glad that they had changed their views by the time of the landing at San Carlos.
I shall confine my remarks to nuclear weapons—those obliterating weapons of our age. I make first the almost trite remark that, once they have been invented, we have to learn to live with them because they cannot be disinvented. I have heard President Reagan, and a Soviet diplomat, talk about the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons. Either that is childish or they are deliberately misleading their people. I do not believe that there is the slightest chance that we shall suddenly wake up to a world without nuclear weapons. If we did so, the one country that then reinvented nuclear weapons would be able to blackmail its neighbours.
Admiral of the Fleet Lord Chatfield once said that the grand fleet of his day was the queen of the chess board. Even though it remained in harbour, it dominated the game. I like to think that our Trident submarines will be the queen of the chess board and that they will stop that game of chess ever starting.
In an article in The Times of 6 February 1985, Lord Lewin wrote:
Spreading Trident's running costs across the three services might allow the Navy to run 12 extra frigates, the Army four more armoured regiments (55 tanks per regiment) and the RAF perhaps one more base of 50 Tornados. Adding 220 tanks to NATO's 13,500 when the Warsaw Pact order of battle is 42,600 is not a dramatic swing in the military balance. These marginal increases in NATO's conventional capability might cause the Soviet planners to recalculate how many days a conventional war might last. For the same cost, Trident can convince them that war is not worth starting.
Perhaps, as a sailor, Lord Lewin was rather optimistically expecting that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would say that if we do not need that money for nuclear weapons, then we can have it for tanks and frigates. I do not think that the Treasury is quite like that. I have never accepted the argument that we need nuclear weapons to sit at some mystical table, and I hope that Ministers do not use that argument.
I believe in the principle of a NATO defence deterrent. One Western European country should have that deterrent as well as the United States of America, and that country must be part of NATO. It will not be West Germany. It is us, and the Royal Navy seems to be the ideal service to have that awesome responsibility. I am absolutely convinced that we are right to have a Trident nuclear force in the future.
I wish to turn now to the INF agreement. I suppose that that was the obvious layer of weapons to seek to remove. I remain to be convinced that it was the best layer of weapons to seek to remove. For the first time in our history, we have reduced a whole range of weapons, which is enormously important. Like Harold Macmillan, I believe that, in politics and in life, one must offer some light at the end of the tunnel. For the whole of my lifetime, we have been piling up nuclear weapons on both sides and at last have removed some of them.
In a speech in Strasbourg in May 1979, which has been much seized upon by CND, Lord Mountbatten had these wise words to say:
To begin with we are most likely to preserve the peace if there is a military balance of strength between East and West. The real need is for both sides to replace the attempts to maintain a balance through ever-increasing and even more costly nuclear armaments by a balance based on mutual restraint. Better still, by reduction of nuclear armaments, I believe it should be possible to achieve greater security at a lower level of military confrontation.
That puts the case clearly and effectively.
Many of us have received letters from the Nuclear Weapons Freeze campaign in Britain. Superficially, Freeze is very attractive, but I am sceptical. Surely, in the history of warfare, individuals, armies and navies have sought to modernise and enhance their weapon systems, whether they consist of bows and arrows, cannons or tanks. To have a national policy of wear-out and rust-out, at a time when the Soviets are building up their own armed and nuclear forces does not seem to make much sense. It does not take into account either the fact that they are improving their ability to shoot down our missiles.
I hope that we shall continue to resist what appears to be the attractive option of holding back on modernisation. At the same time, I say bluntly to my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench that I see no case for compensation to make up for the departure of those intermediate nuclear weapons. I think that the money could be better spent elsewhere. I do not think that a strong case has been made out, and I hope that it will be resisted.
We are at a very exciting time in the defence world. Great changes are taking place which worry the practitioners in the defence world because they do not like the uncertainty. Genuine disarmament, much talked about, is now happening before our eyes. I hope that we shall be cautious. There is no need for haste. It seems to be important that NATO should design and create some over-arching strategy of policy under which we can operate.
I leave my colleagues with this thought. Much as I respect what Mr. Gorbachev is trying to do, and much as I recognise the changes that are taking place in Soviet society, I wait to see the first rouble being knocked off that ample Soviet defence budget.
It is a great privilege for me to speak in the debate because the Clyde submarine bases at Faslane and Coulport are in my constituency. Polaris and Trident do not give me great comfort, but more than 6,000 people in my constituency work on them. I am accountable to my community and am proud to speak on its behalf in this Chamber.
My remarks will reflect two or three main issues — first, accuracy, in the light of my experience in the past few weeks when dealing with the Ministry of Defence; secondly, truthfulness; and, thirdly, accountability to Parliament.
With regard to accuracy, if one lives in Dumbarton, the statistics produced by the Ministry of Defence since 1980 do not give one great comfort. I concur with the sentiments of the Select Committee on Defence which, in its report of April 1987, stated that very little indication is given as to how taxpayers' money is spent. That applies to the building of Trident in my constituency. In 1980, we were told that the cost would be just over £5 billion. The latest estimate is just under £10 billion and, when it comes into operation, I am sure that we shall see a figure of some £15 billion.
The Select Committee's report also refers to contracts. It stated that, in 1980, when Trident was commissioned, 70 per cent. of the contracts would be undertaken by United Kingdom contractors and 30 per cent. by United States contractors. However, according to the Audit Commission in July 1987, 236 contracts have been awarded in the United Kingdom at a total of $62 million. It stated that that was very disappointing in view of the magnitude of the project.
Accuracy has not been forthcoming on the issue of jobs. In 1980 we were told that 25,000 to 35,000 direct jobs were at stake with Trident. The report of the Select Committee on Defence shows that the figure has gone down to just 9,000 direct jobs and 7,000 indirect jobs. The statistics represent a considerable decline in the original optimistic assumption. Is that inadvertent or is it by design? It is not for me to make the decision on that.
Little accuracy has been provided for my constituents who live in an area where economic deprivation prevails and where unemployment is 20 per cent. and has decreased only marginally in the past few months. Indeed, the areas closest to the Clyde submarine base such as Helensburgh and Greenock have suffered increasing unemployment in the past year.
I would contend that the Ministry of Defence has little accountability to my constituents. Yes, there was the 1984 environmental impact assessment, but nothing tangible has come out of that other than to say that when Trident is finished there will be fewer jobs than we had to begin with. The MOD did provide a nine-mile private road in Glen Douglas, but that does not prevent the bulk of my constituents from suffering noise, dirt and environmental disruption. There are 1,000 journeys a day up and down my constituency and there is no recognition from the MOD of the impact that that is having in the area. There is no financial compensation. There is precious little comfort for my constituents.
The missiles are now being serviced at King's bay, Georgia. I appeared on a television programme last week with the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker). He was introduced as the Scottish defence spokesman for the Government. I have a transcript of the programme before me. He said:
What we said before Trident came into being in the early part of the last Parliament was that it would create more jobs.
But, of course, we then ran into the most appalling opposition from all the local opponents, particularly politicians in Strathclyde, who declared their area and Dumbarton nuclear free zones. So, we decided, quite properly, that we could save a lot of money—and a lot of jobs were lost because of that—by having the missiles serviced in the United States.
I ask the Minister to support or reject that statement.
Perhaps I can help the Minister. I went to the Library as a result of that statement and discovered that on 9 September 1982 John Nott said that, because of the great advantages of commonality between the systems in the United Kingdom and United States, the Government would have the missiles serviced in King's bay. According to the press release from the MOD, the main reason for that was that it would produce savings of millions of pounds. They said that they would continue to communicate with the trade unions on the matter. If the MOD is to have a Scottish defence spokesman, it could tell us whether he is economical with the truth or economical with intellect. The Scottish public deserve an answer.
In the United States, the committee of appropriations assigned $3·1 million for the local community as compensation for the disturbance caused by the work around King's bay. The magnitude of the disturbance around the Clyde submarine base and my Dumbarton constituency is as worthy of compensation as the disturbance in King's bay, Georgia. If the MOD has any feelings for the local community, it should consider making a payment such as that. The approach of the United States contrasts strongly with the ad hoc attitude of the Ministry of Defence.
I shall now deal with truthfulness and the warhead convoys in my constituency. The MOD has never admitted that such convoys exist. I have been put off the road by one of those convoys going through my constituency. My young son was in the car and he asked what it was I said, "That is nothing. You do not see anything because the Ministry of Defence does not accept that anything is passing through my constituency. It will not tell me about that." Therefore, we saw a non-existent convoy. That story created great amusement among my son's school friends.
In the week of the general election the local papers in my constituency were saying that the return of a Labour Government would mean the loss of 4,000 jobs at the Clyde submarine base. I tabled a written question on 8 December and the Minister said that there would have to be a loss of jobs but that the Government were looking at alternative employment. I was intrigued by that answer, and on 15 January I tabled three more written questions asking how many jobs would be lost each year, what type of alternative employment were being considered by the MOD, and how many jobs could be generated by alternative forms of employment. I am sad to say that I did not receive an answer other than that of 8 December. The Government have recognised that there will be job losses, and it is incumbent on them to tell my community what is in store for it.
I should also like to deal with the question of truthfulness surrounding the incident on HMS Resolution on 26 January. The MOD said that it was an "electrical malfunction". As the Minister knows, I contacted him on the matter and I thank him for his answer. I said at the time that I did not necessarily accept what was said in the newspapers. I still hold that view. I said that I wanted candid and truthful answers. An exclusive report on page 1 of The Guardian today provides a little hope on that front. We are now told that 700 such incidents occurred in the first 16 years of operation.
In a spirit of co-operation and moderation, I ask the Minister to explain what was meant by "electrical malfunction." Did it mean that a fuse had to be replaced? Was it on the microwave, the submarine or somewhere else? The Minister's answer was bland and he was doing a disservice to the MOD and to my constituents.
In the light of the report in The Guardian, I feel that we may never really know what happened on 26 January on the Clyde submarine base. One thing is sure: something happened. The incident was minor to the MOD, but it was major to the people living in the area and to those who have an interest in defence.
One would hope that one would be reassured by looking at the material in the Clyde public safety scheme. However, I have before me the announcement that would be broadcast after an incident. It says:
An accident has occurred … which has resulted in the release of a small quantity of radioactive products.
Irrespective of the magnitude of the incident, that phrase is to be used. I do not consider that to be appropriate for the whole range of accidents that could occur.
Over and above the incident of 26 January and the questions that should follow, there are other issues. There is the need for co-operation, the need for honesty and the need for information. As a constituency Member of Parliament, I shall be giving those needs high priority. I give the MOD notice of that and it had better be aware of it.
It can only be a matter for regret that the hon. Member who has the honour to represent the constituency of Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) should be so vehemently opposed to the activities that are taking place in his constituency and the enterprise of some 6,000 of his constituents.
The debate today on the Royal Navy takes place against the backdrop of a relentless Soviet build-up at sea and in other spheres of military activity. As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) pointed out, the build-up at sea by the Soviet Union is far beyond any requirement for self-defence. It can only be disturbing that expert analysts agree that so far—and I must emphasise the words "so far" —there is no evidence of a slackening in the furious pace of build-up of the Soviet war machine, on land, in the air and at sea. They continue to outbuild the entire inventory of Britain's armed forces every four months.
On just that point, may I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to Jane's Defence Weekly, which, in its edition published today, says that there has been a reduction in the Soviet efforts at sea, which the hon. Gentleman has described as a build-up. Their programme has slowed down substantially, especially in relation to nuclear-powered craft.
Evidence is not available at present to show that what the hon. Gentleman says is correct, although I very much hope that such evidence will be available in the coming months.
In view of the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the relentless build-up of Soviet naval forces, does he agree that it would be a good thing if naval forces on both sides were included in the talks on conventional arms stability? It would obviously be to our advantage to achieve a reduction in that build-up.
It is important that our disarmament should be on a step-by-step basis. It was right for us to start with INF and to continue with the START agreement, which I hope will be signed later this year. In terms of the build-up in Europe, it is essential to bring Soviet forces on land, both conventional forces and those with short-range nuclear and chemical capability, into line with those of NATO. Ultimately, I have no doubt that it would be desirable if we could agree on some form of balance at sea, but that is not and cannot be the highest priority.
I warmly welcome the improvements in East-West relations, especially between Britain and the Soviet Union, which have taken place since my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and Secretary-General Gorbachev have come to power. There are those who say that Mr. Gorbachev's approach is merely a ploy to persuade the West to lower its guard. I happen to disagree. I believe that Mr. Gorbachev, although this is surmise on my part, is sincere in his wish for better relations between East and West and in his desire to see expenditure on armaments reduced in the Soviet Union in favour of civil programmes.
But the decisions affecting military security in our nation, and which our Government and the House are required to take, can be based only on perceived capabilities, as has been said by hon. Members on both sides, rather than some supposed intentions of a potential adversary. It certainly cannot be on the basis that today the Secretary-General of the Soviet Union is smiling, and therefore we can afford to stand down significant elements of our improvements for the Royal Navy or any other part of Britain's armed forces.
Who knows whether Mr. Gorbachev will be here in five years' time and what pressures there might be within the Soviet empire as a result of the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan? What message will that send to the occupied nations of eastern Europe? There is every danger that one could be moving into an era where Mr. Gorbachev's glasnost is in danger of undermining everything that he hopes to achieve and, indeed, his own position, although I certainly wish him well in his endeavour, which is important for mankind as a whole. But who can tell whether circumstances might push him aside and bring back a cold war, where tanks again roll into Budapest, Prague or possibly into Warsaw? In those circumstances, we would rue the day that we had lowered our guard, whether in Britain or among our NATO allies.
Under this Government, the power of the Royal Navy beneath the sea has been growing apace. We have 15 nuclear-powered fleet and hunter-killer submarines, 12 of which are operational at present. That represents a potent and important capability. The construction of the Vanguard submarines for the Trident missile and submarine programme is going ahead to plan, with the second boat under construction already.
When the Minister winds up, perhaps he will tell us whether there is any truth in recent press reports that all is not well with the warhead programme that is under way at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston. There have been suggestions that the programme has slipped by a year, or perhaps two years. That could turn in turn require refitting of one of the Polaris boats beyond the time scale that had been previously planned. Any reassurance that the Minister can give that that is not the case will be most welcome.
It is true that the Trident submarine will carry significantly more warheads than the Polaris boats do at present; that is undoubtedly necessary, because the relative increase as between Polaris and Trident is no greater than the increase taking place over the lifetime of the Polaris boats in the Soviet nuclear missile fleet at sea. But if good progress is being made by the submarine forces of the Royal Navy, the same is not the case for the destroyer/frigate force.
The surface fleet of the Soviet navy has been growing relentlessly in strength and capability over the past 20 years. Meanwhile, the surface fleet of the Royal Navy has been significantly reduced under successive Governments, to the point where today we have only 49 frigates or destroyers available with the Fleet, and three of those already exceed their supposed lifetime of 25 years. This is no wonder, when we have an ordering rate that has slumped in the past five years to little more than one ship a year.
One must acknowledge that inevitably a hiatus will occur when moving forward to a new generation of vessels such as the type 23, but if the ordering rate has been only one per year, instead of the three per year which is the rule of thumb for the Ministry of Defence to maintain a 50-destroyer frigate navy, the rate of ordering must go above three per year if we are to get back to the Government's target of a 50 escort fleet.
I agree with the Government's commitment to maintaining 50 vessels. The difference of those extra 10 ships will give the Royal Navy the flexibility to deploy around the world. Without those 10 additional frigates or destroyers, the Royal Navy would become almost entirely a home-based fleet chasing submarines in the north Atlantic and it would have to jettison on a major scale its worldwide commitments out of the NATO area. We would no longer be able to maintain a ship, or two ships, in the Falklands or a guard ship in the Caribbean, and we would certainly not be able to undertake the very frigate-intensive Armilla patrol, which makes an important contribution to the protection not only of our vessels but of all vessels in the Persian Gulf going about their lawful occasion.
That is the sort of operation in which the Royal Navy should be involved, but if we were to allow the number of escorts available to the Royal Navy to slip from about 50 to about 40, those capabilities and commitments would have to go. That would be a devastating blow to the Royal Navy, to our country's capability and to our standing in the world.
I have no doubt that the Government fully intend to honour their commitment of a 50 destroyer/frigate fleet, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister in winding up the debate will spell out clearly how that will be achieved, because between now and 1992 some 11 of the Rothesay and Leander class frigates will have reached retirement age, and I understand that there will not be 11 new vessels joining the Fleet between now and 1992. I hope he will tell us what the Government foresee the frigate/destroyer force slipping to before they start to build up with new orders and also tell us what the new rule of thumb is to be if it is not that three frigates or destroyers a year must be ordered to maintain about 50 in the destroyer/frigate fleet.
The debate is important, and the men and women of the Royal Navy look to us to maintain their capabilities. Much has been said about the threat, but one element of it has been largely ignored — the threat from the Treasury. That threat is pressing and immediate, and I strongly urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his colleagues resolutely to resist it.
The hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) has continued his great family tradition of being unfair about the Labour party. Nevertheless, it is a pleasure to follow him.
Of course, and not along the same lines.
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the size of our surface fleet, but I hope he will forgive me if I do not follow him in the remarks he made about strategy or the size of the Soviet fleet. I would like to make a few points, as old hands in these debates would expect, about the size of our fleet and procurement.
The debate is dominated not by the decisions that the Government make on defence expenditure but by their decisions on public expenditure. It is clear from the response of the Ministry of Defence to the Treasury's outline of public expenditure that it will not be possible for the Ministry of Defence to meet its current commitments from its current allocation. The Ministry of Defence has already stated that there may have to be some rescheduling of equipment purchases. Those of us who follow defence matters, with or without constituency interests, know what that means for the Royal Navy.
When I was elected in 1983, the Government used to speak of their commitment to 50 surface vessels. That commitment has altered to about 50 surface vessels, so it has shifted slightly. It is difficult to get accurate figures, but some of us think that when the Government compile the figures they include HMS Victory, to make matters seem a little better than they are.
Different figures float around. It has been said that we have a surface fleet of 43 and a surface fleet of 36, with or without HMS Victory. My hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) suggested that the operational fleet was fewer than 30 vessels — he said 28. If one excludes other commitments, that would mean that fewer than 20 surface vessels — possibly 17 — could be committed directly to NATO. The Government will say that the number is larger, but, if it is larger, it is also very much older.
The hon. Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) said that Opposition Members never miss a chance to disparage service men. I very much resent that. It is not a fair way to address Opposition Members, particularly those who regularly take part in defence debates.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) says that some hon. Members served in the forces, but I am referring to hon. Members of my generation as well.
I am not a member of CND, but I do not accept that, because hon. Members are members of CND, they would automatically disparage the armed services. That contention is wholly untrue and unworthy of the Government Front Bench. It is perfectly possible to respect the role of conventional service people and believe in unilateral nuclear disarmament. I am surprised that Government Front Benchers, for reasons of guile, or for whatever reason, should pretend that they cannot grasp that point.
Is it not a fact that in the CND nationally there are many people who served this country in the last world war and have served in subsequent incidents since, giving great service to their country, and who believe that nuclear defence is not defence but pretence? That is what they are opposed to, but they are still very patriotic and wish to see Britain maintain its independence.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am surprised that the Government feel that they cannot acknowledge that point. Indeed, Government supporters ought to be ashamed of themselves for not acknowledging that important point.
The main theme of my speech is the size of the surface fleet. It is traditional that, in opening a debate such as this, the Minister comes to the Dispatch Box and makes whatever procurement pledges he can. It is very disappointing to those of us who want to see our service men not only properly equipped but equipped with the most modern weapons that our country can provide to find that the Minister has no new procurement statement to make to the House today.
What is the position with regard to the four frigates that many of us feel are needed? Is the Minister going to be able, in his winding-up speech, to say anything at all about frigate procurement? I suspect from what has happened so far that he will be making no definite statement. I hope that he will, but I suspect that he will not, although I certainly hope that he will address the point.
The reason that he will not do so, of course, is that this debate is dominated by the public expenditure debate, and the poor old Royal Navy has been hammered by other commitments, in particular the continuing commitment to the Trident programme.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett) spoke of the feeling on Tyneside for the Royal Navy and the enormous enthusiasm in our shipbuilding communities — his in Wallsend and mine in Walker, Walkergate, St. Anthony's and St. Lawrence's in east Newcastle—for the services and for the return of our aircraft carriers to the River Tyne. Crowds flocked to the banks of the River Tyne to see those ships come in. The suggestion that our solid Labour-supporting communities would disparage the services or disparage the vessels that they spent their working lives building is a peculiar and unworthy one to come from the Government Front Bench.
Those communities are under assault in just the same way as mining communities are under assault, and that assault comes from the Government, who have run down the procurement programme. For the Government to wave the Union Jack and claim that the Conservative party is the patriotic party, and then to do what they have done to the Royal Navy sticks in many people's throats, particularly those who represent the communities that have such a stake in and commitment to the Royal Navy and the maritime service in general.
Perhaps the Minister, when replying, could also refer to the Government's position on the air support ship. That is something to which the Government have said that they are committed in principle, but there has been no statement on progress and the Minister did not refer to the matter at all in his opening speech, although he had been urged to do so by Government supporters. He is now being urged to do so by me. I do not know if that is a comfort to him or a restraint, but I hope that it is not a restraint.
It would be unusual to have a debate on the Royal Navy or on shipbuilding without reference to the AOR programme, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend quite rightly referred. I seek from the Minister an assurance—I think it is right that the whole House should seek this, because it has been a very controversial matter—that the AOR 1 programme is within its cost target and is on time.
Could the Minister also comment on progress on the Trident submarine programme, particularly with reference to the current investigations at VSEL? There is a fear, as the Minister must know, among other warship yards that the heavy subsidy levels which are currently enjoyed by VSEL, because of the Trident programme, will give it an unfair edge when tendering takes place for what little there is going to be in the Government's procurement programme. Some explanation of what is happening in that area would be very welcome. Obviously, the main cause for concern is the type 23 programme—if there are to be any more type 23 frigates.
The privatisation of the warship yards, according to the Government, would lead to competition and a lowering of prices. The Government's argument in that area has been undermined by two things. One is the substantial reduction in shipbuilding capacity in this country, which has meant that there is only one supplier of submarines and probably now only one supplier of minehunters. If we are not very careful, the Government will find that they have moved into a position in which there is a monopoly supplier of frigates as well. That would most certainly be to the long-term detriment of this country. The Government claim that they support competition, but they have reserved special work for the royal dockyards, work that the private warship yards would certainly like to tender for as well, and I am surprised that the Government do not allow them to do so.
The Government—this is something that dominates this debate—have recognised the special role of Harland and Wolff shipbuilders. It is the only remaining mixed yard; other yards are either merchant or warship. The Government have not yet brought their merchant subsidies at Harland and Wolff into line with the European VI directive on shipbuilding and have given Harland and Wolff military work which many of us feel should have been won in open competition by British yards rather than go to a Government-owned yard which is kept buoyant by state subsidies.
This is a very important point, which gets up the nostrils of a lot of people on the mainland of the United Kingdom. But the subsidy to Harland and Wolff is not just by the present Government; it has gone on for a decade or more. My hon. Friend will agree that the Government are committed to commercial viability, but they will not institute that commercial viability in Northern Ireland, to the detriment of regions such as the north-east. That is what it is all about.
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. Hon. Members who represent shipbuilding constituencies in the rest of the United Kingdom are saying that the regime that applies to them should be the same as the regime that applies to Harland and Wolff. They are not seeking any special favours from the Government—God knows, they would not get them if they did—but they are saying that Belfast should not get such favours either. If they are forced to be competitive, then that should apply to the people with whom they have to compete. I should have thought that Conservative Members would not find that an unreasonable contention. Either there is open competition or there is not. There cannot be open competition for yards in the private sector and state subsidy for yards with which they have to compete.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) referred to the role of the merchant marine and British seamen. Whatever the military position of the merchant marine 10 years ago, it has now been undermined almost to the point where it has been lost sight of altogether. Many of the ships that still fly under our flag have foreign crews. It is very difficult to hold the line at the officer level. That undermines the position of our fleet in times of conflict, and it is something that the Government have been quite willing to see happen. There have been no effective measures from the Government since 1979 to reverse that trend, and I feel that it is probably now beyond reversal unless some very stark action is undertaken, and I do not see that coming.
My hon. Friend the Member for Attercliffe referred to the fact that 90 per cent. of world trade is carried by sea. The pity of it is that it is not carried in British ships any more, and it is looking increasingly unlikely that those vessels are going to be adequately protected by British ships either.
I never mind listening to Opposition speeches which call for the strengthening of the Royal Navy, and I am delighted to hear the call from the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) for more ships to be built. I should like to think that he is motivated by an attempt to ensure that we have proper defences and not solely by the employment that such construction would no doubt bring to his constituency. But when he refers to recruitment, I remember the time when the Labour Government were in power and when, in the Army, and the Royal Air Force as well as in the Royal Navy, there was a severe recruitment problem and pay was an enormous issue. It was in the 1979 election that the defence vote returned a Conservative Government because we were pledged to do something about pay and about the recruitment problems that stemmed from it. I must remind the hon. Member of that.
I join my hon. Friend the Minister in recording our thanks to and admiration for all the men and women who serve in the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. They always display immense efficiency and reliability, and no other navy can surpass their expertise.
One of the great ships in the Royal Navy is the royal yacht, which epitomises the highest achievable standards of smartness and seamanship. Undoubtedly a decision will have to be made sooner or later—because she is a very old ship—about her replacement. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will grapple with this problem and that he will decide to lay down a new royal yacht when the time is right. Not only does the royal yacht perform a function of service for the Queen and the members of the royal family; it is a showcase for Britain in all parts of the world and it does a remarkable job in all aspects of commerce and showing the flag.
I welcome the timing of this debate, because we have a preoccupation with the forces on the central front. It is very easy for defence debates to concentrate on the problems of battlefield nuclear weapons in Germany and that part of Europe, and we can easily forget that one of the greatest threats to our security comes from the Russian forces stationed on the Kola peninsula, for instance. They have some 11 bases in the area of Murmansk to supply their navy, and it is crucial that we never lose sight of that threat, which could cause us and the whole of NATO an immense problem if, heaven forbid, a conventional war broke out in Europe and we were unable, because of those forces, to keep the supply routes open.
The forces in the Kola peninsula are estimated to be 126 submarines, 73 principal ships, 47 minor surface ships and 64 mine counter-measure ships. These figures are not necessarily accurate because they can only be estimated, but they give a picture of the size of the forces lurking in that part of Europe.
The role of the Royal Navy and the NATO naval forces is to ensure that we keep the seas open so that we can reinforce Europe with both men, tanks and equipment. The transport of reinforcements is principally done with the use of HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid. I welcome the addition to our transportation capability with the conversion and commissioning of HMS Argus. I do not know who dreamed up the name "Argus", but it sounds rather like a supermarket chain to me. In naming our ships, I hope that we can link them to towns. I do not know whether there is a town called Argus, but I would be happy if the name "Harrogate" was chosen because we have connections with naval ships; it helps with recruiting and publicity, and I am pleased that we have an arrangement with HMS Cleopatra.
Argus will be used in a mixed role capability, which is a very important step. It will have aviation training facilities and carry Sea King and Lynx helicopters. By far the most important role, however, will be in the transportation of marines and their heavy equipment, if it were necessary to get those materials into Europe. It is a model of a vessel which could be taken up and expanded because it is a conversion from a container ship, its cost has been low and it has also been put into service in a reasonable time. There is, therefore, this very important role of the quick conversion to military use of merchant ships which was mentioned earlier in the debate.
We have this marvellous word STUFT—ships taken up from trade—but we are stuck with it. What it really means is that we must look closely at our ferries to ensure that their construction is such that it will give greater protection to the transportation not only of personnel in the civilian role but especially during times of hostilities when they would need watertight compartments to enable them to withstand attack. At the moment they are vulnerable. They have been used in exercises. I suspect that we have arrived at the point when NATO subsidies should be given to the private sector to ensure that ferries can be converted for military use of the kind that will be sustainable in attack.
The most important thing that has come out of the debate is the question of the number of ships in the Royal Navy. I am not really in the numbers game, because what matters is not the number that we have but our capability, the way in which we use technology, the way in which we are more advanced with our missile systems. Those are the elements which cause a potential enemy to take care. What is most important is that we co-operate within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to develop on a much more cohesive basis new weapons and techniques. That is a grey area: how we can get NATO actually to put these things together so that we can establish the funds, get the research under way and do the development. Of course, there are examples of our succeeding in doing that, but it has been a long, tortuous business and NATO must find a way to do it better.
One issue that I would like to address today is that of mines. I happen to think that mines are every bit as important as any other weapon that we deploy. Their possession alone could provide us with the capability to bottle up Soviet ships in harbour. That in itself means that the Soviet navy would have to enlarge its fleet of mine counter-measure vessels. The Russians themselves have probably the largest stockpile of mines in the world.
It is curious that the Russian character has always looked towards mining as being one of the great tools of the business of defence or hostilities. In 1906, the Imperial Russian navy built a mine-laying submarine which I think was the very first submarine of that sort in use. Germany and Britain together in the last war laid half a million mines, and the United States laid 130,000 mines to starve Japan of her supplies. The assessment of the present situation reveals that there is a deficiency both in NATO's minesweeping capability to deal with the mines that the Soviet Union could so easily lay and in our own capability to lay mines.
There are three types of mine: the ground mine, which is laid on the seabed; the buoyant mine, tethered to the seabed; and now the homing mine, which is an interesting new development. It can be dropped from ship or aircraft and will, to a pre-determined signal, home in on a target.
These are areas where technology, microprocessors and new material can be deployed to ensure that we produce one of the most sophisticated mines which can be found. Here I come back to what I said earlier about the need to fund proper research and development to harness the technology so that we are in a stronger position to bottle up Soviet shipping and to ensure that we have the edge on them in laying mines. The laying of mines is relatively simple. It can be done by aircraft or by ship. Here again merchant ships can be brought into service and used for that purpose.
The mine-hunting method of locating mines and destroying them has been advanced to a highly skilled technique. The number of counter-measure vessels in the 1960s totalled some 800 within NATO. We are now down to 250. That is not necessarily bad because we have perfected the ability to locate and dispose of mines, but it is important that we have sufficient vessels to undertake the task. Of course helicopters are an alternative, but they can be expensive. We are very fortunate that the United States has developed a helicopter which represents a quantum leap forward in quality, but the numbers are small.
Above all, at the end of the day we must be able to secure a free and safe passage for Royal Navy ships and the ships they escort which will carry vital reinforcements. Mining warfare has escalated in importance. Originally it was an impoverished gambler's long shot; now it is of prime technical and offensive importance. This is a key deficiency area, but we must never forget that the men who man the ships are the people who matter most. I pay the warmest possible tribute to the work and the role of the reserves who historically have always taken on this singularly dangerous task.
I shall restrict my remarks because other hon. Members wish to speak in the debate. However, I want to associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) about the deeply offensive, insulting and libellous equation which has been made consistently by Government Members throughout the debate — that anyone who challenges the nuclear preoccupation of the Government's defence policy is, in the words of the hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill), an appeaser, or, in the words of the hon. Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend), disparaging the armed forces and the personnnel of the armed forces in particular. That equation is a great insult to the many millions of Labour voters who fought in the last world war and in wars since but who support a political party which questions the preoccupations of the Government's defence policy; we make no apology for that.
It was bad enough that libels should be uttered by Government Back Benchers, but when from the Front Bench the Defence Minister associated himself with the remarks it was a disgrace. Although he is not in the Chamber at the moment, I hope that on reflection before the end of the debate he will have the courage and the grace to withdraw his remarks and to apologise for them.
I wanted to speak in the debate for two main reasons. First, only a few hours ago I returned from a visit with a parliamentary delegation, led by the former Foreign Secretary Lord Pym, to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Having just returned from the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, where part of the Armilla patrol is docked, I want to make some observations about the role which the Royal Navy is playing in the Arabian Gulf.
I want to associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), our Front Bench spokesman, who paid tribute to the skill, courage and dedication of the Royal Navy in general. I pay particular tribute to the Armilla patrol, which is operating in dangerous waters where it is carrying out sophisticated work for this country and for the international community in the face of wicked aggression by the belligerents in the Iran-Iraq war. In particular, the Iranians are keeping our service men and ships very much on their toes. As the Minister said earlier, not a single ship which has been escorted in the Arabian Gulf by the Armilla patrol has been hit or damaged in any way. That is a tribute to the Royal Navy and to the service men who are operating there.
The Government should note that the sea war in the Iran-Iraq conflict has faded from the headlines and that the war in the cities, the use of ground-to-ground missiles and the land activities of the two belligerents are very much headline news. However, it is important that no one begins to downgrade the real threat to world peace which exists on the waterways of the Arabian Gulf.
The delegation of which I was a member met many of the most senior statesmen of the Saudi royal family and other Ministers in the last few days. I want to record that they were extremely appreciative of the presence of the Royal Navy in the Gulf and of the Government for sending them there. I pay tribute, too, to the Government.
The Saudi statesmen are also anxious about the extent to which the Armilla patrol has to restrict its role in the area. Many times during our discussions Lord Pym was forced to say, although he was not speaking for the Government or seeking to do so, that we could not do much more because of the size of the Armilla patrol and the range of its work in the Gulf. He pointed out that we do not have the Navy which we used to have and that we are not the power which we used to be. Therefore, he felt that it was unrealistic of the Saudi Government or our other friends and allies in the Gulf to expect more from us.
That theme has come through in the debate. It is obvious that we are no longer the power that we used to be, although I am not crying in my soup about that. However, there is an important role which we could and should be playing in places like the Gulf in defence of our own interests and in association with important friends and allies of the United Kingdom which we cannot do to the extent which is required because of the current size of our surface fleet and because of the public expenditure problems which we have in maintaining a Navy of the size which hon. Members on both sides of the House would like.
I hope that the Government are still aware of the dangers on the waterways of the Gulf and have taken note of the importance of the Armilla patrol to our friends and allies in the area.
In defence debates here and elsewhere we used to hear about the missile gap. There has certainly been a credibility gap in this debate. I am a new Member and until very recently I was not particularly knowledgeable about, and I did not study particularly closely the nuts and bolts of the Royal Navy. I was astonished to discover that, while we talk about verification in defence matters, we do not seem even to be able to verify the size of our own Navy. The figures that have been kicked around show a surprising margin of error.
I came into the Chamber believing that we had a 49-ship surface fleet and that there was some argument about how many of those ships were operational, or could be made operational at short notice. I did not realise the extent of that argument. We have heard from my hon. Friends that as few as 28 ships are available to us at short notice. Other figures given have been 28, 36 and 43. We do not even seem to know how many of those 49 ships we can deploy at any one time. That alarms me. How are we supposed to verify the so-called massive build-up in Soviet naval strength, about which we have heard so much during the debate, if we cannot even get our figures straight when it comes to the number of surface ships in our own Navy?
I represent the area that contains Yarrow shipbuilders, which has plied its trade for the past 120 years making wonderful ships of steel. It is the lead yard in the production of type 23 frigates. I was not encouraged by the Minister's opening remarks to think that we are doing what is necessary to keep our Navy up to strength. I would hope to be encouraged more by his closing speech, but I have been told that that is probably a vain hope and that nothing of substance will be said in the Minister's reply.
The Government are supposed to be committed to four type 23 frigates. In the Minister's opening speech, we heard that the Government are still considering issues relevant to whether the orders will go ahead. Speaking as the hon. Member whose constituency contains the lead yard, I stress that it will be a great crime and a tragedy, both for the Royal Navy and those of us with shipbuilding constituencies, if the orders for those four type 23 frigates are not placed soon. It goes without saying that I hope that the Yarrow yard, which has a proven record of expertise in producing these outstanding ships, will be considered favourably.
I have been puzzled and disappointed by the response this evening and in the correspondence that I have seen through trade union circles to the NFR90. I am not a technical expert, but I cannot understand the Government's reluctance to throw their weight into a joint European project to build the kind of ships that will be required at the turn of the century. It seems extremely short-sighted of them not to understand that such ships will be required and that European co-operation is the best, most economic and most defence-efficient way of proceeding. I hope that we shall hear more in the Minister's reply of the reasons behind the Government's thinking on the NFR project.
I am not a member of CND and I am not a pacifist. I think that it is deeply unworthy of the Government to question the patriotism of Opposition Members. Those remarks should be withdrawn. My hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan and others have made it clear that Labour is strongly committed to a strong defence policy for this country. We are ready to defend this country and we shall support the Government in so far as they are prepared to devote resources to defending this country. We have our questions—in a democracy, we are bound to—but we too pay tribute to the men arid women of the Royal Navy and associate ourselves with the salute that the House of Commons traditionally gives to the Royal Navy on Navy day.
First, I shall contribute some thoughts about the present strength of the Royal Navy and, secondly, I shall raise concerns which, while having a national interest, particularly apply to my constituents in Portsmouth.
A debate about the strength of the Royal Navy cannot be divorced from realistic considerations of its role, principally as part of the NATO Alliance concentrating in the English channel and the eastern Atlantic but — tantalisingly for those whose duty it is constantly to assess matters and reach decisions — needing to keep a capability to operate throughout the world in defence of British interests when required. The Armilla patrol in the Gulf, which has been mentioned many times, is the best example of that. I add my tribute to those serving in that patrol. They contribute so much to defending the interests not only of this country but of our allies.
The problem of how to be sufficiently prepared for war while keeping the peace and preserving freedom is an equation whose solution has excited naval theorists and practitioners in endless and seamless succession for centuries, and it continues to do so. There is a symbolism in these matters. Emphasis is placed on parts of our naval strength. Once emphasis was placed on the number of Dreadnoughts, whereas at present the totem pole has "about 50 frigates and destroyers" carved on it. Newspaper correspondents and columnists, the British Maritime League and others — some hon. Members among them — insist that the Government are not keeping to that provision and that, even if that figure is approached, too much reliance is placed on extended life and refits and not enough new is being added or ordered.
I do not want to go into the statistics. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) and the Minister did so, as did many other hon. Members. There is nothing new about relying on a mix of refits and new. The Navy that defeated the Spanish armada 400 years ago did that. Queen Elizabeth I was constantly accused of neglecting the Navy that her father had built up and of being far too mean to pay for the ships. I say that she was constantly accused. In Tudor times critics had to be somewhat restrained and had to use a uncrackable code. Sir John Hawkins, the treasurer of the Navy Board, rebuilt as many old ships under what was called "ordinary expenditure", meaning maintenance and rebuilding, as he built new ships under "extraordinary" expenditure. It is interesting that expenditure for new building was called "extraordinary".
There is always somewhat different technology. The hon. Gentleman is right. The secret is to keep up with the technology of the day. There has always had to be a sensible balance, and so it is to this day.
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks) that it is most important to ensure that our ships are equipped with the most modern and up-to-date navigational devices and armaments, both defensive and potentially hostile. Just last month such an example was accepted by the Navy at Portsmouth, which was referred to by the Minister—the latest batch 3 type 22 frigate, HMS Cornwall.
HMS Cornwall is packed with the latest high-technology equipment, incorporating lessons learnt in the Falklands, and her weapons system gives her the most up-to-date self-defence capability in the world. She will lead the new 8th frigate squadron. There are more such ships to come, and I am sure that we would all say, "Thank goodness for that."
I am pleased to see that the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) is in his place because earlier he mentioned Captain Wreford-Brown, the captain of HMS Cornwall. I deplore the fact that the hon. Gentleman sought to bring the captain's personal reputation into this debate. He did his duty properly when he was called upon to do so, and I wish him every success in his future in the Royal Navy. I am sure that that sentiment is echoed by the vast majority of hon. Members.
I understand that we cannot consider our total naval strength—above and below the surface, conventional and nuclear—in isolation from our allies in NATO. We should not be worried about admitting that, because political isolation has been and remains the main foe to our security. Without allied forces, the Royal Navy is not and never has been strong enough to gain lasting victory in a major conflict against a determined enemy. If that causes eyebrows to be raised, one need only consider that Spain was not subdued until long after 1588. Our isolated supremacy did not defeat Napoleon any more than it overcame Hitler. Allies in coalition were needed to bring about final and complete victory in those wars.
It is correct to point out the massive strength of the Russian and Warsaw pact navies. One may consider the hundreds of submarines, their fleet of carriers, the harbours teeming with their frigates and destroyers and their presence in all the world's seas and say that, in comparison, the British navy is not big enough within the navies of NATO. However, there is no way in which the public would back the measureless defence spending required to match Warsaw pact forces. The forces of NATO must at all times be weighed in the balance when judging the level and effectiveness of our armed forces, including the Royal Navy. We must not underestimate the threat, but we must also count our assets.
My judgment is that, if we continue the mix of defence policies that have proved so successful since 1945 and if, above all, we continue to demonstrate, beyond doubt, a united political will to stand up for ourselves and our allies, our prospects will he as fine as ever. Indeed, if we do not shrink from modernising—I am sorry, perhaps I should use the word "updating" so as not to offend the Germans or anyone else — when necessary, both conventional and nuclear forces, our prospects will be fine. That case was eloquently put by my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Franks). If such a course is followed, it will enable my young children to grow up experiencing peace, the priceless gift given to my generation from those lessons written in the blood of two world wars.
I wish to raise three matters of considerable importance not only to Portsmouth people, but to the nation. The first concerns the future arrangements for HMS Victory — Nelson's flagship — in Portsmouth dockyard. Many people do not realise that she is still in commission and is still a flagship—that of the Commander-in-Chief Naval Home Command. I ask that she should remain in commission. Indeed, if she were decommissioned perhaps there would be one less surface ship in the total given by my hon. Friend the Minister. I accept that, by all means, she should earn her keep more efficiently, but I ask that she should remain in commission and continue to be operated by the Royal Navy both as a naval shrine and as a tourist attraction, attracting about 400,000 visitors a year. The importance of tradition, ceremony and pageantry, particularly in the case of Portsmouth and the Royal Navy, must never be underestimated.
Has my hon. Friend noted the happy juxtaposition between the Victory and the modern "Know your Navy" exhibition that is close to the McCarthy museum? Therefore, there is a marvellous continuity between the ancient history of the Victory and the superb "Know your Navy" exhibition nearby.
I am obliged to my hon. and learned Friend for that intervention.
The importance of tradition, ceremony and pageantry also applies to the future of R company of the Royal Marines. That company is usually known as the display team that is renowned for free-fall parachuting. It is a 50-strong team. It promotes a fine image of the Royal Marines around the country and in particular it is a regular attraction at the Eastney tattoo. It is worth every penny, and I seek an early assurance that that company will continue to operate.
My final concern relates to the fleet maintenance and repair organisation in the Portsmouth dockyard— I believe that we should call it a naval base. Fortunately, the work load is well up and I have had a recent assurance from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement that the Ministry is planning to carry out the refit of HMS Exeter at Portsmouth. That is excellent news and I hope that that is confirmed as soon as possible.
However, nationwide there is over-capacity in the ship refitting industry. It is correct that there is keen pricing competition because budgetary controls are strict on such work—and that is as it should be. Warship design and technology continually improve, thereby enabling ships to have a longer operational capability with fewer periods of maintenance and repair. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement has kindly forewarned me of a visit to Portsmouth dockyard this month, and I hope to meet him then and to raise these matters with city leaders.
My hon. Friend is well aware that any further rundown of the Portsmouth facilities would be a grievous blow, especially if it was seen to be as a result of propping up Devonport. I am not expecting that to happen and I do not believe that Portsmouth deserves that.
I ask all the Ministers to look positively at what is on offer at Portsmouth. It is providing a first-class and necessary service for a modern Royal Navy. Indeed, Portsmouth is, borrowing a little from Gilbert and Sullivan, "the very model of a modern" Royal Navy repair and maintenance facility.
The last time the House debated the Royal Navy, I devoted the bulk of my remarks to trying to argue the case for an alternative to Trident. I argued that submarine-launched cruise missiles were a far more cost-effective minimum nuclear deterrent and much more appropriate to Britain's needs. I still believe that there is a powerful case that can be made for that approach. That view is reinforced by the extent to which the United States and the Soviet Union are now deploying cruise missiles and researching further sophisticated versions of cruise missile technology.
However, it should be recognised that the opportunity for such a change is no longer with us. The time is gone, to coin a phrase, for such an alteration. By the time we get to the next election, Trident will be so far down the track that reversal would be a massively expensive and wasteful operation. Any opportunity to seek to replace Trident with a different nuclear deterrent would, at that stage, involve a dangerous risk of a gap between the phasing out of Polaris and the introduction of some new system. Therefore, if one takes the view that Britain needs an effective minimum deterrent—the majority of the British public share my view—I accept that that deterrent must now be Trident.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that cruise missiles would not be as satisfactory as Trident, even if it were possible to replace Trident, principally on account of their range, which therefore limits the area of seas in which they can hide? Does he also concede that if, under those circumstances, one chose cruise rather than Trident a larger number of submarines would be needed to present as effective a deterrent system?
It was always clear that cruise was not a direct alternative to Trident because of the firepower that cruise could deploy. I still argue that Trident is a more powerful system than Britain needs for a minimum effective deterrent. The one advantage that Trident offers is its flexibility. It is possible to reduce the number of missiles on a submarine and it is certainly possible to reduce the number of warheads on a missile. Depending on the progress of arms control negotiations, particularly in the strategic sector, I hope that the Government will ensure that Trident's firepower will not be provocative in the light of possible reductions by the two super-powers.
Other hon. Members have referred to the changed position following the implemention of the INF treaty, and to the NATO Ministers' meeting. There is no case for attempting to compensate for the intermediate nuclear missiles that we have negotiated away through the INF process. I cannot see the point of going through all the trauma that was involved in the 1979 dual-track decision, and all the negotiations that flowed from that, only to try to bring back missiles in some other form. Therefore, the argument for compensation and for trying to circumvent the treaty is pointless.
For as far ahead as we can see, the security of western Europe will depend on a mix of conventional and nuclear deterrents. It is prudent common sense to ensure that the nuclear and conventional elements are kept as effective as possible. Nuclear weapons should not be allowed to decay into impotence. If they do, they no longer represent an effective deterrent.
The excitement about the Montebello decision of 1983 is difficult to understand. What was decided was that NATO should have a smaller nuclear arsenal deployed in Europe, but that the nuclear arsenal should be more effective, that weapons should have an improved range, greater accuracy and better survivability. That seems to be a common-sense view of the matter. The detailed implementation of the Montebello decisions needs to be examined in the light of the INF treaty, but the basic approach that NATO's deterrent must remain effective is one with which it is impossible to argue.
One of the obvious reasons why we must always be on the lookout to maintain the effectiveness of weapons systems concerns the Tornado. At the moment it is an effective system in relation to the Soviet air defences, but it may not remain so for all its planned lifetime. The idea of developing a nuclear or conventional stand-off missile that will enable the Tornado to remain an effective weapon system throughout its lifetime is well worth examining. I am glad that the Government, in collaboration with the French, are considering that possibility.
The issue that has dominated tonight's debate is that of the surface fleet. The Navy has been given major tasks, such as the direct protection of shipping in the Atlantic that is resupplying western Europe, the forward deployment of vessels to contain Soviet forces in the Norwegian sea and involvement in the amphibious reinforcement of NATO's northern flank. Those are all major tasks, and clearly the Navy needs substantial assets to carry them out.
It is against that background that we must approach the controversy of the "about 50" surface vessel fleet and examine the Government's record on the matter. I can understand the sense of puzzlement about the numbers involved that was evident in the speech of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway). It is claimed in the 1987 Statement on the Defence Estimates that there are 54 vessels — frigates and destroyers. However, it is clear that that figure does not stand up to close examination.
The figure of 54 vessels is arrived at only by including some that had already been paid off by the time that that document was published and others that had not arrived from the shipbuilders. Thus, that figure clearly had to be revised. The figure that we heard tonight was revised downwards to 49. There is some argument as to how many of those 49 vessels are immediately available. The most persuasive figure is 36 frigates and destroyers immediately available on a 48-hour time scale. It may be that others can be added to that on a longer time scale, but it will be interesting to hear what the Minister has to say on this issue.
An important point was made by the hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) —that total numbers do not reflect the age of the fleet. There are already 12 frigates that are over 20 years old. There are 19 vessels in the Leander class that were laid down between 1961 and 1969, which must be coming to the end of their useful life. Most of them will surely disappear over the next decade. The six type 21 frigates were laid down between 1969 and1974. It must be doubtful whether they will be in service by the 1990s.
Without labouring the issue of re-ordering, which has been dealt with at length, I find it hard to see how the current ordering policy will ensure that enough new vessels will be coming into service to replace those that should be phased out over the next decade. The only way that the gap will be bridged is by running vessels for longer than was originally intended when they first came into service. That has manpower implications, because the older vessels are more manpower-intensive. It also has implications for the morale of the seamen. It has operational implications, because some of the older frigates clearly cannot be used for some of the tasks with which the Navy is now grappling. Only frigates that are equipped with modern anti-missile defences can be deployed on the Armilla patrol in the Gulf. The fact that such work must be undertaken by a limited number of modern vessels means that they are taking a disproportionate share of the burden, with the inevitable strain on vessels and crews.
Much has been said about the threat. There has been general acceptance among hon. Members that the threat posed by Soviet maritime power has expanded over recent years. We may argue about whether it may continue, but it has certainly taken place. It is as the threat has become greater that the numbers of our destroyer frigate force have declined. I would accept that Britain's contribution to NATO in terms of nuclear-powered submarines has certainly improved, but on their own nuclear submarines cannot be the main anti-submarine element in NATO's navies. They must rely on frigates and destroyers for vital functions such as command, control and early warning to enable them to deal with a much larger Soviet submarine force.
The question on which I should like to conclude is whether the current and expected levels of frigates and destroyers are dictated by a calm, sober and rational assessment of the threat or by the economic constraints on defence spending. Are the levels what are needed by the Navy to do the job properly or are they simply the best that we can do in difficult circumstances? The House is entitled to a straight and clear answer to that point when the Minister replies to the debate.
The hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright), in his remarks about cruise missile submarines, shows the standard alliance tendency of wanting to have his cake and eat it—I am sorry, the SDP tendency; I cannot keep up with the changes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) made clear, it was an absurd idea in the first place that will haunt them in the years ahead. They cannot fudge that much. They cannot try to con people and expect it to stick, because it will not work.
After those robust words, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will excuse me if I do not take up his remarks because he and I are members of the Select Committee on Defence, and we are currently undertaking a detailed investigation into the surface fleet. Therefore, because so much has been said on that issue, it is unnecessary for me to duplicate those words.
I shall concentrate on four areas of concern. The first is our ability to reinforce our northern flank. Secondly, I should like to question the strategy of concentrating our maritime assets in the Norwegian and Barents Seas in times of conflict. Thirdly, I should like to remind the House of the massive maritime capability of the Soviet Union. Fourthly, I want to deal with disarmament, with particular reference to chemical weapons.
On the first question, the ability to reinforce our northern flank, my hon. Friend will know that it is necessary to land two companies simultaneously on Norwegian soil and that is a minimum requirement. That will require 24 helicopters which will need 12 landing spots to be available at the same time. Fearless and Intrepid between them have only four landing spots, so where will the others be found? Fearless and Intrepid are some 20 years old. A ship, however many mid-life and long-life refits it has, cannot last much longer than 25 years as the hull will not take it, however much it is strengthened.
However, to return to the point about landing spots, it has been suggested that they can be provided by aircraft carriers and ships taken up from trade. The public evidence given to the Select Committee on Defence on 24 February by Mr. Mottram, who is the assistant undersecretary of state (programmes), made it clear that the operational priority for aircraft carriers will be their ASW role. That will be an absolute priority and their commando and anti-air roles will be secondary.
A carrier cannot change its role easily. It has at least to return to United Kingdom waters for resupply and refitting to take place. Ships taken out from trade are unlikely to fulfil such a complicated, time-sensitive function as providing landing spots for helicopters with all the materials and men that they have to move at one time. I therefore ask my hon. Friend to convince me, and possibly the House, how he expects to be able to land the minimum of two companies simultaneously on Norwegian soil.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if there was an amphibious landing it would need considerable air cover? Does he consider that sufficient resources are available in terms of aircraft carriers to provide that air cover?
The hon. Gentleman has made a very important point. If one analyses the public information that has been given to the Select Committee, it is clear that our three carriers are expected to fulfil, sometimes at the same time, four roles. As we are told, normally there will be only two carriers available as one will be in for refit. I do not see how they can fulfil four roles at the same time. The hon. Gentleman is quite right, but I must resist his blandishment to start talking about aircraft carriers and Harriers and the numbers that we require.
I turn to my second point about questioning the strategy of concentrating our naval assets in the Norwegian seas. The Royal Navy Broadsheet 1987 states:
NATO maritime forces are guided by the principles of defence in depth, containment and keeping the initiative.
It goes on to say, in recognition of the massive Soviet maritime capability:
The only way to contain this threat from becoming a reality is to deploy our forces as far forward as necessary to intercept and contain Soviet forces well away from the SLOCs.
However, the same document states:
NATO, unlike the Soviet Union, depends for its survival on worldwide trade and its defence posture relies heavily on its ability to reinforce Europe by sea from the United States.
I wonder whether those statements are not incompatible. Clearly, we shall be forced to concentrate our maritime assets to protect the carriers in the Norwegian sea, and we need to protect our surface assets and our sub-surface assets.
There is no such thing as a 100 per cent. effective defence. We must therefore expect that, however many ships we push forward, some submarines will penetrate by running underneath and evading the screen and intercept the convoys from the United States. As NATO strategy is reactive, the Soviet Union will have more time than the Alliance to prepare for war. They will have time to push their submarine forces forward before the frigate and destroyer screens are in place and thus put themselves in a position to straddle the convoy routes between the United States and Europe. Because we put all our assets in Norway and in the Barents sea, those convoy routes will be denuded of defences.
Is not the real contradiction in NATO's own strategy? The basis of NATO strategy of flexible response is that conventional war in Europe will last eight days and then NATO becomes nuclear. With that strategy, we do not need a navy to escort convoys across the Atlantic as the war will become nuclear before they get here.
The purpose of an effective Navy is to permit us to react in different ways. I believe that the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) is absolutely right. We should be building up our maritime forces at the expense of our forces in West Germany.
I shall now move on to the maritime capability of the Soviet Union. There is an old German folk tale about two doves watching an archer. The young dove said to the older dove, "What a nice man that archer must he. Look at the smile on his face." But the wise old bird said to the young upstart, "Don't be silly, little boy. Don't look at his face, watch his hands".
Mr. Gorbachev's willingness to be more open and to seek accommodation with the West is to be welcomed, but we must not forget that he is a product of the Soviet system. We cannot ignore the massive build-up of the Soviet fleet, with well over 200 nuclear submarines. We cannot ignore the fact that a new Soviet submarine rolls down the slipway every 37 days. We cannot ignore the fact that its military capability is far beyond that which is necessary for its defence. Nor should we ignore the Soviet economy's massive inertia or the power of its generals and admirals.
No Russian who has lived through the siege of Leningrad or listened to tales of the Nazi invasion would ever allow his nation's defences to slip, and we should understand that. No member of the NATO Alliance who has watched the expansion of the Soviet empire should fail to recognise that to create a power vacuum by letting our guard fall is to invite disaster.
Regrettably, we live in a world of mutual distrust and fear, which will be overcome only as our aggressive abilities mutually decline without leaving gaps which could be exploited. That will happen only when the Soviet Union ceases to spend 17 per cent. of its GDP on its military and reallocates those resources to raising the living standards of its people.
Therefore, it follows that the only policy of disarmament that has any chance of being effective is one that is balanced, verifiable and structured so as not to leave any side with an overwhelming capability in any one area. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was right yesterday in her determination to maintain modern weapon systems and to stand against the blandishments of Chancellor Kohl and his short-term political objectives.
Finally, I want to make some suggestions on chemical weapon disarmament. We have no chemical weapons. The United States has a limited capacity for chemical weapon warfare. The Soviet Union has a massive chemical warfare capacity.
How on earth does the hon. Gentleman know the chemical tonnage and capacity of the United States when it has not announced it to anybody, not even to the Geneva talks on chemical weapons? How does he know that it has a limited capacity?
Because the United States has not built any for many years and chemical weapons deteriorate and degrade as they are not replaced.
An essential ingredient of any disarmament treaty is verification. However, despite what it said in the Supplementary Defence Estimates 1987, volume 1, page 10, chemical weapons cannot be verified by means of production. A petrochemical plant can produce one perfectly proper by-product. It can be next door to a detergent plant producing a perfectly proper by-product. Separate, the two are safe; together, they are lethal.
In addition, verification cannot be by means of delivery systems. We do not know whether chemicals, high explosive, or even nuclear materials are in a shell or a missile. If those two avenues are closed, how can there ever be a treaty on chemical weapons? The only way that I can see is a policy of self-denial where each side decides to deny itself protection against the other side's weapons. That will mean that neither side protects its men or its land-based battlefield weapon systems against chemical weapons. Because a man wearing a protective suit against chemical weapons must practise frequently in order to become effective, it should be easier to check whether chemical weapon protection is being used. In addition, it takes time to fit weapon systems with anti-chemical weapon suits.
There is an additional benefit in that chemical weapon protection for a weapon system or a man is similar to that for nuclear weapons and by denying protection against chemical weapons, and, consequently, nuclear weapons as well, the nuclear threshold would be raised.
However, I recognise that that exercise in lateral thinking has considerable downside risks. Those risks may be so great that on balance we shall have to live with the threat of chemical weapon warfare.
The Royal Navy prayer contains the words:
The Royal Navy and the Fleet in which we serve".
Everyone here is proud of the Royal Navy and the way in which it serves and defends us.
In 16 written questions, the first seven answered on 15 February at columns 448–49, and the latter nine answered on 26 February at columns 378–80 of the Official Report, I have raised the issue of the loss of parts of Trident off the Mull of Galloway and off Walney Island on 5 and 6 February.
In my 25 years as a Member of Parliament, I have never indulged in making trouble for its own sake and I regard this as far too serious and costly an issue to try to tease Ministers. However, one can imagine the fun that some Conservative politicians would have had at the expense of the Government of the day had Labour been in power.
I understand that inquiries are currently being undertaken by the shipbuilders VSEL and by the subcontractor, Motherwell Bridge Engineering. I gather that the Ministry of Defence is represented at those inquiries. To learn what actually happened, we must await the outcome. However, there is a general point about the management of the Trident contracts that is legitimate before the inquiry reports.
Given that the work is so important that it requires retrieving from the bottom of sea, how is it that such a large cargo was entrusted in the first place to a small Bahamas-registered vessel with an unvetted crew? Like most of my hon. Friends, I am a non-believer in Trident, but it appears frivolous for the Government, the centrepiece of whose defence policy is Trident, to allow a situation in which crucial components can be swept off the deck on 5 February and again on 6 February.
Secondly, I want to ask a question of fact about the Zircon satellite. I recognise that this is not the occasion on which to pursue further the disgraceful scene at Queen Margaret drive in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway), when friends of mine, executives of BBC Scotland, were hauled out of their beds at 3 am on the Sabbath morning of 1 February to assist special branch.
We know that in the summer of 1986 Duncan Campbell interviewed, among others, Sir Frank Cooper and Sir Ronald Mason and asked them both about Zircon. I understand that they both got on to the phone, quite properly, to their former Department, post haste, to recount the questions they had been asked about Zircon.
Who was the recipient of the communications from Cooper and Mason? What action did the recipient take? Were Ministers informed? If the former permanent secretary, one of the former great mandarins of Whitehall, and the former chief scientist, a fellow of the Royal Society and professor of chemistry, put through agitated phone calls to the Ministry of Defence, did the Department do nothing about their representations—if national security was involved?
Zircon never was about the security of our country. If it had been, Ministers displayed a dereliction of duty when they received the Cooper-Mason information. It was about political embarrassment. Alan Protheroe has made clear his concern on film.
Thirdly, I refer to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) about the Falklands yesterday. Why does at least Washington not understand our position on the Falklands if it is so watertight?
The final issue I want to raise concerns the log book of the Conqueror. My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) raised this issue in an early-day motion and then in Defence Question Time. Although he has consulted me at each major step and behaved as a exemplary parliamentary colleague to another who has been concerned with the issue in the past, my hon. Friend—not I—has made the running on the log book saga. I do not make judgments on such areas on the basis of the say-so of persons whom I have seen briefly once, although in my judgment this person was possessed of transparent integrity. But one matter I am clear about beyond peradventure: when the shadow Defence Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies), a cautious Member of Parliament, asks for an inquiry following the early-day motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, he is right to do so.
I have always been profoundly suspicious about the log book. Its alleged loss was announced out of the blue to the press late on 6 November 1985. On 7 November 1985, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) was due to give evidence to a difficult meeting of the Select Committee. The loss of the log book was used as a smokescreeen to cover up other political embarrassments. I have never believed that the control-room log book of the only nuclear submarine ever to have seen action for real was lost and that no one can shed light on how it was lost or destroyed or where it might be. I have too high a regard for the Royal Navy to suppose that such carelessness could go unpunished and unremarked.
It was pointed out to me by an ex-petty officer, a regular member of the Bloxwich naval club, that the commander of the Conqueror would hardly have been given the captain's command of a brand-new ship — HMS Cornwall—two weeks ago if there had been a blemish on his record such as the responsibility for losing a log book. I make no criticism of him—I wish him well. I am assured, and believe, that no document from the Conqueror went missing during the de-briefing or afterwards as a result of the crew's negligence.
I have never been out to cause trouble for the Navy. To give an example of that, when I first read the Sethia diaries in the autumn of 1983, it was all too obvious that HMS Cardiff had inadvertently shot down at least one of our helicopters. I said not a word because I did not want to embarrass people in the Navy who would be full of remorse; neither did I want to hurt next of kin whom I did not know. However, Mrs. Cockton, the mother of the copilot involved, told me that she thought I was wrong to keep quiet, and on reflection she may have been right.
Ministers on the Front Bench tonight came to office long after these events, and ministerial prudence and self-preservation will have suggested that they should not become involved. All that is required from them is anodyne words, and they will pass on, and up their careers, unsullied. I have no quarrel with them or desire to embarrass them.
To the Defence Secretary I say something different. I have always found him, as an Under-Secretary of State and then as a long-serving Secretary of State for Scotland, a courteous and obliging Minister, unlike the present incumbent. Either the right hon. Gentleman knows the truth about the log book, or, if he set his mind to it, he could find it out from those who do. I warn him that such curiosity could be dangerous, even for such a long-serving Cabinet Minister. If he were to discover who was in the Downing street equivalent of Bluebeard's forbidden cupboard, Mr. Ingham might make his life as difficult as he did that of the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen). I do not forget that, in the Belgrano debate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Mr. Stanley) snapped:
Mr. Ponting did not know all, and Mr. Ponting did not know the most important of all." — [Official Report, 18 February 1985; Vol. 73, c. 820.]
I believe a source who told me:
A copy of the control room log-book of the Conqueror, along with the crucial telegrams, is available to the Defence Secretary, if he wants them.
I concede that, careful politician as he is, the right hon. Gentleman might restrain his curiosity to the point of not wanting them.
I refer to the second paragraph of Mr. Ponting's introduction to the Belgrano action group's "Unnecessary War". He says:
Key documents have gone missing or not been revealed. The log book of HMS Conqueror, the submarine that sank the 'Belgrano', had been lost in circumstances that have never been explained and even a month's long enquiry by Scotland Yard has found no clues. The crucial diplomatic telegrams over the weekend of the sinking have been concealed. Even when I wrote the Top Secret intelligence report now known as the 'Crown Jewels' I was not allowed to see these telegrams. Similarly the Foreign Affairs Committee was refused access.
If I say to the Secretary of State for Defence that I do not believe that he either does not know what happened to the Conqueror's log book, or cannot find out, he will not think I am unduly offensive, because why, these days, should we put our trust any longer in the word of Ministers?
I suppose that I first realised the extent of wrongdoing and manipulation on that remarkable day in the Old Bailey, when that able civil servant, Richard Mottram, going into the witness box for the right hon. Member for Henley, revealed that the Commander-in-Chief's report had been altered significantly, as to the detection of the Belgrano, behind Sir John Fieldhouse's back.
For the sake of time, I shall not go through the script, which proves the point, of the Ponting trial cross-examination of Richard Mottram by Mr. Laughland, the lawyer. A limp excuse was given by the Prime Minister. I refer to the Official Report, 12 February 1985, column 164.
I conclude on a rather sad note. The first service Estimates debate in which I took part was over a quarter of a century ago. I think that this is my 52nd speech in service Estimates debates.
I am one of a dwindling band of Members of Parliament who have the memory of George Wigg sitting on the Front Bench below the Gangway, bobbing up and down, challenging Jack Profumo. The issue was truth to the House of Commons. It seems that I am an old-fashioned Member of Parliament these days, a throwback to less professional, less glitzy days, who thinks that telling the truth to the House of Commons is all-important and central to our system of government.
When I complain about the Prime Minister, and her behaviour in relation to the selectively leaked Law Officer's letter on Westland, I am not met with any kind of rebuttal of what I am saying. Conservatives do not say, "You're wrong." They say, something different. They say "Well, she got away with it, didn't she?", or, "We know you are right—but you'd better blame the Leader of the Opposition for making such a daft speech, and letting her off the hook!" That is the kind of thing they say. I am not passing judgment on the speech of the Leader of the Opposition.
I am just an old-fashioned Member of Parliament, who profoundly believes that we should have the truth about matters such as the log book of the Conqueror, and that Prime Ministers should not protect their own position. After all, if the right hon. Lady had not said on 27 January 1986,
I did not know about the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry's … role … until the inquiry had reported." — [Official Report, 27 January 1986; Vol. 90, c. 657.],
she would have been sending for the removal vans for 10 Downing street.
I do not think that senior Ministers should get away on log books, Westland, or the facts of the Libyan bombing with a brazen sustained lack of candour to the House of Commons.
I should like to thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) for his obvious efforts to keep his speech brief. I shall try to do the same because I am aware that the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) wishes to follow me.
There are three principal areas of concern. I am worried about the strength of the merchant fleet, about the disposition of weapons between our ships, and about training opportunities for women. Considering the very important role played by the WRNS, I am rather sad that too little attention has been given to them in this lengthy debate and that too little tribute has been paid to the role that they play.
Before turning to those three areas, I should like to touch first and briefly on the issue of the size of the Fleet, because it has tended to dominate some of the arguments of Opposition Members. They have claimed that the Fleet is now much smaller than it used to be, but they have totally ignored the fact that because a ship is now in refit for only 12·5 per cent. of its lifetime, as opposed to 25 per cent. in 1979, it is simply not necessary to have as big a Fleet to keep as many ships at sea. I should have thought that that was a fairly elementary piece of arithmetic that would not have been altogether beyond hon. Members.
Much the same argument applies in terms of the rate at which we should order and replace frigates and destroyers because the "gold standard", if one can term it that, of three frigates a year was conceived in 1982, when we were in a completely different situation. Modernisation has moved apace since then and, if we can guarantee longer lives for the new ships that we order, it is not so necessary to stick rigidly to three a year, even if that remains an ideal standard.
A NATO study, initiated by the Government, to their credit, appears to indicate that, in the event of a major emergency, we would need all 1,642 vessels available across all registers. There is no room for manoeuvre, reserve or emergency. It would need only a geographical conflict or a contractual disagreement to prevent deployment. Furthermore, there is a major deficiency in manning. We could not man those ships, even if we had them. I urge the Minister to address himself, as a matter of urgency, to our merchant fleet.
Secondly, although it is completely unreasonable to expect that all our ships will have the full range of weapon systems, provided that we are working on the basis of a slimmer, leaner fleet, we must make sure that each individual ship has a greater range of functions available to it than at present.
Thirdly, on the training of women, I should like to congratulate the Government on their efforts to encourage engineering training for women in the WRNS and on the encouraging moves that they have made in the employment of medical staff. However, I would draw the Government's attention to the Defence Estimates and to the decline in the number of female service personnel, because those personnel have not commanded any attention this afternoon. They are important and they must be encouraged, as they could help to make up for some of the deficiencies in our recruitment.
I wish to thank the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) for her short, sharp speech. She made her points very well and has given me the opportunity to contribute to the debate.
I wish to quote from an excellent pamphlet, recently produced by Greenpeace, about nuclear-free seas, as that should set the tone for tonight's debate. It states:
At sea there are no boundaries. The naval forces of the nuclear powers move freely and quietly, unseen by the public and media. In the words of Admiral Carlisle Trost, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, … the Navy operates in international waters, where no government's permission to base and fly aircraft is required … the navies of the nuclear powers use the oceans as their global arena. They are in the Norwegian Sea, the Bering Sea, the Sea of Japan, the Arabian Sea, the Mediterranean, underneath the Arctic, lurking off each other's coast and outside each other's ports. Every day they wage an invisible war on the high seas: signalling aggressive intentions to the other side, searching for weaknesses, and
demonstrating a readiness to fight. One third of the nuclear weapons in the world, and over 500 nuclear reactors, are now deployed at sea. Virtually all of the ocean going ships and submarines of the superpower navies are nuclear armed. It is increasingly likely that nuclear war will start at sea.
numerous 'incidents' and misunderstandings … New long range, highly accurate nuclear cruise missiles have also recently joined the naval arsenals. There is a widespread belief among naval planners that nuclear war at sea might not escalate into a global conflagration. A nuclear war at sea is therefore more thinkable. The U.S. Navy, and possibly the other nuclear navies, has more autonomy … over the use of its nuclear weapons than the other military services.
The document concludes:
None of these operations, strategies or weapons are the subject of current or foreseen arms control negotiations. The navies strenuously resist any attempts to subject their activities to international scrutiny or control. On the high seas it has become, as the U.S. Navy now describes it, an era of 'violent peace'.
That is the basis on which we should hold this debate.
The document referred to nuclear reactors and the 500 nuclear reactors at sea. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) reminded us of the near-meltdown and near-catastrophe involving HMS Resolution. Now we know that HMS Resolution is what the Government mean by the "resolute approach". There must have been a release of radiation from that ship, because one man had to be scrubbed down for over 24 hours. The Government called it a minor electrical malfunction. Presumably, that is what may have started the incidents at Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. I repeat the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton. The Government should answer candidly on that matter because there has been inadequate investigation of radiation health risks and there are inadequate emergency plans.
The Greenpeace report referred to the Royal Navy's involvement in the United States offensive forward maritime strategy. William Arkin described that in his Neptune papers for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. He said that forward policy means
more aggressive operations close to the Soviet Union in peacetime, increased use of land-based aircraft and facilities in support of offensive maritime operations, crisis surge deployments of attack and ballistic missile submarines from home ports … during peacetime exercises … deployment of nuclear-powered attack submarines deep in the 'sea control areas' and 'home waters' of the Soviet Union, more aggressive electronic warfare operations".
The report goes on right up to plans for the first use of nuclear weapons at sea.
We are going along with that strategy. It is different from the defensive strategy of the past in which we have protected convoys. It is a more provocative approach. I note that NATO is redrafting its concept of maritime operations in line with that United States strategy. We are going along with it despite the misgivings in Europe. I have some questions for the Minister which I hope that he will answer, now or subsequently.
When and where will the Eurogroup meet to discuss the new concept of maritime operations and what opportunity will there be for prior discussion of the important issues? What role has Britain taken in the redrafting of the CONMAROPS? Who has been representing Britain and who will be presenting the proposals to the Eurogroup? Does the Eurogroup paper advocate what is written in the Navy International article of October 87? That article talks of
early forward deployment into the Norwegian sea of a NATO European battle-group led by Royal Navy Invincible-class carriers, to substitute for American battle-groups which cannot get there early enough.
If the paper does advocate such a policy, will it mean that the most controversial and hazardous part of the United States maritime strategy — the positioning of surface ships as far forward as possible, as early as possible in a crisis—will be carried out for the Americans by the Dutch, British and Germans? That would mean that we would be in the front line. Nelson said that no sailor but a fool would attack a fort. The Government appear to be making us look a fool. We should not be taking that frontline role on behalf of the Americans.
There have already been conventional skirmishes because of that forward offensive maritime strategy. In October 1987 two Royal Navy Lynx helicopters were involved in a dangerous confrontation with two Soviet nuclear weapon-capable Flogger aircraft during the surveillance of a Soviet exercise in the Barents sea. On 13 February there was a report in The Guardian about a skirmish in which two United States warships were inside Soviet waters. They were both dangerous, conventional skirmishes. Such skirmishes are increasing in number and could easily escalate into a nuclear fight. The problem is that the threshold is low and in a conventional skirmish the Soviets are faced with a choice about their own nuclear weapons; use them or lose them. That increases the danger of a nuclear fight enormously.
The other matter that I wanted to raise relates to the joint ocean surveillance information centre. We should have more information about that centre from the Ministry of Defence. It was unknown until the Pentagon announced last year the sale to the United Kingdom of $24 million-worth of upgraded items for the system. I understand that it is linked to the United States naval force Europe's headquarters at North Audley street in London, which houses the fleet ocean surveillance information centre Europe. While Britain officially adheres to NATO's maritime strategy, the operational reality is of a much closer integration with a more offensive United States maritime strategy which we have not yet agreed, certainly not in the House.
Why should JOSIC be a bilateral arrangement between Britain and the United States rather than part of NATO? If it is bilateral, why is it apparently funded entirely from the British defence budget? Why is there not a contribution from the United States? What control does the United Kingdom exert over the facility and its operational use in London? Why does the British taxpayer fund a system with a subsidiary role as a United States national intelligence system that is not assigned to NATO? The Minister should answer all of those questions.
Verification is a difficult problem to solve at sea. The Government should be considering how it can be achieved in detail because, without constraint on sea-launched cruise missiles and other nuclear weapons at sea, it will be very difficult for the United States, the Soviet Union or any other nation to assess and monitor the number of each other's nuclear weapons. That problem will complicate negotiations to limit or reduce nuclear weapons.
I conclude my remarks with a comment of retired United States Admiral Eugene Carroll. He said that the Trident missiles that we are buying will be
a trigger to commit suicide
and that the major powers are
addicted to new nuclear weapons. That addiction is as lethal as addiction to heroin or crack. We need a detoxification programme to wean ourselves off them. To live in a world in which safety is dependent on nuclear weapons is no safety at all. Sooner or later, they are going to be used.
With the leave of the House, may I say that the debate has given long and thorough treatment to this important subject. It has been a more structured debate than in recent years, with a measure of agreement on the problems. Whether we have reached a consensus is a matter of debate.
Virtually every hon. Member has expressed anxiety about the size of the fleet. I hope that the report of the Select Committee on Defence will be published quickly and that time will be found for debate, perhaps before the Estimates are published. No doubt the business managers of the House are aware of the importance that hon. Members on both sides of the House attach to this issue, and of our concern. An opportunity to debate it again will be appreciated, particularly with information made freely available to all Members.
Those hon. Members who have sat through the Select Committee have the advantage of seeing draft minutes, which puts them in a better position in relation to this debate than the rest of us. I think that we get close to the edge of privilege when hon. Members quote from unapproved minutes. I do not want to carp, but that is all the more reason why this matter should be brought into the open so that we can find out what is happening.
I am happy and willing to attack the hon.. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill), but on this occasion he is innocent of any charge that I am making!
The debate has highlighted the anxieties of Opposition Members. Reference was made by the Conservative Benches to the significance of the procurement dimensions for most Opposition Members who have spoken on constituency employment, but the nature of shipbuilding means that the industry is a large and dominant employer, and the cyclical nature of warship orders has acted as a disincentive to private employers. Very few employers have come into the industry in the Tyne, Clyde and Mersey regions, so it is natural that my hon. Friends should be concerned about Royal Navy shipbuilding. My hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett) pointed out the pride with which shipbuilding communities view their babies—their ships—and the manner in which they welcome shipbuilding is evidence of the community spirit which is manifest for construction and support services.
I will not go down the road of trying to choose between the competing claims of the Tyne or the Mersey for type 23s. It is not good enough for the shipyard workers, who are skilled men, to have to wait until June to be told who will get the tenders, although we realise that tendering is a lengthy process and it suits the purposes of the Government to delay their acceptance for as long as possible—at least until the next financial year when there will be more room in the Budget to find the £130 million or £140 million needed for a type 23. We would like an indication, before the Estimates, of what the next round of orders will be and when they will start. The Government must give a commitment that they will carry on building type 23s.
Pleas have been made for the auxiliary oil replenishment vessels, and we have heard of the rivalry between Swan Hunter and Harland and Wolff. The Government must give an indication tonight when work will start on the recently ordered AOR 2 and when the four remaining AOR vessels will be ordered, because they are essential to keep type 23s at sea. One of the dangers of the shortsightedness of the Government's make-do-and-mend policy is that one craft is put at a disadvantage because another is not available to assist it and work with it.
Many references have been made to support in Norway and the need for amphibious vessels. The hon. Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed) referred to that matter, and we echo what he said. In 1986 the Ministry of Defence announced that it was putting aside £450 million in long-term costings to decide the future shape of the Royal Navy's amphibious capability. That announcement reversed the decision in 1983 to dispose of HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid in the early 1990s without replacement. Then it was announced in 1986 that Swan Hunter had been awarded a £250 million contract for a study on the feasibility of updating the two landing platform docks. In March 1987 the industry was invited to tender for funded feasibility project definitions.
Those are high-falutin' expressions, but it is an expensive way of spelling procrastination or, to put it more simply, putting it off. We recognise that the decisions are important, but we suspect that the continual need for studies and reviews is just an excuse to delay expenditure on already severely stretched budgets. We know also that similar problems can arise in the anti-submarine carriers.
The refit for HMS Illustrious is to be postponed until 1991. This is critical because it could throw into chaos the whole refit cycle for carriers. By the early 1990s the Royal Navy will have only one carrier available for operational deployment.
We have had in the past from previous Ministers of State for Defence Procurement commitments to having two carriers generated at any one time, while the third will usually be in refit. Yet the Government's response to the Defence Committee report on the lessons of the Falklands said:
two of the INVINCIBLE class carriers would be available for deployment at short notice and that to ensure this, a third carrier would be maintained in refit or reserve. The corollary of this is that two CAGs also need to be available at short notice".
During the recent exercise Purple Warrior, RAF Valley in Anglesey had to pretend to be an aircraft carrier because there were not enough aircraft or helicopter carriers. Probably it was just as well that this was in Anglesey and that they were only invading Scotland. The problems that these exercises indicate highlight the chaos into which we are lapsing and which the numbers aspect has in some respects clouded over tonight, because there are more deep-seated problems in procurement.
I have already spoken of the significance of warship building, but shipbuilding is a seamless garment. The skills that are gained in one yard are often translated, by the movement of individuals, to another. If we are not building merchant ships and we have an insufficient order book for warships, those skills will die.
I do not want to labour this point too much, but in talking about shipbuilding it is incumbent upon the Minister to tell us what has happened in the short fat ship controversy. It is now more than 12 months since Lloyd's was given the job of producing a report. When one goes to any part of the warship building industry and asks about this question, on invariably gets conflicting responses, but this was to be the definitive report. It may be that this is another judgment of Solomon that nobody wants to make or to publish, but I think that we would benefit from some straight talking on the issue.
In the recent past we have had some confirmation of the Government's good intent concerning NFR90. I would hope that we might this evening get a little more in this respect. We have had parliamentary answers, but this is the opportunity for the Minister to spell out the Government's intentions. We have the advantage — or disadvantage; I am not sure, Madam Deputy Speaker—of having a former Treasury Minister as the senior Minister for procurement, because as far as I can see it is the Treasury that is calling the shots on NFR90.
There is an aversion within that Department to any collaborative project. It sees the spectre of the European fighter aircraft looming on the horizon. But we believe that decisions of this nature are necessary, because if the shipbuilding industry in this country is to survive we must ensure that we keep the design teams together. I am speaking in particular about the work that is being done on the Clyde, because there is there a lead capacity that has to be sustained. It was for that reason that I said earlier that we want to know when the next four type 23 orders are to be placed, because nobody in warship building knows what is happening.
Strangely, we have not had any real mention in the debate this evening of the royal dockyards, partly because many of us believe that they are going through a difficult patch and it is better to—I do not want to say let sleeping dogs lie.
It may well be that the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) has other things to preoccupy him at the moment, but certainly Devonport is a cause for concern. It was promised core programme work by the Defence Secretary and predicted redundancies were based on the core programme coming through. Since then the MOD has reneged on those promises and Devonport is not getting the work. Therefore, the redundancies are taking an even greater toll, and it is an area where there is very little in the way of alternative employment because of the sheer scale of the place and the overheads which are a direct consequence of having such a large area in which to work. One of Rosyth's advantages is that it is a compact unit which is fairly well equipped and resourced.
The problem is that Devonport is finding it difficult not only because of overheads but because the scale of operation requires quite high rental fees; these are a burden which it has to bear and which many of the privatised yards do not, especially when privatisation was achieved at a very low cost to the people who purchased the yards. As regards in-house provision, there is also the question of the base at Portsmouth being used for refitting purposes. Work seems to be pushed towards Portsmouth, and the type 42 work which is being done at Portsmouth naval base is not being put out to tender. I should be interested to know why competitive tendering is not being applied there if it is such a cure for all ills.
To their great credit, the men and women in the yards have got down to the job. Those of us who were part of the long and weary progress of the Bill—I am not sure whether any hon. Members on the Government Benches tonight shared that experience, but a number of my hon. Friends who are here this evening did—were concerned that, although we did not want privatisation of the yards, when the House had had its say and the Bill went through, we were anxious about its consequences for industrial relations. Problems in this area have not been alleviated by the difficulty experienced by many workers in getting their redundancy payments. Some have had to wait as long as five months to get this money. The Ministry of Defence ought to get moving and to see to it that these payments are put into the hands of the work force as quickly as possible.
I will finish as I started, by paying tribute to the Navy and to the men and women who serve in it. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) spoke movingly this evening about his recent trip to Saudi, where he met men who have been serving on the Armilla patrol. These men went out to what is one of the most unpleasant parts of the world in which to be a sailor and to work in craft which are not really suited to the climate there — air conditioning is the most basic problem. Nevertheless, they went there; they did not query it; they did not flinch from it; and they have done their duty with incredible courage in difficult and trying circumstances. They and the rest of the Royal Navy deserve better than they get from the Government. Between now and the next election all hon. Members have a duty to ensure that their conditions will be improved.
I hope that the Minister will be able to deal with some of the many problems raised in the debate, but that is perhaps too much to hope for.
I agree with the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) on one important point, at least. Indeed, the whole House will agree with us that it has been an excellent debate with interesting contributions from all parts of the House. In the short time available, I shall try to answer as many of the points as possible, but I hope the House will understand that I cannot cover them all. Nor would it be fair to those who have already spoken to give way and thus further reduce the time available for my reply.
The first point to which I should respond was raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck), by the hon. Member for Clackmannan and by most other hon. Members who have spoken. It relates to our surface fleet and, in particular, the destroyers and frigates in a variety of contexts. First, I reaffirm, yet again, the commitment of the Government to maintain a force of about 50 escorts. I was glad to hear that figure supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill).
There seems to be some confusion, to say the least, about the present size of the escort fleet. The hon. Member for Clackmannan referred to a figure of 36 escourts which appeared in the press today. The facts are simple. There are currently 49 destroyers and frigates in the Fleet. Of these, six are in refit, a significantly smaller proportion than a few years ago, largely as a result of the improved maintenance cycles that we have introduced. A further seven vessels are preparing for operational service or are engaged in trials or training. Of course, they would be operationally available in case of need within a short time. The other 36 would be available at about 48 hours' notice.
I was also asked about the ordering rate. We are not tied to a rigid order rate. Rather, we aim to place orders at a rate needed to maintain the level of about 50. While for planning purposes we may use ship life figures of, for example, 22 years, the reality is far more complex. Actual ship life is not simply a question of age; it is a trade-off between the material state of the ship and its capability.
As mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks), batch 3 type 22 frigates now coming into service — HMS Cumberland and HMS Campbeltown in the next financial year—are at least twice as effective in their role as the ships which they will replace and are the Navy's most capable frigates. The order rate comes down eventually to what vessels have to offer at a particular stage in their life. Another factor is flexibility arising out of our developing experience in running the new ships.
In this context I was asked about type 23 orders. Tenders for up to four type 23 frigates were received on 12 January. These are being evaluated. The precise size and timing of an order arising from the tenders have not yet been determined. [Interruption.] I do not think hon. Members would expect us to have decided on a tender in such a short time. It is just over a month since tenders were received.
One aspect of NATO's strategy has been mentioned several times by hon. Members who made interesting comments on this important subject. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend), the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed) referred to our important role in reinforcing the northern flank and, therefore, the important role of our amphibious capability. The House will recall that my right hon. Friend announced in December 1986 that the Government had decided to retain an amphibious capability in the longer term.
Our two LPDs are a vital element of that capability, as was mentioned. We are therefore now examining two options for the future of that element. One is the procurement of new build vessels, the other a ship life extension programme. A feasibility study has been carried out into the latter option by Swan Hunter, and further feasibility studies into the option of new build vessels are under way. They are being carried out under contract by three consortia, led by Swan Hunter, VSEL and Scott Lithgow. All the studies will be complete by the autumn of this year and the results will then be studied by the Ministry. This time scale means that we will be able to take a decision on the best way forward in good time before HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid reach the end of their current useful lives in the mid-1990s.
In parallel with the work on the replacement of the LPDs we are giving active consideration to how best to accommodate the helicopter support, which was also referred to. I recognise that it is important for the amphibious group, and the concept of an aviation support ship features in this consideration. However, it is not the only option and no decisions have yet been taken.
Two of the logistic landing ships, also important in our amphibious capability—the rebuilt Sir Tristram and the new Sir Galahad—have only recently joined the Fleet. There are plans to give older LSLs a ship life extension programme.
Last week I had the great pleasure and privilege of visiting the Royal Marine winter deployment in northern Norway, to see at first hand what amphibious operations involve north of the Arctic circle. I had the opportunity to watch 45 Commando deploying ashore, both by helicopter and landing-craft, from HMS Intrepid, and subsequently was able to spend some time with the troops as the exercise developed. It brought home to me vividly the complexity of this sort of operation, and the temperature in which it is carried out. I would like to pay tribute to the high levels of professionalism and skill shown by our service men when operating in these extreme conditions. Their presence is direct evidence of our commitment to the security of NATO's northern flank.
A number of hon. Members referred to Trident. The importance of Trident as a credible deterrent was stressed, understandably, by my hon. Friends the Members for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Franks) and for Bexleyheath. I am glad to confirm that the Trident programme is proceeding satisfactorily and on schedule. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it clear on 23 February that production of warheads has started. Despite the reported difficulties on some building works at Aldermaston, we assess that deliveries of warheads will be on time to achieve the planned in-service date for the Trident system in the mid-1990s.
I shall resist the temptation to go down to the bottom of the Mull of Galloway with the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell).
The hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett) raised several matters. First, I assure him that Swan Hunter has already been given the order for the AOR 2, which I announced just before Christmas. I note with interest his comments on the advantages of batch ordering. NFR 90 is now at the stage of project definition and the programme envisages first of class for the Royal Navy towards the end of the century.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester, North made an interesting point about Holbrook school going co-educational. As my hon. and learned Friend will know, that question has been considered in the past but there are no plans to make any changes at present.
The hon. Members for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) and for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) referred to the HMS Resolution incident. There is no truth whatever in the allegation that there was "a near-disaster" on board HMS Resolution last month. The scrubbing-down story that was mentioned is a complete invention. There was an electrical malfunction which was dealt with by standard operating procedures. At no time was there any danger to the submarine's reactor, its crew or the public. It is not Ministry of Defence deception, but the scaremongering of the hon. Member for Dumbarton that is causing distress and concern to his constituents.
I was glad to hear the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) on the WRNS and I welcome her support for the training in engineering.
The hon. Member for Clackmannan mentioned search and rescue at Lee-on-Solent. It has been our intention for some time to withdraw the Royal Navy Wessex flight from Lee-on-Solent on 1 April 1988. Coverage of the central English channel and Solent areas will be fully adequate—in many respects better—if we use the more capable Sea King aircraft operating mainly from Porton. The hon. Member for Clackmannan also referred to NFR 90, but I cannot add to what I have already said or to what my hon. Friend said in his opening speech.
The hon. Member for Attercliffe referred to increasing Soviet capability, as did other hon. Members. That is true, and it is a cause for concern. However, we should not ignore the fact that we do not need to meet this threat alone because we are part of the NATO Alliance and our own capability is growing.
I have been asked about procurement matters. Put simply, the objective of our policy is the economic procurement of the best equipment for the Fleet and therefore ultimately greater fighting effectiveness.
In recent years a consistent theme has been to bemoan the fact that modern defence material often costs much more in real terms than the previous generation of equipment that it is replacing. I do not accept the long-held view that defence equipment will inevitably become more and more expensive. On the contrary, I believe that we of can often get better defence equipment at a lower price. With improved skill, such opportunities will increase.
With regard to sonar we have made enormous strides in the important technology of software control and signal processing. That means that we can consistently improve our active and passive sonar capability, vital to counter the increasing Soviet submarine threat. At the same time we can also reduce the volume of inboard electronics, which has benefits for submarine design and ship fitting, and allows the production cost of the new equipment to be dramatically reduced. Today, for example, I announced that a competition for the new sonar 2074 has produced a solution, developed by Plessey Naval Systems Ltd., which requires only one sixth of the volume of electronics of its predecessor, and which can be procured for around 30 per cent. of its predecessor's cost. Its estimated through-life support cost is also around one third of the older generation of equipment.
Another area that has witnessed substantial technical progress that has been translated into improved performance by reducing real costs is electronic warfare, and, in particular, passive warning devices, known as electronic support measures. In the past few years we have initiated an extremely cost-effective updating of the fleet's main surface ship ESM, and we have held two competitions for submarine ESM, both of which have resulted in more capable equipments at unit prices some 15 to 20 per cent. less than those for previous ESMs.
With regard to mine warfare, also referred to in the debate, the hunt class mine countermeasures vessels, already among the most capable in the world and currently proving their worth in the Gulf, are to be followed by the new class of single role minehunters. Those ships will be only three quarters of the cost of a Hunt class vessel. However, they will have a number of improvements, including a far more capable mine hunting and disposal system, which will allow them to find and destroy mines in water three times as deep as the Hunt class ships.
I believe that our policies of competition, batch ordering and improved reliability and maintainability come together in a particularly striking way in the procurement of the type 23 frigate, referred to by a number of hon. Members. That ship will deploy all the major weapons systems of the previous type 22 frigate — helicopter, towed array and hull-mounted sonar, Seawolf point defence missile system, surface-to-surface missiles and a 4·5 in gun—yet it is being procured at around 80 per cent. of the cost of the type 22 frigate. It also has a significantly smaller crew, and we anticipate that it will, in due course, show substantial savings in its through-life operations and support costs as well.
Efficient management of procurement, using the stimulus of competition, has no doubt accounted for some of the price reductions, but we are also witnessing the benefits of technological advances that are allowing costs to fall.
Another area that has witnessed improvements in efficiency and about which I have been asked, especially by the hon. Member for Clackmannan, is the dockyards. The House will he aware that commercial management was introduced into the royal dockyards at Rosyth and Devonport on 6 April 1987. We took the decision to change the way in which the royal dockyards were managed because it had long been accepted that change was necessary.
The simple fact is that the old labour-intensive, uncompetitive, union-troubled set-up, ponderous and inflexible as it was, could not provide the cost-effective and rapid service now required by the Royal Navy. The Public Accounts Committee, commenting on the state of the dockyards in 1984, said that the time had come for more urgent and decisive action to balance efficient management and use of resources against the need to meet the Navy's operational requirements. A radical solution was needed both to improve the output and efficiency of the dockyards and to set in place a commercially-oriented management structure.
The Government decided that commercial management offered the best chance of a secure future for the dockyards, while protecting vital strategic assets by retaining them under Government ownership. Commercial management introduced the disciplines of competition and the best commercial practice into the hitherto protected world of warship refitting. This fulfilled the Government's obligations to obtain maximum value for money for the Royal Navy and the taxpayer, while at the same time giving the dockyards, with their unrivalled assets — which I recognise — work force skills and experience, the chance to ameliorate the worst effects of the decline in the defence ship refitting work load by seeking commercial work outside the defence sector.
The fundamental nature of those changes and the adjustments that have been and will be made in the dockyards — nearly all of whose employees have transferred from the Civil Service — and in the Royal Navy, as the new customer-supplier relationship develops in a commercial environment, cannot be overstated. It has therefore been a difficult time of transition.
Although it is early days, the Navy is already seeing the benefits of that, and the taxpayer is obtaining greater value for money. That is all the more impressive when it is remembered that commercial management was introduced against a background of union opposition — which had hindered the preparations that the incoming contractors were able to make — and after a period of industrial unrest, which was fuelled partly by the understandable apprehension and uncertainty of the employees.
I should therefore like to take this opportunity to congratulate Devonport Management Ltd. and Babcock Thorn Ltd. on the way in which they have approached their tasks and, in particular, on the great importance that they have placed, and continue to place, on good industrial relations. They have built on the spirit and loyalty of their work forces, who have responded very well to the challenge of this new approach.
As a result, there has been no significant disruption through labour relations problems in either yard since the change took place. That is a tribute to the good sense and restraint of all concerned. I should also like to record our appreciation of those within the Ministry of Defence's directorate general of ship refitting and dockyard planning team, who worked hard to make the installation of commercial management as smooth as possible.
We shall continue to keep the capacity of our defence refit capability under review. There is, as I am sure the House will recognise, a delicate balance to be maintained. On the one hand, we need to seek the undoubted benefits that open competition can bring — we have seen the benefits that it can bring—and, on the other, we have a responsibility to safeguard, by means of a core programme, the vital strategic assets in the royal dockyards, which include their ability, through regular experience and by maintaining the proper balance of work force skills, to repair and refit the most complex modern warships.
My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) referred to the importance of Portsmouth to the Navy.
I should like to respond to as many points as possible in the short time that is available.
As part of our continuing review of the capacity of our defence refit capability, the work done at the fleet maintenance and repair organisation at Portsmouth is being examined. While we value greatly the work that is done by the FMRO, it clearly cannot be immune to efficiency measures and to changes in the volume and make up of its work load. We cannot therefore guarantee that the current levels of employment there will continue indefinitely.
I should stress that Portsmouth, with its naval base and many training establishments, will remain a very important base for the Royal Navy, and the Ministry of Defence will remain a major employer in the area. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South that HMS Victory will remain as a tourist attraction run by the Navy.
We have every reason to be proud of the professionalism and dedication of our sailors and marines. I was glad that those qualities were recognised by all hon. Members. Their performance in the Gulf and elsewhere is evidence of their professionalism. We are determined to ensure that they are properly trained and equipped to carry out their demanding tasks.
My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South rightly drew the attention of the House to the significant increases in the capability presented by modern ships and weapons systems. That improvement is well illustrated by our escort force so frequently referred to. In the past five years, the number of towed array frigates has more than doubled. The number of ships fitted with Sea Wolf has increased twofold, and the number equipped with Sea Dart has risen by 25 per cent. Those numbers are increasing all the time.
The improvements stem directly from the Government's major investment in the Royal Navy during the past nine years. Many benefits of that investment are still being realised. Of 60 vessels ordered since 1979, nearly half have still to be delivered. In 1987, in addition to the four ships accepted for service, some six vessels have been ordered and a further seven scheduled.
It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.