Strategic Defence Review

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:26 am on 25th February 1998.

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Photo of Mr John Wilkinson Mr John Wilkinson Conservative, Ruislip - Northwood 11:26 am, 25th February 1998

We are extremely indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), who, in a wide-ranging speech, covered all the main areas of concern regarding the strategic defence review. I shall concentrate on two or three narrow issues.

I whole-heartedly welcome the strategic defence review: it will do the Ministry of Defence no harm to re-examine its fundamental practices. I also believe that it is worth while for the Ministry of Defence to make sure that it is operating cost-effectively at every stage. As for the principles which should underlie the review, I turn to the views enunciated by the former French chief of staff, General Ailleret, a few years ago. He enjoined France to embrace "défense à tous azimuts"—which I interpret to mean "multi-polar defence".

British defence has been largely Eurocentric since the beginning of the cold war—and understandably so. With the dissolution of the Warsaw pact and the multiplicity of risks and potential threats to our security and our interests around the world, that Eurocentric approach must change. We must also eliminate the old shibboleths which went with it. In a sense, those shibboleths were understandable and comprehensible.

Following world war two, we were committed to the Brussels treaty requirement to maintain a standing army of 55,000 men and a tactical air force in Germany. That requirement has been overtaken by events, and we now have only two main air bases and an armoured division in the federal republic. I urge Her Majesty's Government to re-examine our contribution in Germany. Our clear purpose should be to ensure that our armed forces possess mobility, flexibility and fire power to meet those wide-ranging threats and future potential commitments. I do not see that maintaining an armoured division and two air bases on German soil accords with those wider objectives.

The RAF is to withdraw its Harrier squadrons from RAF Laarbruch this year. I hope that they come back as soon as possible. The Tornado wing at RAF Brüggen is due to stay until 2002. For the life of me, I do not see why it cannot be returned to the United Kingdom forthwith. The headquarters has already gone back. We need to concentrate our forces in the most appropriate manner. It will be necessary to make space for those units and personnel in the United Kingdom, and this must be done.

The armoured division is a more difficult problem, especially as regards training areas, but increasingly the training facilities in Poland and Canada are being used. It is too high a price to pay for the maintenance of a three-star position as commander of the Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps that we should be committed for ever and aye to keeping an armoured division in Germany.

The French have withdrawn from the federal republic. The argument that we must be in the federal republic to maintain a United States commitment to western Europe does not stand up. There is defence in depth now in central Europe. Were Russia ever to become a military threat again, and the countries of eastern Europe joined NATO, we would have a collective security apparatus on the continent which did not require the maintenance of extremely costly British forces on German soil.

To pursue the three objectives of mobility, flexibility and fire power, I endorse also the efforts towards more joint operations. The idea of a joint helicopter support force seems entirely sensible. I can see no inhibition or fundamental problem. Likewise, the precedent has been well established and proved in the Gulf for joint Royal Air Force-Royal Navy air groups on Her Majesty's ships. This, too, is eminently sensible. I am sure that we will see more such developments in the defence review, and rightly so.

I hope that we will recognise the United Kingdom's special contribution to European defence in the maritime and air elements, and in air mobility and amphibiosity, rather more than in highly inflexible, static armoured forces. If there must be a balance, that is the way that we must go. It can only be good for the Royal Navy. I am pleased that HMS Ocean is shortly to enter service—an appropriate decision by the previous Conservative Administration to provide a landing platform for helicopters for Her Majesty's fleet.

Beyond that, we will need to replace the Invincible class. We have seen the benefits of maritime air power in the Gulf crisis. A force can be deployed relatively rapidly. It can be poised offshore. The political inhibitions to maritime air operations are minimal.

The difficult decision will be whether to replace the three Invincible class carriers with two 40,000-ton fleet carriers, or whether we go for smaller carriers of 20,000 tons or thereabouts. I would argue that it is better to have three smaller carriers than two big carriers. One will always be in refit, and we must be able to rotate the vessels, as we are doing now between Invincible and Illustrious, knowing that it is always possible to keep one on station.

I tend to favour the smaller carriers for the United Kingdom, but I question whether it will be necessary to have quite as many Horizon 2000 anti-aircraft frigates or destroyers as was previously envisaged. The best air defence of the fleet is, of course, the aircraft carrier. I imagine that the naval staff will examine closely whether Horizon 2000 makes as much sense now as it used to do in the days when the Soviet naval air arm and the Soviet air forces posed a real threat to the NATO navies in the north Atlantic.

As for the Royal Air Force and the need for power projection and the ability to intervene—whether to preserve peace, to fight wars, or to extricate our nationals or friendly nationals—central to this capability must be an integral heavy lift capacity, particularly if it will be necessary to deploy armoured forces rapidly. We need a spectrum of capabilities to meet every contingency.

If we were unable to provide the heavy lift, we would be dependent on the United States, whose political objectives and priorities might conceivably be different in some instances, and we would be too dependent on civil carriers. The C17 has all the characteristics required for the role—the ability to operate forward, the ability to be both a freighter and a troop transport, and more significantly, a tanker for air-to-air refuelling.

I recognise that the Ministry will have difficult decisions to make about the nature of future air power. We have seen in the Gulf that air power is decisive not just to win wars, as was the case in the Gulf war, but to prevent war, by an early application of political pressure. Therefore, for the front line of the Royal Air Force to be cut at this time would be a step backwards. The Jaguars are extremely cost-effective until the Eurofighter comes into service. They are just undergoing an update at relatively low cost which will enable them to maintain an effective capability well into the next century.

A joint strike fighter will be needed. As the House knows, we have seen how the FRS2s of the Royal Navy and the GR7s of the Royal Air Force are working well together aboard Her Majesty's ships. If we had a joint strike fighter—essentially a common air frame—for both roles, it would be a sensible procurement. It could be beneficial for British industry not only because the Americans are buying it, but because a host of European allies are likely to buy it—perhaps the northern four, which have the F16, and possibly also the Italians, the Portuguese and other air forces.