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Column 172that he gave us very little fresh information--information that we would not have been able to obtain by reading Ministry of Defence handouts and so on.
The Opposition have to register our disappointment that no announcement is being made about type 23s. We approach any service debate with enhanced expectation that at least one of the major procurement questions will be answered, but we have yet to receive any kind of reassurance on the type 23s.
However, I am more than happy to join the Under-Secretary in his tribute to the service and to those who devote their lives to it. Our record in the Gulf, with the Armilla patrol, is an example of the unique contribution that we can make. We often forget that--partly because of our history and partly because of our geography--we are uniquely equipped for the kind of mine-hunting and minesweeping work that our service men have done in such difficult, unpleasant and uncomfortable conditions. We welcome the fact that they have been so successful that some of them are now able to return to cooler waters and a more pleasant climate.
I should like to take a slightly different tack and consider at least some of the tasks that previous defence estimates laid out as the responsibility of our Navy.
The 1987 White Paper identified a number of tasks as being the responsibility of the Navy : the interception and containment of Soviet forces in the Norwegian sea ; direct defence, reinforcement, resupply and economic shipping in conjunction with United States and European maritime forces ; anti-submarine defence of NATO's striking fleet, supported by the RAF ; and the protection and deployment of the combined UK-Netherlands amphibious force to reinforce the north flank of NATO.
It has been suggested that each of those tasks is of a considerable size, and that a country with our resources will have great difficulty in meeting all of them. Certainly cost-cutting is still happening, and the global figures that the Under-Secretary announced do not mask the effect that the defence budget will continue to fall in real terms until the early 1990s. The part of the equipment budget on which the Minister has placed such a strain has been affected by inflation far above the retail prices index, whether or not it includes mortgage increases. Historical evidence supports the view that the replacement cost of military equipment is far in excess of anything reflecting inflation, and that the money available for the tasks involved will, of necessity, result in a cut.
Mr. Sainsbury : I remind the hon. Gentleman that the budgetary figures that I gave represent an increase of some 3 per cent. over the present figures in real terms, after allowing for inflation. I hope that he was listening when I drew hon. Members' attention to several types of equipment and classes of ship which, with the use of modern technology, are costing less than the equipment and ships that they replace.
Mr. O'Neill : It cannot be denied that some equipment costs less, but more often it costs considerably more than we budget for. The reliability and maintainability reports of recent weeks suggest that a considerable amount could still be done to reduce costs. I realise that the Minister is not complacent and I am sure that that will be done, but in saying that we have enough money to meet our tasks he is in grave danger of misleading the House.
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East) : Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the second and third Trident submarines are costing decidedly less than the first? Are not the Government, through consistent batch ordering, reducing the costs of the same items of equipment?
Mr. O'Neill : The hon. Gentleman can argue for competitive tendering and for batch ordering, but he cannot always argue that "rent-a-missile" means considerable savings. The reductions in the cost of the Trident programme are accounted for more by the fact that servicing is to be done at Kings bay in Georgia than by any other single item, apart from hitherto beneficial changes in the exchange rate.
As the Minister has said, no other continental or northern European member of the Alliance makes the same maritime contribution as us. At a time when the United States Government are trying to reduce their public expenditure deficit, I imagine that the US navy will be one of the more attractive targets for cost-cutting. It is therefore essential for us to appreciate the nature of our tasks in the light of what we consider to be the threat posed by Soviet naval forces. For the same reason that the US navy does not deploy its entire 600-ship fleet in the Atlantic, the Soviet navy does not devote all its assets to these waters. Global powers recognise other areas of concern, and although we may feel that the sun rises and sets in Europe, people in California are far more concerned about the Pacific basin and the Indian ocean. The Soviets, for their part, are clearly anxious for their relations with Japan and the People's Republic of China to improve, but until that happens they will wish to continue to dedicate much of their resources to the coastal protection of their eastern seaboard.
It must also be recognised that a sizeable part of the Soviet naval offensive capability is frozen in the Kola peninsula for long periods in the year. It is significant that the activities of the Soviet navy have been reduced considerably since our last Navy debate on 3 March last year. In July last year, General Akromeyhev said that the cutback was an example of the Soviet attempt to develop a purely defensive doctrine.
The reduction in activity was confirmed by Admiral William Crowe, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, who attributed it to cost-cutting in a report in the International Herald Tribune on 18 July 1988. The US navy has produced figures showing that the decline covers Soviet destroyers, frigates, corvettes, logistic ships, attack submarines and strategic submarines carrying nuclear warheads and cruise missiles.
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) : Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that in the past two or three months the Soviets have moved an additional Kiev carrier and an additional Kirov cruiser to the north fleet, as well as an additional squadron of Backfire bombers for naval aviation? That is hardly a build-down. Exercise activity has somewhat diminished, but modernisation proceeds apace.
In 1984 the Soviet fleet deployed an average of 46 submarines each day. By 1987 the number has fallen to 25. In 1987 the average deployment of warships fell from 31 in 1984 to 24, and for the first time in a number of years no
Column 174Soviet task force was sent to the Caribbean. Those findings were confirmed in an article in The Daily Telegraph on 23 February. The cuts may be entirely due to perestroika. It was suggested last year that, owing to cost considerations, the Soviet navy spent 85 per cent. of its time in port, while the figure for the US navy is about 66 per cent. Those statistics may also be attributable to Gorbachev's desire for the Soviet armed forces to assume a more defensive posture. I do not know the reason, and I do not think that any hon. Member has a clear idea of it.
What is clear, however, is that, when Gorbachev spoke to the Yugoslav Parliament 12 months ago, he suggested a freeze in the number of US and Soviet ships in the Mediterranean from 1 July 1988. He also suggested that ceilings should be set on their numbers thereafter, and that both sides should give notice of their intention to move warships and to hold naval exercises and start to invite observers to watch the exercises. He said that measures should be drafted to ensure the security of intensive shipping in the Mediterranean, especially in international straits. He also wanted to withdraw US naval and Soviet naval craft from the Mediterranean. According to Reuters, the response from NATO was mixed and cool.
Mr. Ian Bruce : Has not the Soviet navy decided to adopt that defensive posture? The Soviets are effectively massing their naval forces precisely where the British Navy must put itself in time of war. The naval forces will be massed against our frigate and destroyer screens going up into the Norwegian sea to reinforce Norway in the event of a land war within Europe.
Mr. O'Neill : If I understand the hon. Gentleman correctly, he is saying that the Soviet Union is withdrawing its naval capabilities up into the far northern waters, where they will be frozen for a large part of the year.
Mr. O'Neill : Part of that is Soviet territorial waters. The hon. Gentleman has said that it could be a defensive posture. I am not sure whether it is a defensive posture, but I am merely trying to explain some of the strategic thinking which may lie behind the Soviet action. I quoted the speech made by Gorbachev last year in Belgrade. He made another speech in September 1988 in Krasnoyarsk, in which he called for talks and spoke of not increasing Soviet forces in the Pacific region. He invited naval powers in that region to hold discussions about freezing and reducing naval and air force activities in the region and he identified the area where the coasts of the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, Japan, North Korea and South Korea converge. He suggested giving up Cam Ranh bay if the United States agreed to eliminate its military bases in the Philippines.
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) : Are those not examples of Mr. Gorbachev's proposals that are slightly tongue in cheek? In citing them, my hon. Friend may detract from the more serious offers. In the case of the Mediterranean, the Soviet fifth eskadra is tiny, so to abandon it and to put that squadron back into the Black sea would be almost marginal for Soviet purposes if, in return, the Soviet Union demands the withdrawal of the sixth fleet, which is not only infinitely larger, but performs a crucial task for NATO in the southern region. Furthermore, if Soviet naval forces were removed from
Column 175Cam Ranh bay, that would, again, be virtually marginal compared to the withdrawal of American naval forces from the Philippines. Is it not true that those proposals may be less than serious and geared more to capturing public opinion than are some of the other proposals, which deserve to be treated more seriously?
Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead) : The hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) maintains that the Soviet fleet is largely bottled up in the Kola peninsula by weather conditions. He must surely accept that it can be moved at any time and must be taken into consideration with the whole of the Soviet naval forces.
Mr. O'Neill : I dealt with that point when I answered the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce). The Soviet fleet there will be bottled up for much of the year and will not be able to sail the world seas.
Judging by the statements made by Gorbachev, it seems that he has an approach to questions of disarmament by which he makes several statements, over a number of months, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) said, are often dressed up with other issues that are extraneous. He made an appeal to the United States in the middle of the presidential election with his Krasnoyarsk speech, which did not invite a serious response. But the important thing is that Gorbachev is making those speeches and offers, and something will happen. If we in the West are not careful, we shall end up with yet another propaganda defeat similar to the defeat we suffered after the speech Gorbachev made in the United Nations before Christmas.
What is even more important is that, when we talk about conventional forces in Europe and discuss it within the confines of the area from the Atlantic to the Urals, we often choose to ignore the fact that, whereas the Soviet lines of supply go from the Urals to Eastern Europe, our critical lines of supply go across the Atlantic. If we think that we can keep our naval capability out of talks, we are living on borrowed time. Rather than going into such talks in a grudging and half-hearted way, we should explore the possibilities as soon as we can.
When we consider the deployment stage and questions of strategy rather than the grubby matters of procurement--one can understand a shopkeeper being preoccupied with such matters--the Minister may be allowed to say something more on that. That is one of the advantages of a debate such as this, in which we are not constrained by the terms of a motion before the House. We can be relatively expansive and we recognise that we are not likely to make tremendous demands on your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in trying to get into the debate. Gorbachev has been making statements and they are straws in the wind. The hon. Member for Dorset, South was present with me at an interesting and useful conference at Greenwich, at which a number of analysts who were in no way sympathetic to the Soviet Union repeatedly made the point that we should anticipate the Soviet Union making cuts in its naval capabilities before too long. The analysts said that there were two schools of thought. One believed that the Soviet Union wanted to
Column 176contribute genuinely to the disarmament process and the other took the cynical view that we would see the Soviet fleet become leaner and meaner. I am not sure about that.
Much has been made of the size and quality of the Soviet fleet. There is much in their craft that is comparable to those of the West, but the Soviets are constrained by economic concerns, and cuts are resulting. The most famous of those is the new Soviet nuclear-powered carrier, originally known in the west as "Black Com 2". When it was launched in December 1985, it was known as the "Leonid Brezhnev". For reasons that I do not need to explain it has since been renamed the Tbilisi. What is important is that the RUSI News Sheet in autumn last year reported a series of modifications because the Russians had not been able to get their act together technically or in the way that they had hoped. The carrier has been downgraded, the aircraft and helicopters have been limited to 50 and the conventional take-off and landing facilities have been forgone. The article concluded that the Soviet Union's first supercarrier does not have the fighting edge it was assumed to have.
It is general knowledge that the level of information technology and computing that the Soviet navy has at its disposal is considerably more limited than that available to the Western navies and that the general spread of technology throughout the Soviet navy is considerably restricted by comparison with ours. The naval threat may not be as great as it was assumed to be. We know that the Soviet Union has been forced to economise and is beginning to seek talks. We should consider that carefully, from the point of view of trying to take advantage of its discomfiture. We should not go into such matters in a blaze of publicity in which we are seen to be forced to the conference table by the weight of public opinion in this country or elsewhere.
We have had this afternoon the ritual expression that we have a fleet of, probably, about 50. It is clear that the national guessing game continues and that we may be down to 43 or, in a bad week, to 28. The truth seems to be that if we have 50 destroyers and frigates with a life of 20 years, we must replace them at the rate of two and a half a year or five every two years, if we scrap five every two years. If we do not do that and if we try to replace them at a higher rate than we scrap them, that will be ideal, but at the moment we are nowhere near that.
We try to extend the life of the ships, and some of them are now very old-- well beyond their 25-year lifespan. There is at least one that goes beyond that. If we extend their life too far, their quality diminishes and their effectiveness is reduced. They become more costly and difficult to maintain. They distort manpower and training patterns and become irrelevant in our response to any threat. Until we get the rate of ordering suggested in the Select Committee's report, we will not get away from the problems of morale and of people leaving the service, as they have been doing, and the difficulties that are created for the Navy as a result of the Government's unwillingness or incapability to meet its legitimate demands.
It is not just the present class of frigate that we need to worry about. The anxiety of the shipbuilding industry is not confined to the loss of orders, but involves the uncertainty of intentions. It might have helped if the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement had told us something about the Euro-frigate and about the Government's plans for the next class. As we know, studies are going on. They are taking the form of elaborate
Column 177programmes of drip-feeding the shipbuilding industry. But in Yarrow--the only commercial yard in the United Kingdom capable of participation in the NFR90--the design team has fallen from 360 to 160 in the last two years.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary may not be in a position to say anything about it, but I believe that, when the Secretary of State was at Yarrow, he said that the Government intended to make a statement towards the end of the year. Perhaps the Minister of State will confirm later that we shall have to wait until the end of the year for a clearer indication about what will happen to the collaborative project which is in its early stages. Can the Minister confirm that it will be sustained and that by the end of the year we will know definitely whether we will have a Euro-frigate for the 1990s? It is disappointing that the report in the Sunday Telegraph about a possible announcement for three more type 23s has turned out to be optimistic.
The Under-Secretary gave us no room for reassurance in his remarks on computer-assisted command systems. He even suggested that there would be a slippage in the date of April 1989 for the confirmation of an order. He has indicated that five type 23s--the pride of the British surface fleet--will go to the defence of the country in a state in which they are less than capable of defending themselves and that our seamen will be at a disadvantage compared to an enemy, because we will not have the kit that other navies have.
Mr. O'Neill : The hon. Gentleman refers to Nimrod. The Labour Government did the business on TSR2 ; they took the tough decision and cancelled it. The Conservative Government were in power for seven years before they were prepared to grasp the nettle of Nimrod. The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that it took seven years to identify the problems in something as glaring as Nimrod. Surely they should have been able to deal with something as insubstantial as the software system in CACS much more quickly.
Mr. O'Neill : The Opposition argued at the time that there was a case to be made for sustaining support for the British design for another 18 months. That was the position that we took and which we would have been happy to justify. We were not in government. The Government had eight years to make up their mind. At the end, they sold out British workers and designers because they did not stand up to the people in their own Ministry who sniped persistently at Nimrod and who kept changing the specification. The Minister is on weak ground when he seeks to divert attention to that issue.
Column 178I take the Minister's point that we have to await a definite statement on the future of our amphibious capability. We have the usual paragraph that appears every year, but the mid-1990s are getting closer. I do not think that the House will be fobbed off indefinitely with that paragraph. We need something far more concrete than a pious hope that in a couple of years the project analysis will be finished. The Minister owes the House much more, perhaps not in this debate but certainly in the defence estimates debate in July or October.
As to the repair and refit of HMS Southampton, if it had been just the repair of the craft, it would have been legitimate for it to go to Portsmouth. However, given the nature of the work and the fact that it is a professional decision which is not really in the hands of politicians, the decision to repair and refit would have been a heaven sent opportunity for the Government to give much-needed work to Devonport. That might have restored the balance of the Government's betrayal of the dockyard. They reduced the size of the core programme and made an already difficult task in that dockyard much harder.
Following my visits to the two dockyards since privatisation, I agree with the Minister that a great deal has been done. It is a tribute to management and the unions that the understandable anxieties of the work force when the privatisation schemes were going through have to some extent been met. Both sides have buckled down to the job of trying to meet their responsibilities to the Navy. Sad to say, the Ministry of Defence is not meeting its responsibilities to the dockyards.
Mr. Sainsbury : I join the hon. Gentleman in what he said about the dockyards. Do I understand him to say that he would deprive all the other shipbuilding and repairing yards that would be interested in tendering for HMS Southampton, including those in Scotland, of the opportunity to tender for the work?
Mr. Sainsbury : If I stick to the ones in Scotland, I anticipate that we are likely to have a tender from Babcock Thorn Ltd. in Rosyth, and it is possible that we will have a tender from Yarrow. In the north-east, we would expect to hear from at least one, if not two, yards on the Tyne. In the north-west we would expect to hear from Cammell Laird.
Mr. O'Neill : The Minister has not given them all. I imagine that we could get down to plastic hulls from Vospers and one or two places like that. The Minister and I disagree on a basic point. We believe that the quality of the work and the way in which it has been carried out over the years suggests that the naval dockyards are the most effective places to carry out major repairs and refits for the Royal Navy. When the quality of work was compared, that of the dockyards was far superior to that of the private yards. From experience, I should have thought that the Minister would put that as a higher priority than trying to hawk repairs around the yards of Britain in the misleading expectation that he might either create work in other parts of the country or save a few bob for the country.
Column 179I know that, as a result of television programmes, a number of questions have been tabled about the Trident programme. The "World in Action" programme certainly suggested that all is not well with the expenditure on Trident. At an appropriate time, the Minister will no doubt tell the House much more about it. I am sure, too, that he will have to attend the Select Committee when it carries out what I imagine is its annual survey of Trident.
We have not heard anything today about the construction of the atomic weapons research establishment and the recruitment of staff. We have not heard of the progress of the only British independent part of our deterrent, and whether we will have that, as promised, by 1994-95 or whether there will be a slippage and, as well as renting the missiles, we will have to rent some warheads too.
The Government have yet to come up with the sort of arithmetic that suggests that our Navy will be supported and protected from inflation and from the inter-service battles, which are caused by the inadequacy of the defence budget that in large measure is accounted for by expenditure on the Trident programme. Frankly, there is not much that can be done about the Trident programme, because it is so far down the road. By the next general election, I believe that it will be about 70 per cent. complete.
The Government are misleading the House when they do not take account of the other factors that have yet to be addressed. It is all very well for the Minister to talk piously about the quality of, and the contribution made by, our service personnel, but he must recognise--we made this point in October during the debate on the White Paper--that the demographic changes are not working in favour of the Government. By the early 1990s we shall have considerable difficulty in recruiting personnel. In the 1990s we shall have acute problems in the capital or equipment intensive areas of our services--the Air Force and the Navy.
We must look seriously at the recruitment, training, education and remuneration of our service personnel. We must pay the Government credit for the fact that once again they have accepted the recommendations of the pay board. Only time will tell whether those recommendations will be met when the rate of inflation continues to rise. Certainly the services will be able to recruit some of our finest and most capable young people while there is still unemployment in many areas ; those young people will join the services because there is nothing else for them. However, when the number of youngsters drops in the early 1990s, they will need to be attracted to a career with favourable remuneration, working conditions, time off, support and accommodation.
While the Under-Secretary may not have felt that it was within his province, I believe that he gave only one side of the story when he spoke about the increased resources available for the armed services. I hope that the Minister of State will respond to that point. The Labour party has yet to be reassured on the point made in the Select Committee report about the apparent confusion in the Ministry of Defence over the role and functions of the escort fleet, and what we are supposed to be doing with the 43 or 50 frigates and destroyers. We have yet to receive a clear explanation from the Government of
Column 180why we need our present Navy. I certainly believe that we need one, and I have indicated some of the areas in which the Labour party would want to make use of that service. The Government must tell us why they need it and that they see the sea lines of communications being defended. Whether they do that on the basis of supporting convoys or individul ships, they must tell us how they will meet their responsibilities for the amphibious craft.
The Government must tell us far more frankly about the ordering programme that we need to maintain the capabilities that we require. The Opposition are not happy with what we have heard today. We await the White Paper not with optimism--as we suspect that it will be more of the same thing--but because we recognise that the Government must do a lot better before they can enjoy the confidence and support of a service for which at present we appear to be doing far less than we should. At present the Navy is doing for us a job which is quite remarkable in the circumstances created by the Government. 4.56 pm
Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East) : It is always a pleasure to listen to an Opposition Front Bench spokesman who has clearly done his homework and has tried to master his brief. I say that in genuine admiration of the way in which the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) has come to grips with his job. I believe that parts of his analysis would evoke no dissent from Conservative Members. Indeed, most of us could go along with most of his analyses. Now that the hon. Gentleman has his feet under the table--or, to put it more accurately, his bottom on the bed of nails--we must hear from him just what is the defence policy of the Labour party.
We have listened to the hon. Gentleman for 40 minutes. He has made some criticisms of what the Government are doing--some of which are good subjects for debate--but we have not heard one word about whether the size of the Navy is right, whether it is doing the right job or whether the Labour party would have a Navy at all if it were in Government. To go on in the way in which the Labour party is at present is not fooling the electorate or anyone in this House. I look forward with great interest to debating with the hon. Gentleman when he tells us the Labour party's defence policy, whether it has one. The Minister's speech was welcome in many respects. It was upbeat, and it has good cause to be, because our record on defence and on what we have done for the armed forces is a good one, although, as my hon. Friend knows, some of us feel that there are areas for legitimate debate and criticism. However, as far as it went, his speech was excellent.
The Minister's point about HMS Southampton was well made. To do the refit at the same time as the repair was a competent decision. I believe that the hon. Member for Clackmannan went along with that assessment. The right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) made an uncharacteristically parochial remark. He normally paints on a wider canvas rather than considering only--serious though they are--the interests of constituents. I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman would really consider it right for work to go to a dockyard regardless of cost, date of delivery or ability to perform. Obviously the decision to put it out to tender, which
Column 181Devonport could well win, is the right one. On reflection, I believe that he will realise that it was one of the less sensible remarks that he has made in the House.
I am glad, too, that we have had a chance to debate the Select Committee's report on the surface fleet, published at the end of last summer. I hope that the analysis that we attempted to make of some of the Government's dilemmas will help the House. I am sad to see that the Government tendered a rather churlish reply. They felt that they were being criticised and got at and, in their reply, retired somewhat into a bunker. I assure them--if they need my assurance--that it was not critical. I said at the time that it was not a critical report but I added that it was a challenging report, because we have to base our assessment of what is going on on the assumptions that the Government have announced, and if we find that there are areas where the Government appear not to match up to those assumptions, that is a legitimate cause of comment.
We tried to analyse the role of the Royal Navy, should we come to war, and the hon. Member for Clackmannan gave much the same analysis as we have all come to accept of the tasks that the Navy might have to do. There is a notable remark in the Government's reply : "The Government attaches high priority to countering the Soviet submarine threat and to ensuring the security of the Northern Flank. It believes that this will best be achieved by a forward maritime strategy, while possessing flexibility to respond as necessary to opposing force dispositions in the event of war."
That is not to mention any convoy escort duties which might be required, any threat to our shore line or to the Channel which might require mine clearing, minehunting and defence. The Government continually stress the importance to their strategy of flexibility, but flexibility must be in very large part a function of numbers : the fewer ships there are available, the less flexibility, by definition, there can be.
What we have not had from the Government is anything to dispel our concern that forward operations will require such a high proportion of the surface fleet that there will be very little strength for operational flexibility elsewhere. I think that that is a subject that we can legitimately pursue and I hope that it is one that the Government will see fit to argue their corner about, rather than simply dismissing it in a very short paragraph of a Government reply.
I turn now to the question of the figures which, in many areas, the Government reject. They are, of course, entitled to reject our conclusions but it is odd that they do it without suggesting that the facts on which these conclusions are based are wrong. We are left a good number of facts, and there has been no indication in their reply that the Government argue with the facts, simply that they draw different conclusions. That is a matter for the House and it is a matter for individual hon. Members to debate, but if we are to try to have a constructive debate with the Government from the Select Committee's point of view, it is important that they do more than simply dismiss our arguments and produce counter- arguments of their own, based on the same facts as ours, if they agree with them. We shall continue to monitor very closely the situation as regards the availability of the surface fleet. We now have, after a certain misunderstanding, the monthly returns from the Commander-in-Chief, Fleet. We are very grateful for them--they are useful to us--and we shall continue on the House's behalf to watch the numbers--
Column 182because they do vary, as the hon. Member for Clackmannan said--and to make sure that, in maintaining the commitment for "about 50", we are not stretching the word "about" beyond the limits of any dictionary definition.
Good news too from the Minister that the planned study for amphibious replacement is under way, but the constant assertion that there is plenty of time is beginning to wear thinnner and thinner as these debates come and go. We were fortunate enough to get out to see Exercise Teamwork in the autumn on board the amphibious ships with the Marines, and, excellently as they are doing their job--and the crews are making the most of them--they are very old ships and really are coming to the end of their natural life.
Mr. Mates : The hon. Gentleman misunderstands me. I was referring to what the Minister said, which I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman heard, about there being plenty of time before the present amphibious capability becomes obsolete. It is to that--
Mr. Mates : I quite understand that the hon. Gentleman has a point of view that we need no defence. It is a view that finds very little sympathy on the Government side of the House, as I know it finds very little in the country. Unpalatable as he may find that, it is the reason why there are a hundred more of us in the House than there are of his party.
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I hope that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) is not accusing the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) of telling lies. It would be out of order if he were to do so.
Mr. Mates : I thought that we were having quite an interesting debate until, rather like a thunderflash in a dustbin, the hon. Gentleman arrived, having not heard the opening speeches and understandably not realising that I
Column 183was referring to a part of the Minister's speech that he had not heard. Then he asked me who we were threatened by. I do not feel threatened by him--
Mr. Mates : On the whole, I take that as a compliment. Nevertheless, it would be prudent if we got this debate back on to its tracks. The interesting diversion to the whole concept of whether we need defence or not is for another day.
The frigate-ordering programme is at the heart of numbers of flexibility. Shortly after our report was published, the Government announced their decision to order three new frigates. This was, of course, welcome as the Government recognised that it was just the sort of measure that the Committee was looking for. They say that this more than meets the requirement which the Committee has identified for 2.6 new ships to be ordered each year if the fleet is to remain at its present size. What we said was that we need to achieve an average of 2.6 ships to be ordered annually over a period of more than six years. We hope that this requirement will be met but that remains to be seen.
At the end of their reply, the Government
"notes the Committee's concern [about] the size of the fleet and the announcement of its decision to order 3 new Type 23 frigates will presumably help to allay these concerns."
While that helps to allay the Committee's concerns, it does not allay them completely, because we are now waiting to see how many ships are to be ordered this year and then how many are to be ordered next year. I say this not as a criticism but as a challenge, because the Government have set themselves a very high target to achieve if they are to maintain the pledge of a fleet of about 50 surface ships, all in good order and not over the top in age. This is something that we must watch in the closest way to see that they are maintained. We have seen a good bit of the Navy this year. We were able to spend a day on board HMS Illustrious in the North sea on exercise and we visited Exercise Teamwork and went ashore with the Royal Marine commandos in alliance with the Norwegian forces, on both of which occasions we were most impressed with all that we saw. We received a comprehensive briefing at Northwood--perhaps too frank for the taste of the one or two Ministers--when we made an initial visit of this Parliament to the headquarters of the fleet. Nevertheless, it is refreshing that we can see the Navy working as professionally as it always has. I speak for the whole Committee when I say how impressed we have been with the Navy's attitude, demeanour, professionalism and dedication. That goes for those parts of the Navy that we have not seen, particularly those who have been involved in the Gulf and in the Armilla patrol.
In conclusion, I should like to say how warmly I welcome what the Government are doing--up to the point they have told us about. In the near, middle and distant future we shall be looking for an absolute undertaking that the guarantees and pledges made about the strength of the Royal Navy will be honoured.
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Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe) : NATO's unity during the past 40 years has been based mainly on a common perception of the threat posed by Soviet expansionism, in both its military and political manifestations. As Mr. Gorbachev continues to set the international agenda, however, there is evidence of a weakening of that common perception. How do we, as parliamentarians concerned for security policy, interpret a development that is increasingly bewildering to colleagues and constituents who are increasingly in favour of a radical reassessment of western policy, and probably impatient to see some evidence of early progress?
How do we explain the exemption of naval forces from the forthcoming negotiations in Vienna on conventional forces? Why do naval forces call for separate treatment in arms control talks? Why is there no reference to the naval component in the assessment of the Soviet threat in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1988", either in paragraphs 104 to 108 or pages 5 to 7?
Surely, the most significant strategic development of out time is the enormous expansion of Soviet maritime capability since the early 1960s. I do not refer just to the growth of the Soviet navy and naval air force--it is twice the size of our Royal Air Force--but to the carefully nurtured growth of its merchant, oceanographic and fishing fleets, which are now operating worldwide.
How do we respond to the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) to assess this naval threat in the light of perestroika? Has perestroika yet led to any reductions in the Soviet maritime posture? I entirely share my hon. Friend's curiosity and anxiety that, if there are grounds for doing so, we should proceed as soon as possible to re-examine the naval threat. As a result of my curiosity during the past three months, and of exchanges with SACEUR, and the commander in chief in the Pacific--this is relevant because the largest of the Soviet fleets is now deployed in the Pacific and no longer in the Kola inlet--and talks in NATO only last week and at SHAPE, I was repeatedly assured that there was no evidence yet, even on the margins, of any reductions in Soviet military postures--maritime or otherwise--as a result of perestroika. That suggests to me that, even more than arms control, the western alliance needs an overall political concept for dealing with the new circumstances brought about by Mr. Gorbachev's new thinking. Failing that, the Western alliance will undoubtedly run into trouble over its strategy doctrine and the practical decisions needed to carry it out.
The Soviet northern fleet is of greatest concern to us. We must continue to ask ourselves why the Soviets need such naval forces, even if reduced-- although as yet there is no evidence of that. Why do the Soviets need such potent forces? Can they be only for defensive purposes?
In addition to protecting shipping on their own sea lines of communication, the Soviets have the ability to threaten allied reinforcement shipping that is vital to the West for the defence not only of the central European land mass and the northern flank of NATO, but for the sustenance of our own civilian populations. We must expect the Soviets to conduct amphibious operations in support of their land campaigns.
The threat is multidimensional and increasing in reach and capability. At one end of the spectrum is surveillance