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Column 185from space ; at the other, complex underwater warfare from the open oceans and polar regions, to the vicinity of our own shallow seas and choke points.
In a time of rising tension or hostilities, we, with our allies, would be responsible for the maintenance of sea control in the whole of the east Atlantic. For the United Kingdom, that includes--this must be stated and restated--first, a major anti-submarine effort using our carriers, towed array frigates, submarines and maritime patrol aircraft and, secondly, the support of reinforcement forces. In consequence, we shall see a significant change in the make-up of the fleet. During the 1990s, type 12s, Leanders, Counties, Bristols and type 21s will all leave the active fleet. Air coverage will continue to be provided only by type 42 destroyers, while our principal anti-submarine warfare escorts will be type 22 and type 23 frigates. We shall work towards just two two classes of surface escort--the type 23 for the ASW and a successor to the type 42 for anti-air warfare. I hope that the latter will come from the NFR90 programme. I entirely share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan for the preservation of that programme, not only for our own shipbuilding capacity or fleet but for the collaborative programme of which it is a part. A more broadly based collaborative programme is not available to the Alliance. Now and then we hear whispers that that programme is at risk. I hope that it is not and I hope that the Minister will accept my hon. Friend's invitation and assure the House that the programme is as secure as it can be at this stage.
I think that, on personal contemplation, any hon. Member will agree that the forward look that I have offered to the House is bound to come about. How far is that development reflected in today's defence estimates or the long-term costings? Yet, if there are marginal reductions in the Soviet maritime posture--even without the additions described by the Minister when he opened the debate--we still have to face the threat from fast, deeper- diving and quieter Soviet submarines such as the Alpha, and the heavy armament of the Oscar. I single out only two classes, but they both demand a higher standard of response. Bigger and more numerous weapon control and communication systems often lead to larger and therefore more costly ships.
The underwater threat today is as great as it was in 1942-43. In spite of advances in methods of detecting submarines and the effectiveness of the weapons used against them, operational research in world war two showed that the submarine threat could be effectively countered only by adequate numbers of escorts and aircraft operating together as an integrated ASW force. The operative word here is "adequate". Do we have adequate surface forces? Despite the Government's oft-repeated pledge to maintain a fleet of about 50 destroyers and frigates, I wonder how many hon. Members present-- all of whom are interested in our security policy--are really assured on that point. As I recall, we have not had a debate for some years in which such anxiety has not been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
In the debate in October on the defence estimates, I raised several questions and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement replied to me afterwards, for which I am grateful. I am sorry that he could not stay, so that I could thank him for his good response, which was helpful to debates of this kind. I hope that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will convey my public thanks
Column 186to him. I asked him how many vessels were operational and how many in dockyards or on disposal lists. He replied :
"On 11 November, 38 Destroyers/Frigates were available immediately, or within a short period, and nine were in refit".
Those are sobering figures. The Minister continued :
"We plan to pay off 2 ships by the end of the financial year ; Two new type 22s will be introduced into service in the same period." So it is possible that we are now down to 38, and certainly no more than 40. The Navy has been demanding peacetime commitments of the fleet in the south Atlantic and on the Armilla patrol, commitments which account for as many as 25 per cent. of the 38 surface ships. This overstretch must prejudice naval participation in NATO exercises.
Extending ships' lives and modifying upkeep cycles could maintain the fleet, but that will involve keeping a number of ships in service longer than was originally intended. Moreover, extending a ship's life increases maintenance requirements and is likely to lead to further reductions in availability--
Mr. Archie Hamilton I hope that I can put the hon. Gentleman out of his agony. The statistics at the moment are that there are 49 destroyers and frigates in the fleet, 41 of which could be made available for operational deployment immediately or within a short period.
Mr. Duffy : I am grateful for that information, but it still represents a reduction to 41 from 43 just a year ago. The trend is downwards. The number is certainly not 50 or thereabouts, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannon reminded the Minister. The figures that the Government are good enough to yield up show a descending trend, which is a matter of concern to both sides of the House. I also want to discuss the structure and composition of the fleet. The Minister told me :
"The average age of our major warships is currently just over 12 years, which compares favourably with that of our NATO allies. By now the average age of our carriers is six years, of our destroyer and frigates 12 years, and of our landing platform docks--including amphibious ships--22 years. So we cannot settle for figures alone. We thank the Government for being helpful about figures, but we need to know more about the quality of the ships. Considering the vast amount of shipping that would operate in the north European NATO area in a time of crisis, we realise that it would be completely at the mercy of the mine unless routes were secured by NATO's mine countermeasure forces. Much of the burden of securing the sea lanes, not only for merchant ships but for the Navy's warships and attack submarines and SSBNs, will fall on the Navy's mine countermeasures vessels. The Minister knows that I have been especially interested in this subject for some time ; I keep asking questions about it, and did so last October, thereby securing a further reply from the Minister.
I wanted to know how many of the minesweeper orders planned under a £1 billion modernisation scheme introduced by the Government near the beginning of their period of office would be completed by the mid-1990s. The programme was intended to provide us with about 50 new hulls. The Minister replied :
Column 187"We have brought 19 new MCMVs into service since 1979, and there are currently five single role Mine Hunters on order. We expect to order more in due course, but no decision has yet been taken on the size and timing of further orders."
So 19 out of 50 have been finished and we are more than halfway through the life of the programme. Although the Minister referred to the programme, he did not mention new orders, although it had been expected, last year as well as this, that there would be an order for four SRMH-type vessels.
I have said enough to show that there are ample grounds for concern about the state of the Navy. That concern cannot be limited to frigates, destroyers or mine countermeasures vessels. The MOD was reported last summer as trying to divert criticism by pointing out that the Navy also has carrier and submarine forces, but it failed to mention that there is neither the manpower nor the aircraft to man one third of the carrier forces, even in crisis. The MOD also failed to point out that no further nuclear submarines--attack submarines--can be built for use by the fleet until the Trident force is complete, with the result that the attack submarine force will age in the same way as the frigates and destroyers, perhaps to a point from which recovery will be difficult.
Feasibility studies for the replacement of the amphibious assault ships Fearless and Intrepid continue, according to the Minister. He mentioned the aviation support ship and said that a tender would be invited in July. All that suggests a slowing down.
Merchant shipping, as was shown in 1982, now forms an integral part of the amphibious lift capability in contingency planning and would provide the bulk of the British minesweeping forces too, having a vital role in the carriage of NATO reinforcements across the Atlantic.
The defence statement devotes only two paragraphs to merchant shipping and, compared with the 1987 statement, amounts to a tacit admission that the size of the British merchant fleet is no longer adequate to meet both NATO's reinforcement requirement and that of the support of the United Kingdom's armed forces.
On manpower, outflow is still high. The most serious shortfalls are to be found among the voluntary reserves. In 1984 the Government announced a plan to increase the strengh of the voluntary reservists in the Royal Naval Reserve by 40 per cent., from 5,226 to 7,800 by the early 1990s. The previous year it was announced that the Royal Marines Reserve would be increased from 1,047 to 1,580.
This defence statement shows that, on 1 January a year ago, the RNR had 5,600 men and women, and the RMR 1,300. Thus, four years after launching their expansion plans, the Government have achieved less than 10 per cent. of their target for the RNR, and less than 50 per cent. for the RMR in five years.
Mr. Duffy : As a former reservist I take pleasure from that, but it is the only section of which that is true. Overall, the MOD still needs to enrol another 2,200 recruits over and above wastage levels by 1994--the promised target
Column 188date by which it was hoped that the reserve will be capable of manning 60 per cent. of all British MCM ships and providing 12 per cent. of total naval manpower in war.
I was pleased to learn from the Minister that more resources will be available in real terms to the Navy over the next three years. I have had time to only describe a few areas in which those increased resources will be very welcome.
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) : The House will have been extremely pleased to hear the remarks of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement, who clearly stated that forward defence was vital to preventing a Soviet naval breakout. We have often heard it said that the forward defence of Germany is the forward defence of the United Kingdom. It was refreshing to hear a Defence Minister stating that the principle of forward defence applied also to maritime defence.
This principle was reiterated in the Western European Union platform of The Hague in which all the member countries committed themselves to the defence of their nations at their borders. When we are talking about northern defence in naval terms, most of us are thinking about a northern dimension of maritime defence. The balance of power on the northern flank preoccupies strategists and is of great concern for the security of this country.
Over the past 20 years, the Soviet navy has indeed become an instrument for global power projection. It can be argued why that occurred, but in the past 20 years not only has the Soviet navy acquired a blue water capability but it has become a formidable component of the USSR's strategic nuclear deterrent force ; if deterrent be the right word. With the introduction into service of the very latest SSBNs such as the Typhoon and the Delta IV, the need for the Soviet Union's strategic nuclear submarines to go into the farthest oceans of the globe to carry out their intimidatory or deterrent missions has been obviated. Now of course, the SSBNs of the Soviet Union can lurk equally effectively in the dark and icy waters of the Arctic, the Barents sea and the Greenland sea.
This may in part be an explanation for the apparent diminution of exercise activity in the past three years. There may be other reasons such as that the Soviet navy needs to absorb the new equipment which it has acquired. It probably needs to make some savings in running costs by cutting down on sea time. Naturally, as the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the chairman of the political committee of the North Atlantic Assembly, has pointed out, it would indeed be embarrassing for the Soviet Union if the naval exercise programme of the Soviet fleet was out of step with the political statements of Secretary-General Gorbachev. The Opposition Front Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), has alluded to this factor.
If we accept that the deterrent balance is operating in a period of arms control when it is likely that land-based systems will be the first to be dismantled--which was already the case for the INF--then the importance of sea-based nuclear delivery systems will increase, with SSBNs and submarine- launched cruise missile systems as well as air-launched cruise missile systems and dual
Column 189capable systems also. Therefore, it is very important for the Soviet Union to maintain the modernisation of its northern fleet. It seems to have done so, as I pointed out.
However, we must not confuse apparent intention with capability. Intentions can change as rapidly as the men who are supposed to have them. Capabilities, especially in modern naval warfare, can take decades to acquire. It is clear that the Soviet Union has acquired the capability to operate the very latest systems. Its submarines, such as the Typhoon, are the deepest diving in the world. They have acquired quiet technology from the United States and are a formidable threat.
Furthermore, the Soviets regard sea power as a seamless web, with a spectrum of capabilities from the intelligence gatherers to the fishing vessels, from the merchant marine to the oceanographic vessels to the high sea and coastal forces of the Soviet navy, with its attendant naval aviation. Britain must address this maritime threat on the northern flank.
Mr. O'Neill : Does the hon. Gentleman for giving way, also accept that the British Navy considers that its activities take the form of a seamless garment? The point I particularly wish to make concerns the acceptance of the forward northern strategies by NATO. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that acceptance implies the willingness and the capability of the Alliance to fight a nuclear war at sea, and to win in the very early stages of a conflict in Europe? Is that what the hon. Gentleman understands to be the underlying theme of a northern maritime strategy? If so, is it any wonder that the Norwegian Government are most concerned about the provocative deployment of these ships in northern waters?
I was lecturing to the Oslo Military Society last night. The naval strategy and forward posture of NATO greatly interest Norwegians. They regard the forward naval strategy of SACLANT to be as important as the West Germans regard the forward strategy of SACEUR. SACLANT's posture is a deterrent one. In other words it is important to have adequate warning of a possible threat available to the NATO alliance. Secondly, the warning should be properly interpreted. Thirdly, political decisions should be taken promptly and fearlessly. Fourthly, reinforcements should take place early enough.
Two aspects of such reinforcement must be highlighted. The defence of northern Norway depends very much on the arrival at the earliest possible date of SACLANT's striking fleet Atlantic. Without the early arrival of SACLANT's carrier battle groups into the Norwegian sea, it is possible that deterrence might fail. This is important. The second aspect is that relevant amphibious forces have to be mobilised--first, the United States marine brigade so that it can be put into Norway to take advantage of the equipment that has been pre-stocked there recently ; secondly, the United Kingdom-Netherlands amphibious force, which should at least get under way. It is arguable, however, that it should not be put ashore too early, as the flexibility that such marine forces inherently possess should be available until the appropriate moment.
We delude ourselves if we imagine that NATO surface vessels would be able to survive in the Norwegian sea if deterrence broke down without the striking fleet Atlantic. The dominance of Soviet air power is such that they would
Column 190be very much exposed. When people talk of the European role, especially that of the Royal Navy, before the arrival of SACLANT's striking fleet Atlantic, I assume that the emphasis will be on the activity of SSNs to try and keep tabs on the SSBNs and important components of the northern fleet. Certain commentators suggest that Invincible class carriers would be safe to operate up north, I question this very much. An early objective of Soviet commanders would be to deny NATO the northern airfields in Norway, if not to take them.
We should recall that the Soviet marine brigade which is available in the Kola now exercises regularly and would be a serious threat. Therefore, the key to the whole scenario up north and to the effectiveness of our strategy is the air situation.
Mr. Wilkinson : I can give my hon. Friend no such confirmation. The whole essence of deterrence is to have a range of capabilities, and by their nature, carrier groups are dual capable. That is why the Soviets would be foolhardy to launch aggression of any kind against northern Norway or any part of the Alliance. It is important for the Alliance to have a nuclear capability because it is fundamental to our strategy. That is well understood by the Soviets and it has helped to preserve the peace.
Mr. O'Neill : I thank the hon. Gentleman for answering my earlier question in some detail. He has painted a scenario in which there would be the possible use of NATO SSNs against Soviet SSBNs--against ballistic missile submarines in the Soviet fleet. Does he not think that the early challenge of those SSBNs would bring about the likelihood of an early use by the Soviet Union of nuclear weapons on the basis that they should either lose them or use them? It was that kind of provocative act which I implied in my initial question.
Mr. Wilkinson : No. I used the phrase "keep tabs on". One must remember that a forward naval strategy has a peacetime dimension just as much as it has a wartime dimension. The Norwegians are fearful lest the Norwegian Sea should, in peacetime, become a mare Sovieticum, for the NATO allies do not spend nearly as many sea days as do the Soviets in this inhospitable stretch of water. We should, in peace, have a capability and exercise there regularly, and then, should we have a transition to what could--and we hope it will not--be war, we would be in the right place at the right time and with the right range of naval forces.
In this period, when we are rightly preoccupied with arms control and are seeking to make progress towards a reduction perhaps of 50 per cent. in strategic nuclear delivery systems--and, hopefully, reductions in chemical weapons and ultimately in conventional forces on the central front--we should not forget that these developments make even more important naval power in general and naval nuclear deterrent power in particular.
As we are increasingly preoccupied with the central front and the attendant balance of forces, let us not forget the imbalance of the northern region, in that the Soviet Union is in place there with substantial forces, whereas the Danes and the Norwegians are totally dependent, if
Column 191deterrence fails, on our NATO reinforcement. Such reinforcement cannot effectively take place unless we take the hard political decisions early enough, unless we make the reinforcement decisions quickly and effectively and, above all, unless we have the air power available to make the forward naval strategy possible.
Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich) : I wish to comment in particular on the final comments by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), for there will be satisfaction in all parts of the House that this debate should be taking place against a background of a more positive international climate than has been the case with naval debates for some years.
We welcome the progress that has been made on arms control. We hope that the INF treaty will be followed by progress on strategic nuclear weapons, and we hope that there will be progress in the conventional stability talks, which will enable mutual security and stability to be assured at much lower levels or armaments deployment.
There are clear signs that the Soviets are beginning to make cuts in their offensive capabilities. They have a long way to go before they have achieved the sort of cuts that would remove the sense of insecurity which exists in western Europe, but it is right to acknowledge that the process has at least started, and that is to be welcomed.
Welcome though those developments are, they are no reason for taking risks with our defences or for gambling with our security. In particular, they offer us no reason for giving up Britain's nuclear capability. That is why I believe it right for the Government to be proceeding with the Trident programme. It is well known that Trident would not have been my first preference for Britain's minimum nuclear deterrent, but those arguments are now behind us. It is now clearly a question of Trident or no nuclear deterrent in Britain, and on the basis of that choice, I prefer Trident to no nuclear weapons of any sort.
I say that because I do not believe that the aim of securing the sort of mutual balanced nuclear disarmament that we want to see would be helped by Britain throwing away its nuclear weapons. I was glad to see Mr. Gorbachev taking that view when a delegation recently waited on him in the Soviet Union.
Trident is a flexible system. Its firepower can be reduced by reducing the number of missiles carried on each submarine or by cutting the number of warheads on each missile. I hope that the British Government are alive to the possibility of such developments in terms of arms control and are willing to scale down Britain's nuclear capacity in line with cuts made by other nations. Before dealing with the role and size of the surface fleet, I must deal with the issue of decommissioning nuclear submarines, a problem which is with us. We know that Dreadnought came out of service in 1982, that its nuclear fuel was removed and that it has been lying at Rosyth ever since, awaiting a decision on the appropriate method of disposal. We also know that a further nine nuclear-powered submarines will be coming out of service by the year 2000.
I understand that the Ministry of Defence has identified three possible options for dealing with the problem. The first is to sink the entire submarine at sea. I should have
Column 192thought that in the present environmentally conscious world climate, that would not be a popular step to take. So that is not a strong option.
The second is to bury the intact reactor compartment somewhere on land. Again, I cannot imagine that we would be knocked down in the rush as inhabitants of the United Kingdom volunteered to have those components buried in their areas. The third alternative is to cut up the reactor plant and store the parts piecemeal with a view eventually to disposing of them in deep sites which have yet to be developed.
Replies to parliamentary questions show that no decisions about those options have yet been taken. We are told that the options are under active consideration, which reminds me of old Civil Service joke that when something is said to be under active consideration, it means that the papers have been lost and officials are searching for them. I hope that that is not the case in this instance, although we have been told by the Ministry of Defence that those options have been under active consideration for several years.
In a memorandum provided to the Defence Committee, the Ministry says :
"it is not possible to say when a decision on the way forward will be reached. It remains the MoD's intention however that decisions will be taken in good time to ensure adequate and safe disposal or storage of this category of nuclear waste and to prevent unacceptable interference with RN operations."
That is, I am sure, intended to be a reassuring comment. It sounds, I am sure the Minister will accept, somewhat bland and complacent, and I hope that we shall get some greater sense of urgency on this matter, some clearer indication of when decisions are to be taken, when the Minister replies.
I now turn to the role of the Royal Navy and the size of the surface fleet and, like others who have spoken in this debate, I will start with the issue of forward defence. In our last debate on the Navy on 3 March, the then Minister of State for the Armed Forces made it clear that forward defence was a very important element for the Royal Navy. He said :
"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."--[ Official Report, 3 March 1988 ; Vol. 128, c. 1176.]
In the evidence that has been given to the Select Committee, it has become, I think, fairly clear that that appears to be the primary aim of the surface fleet in a wartime situation.
The limited number of vessels available makes it likely that other roles-- defence of convoys for example, and protection of seas around the United Kingdom--would inevitably have a lower priority because of the demands of this forward defence strategy.
I have no difficulty with the concept in general of forward defence. I can see too the attraction of seeking to bottle up Soviet maritime forces, and particularly Soviet submarines, north of the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap. If that could be achieved, it might well provide the most effective defence for the re-supply convoys which would have to cross the Atlantic from north America. However, there are certain obvious question marks hanging over this strategy and its effectiveness. In a period of tension, for example, the forward deployment of royal naval vessels in the Norwegian sea could only monitor the
Column 193movements of Soviet naval forces. Clearly, in a period of tension there is no way in which one could stop the movement of those Soviet naval forces, and one could not stop them reaching the Atlantic, where they could subsequently, if there were to be a conflict, prey on merchant ships crossing the Atlantic.
In a period of tension it can at least be argued, I think with some force, that forward deployment would be seen as extremely provocative and could aggravate an already difficult situation. So there are doubts about the effectiveness of this strategy ; it would certainly absorb a large proportion of scarce naval assets, and it could turn out to be ineffective by simply trying to bolt the stable door long after the horse had gone.
The Ministry of Defence, faced with that sort of criticism, has stressed that this is a flexible approach and that the strategy would have to vary depending on the circumstances of the time. The difficulty I see is that, the fewer ships that are available, the less possibility there is for that degree of flexibility, and that is where we come back to this constant problem of the current size of our surface fleet.
We have already had comment in this debate on what "about 50" means in terms of numbers. We have already established that, at any given time--this is clearly a changing picture--fewer than 50 vessels are actually available. The evidence given to the Select Committee by the Ministry of Defence, for example, shows that, on 2 March 1988, 36 ships were fully available for operations, with seven preparing for operations or in trials and training. On 10th June, 32 ships were fully available, with eight more available at short notice. So, at any given time, considerably fewer than 50 vessels are available for actual service.
I sought to argue in the debate last year that one of the problems about this situation is that the current size of the surface fleet appears to be dictated not by the tasks that it is being asked to carry out but by the availability of funds to pay for the vessels needed. I was very encouraged to see a memorandum put to the Defence Select Committee by Admiral of the Fleet Lord Hill-Norton, who made just the same point. He said :
"Thus the present size of the destroyer/frigate force bears no actual relation to the present threat, but is based solely on what this Government believes it can afford to spend on it."
He went on :
"This opinion has been publicly stated on many recent occasions by the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic--who asserts that he has no more than half the number he needs to perform his assigned war tasks--and by our own successive Commanders in Chief."
Lord Hill-Norton commented about the implications of the "about 50" force when he was personally responsible for these matters. He said that, at that point,
"the number which Ministers accepted to be necessary was 68, and I have seen no evidence that the threat has since diminished." That sort of expert comment puts the "about 50" surface vessels argument into perspective. We really ought to ensure that we have the number of vessels to carry out the tasks or we ought to reduce the tasks to be sure that they can adequately be carried out by the force we have. We cannot simply go on stretching the available assets to cover a wider area than is reasonable.
Like other Members who have spoken, I think the issue is not only the number involved but the age of the vessels that we are talking about. In 1981, the Government
Column 194proposed to dispose early of older ships and that they would accelerate the introduction of the type 23 frigates. However, when they came to respond to the fourth report of the Defence Committee in 1986-87, they referred to
"decisions to extend ships' lives and modify upkeep cycles, with the result that it is not now necessary to order three frigates a year in order to maintain a surface fleet of about 50 destroyers and frigates."
It is therefore quite clear that the Government are honouring their famous pledge to maintain the "about 50" surface fleet by keeping in service a number of older ships, which on earlier criteria were coming to the end of their useful life. That clearly seems to be a policy response to financial pressures on the defence budget, but it has had implications for the effectiveness of the surface fleet. As other hon. Members have pointed out, older ships need larger crews, and that adds to the demands on the Navy's manpower. It is certainly likely to aggravate the problem of family separation, which in its turn has an adverse impact on the problem of retention of trained and skilled manpower. We also know that older ships may be more vulnerable ; they certainly have higher maintenance costs, lower reliability, and all the problems of obsolescence.
Admiral of the Fleet Lord Hill-Norton had something to say about this in his memorandum to the Defence Committee :
"Our ships must have capabilities which match the threat, and if they do not their deterrent value progressively lacks credibility. To dilute capability by running on our current generation of ships beyond an effective age, would require a reversion to the policy of major up-dating which experience has proved to be too expensive." That again, I think, is a very important issue.
We have already had reference in this debate to the question of ordering policy, and the Select Committee in their report, which we are considering in conjunction with this debate, suggested that a total of 25 frigates was due to be withdrawn from service over the next decade, even allowing for the longer operational life which the Government now proposes. At that point, eight ships were on order, and the Committee therefore calculated that 17 vessels were needed over six and half years. That led to the famous calculation that we needed an ordering rate of 2.6 ships a year.
In reality, the Select Committee suggested, that meant ordering two in 1988, three in 1989, and then alternately two and three every year up to and including 1994. After the publication of that report, the Government announced an order for three new frigates, and I remember the Minister claiming that that had more than met the need for the 2.6 identified by the Select Committee. Of course, the Select Committee was making it clear that that was only the first stage in the programme it had outlined. The order that the Government announced last year followed a period when, in two out of three years, no orders at all had been placed ; the last time the Government ordered three type 23s was in 1986-87, and there was no order at all in the following year. With that sort of pattern, the ordering rate will clearly fall well below the programme set out by the Select Committee. The result is that we shall end up with a smaller, older and less effective surface fleet.
Admiral Lord Hill-Norton addressed just that point when he said : "Unless there is a large increase in the rate of ordering, applied at once and continued, the Royal Navy thus faces an inevitable decline to a total which will certainly be less than 45
Column 195operational destroyers and frigates in the mid 1990s. This must come close to the total of 42 planned in the ill judged 1981 Review."
He concluded :
"The facts seem to demonstrate that the Government intends, perhaps unwittingly, to allow a decline of this order to occur."
Such a charge, by someone with the experience and distinction of Admiral Lord Hill-Norton, must be taken much more seriously than it has been so far by the Government. I look forward with great interest to the Minister's reply on that issue.
Mr. Neville Trotter (Tynemouth) : It is understandable that in opening the debate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement should have concentrated on the Royal Navy's equipment, but I want to begin by referring to the men and women who serve in it. When one visits the Navy one is always impressed by the enthusiasm, confidence, air of responsibility and professionalism of those one meets, who often seem to be particularly young men and women.
The commander of the United States surface warfare establishment said last year that there was no better anti-submarine warfare force in the world than the Royal Navy. That was a tribute indeed, coming from that source. It is due mainly to the high professionalism of the people who serve in the Royal Navy.
The quality of life in the Royal Navy is as high now as ever. If one reads the Navy's annual reports that are circulated to retired officers, one sees the worldwide extent of the service's involvement--the submarines Superb and Turbulent surfacing together at the north pole--the first occasion on which two Royal Navy submarines have been there together ; Endurance at the other end of the globe on its annual duties in the Antarctic ; the Ark Royal leading a squadron to Australia ; the guard ships of the Falkland Islands, and the 7,000 men in the submarine service about whom we naturally seldom hear much. I was struck to hear last year of the conventional submarine that sailed on patrol to the Falklands from the United Kingdom and was away for no fewer than 139 days, of which 109 were at sea--a remarkable achievement. It is only right to also pay tribute to the men of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary who support the Navy wherever it may go in the world.
Naturally, in the circumstances of last year, it is the Gulf to which we should pay particular attention. Month after month in harm's way, the Navy has performed there with superb professionalism and the highest morale. We are talking here today about the theories of naval warfare, but it is important to remember the endurance of our crews on those ships in the Gulf who served watch and watch about, six hours on and six hours off, under constant threat of attack day after day on a regular basis. In 70 days HMS London alone escorted 13 million tonnes of merchant shipping in and out of that hostile area, the crew constantly tense and on alert for attack.
In the 10 months to the end of October, before the escorting of convoys ceased, no fewer than 621 merchant ships were escorted and not one was attacked, and none were attacked under escort in the previous period during which the patrol operated. No less than 25 per cent. of all sea time in the Royal Navy has been Gulf-related. The
Column 196escort of merchant ships in the Gulf has now ceased, but the squadron remains on patrol in that part of the world. Who can say that trouble will not flare up again in those distant waters? Naturally enough, over the years when we have been considering the Royal Navy's role, its NATO context has received most attention. This is the 40th year of NATO and it has been a remarkably successful peace-keeping operation. It is against the capabilities and intentions of the Soviet Union and its navy that we must continue primarily to consider the future force, strength and disposition of the Royal Navy.
The Soviet navy's capabilities remain undiminished. In the past three years 15 per cent. of the Soviet main northern fleet has been replaced by new ships. Two nuclear-powered battle cruisers have joined this fleet, as have two new aircraft carriers, and there is now in service a nuclear-powered electronic jamming vessel, unique in the world. Whatever the Soviet leadership's intentions, there is constant military expenditure on new and very capable equipment at sea as on land and in the air. Until we see some reduction in that massive military production by the Soviet Union, we must continue to be on our guard. All hon. Members hope that the reduced tension that we enjoy today will continue, but it would be unwise to ignore the Soviet capabilities.
When we consider the Royal Navy's future, we should pay particular attention to its worldwide capabilities and the tasks that it may unexpectedly be required to perform. Who can say what will happen in 10 years' time in some remote part of the world? Who could have foretold that the author of a rather dull-sounding novel might set the middle east aflame in the way that is possible at this time? Who can say that there will not be some need for the Royal Navy to intervene in some far-off spot which has nothing whatever to do with tensions between east and west? This in itself is a justification for maintaining Britain's naval capability.
The demands on the sailors in the Royal Navy are as high now as they ever have been. Inevitably, naval life has always involved separation, and I pay particular tribute to those at home in the naval personnel and family service who look after the 33,000 families of the sailors, especially when they are away on long-distance voyages. The Navy has always worked hard, and it is now working very hard indeed. We must keep an eye on the sea- shore ratio, which always used to be 40 per cent. at sea and 60 per cent. ashore, but is now in danger of swinging the other way. The highest priority must be to retain the skilled and expensively trained senior ratings and officers in the service. At present, that is not a particular worry, but it is something to which we must give constant attention for the future.
I have noticed with interest the complex changes that have been made to the system of allowances in all three services. The Royal Navy's allowances have been particularly complex. I understand that the objective has been to compensate particularly those who suffer from family separation through sea service. If the Treasury, or anybody else, were tempted to save money in that direction, it would be a false economy. It is essential to maintain a system that encourages senior men to continue to serve in the service. There is a clear case for less manpower-intensive ships so that we can reduce the strain on naval manpower. The published aim is that the total personnel strength of the