Royal Navy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:59 pm on 17th February 1994.

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Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson Shadow Solicitor General 4:59 pm, 17th February 1994

Of course we welcome the briefing: And e'en the ranks of Tuscany Could scarce forbear to cheer. It marked a welcome breakthrough. I repeat, however, that the air chief marshal's speech was made to a semi-public body and that when we asked for a copy of that speech, we were referred to the office of the Secretary of State for Defence. We have still not been supplied with one.

The Minister mentioned the new openness. Will he assure the House that the interim reports and the final report on the "Front Line First" study will be made available to the House? What impact will that study have on long-term costings?

There is a substantial contrast between the Government's rhetoric and the reality. That contrast is the reason why many people in the defence community are disillusioned with the Government and the reason for the recent MORI finding that, on defence matters, the public trust Labour more than the Conservatives. That is a matter of record.

Clearly, the changes in the security context have led to pressures for changes in NATO and to a rethink on defence priorities in all countries, not least the United Kingdom. The "Options for Change" statement of July 1990 has been further refined, if that is the word, in the light of Treasury pressures. NATO is in a transition phase. It is instructive to read the Brussels summit communiqué of January this year, which placed a new emphasis on the build-up of the European pillar in defence—the European defence identity and the common foreign and security policy outlined in the Maastricht treaty.

Increasingly, the United States is reassessing its role in Europe, prompted by a number of pressures, not least financial. For example, on the 7 February of this year, President Clinton presented his 1995 budget to Congress. It amounted to a strategy of global withdrawal and a major reduction in the defence share of Government expenditure. In the United States, the share of gross domestic product that is allocated to defence will fall to 13 per cent. by 1999—a third of the share during the cold war and the lowest share since the isolationist 1930s. In the 1990s, the share amounted to as much as 40 per cent. of the federal budget. Britain and Europe must respond to changed United States policy perceptions.

Those who claim that the special relationship continues do so with much less credibility. They are not helped by the Conservative party's assistance to the Bush candidacy during the last presidential campaign, which posed major problems for our embassy in Washington because the Washington bureaucracy is so highly politicised. Despite having a remarkably expert ambassador in Sir Robin Renwick, we face a wall of problems as a result of the Conservative party's foolish partisan intervention in the campaign. I remind Government Members that the United Kingdom's concession last week to the allies over air strikes in Bosnia arose in part because of the fear that inaction would excite the pressures of isolationists within the United States.

The link between our defence policy overall and European Union developments is as yet uncertain, but the trend is likely to be an increased United States disengagement, coupled with a strengthening of European Union cohesion.

The Royal Navy is vitally affected by our perception of the changes in the nature of the threat, and our response to that threat. The old and clear role of anti-submarine warfare in the gap between Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom has now gone, and a new role is being worked out with a much wider definition of security. The United States marine corps White Papers have spoken of a change from a focus on global threat to a focus on regional challenges". A United States naval strategist has talked of new threats from zealots, crazies, drug runners and terrorists while another warns of the growing wealth of petro-nations—available to bullies and crazies". It is instructive to see the Government's response in that context. The Government have argued that the "Options" statement was "strategy-led, not resource-disciplined", but virtually everyone outside the ranks of Ministers accepts that it is resource-led and strategy-disciplined. That makes it essentially a cost-cutting exercise.

The versatility of the Navy is vital for poise over the horizon and inshore for political and military objectives. There is the flexibility of deployment without the necessity of support from the countries involved. For example, Harriers can go up in any weather, and carriers can travel 400 miles in 24 hours. There is an increasing role for the Navy in support of the civil powers, such as in disasters, drug matters and the defence of small states. That is a particular Commonwealth role, and one thinks of Grenada and the debate over the defence of micro-states within the Commonwealth. That debate began in the 1980s and, alas, has not reached a conclusion.

Clearly, the Royal Navy has special advantages in the new circumstances because of its versatility. At the time of the Falklands crisis, SSN craft were the first to the area, and one SSN spent over 100 days unsupported at sea.

The hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. Carlisle) mentioned that there is a widespread distribution of submarines nowadays. There are 376 conventional submarines in 44 countries around the world, 222 of which belong to 30 third-world countries. More than 3,000 advanced Exocets have been obtained by 29 countries.

How has the Royal Navy been able to move from the old to the new? Are the resources available? Hon. Members will know the three "defence roles" set out in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1993" and I shall not repeat them. The total force elements which were assigned to various defence roles were set out clearly, and it is accepted by the Government that there is much double counting.

The total of the fleet remains at four ballistic missile nuclear submarines or SSBNs, 12 nuclear-powered attack submarines or SSNs, three carriers, 35 destroyers and frigates, eight amphibious ships, 25 mine counter-measures vessels, or MCMV, and 16 Royal Fleet Auxiliaries.

The Government will be aware that there are major concerns within the defence community about fitting the forces to the defence roles. Those concerns include our amphibious capability, where there is a shortfall which makes it vital to proceed with work on the two landing platform docks to replace Fearless and Intrepid. The helicopter carrier decision was much welcomed.

As far as aircraft carriers are concerned, the follow-on to the three carriers which require replacement between 2009 and 2016 must be considered. That is roughly the same time as the Sea Harrier is due to be replaced, but nothing is as yet planned.

Since there is no prospect of our ordering big carriers, we may eventually have to convert to helicopter carriers. No other aircraft will be available, unless the next generation of Sea Harriers is ready by that time. The European fighter aircraft cannot fit on to our small carriers. Will the Minister confirm that the Government are considering the next generation of Sea Harriers in their long-term costings?

I will just say in passing that France has similar problems in relation to its carrier fleet. France has two major, but aging, carriers—the Clemenceau and the Foch, which came into service in the early 1960s. There was a cry of anguish in the early February issue of Cols Bleus from Admiral Coatane, the French chief of naval staff, who regretted the many delays in the Charles de Gaulle. Admiral Coatane hoped that a second carrier would enter into service some years after. It was anticipated that the Charles de Gaulle nuclear carrier would be completed five years ago, but France is now saying that it will be completed—at the very earliest—in 1999.

It is sad that France has such a nationalist procurement policy. The Sea Harrier was appropriate for the French carriers, but it was not ordered. France is, of course, ordering the Rafale for the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle.

The "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1993" suggested that only 24 destroyers and frigates would be required for fully active service, while other ship numbers will be at a reduced level. Is it the intention of the Government to withdraw the type 22 frigates speedily? Clearly, the lower complement of the type 23–175 crew, as against 250 on the type 22—is important.

Will the new type 23 be ordered at the expense of the common new generation frigates being jointly developed by the United Kingdom, France and Italy? One assumes that such joint procurement of expensive projects will be increasingly necessary. Yarrow claims that further delays in the common new generation frigates could mean the United Kingdom losing its present frigate-designing skills. I understand that the two United Kingdom consortiums involved—Yarrow and Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd.—still have not heard which has been awarded the contract, whereas the key manufacturers in the other participating countries have been selected.

It would be helpful to know the current state of thinking of the Royal Navy on joining in the developments of the conventionally armed stand-off missile, or CASOM, which has a range of over 1,000 km. That would be a major increment in the power-projection of Royal Navy frigates.

As to nuclear-powered attack submarines, or SSNs, is there a clear commitment to begin the construction of the first batch 2T class submarines at Barrow when the Trident vessels are completed? As always in industrial matters, we need to retain our expertise. Trident has now been given a sub-strategic role, following the Secretary of State's announcement on 4 October last year during the House's debate on the defence estimates for 1993. That sub-strategic role has caused concern by doubling the number of potential nuclear warheads to 96 on each Trident submarine from 48 on each Polaris. In our judgment, warheads, not explosive power, are the key factor. That role is also a blow to those who seek to discourage nuclear proliferation. It is clearly an unfortunate signal to countries that are developing their own nuclear capacity.

My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) will say more about mine counter-measures vessels. There is clearly an urgent need to order the next batch of Sandowns, which are very much valued in multi-national operations. I shall dwell a little on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary—the point raised by the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin). It is necessary to use ships taken up from trade to supplement the existing tankers and replenishment ships to meet the total requirement under defence role 2. There is much scepticism in defence circles about the number of seamen listed in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1993", because the figures given were swollen by including foreign seamen in British ships and even trainees still at school.

I refer the Minister to the excellent report by the House of Commons Employment Select Committee entitled "The Future of Maritime Skills and Employment in the United Kingdom", which was published on 2 November last year. It shows an alarming decline in seamen and ships arising in particular from a lack of Government support for the industry. I refer the Minister to the fifth and 10th recommendations in that report, which are very pertinent to the capacity of the Navy to respond in emergencies.

I remind the Minister that, during the Gulf war, the Government were required to charter ships at exorbitant rates. They chartered 127 foreign flag vessels at a cost of £180 million. The peace-time equivalent cost was estimated at £85 million. The key question is whether the Government recognise the need for a core fleet of militarily useful merchant vessels. If so, are they prepared to give fiscal and other incentives to achieve that before it is too late? The position will certainly have deteriorated even since the report of the Select Committee was published in November last year.