Amphibious Forces

– in the House of Commons at 4:35 pm on 13 February 1992.

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Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark , Plymouth, Sutton 4:35, 13 February 1992

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the Government's future plans for amphibious forces.

The White Paper, "Britain's Defence for the 90s", set out the changes in the size and shape of our armed forces as a consequence of the radical change in the world situation. It recognised the increasing importance, with lower force levels, of greater flexibility and mobility. It made it clear that the Royal Marines will retain their role as the principal infantry element in the amphibious forces and that we would be addressing the need for new specialist shipping and equipment that they require for their tasks.

These have three principal elements. First, there are the landing ships logistic which, by beach landing forces, vehicles and stores, played a significant part in the conflicts in the South Atlantic and the Gulf. We shall maintain five of these vessels. The House will recall that one of them, Sir Galahad, is a new ship constructed following the tragic loss of its predecessor in the Falklands, and that another, Sir Tristram, has been substantially rebuilt. We now intend to process a fundamental overhaul and re-equipment of the remaining three which will enable us to operate them well into the next century.

The second category are the Royal Marines principal transport and landing ships, Fearless and Intrepid. I can now tell the House that we have awarded contracts for project definition for replacements for these ships. These contracts have gone to YARD—the Yarrow Admiralty Research Department—in Glasgow, Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd. in Barrow, and Dowty-Sema Limited in Esher. Two further study contracts are due to be placed shortly for critical aspects of their communications.

I turn now to the third element, the commando and helicopter-carrier ship. I can confirm that we are now proceeding to invite tenders for the design and build of a new helicopter carrier. This ship, which we have previously referred to as an aviation support ship, will be suitable for a variety of tasks in and out of area. Its primary role is to achieve the fastest delivery ashore of its entire embarked amphibious landing force.

These proposals in total amount to about £500 million and provide significant opportunities for our shipbuilding industry and the many other companies which contribute the equipments that will be incorporated in these ships.

My statement today forms part of our wider commitment to providing the Royal Navy with modern and capable equipment. The House will agree that this programme ensures that the Royal Navy in the 1990s and beyond will exemplify our intention to provide armed forces that are flexible, mobile and smaller but better equipped.

Photo of Mr Roland Boyes Mr Roland Boyes , Houghton and Washington

May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to look into a matter which is not too important? The Annunciator has carried a message all day saying that the subject of the statement was helicopter carriers, but the statement dealt with amphibious forces. I make no criticism whatever of the Minister as I am sure that he was unaware of the difference—as I was—but I wonder if it could be looked into.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

I think that I may be able to help. I was originally told that the statement was about amphibious forces, but that it was then changed to helicopter carriers. I think that is the misunderstanding, but I am assured that it is the same statement.

Photo of Mr Roland Boyes Mr Roland Boyes , Houghton and Washington

Nevertheless, it puts us at some disadvantage.

Will the Minister accept that I welcome today's statement, as will many shipyard workers? It represents a step forward in the planned procurement of new amphibious forces. Labour's view is that we should maintain an amphibious capacity, including Royal Marine commandos and their specialist equipment.

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the concern of the Norwegian Government on this matter. Can he describe the changes made in his plans as a result of the changing nature of the threat?

Can the Minister confirm that invitations for tenders for a new aviation support ship were issued on 24 October 1988? On 1 May 1990 the Secretary of State told the Select Committee on Defence that there were some difficulties which needed to be resolved in relation to the aviation support ship. Will the Minister tell the House what those difficulties were and how they have been resolved?

Will the Minister also confirm that the Ministry of Defence is planning for the tenders to be returned in the autumn of this year and that final orders will be placed in the autumn of next year?

We welcome the overhaul of the landing ships logistic. Can the Minister state when the overhaul programme will start? We also welcome the awarding of contracts for project definition replacements for Fearless and Intrepid. We note the previous commitment by the Minister on 15 October to award these contracts last November. Can he say when he will now place the order?

Will the Minister accept Labour's total commitment to an amphibious capability? I am sure that the whole House will agree that it is a vital requirement for the proper level of defence, both for this country and to make our proper contribution to the defence of NATO.

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark , Plymouth, Sutton

I certainly welcome the hon. Gentleman's statement and his reiteration of his party's commitment to this important element in our overall service capability. I would not wish to appear ungracious, but I am curious as to how these various commitments on the part of the Labour party, which accumulate every time we debate this subject, can be reconciled with the decision of his party conference and the wish of the majority of members of the Labour party to cut defence expenditure by 27 per cent. I do not think, however, that this will ever be put to the test, so we shall remain in ignorance on this curious mathematical anomaly.

As for the reorientation of the operational duties of the amphibious forces, it is true that the urgency of the north Norway flank has diminished, but the Royal Marines have already shown their immense flexibility in all sorts of roles out of area, such as aid to the civil power, assistance with hurricane damage in Pakistan, assistance with Operation Haven in Turkey, and so on.

As to the order dates, I hope that we shall be in a position to order this in the autumn of next year, but that depends on a thorough scrutiny and evaluation of the tender process.

Photo of Michael Mates Michael Mates , East Hampshire

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement which is an earnest of the statements that he and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have been making for the past two years, that although our services are to become smaller they will be better equipped, and this will allow us to go forward over the next decade with superbly equipped troops, although fewer in number. Can my right hon. Friend say how many helicopters it is suggested should be on this ship, and whether it will be able to provide perhaps a company lift of marines, which would make realistic the getting ashore of a complete commando in a difficult scenario?

Will my right hon. Friend not be quite so shy about speculating as to how on earth the Labour party's welcome for a further £500 million expenditure sits with its determination to take £6 billion off? I know that it is an unlikely occurrence, but my right hon. Friend could put a little more thought into where the cuts would come—in other men, aeroplanes, tanks, or what?

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark , Plymouth, Sutton

I did not want to look a handsome gift horse in the mouth quite so flagrantly in my response to the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes), but I endorse everything that my hon. Friend has said.

As to the helicopter strength on the carrier, we expect that it will initially be equipped with 12 Sea Kings which will be able to land the first wave simultaneously. That will be a great enhancement of our amphibious capability. As my hon. Friend knows, until this point we would have had to bring a CVS, a proper aircraft carrier, close in-shore, with all the attendant risks. This means that there will now be a dedicated ship to fulfil this function.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

May I join in the general welcome of the announcement of the helicopter carrier and the enhanced flexibility and mobility that it will bring? Can the Minister say a little more about when it is planned that the helicopter carrier will come into service? In relation to the helicopters to be carried, the Minister will be aware that the Ministry of Defence contracts bulletin of 8 January refers not only to Sea Kings but to the EH101 as an alternative. Can he give the House a little more information about that alternative and when the matter is likely to be resolved?

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark , Plymouth, Sutton

I hope very much that this ship will be operational in the second half of the decade. I would not wish to be more precise than that at the present time because there is a great deal of detailed work still to go into it. As to the transition from Sea King to EH101, that again depends on the development of the 101 aircraft because the anti-submarine 101 is our first priority and it is for that type that initial orders have been placed.

Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

As a vociferous critic of the delays in replacing our amphibious craft, may I now warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on the news this afternoon, as it will indicate the very firm role that the Royal Marines will continue to play in our defences? May I also express the hope that this will be good news for Devonport dockyard which, in the fullness of time, will, I hope, be called upon to refit this craft?

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark , Plymouth, Sutton

I would not want to anticipate the refit programme for a vessel that has not yet been launched, but I echo everything that my hon. Friend has said about the Royal Marines. She and I share representation of the city where the Royal Marine Commando is based, and I feel sure that it will be widely welcomed there.

Photo of Mr Edward Garrett Mr Edward Garrett , Wallsend

Will the Minister accept it from me that not everyone in the Labour party is opposed to spending important and valuable money on the defence of the nation? Some of us have been strongly consistent in this.

Will the Minister give some guidance to the House as to the thinking that brought this about? An exercise some years ago, when most of the territorial forces were moved from the United Kingdom to northern Germany, resulted in problems relating to moving men and equipment into the forward planning battle areas. The ships that had been hired were totally inadequate for the job. Has the lesson now been learnt that it is important to build these ships and also to have them manned by the Royal Navy so that we have the professionalism that is necessary should they ever be used?

Can the Minister give an assurance that Swan Hunter in Wallsend will be invited to tender—something that will be very welcome in the north-east—bearing in mind the valiant work that they did in rebuilding the Sir Tristram and the Sir Galahad?

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark , Plymouth, Sutton

Most certainly, I can confirm that Swan Hunter will be invited to tender, and I very much hope that they will do so.

I would like to say also how much I personally welcome what the hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett) said at the beginning of his remarks. I take his point about transport, but that is a different issue from the specialised kind of vessel that we are talking about today. I mentioned earlier that we will end up with five completely refurbished or new LSLs, and that is a completely adequate strength to give a lift for beach landing capability. For heavy transport of vehicles and men, it has been found more economic and practical to take ships up from trade. This is a specialised vessel dedicated to a beach landing or an air-delivered strike of infantry from helicopters.

Photo of Mr Cecil Franks Mr Cecil Franks , Barrow and Furness

Together with many other hon. Members, I warmly welcome what the Minister has said this afternoon—not least that Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd. will be among those invited to tender for the aircraft support ship.

I wonder if I could possibly assist the Minister in response to the question put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates). I noted that the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) also welcomed the statement. I note that my right hon. Friend the Minister said that the overall cost will be £500 million. Conservative Members know, as do the general public, that the Government are committed to building the fourth Trident submarine. We know, too, that the Opposition are committed to cancelling it. The cost of the fourth Trident submarine will be £500 million. QED.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

That is a little wide of the statement.

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark , Plymouth, Sutton

The Opposition bring this kind of inquisition upon themselves. If we were to subtract every system, ship, store establishment and army system that they have already endorsed, and to which they have committed themselves, we find that, by implication, they are effectively scrapping everything else.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble , Upper Bann

Presumably the replacements for Fearless and Intrepid will be ships of a similar capacity and type, and will serve with the aviation support vessel, making a total of three. Is it necessary to have all those? Surely the need could be met by one or two ships along the lines of the US Tarawa class.

With regard to the aviation support ship, the Minister will know that Harland and Wolff in Belfast recently successfully completed work on an aviation training ship. I hope that, consequently, Harland and Wolff will be among those invited to tender.

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark , Plymouth, Sutton

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but whether Harland and Wolff tender is a matter for the company. I reject the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the ships are not needed. I certainly would not want to downgrade to the standards of the second-line ships in the United States navy. The ships' predecessors, Intrepid and Fearless, served successfully for a long time, and played a key part in the last major military operation that the United Kingdom fought on its own.

Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor , Esher

Does the Minister agree that the next generation of ships will very much depend on the high technology on board? I am grateful to him for announcing that a company in my constituency, Dowty-Sema Limited, is at the forefront in the project. Dowty-Sema is probably the world leader in project definition. Its role in replacing and increasing the technological competence of our ships, especially assault ships, is welcome in Esher, and I am sure that it will be good news for the Royal Navy.

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark , Plymouth, Sutton

I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend has said. When I consider the list of subcontractors available to supply and tender for systems in the project, I am impressed by the sheer richness and diversity that British manufacturing industry can still offer.

Photo of Mr Neville Trotter Mr Neville Trotter , Tynemouth

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this announcement is splendid news, both for the Royal Navy and for the country? Does it not prove that, unlike the Labour party, the Government are determined to maintain this country's defence capability in a world that continues to be uncertain and dangerous? The prospect of a £500 million order is most welcome in the shipyards of this country, especially Swan Hunter, with its splendid record of building carriers and amphibious ships. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a great prospect of work for that yard?

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark , Plymouth, Sutton

As I said to the hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett), I look forward to a Swan Hunter tender. I am grateful for what has been said. We made the commitments in the original "Options" statement, and, although we cannot do everything at once, things are maturing precisely as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told the House that they would. In round terms, the amphibious ships will be able to offer approximately 2,500 jobs each over three years, and I expect the helicopter carrier to offer approximately 1,500 jobs over the same period.

Photo of Mr Andrew Hargreaves Mr Andrew Hargreaves , Birmingham, Hall Green

Like my hon. Friends, I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. I should be grateful to know, in due course, whether my right hon. Friend thinks that the number of jobs that he has suggested may be somewhat conservative. I am sure that the defence industry, and all the contractors, will warmly welcome the work available from the contracts, as do many hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark , Plymouth, Sutton

That is a fundamental point. The figures that I mentioned involve only the workload and the jobs expectancy in the yards. Of course, there will be an immense initial spin-off in jobs in all the subcontracts which will provide systems such as gearboxes, communications, navigation aids, cabling, auxiliary propulsion and so on, on their own premises. I should think that, at the most conservative estimate, one could double the original jobs total.

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers , Gosport

Your task, Mr. Speaker, is being made easier by the fact that only one Back-Bench Labour Member has sought to ask a question on this crucial subject.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the announcement is good news for south Hampshire, for two reasons? First, local companies, including Vosper Thornycroft and GEC-Marconi, will be eligible to bid for part of the work. Secondly, the Government are keeping faith with the Royal Navy in providing it with the best equipment. That will ensure that, under the Conservative Government, the Royal Navy will continue to offer a first-class rewarding and stimulating career.

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark , Plymouth, Sutton

That is absolutely right. The Royal Navy will have much important work to do in the next 20 years, and I welcome my hon. Friend's endorsement of our determination to provide it with the best equipment for that task.

Yes, it is a pity that Labour Members, whose constituencies will undoubtedly be affected by the good news, have not seen fit to come to the House and welcome it. I fear that that betrays an insidious failing of the Labour party—I except the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) from this—in that it has a particular distaste for good news of any kind.

Photo of Mr Ian Bruce Mr Ian Bruce , South Dorset

My right hon. Friend will know that the Ministry of Defence and certain senior naval officers are keen on collocation. Has he given any thought to Dorset's bid to have a helicopter carrier ship based at Portland, next to the Portland helicopter repair facilities? It would be close to Bovington, for training, and Holton Heath, where the amphibious forces are now based. It would also be close to the wonderful shipyards at Portland, which would do all the regular maintenance on the equipment—and Dowty-Sema and other defence equipment manufacturers are right alongside. Surely my right hon. Friend can tell the House now that Portland will be the home base for this wonderful helicopter support ship.

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark , Plymouth, Sutton

I am full of admiration for the way in which my hon. Friend gets his claims in so early, and extols the virtues of his constituency in all its many aspects. However, I think that the House will forgive me if I feel that it would be premature to specify where a ship that has not yet been built is to be based.

Photo of Mr Michael Colvin Mr Michael Colvin , Romsey and Waterside

My right hon. Friend and some of my other hon. Friends have been speculating about how a future Labour Government might find the money to pay for a £500 million project. May I ask my right hon. Friend to speculate on an even more remote possibility—the election of a Liberal Democrat Government? How would such a Government pay for the project, in view of the Liberal Democrats' commitment to reduce our defence expenditure by 50 per cent.?

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark , Plymouth, Sutton

That is true. I am sorry that the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) did not digress on that subject. Using the rough rule-of-thumb calculation that I made earlier, when I subtracted the Labour party's total commitments to find out what was left, I should say that the Liberal Democrats have already overrun their overdraft ceiling.

Photo of Mr Bill Walker Mr Bill Walker , North Tayside

My right hon. Friend will be aware how welcome his statement will be in Scotland—first, because 45 Commando is based in Tayside and, secondly, because the Scottish shipbuilding industry has a major contribution to make.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that every vote cast for the socialist nationalists in Scotland will be a vote cast against the best interests of 45 Commando? No orders for ships would come to Scotland from the Ministry of Defence if the nationalists had their way.

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark , Plymouth, Sutton

I am afraid that that looks like the truth. In spite of the commitment made by the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington, I must in all candour tell him that if he ever had the chance, I do not think that he would be able to sustain it—the other members of his party would not allow him to do so. That fact is recognised by many people who work in the defence industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) should repeat in his constituency what he has just said.

Photo of Mr John Wilkinson Mr John Wilkinson , Ruislip - Northwood

May I express my satisfaction that in the statement my right hon. Friend has redeemed the Government's declaration of intent in their White Paper "Britain's Defence for the 90s" to provide forces that are more mobile, more flexible and better equipped, and thereby better equipped to meet all eventualities in a highly unpredictable world? Will the three landing ships logistics, that are to be refurbished be out to tender for all the yards, namely, the naval constructors as well as the naval dockyards? Does that accord with the Government's policy for refits of Her Majesty's ships generally?

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark , Plymouth, Sutton

I am very glad to have the opportunity to confirm that. Although it is still some distance away, I regard that phase as being especially important in providing the full capability, as we undertook to do and on which my hon. Friend has congratulated us.

Photo of Mr Roland Boyes Mr Roland Boyes , Houghton and Washington

I am greatly surprised by the criticism of the Labour party we have heard this afternoon because the Government have left such a big gap in our amphibious forces for so long. I remind the Minister and the Secretary of State of what the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour) said on 31 March 1976. He told the House: it is impossible for an Opposition to draw up a detailed and fully-costed defence policy when in Opposition. Such a process can be carried out only after full consultation with the Services, with our Allies and with industry."—[Official Report, 31 March 1976; Vol. 908, c. 1353.] We will do just that in the next few weeks when we form the new Government.

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark , Plymouth, Sutton

There is nothing personal in the criticisms that I addressed to the hon. Gentleman. Our criticism is based on two factors. First—this is not a slight matter—only one Member of Parliament from a constituency that will benefit from the announcement has bothered to turn up and welcome it—

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark , Plymouth, Sutton

Two—I withdraw that comment. Not one, but two. Secondly, not one member of the shadow Cabinet has, to my knowledge, repudiated the repeated resolution and direction of the Labour party conference to cut defence spending by 27 per cent.