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Column 197Navy will be reduced by another 4,000 in the years ahead. The best way of achieving that reduction must be through the introduction of new ships requiring smaller crews. We have a major ordering programme in hand, with 10 frigates and nine submarines under construction. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will not be surprised to hear me say that there is a need for further orders, in particular for further frigate orders.
In the Falklands campaign we proved that our ships are good and there is no question but that the new type 23 frigate will be very good. In 1854 Lord Kelvin said :
"The public cannot tolerate large increases in costs for small increases in performance for guns and ships. Large increases in costs and questionable increases in performance can be tolerated only for racehorses and fancy women."
There is the same tendency today for the cost of each new generation of military equipment to be much greater than that of the last. However, unlike in Lord Kelvin's time, the new ships are at least twice as good as those that they are replacing.
The question of the number of frigates will obviously continue to be very contentious. I suggest that my hon. Friends have created a cross for themselves by ever putting forward the figure of "about 50". Once that figure was publicly mooted it became a benchmark against which all the time comparisons would be made. So far as I am aware, nobody has ever said that there ought to be 50 infantry battalions or 50 squadrons of aircraft in the Royal Air Force, but, perhaps unwisely, the figure of "about 50" has become a benchmark for the strength of the surface navy.
Having set the target of 50 in the public perception, we ought to achieve it, and I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Minister of State say this afternoon that we are nearly there. The figure is 49 ; we need only one more to achieve 50. I suggest that it would be well worth while to ensure that we have 50 so that this argument can cease. But, far more important than whether we have 49, 48 or 50 is the capability of those ships and I believe that there is a very strong argument for continuing the type 23 programme.
Twenty-six type 22s and type 42s will continue to serve in the fleet for many years ahead, but there are all the old Leanders and in time the type 21s to replace. Presumably we shall need some 24 new frigates to replace them. Seven type 23s have so far been ordered ; that leaves 17. I very much hope that we shall see at least three more ordered in the very near future. It is now a year since the tendering process started for the last batch and I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to consider very seriously whether they should not now be starting the procurement process for the next batch of type 23s.
The life of a warship should be decided not just on the obsolescence of its equipment and the wear and tear on its systems, but on its operating costs. The old Leanders are undoubtedly very costly to maintain and operate. Inevitably there is very heavy maintenance, not just because of their age, but because of their design and the fact that they have an old steam plant and, in particular, a very large crew. The crew of a Leander is 50 per cent.
Column 198bigger than that of a replacing type 23, and, as I have already said, the latter is twice as good as the ship it is replacing. There are, therefore, great manpower savings as well as capability improvements and I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to think very carefully about the need for a sustained replacement programme of these older ships.
The need for other naval orders is, I suggest, at least as self-evident. The AORs are an essential part of the concept of the operation of the type 23. I hope that before too long we shall hear that tenders have been requested for the third of the AORs. I believe that the original intention was that there should be six and I hope that we shall build up to that figure as soon as possible. The support given this afternoon from the Front Bench for our amphibious capability was good news. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) about the need for our Royal Marine force to arrive in Norway at the earliest possible moment in a crisis. I would see its arrival in good time as a deterrent to an attack on Norway and to conventional war breaking out in that part of the world.
Certainly the Royal Marines have a unique capability also to intervene in unexpected crises in the rest of the world. It is good news that the Government are proceeding with the aviation support ship and are planning a replacement for the two commando landing ships Intrepid and Fearless. Surely it must be better to go for a new build in this direction rather than a refit of the existing hulls, which will be 30 years old. We shall have a much better ship and a much smaller crew if we start all over again and design with modern technology.
Sir Antony Buck : I should like to say how much I agree with my hon. Friend about the replacement of the amphibious ships to which he has referred. Many of us are firmly committed to the amphibious capability. In dealing with the northern flank, would he commend one thing, which I believe has been an improvement over the years, and that is the prepositioning of heavy supplies, so that the men can be got there quickly and will be greeted by the supplies they need, which do not have to be taken great distances across the sea?
Mr. Trotter : As my hon. Friend knows, that is the case with the American marine brigade, which has its equipment based prepositioned. The problem with prepositioning is that there has to be two lots of equipment-- one based there and one for other operations--which is expensive. Also, of course, one must maintain the capability to intervene elsewhere than the north. But I agree entirely with the principle of what my hon. Friend has said.
Turning to the question of repair work for the Navy, I was absolutely astonished to hear both the Opposition Front Benchers say that the repair of HMS Southampton should not go out to competition, and presumably that Tyneside should not be allowed to show that it can win this work and should not be given the chance for fair competition. Apart from the fact that it is most unfair to suggest that this work should not be made available, it would be more costly simply to allocate the work to one of the dockyards as suggested by the Opposition.
In my own part of the world, Swan Hunter has just won the design contract for the updating of both the type 42s and the three aircraft carriers, and I know that the yard is
Column 199very capable of carrying out the work on HMS Southampton. I wish it well in its bid. The taxpayer will certainly gain as a result of our going out to competition.
I welcome the stated intention to increase the percentage of repair work in general that will go out to competition rather than just be allocated to Rosyth and Devonport, but I would ask my hon. Friends when we will see the further Leander refit and the conventional submarine refit going out to the wider tender that was promised after the successful experiment with a Leander frigate and one of the Oberon class submarines--two or three years ago. I very much hope that before long we shall see a further round of that type of refit work going out for general competition.
I suggest in particular to my right hon. and hon. Friends that it would be cheaper if all the RFAs went out to refit in the smaller commercial yards. I cannot believe that it is economical for that work to be carried out in Rosyth and Devonport. Indeed, 66 per cent. of the work carried out in the repair yards on the Tyne in recent years has been for the Navy, and most of the ships concerned have been RFAs won in competition.
I shall refer briefly to the role of the Merchant Navy. I believe that hon. Members of all parties are very concerned about the continual decline, not only of the British merchant navy, but of the merchant navies of the other western countries of the NATO alliance. The reasons have been well rehearsed on previous occasions on the Floor of the House, but I would just say that the development of the Channel tunnel can be expected further to reduce the number of ships available to us in an emergency. Both the Defence Committee and the Transport Committee of the House have reported in the past year and expressed their concern on this decline.
I welcome the action taken by the Government, such as the establishment of a merchant navy reserve and the assistance given with training. It is encouraging to note that twice as many cadets started training for the United Kingdom merchant navy in nautical colleges last year as was the case the year before. Nevertheless, much more needs to be done, not just by this country but also by the Alliance as a whole. In particular, in this country, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor should give more thought to measures that can be useful to British shipowners in maintaining ships under the red ensign. Certainly, that is what happens in other countries. I was astonished when I pursued with one of our shipping companies a press comment that it had recently purchased a vessel to operate under the Belgian flag. The company replied that this was true and that there were savings of approximately US$500,000 a year as a result of registering the ship in Belgium rather than Britain. I have sent a copy of that letter to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor as I believe it is an excellent example of the truth of what is said about the unfairness of the tax system in this country compared with the systems in countries competing with us. Much more needs to be done if we are to maintain a merchant navy of a reasonable size for the future.
In my judgment, the relaxation of tension between East and West in Europe is likely to continue. That will inevitably lead to a reduction in the level of front-line and forces in Europe, especially on the central front. This must
Column 200mean that the reinforcement of Europe in a crisis will become more important than ever, and that Britain's role at sea will continue to be of great importance. It is a very important factor in deciding the priorities in defence that our warships, designed for their NATO role to help deter a world war, are available for and capable of a far wider role in the world as a whole in troubles that are not connected with East-West tensions but are far more certain to occur. 6.19 pm
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) : There have been remarkable developments in East-West relations over the past couple of years. I speak as a former general rapporteur to the political committee of the North Atlantic Assembly, who used to write gloomy reports on what was happening in East-West relations, and about the failure of arms control. When I look at those reports now they seem like historical documents--even though they are only three or four years old. Few people could honestly admit that they foresaw such dramatic developments in East-West relations.
Three or four days ago, as a member of a North Atlantic Assembly sub- committee on Eastern Europe, I was wandering around the T72s held by the Dukla motor rifle regiment in Czechoslovakia. I might have taken advantage of the offer to get inside a T72 but it is really designed for smaller people. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy), who is the president of the North Atlantic Assembly, who was also present, could have got inside that T72. That experience was an indication of developments that could not have been anticipated.
We must still ask whether the threat has subsided. Has it gone away? Will swords be beaten into ploughshares, and, even after the remarkable developments that have occurred, ought we to be euphoric? We have experienced euphoria on several previous occasions. In the period after the Cuban missle crisis, when the new team of Brezhnev and Kosygin came to power, there were high hopes of great improvements in East-West relations, but they were dashed. Hopes were dashed again in the early 1970s, after the signing of SALT I. One only hopes that current developments are sustainable and that, in a few years' time, our enthusiastic response to arms control developments will not be seen historically as an illusion. We must hope that the fundamental changes that appear to be taking place in the Soviet Union will be reflected in Soviet military doctrine, force levels and action--so that Soviet forces, to cite the comments of Mr. Gorbachev, are seen to adopt an unequivocally defensive posture. However, one recalls that Mr. Brezhnev consistently stressed the defensive nature of Soviet armed forces, albeit that that was greeted with extreme scepticism by NATO and by most analysts.
I am optimistic though cautious. To believe that the threat has been eliminated or is diminishing to such an extent that there is no requirement for a Royal Navy of any size or substance or for armed forces is premature and an act of self-delusion. There will be a requirement for a substantial Royal Navy for the foreseeable future, even if it is not the Soviet Union that poses a threat. One cannot be certain that Mr. Gorbachev's reforms will be sustained, so although the immediate threat has diminished, many other navies are emerging.
Column 201There has been a remarkable increase in the number of medium-sized naval powers. Right hon. and hon. Members should ponder the fact that the Soviet Union's naval construction industry produces far more vessels for export, with India being a major recipient of the Russian naval construction programme. With arms control breaking out and, one hopes, being sustained, the Soviet Union and NATO, too, will persist in exporting equipment--including naval equipment--to Third world states. It is unwise to presume that all threat has been removed just because the threat from the Soviet Union is diminishing.
One must always take into account that crises can emerge at any time. The case made by the Select Committee on Defence in its now famous report, "The Future Size and Role of the Royal Navy's Surface Fleet", clearly revealed a requirement for a substantial Navy in the future. Apparently, Select Committees are not the flavour of the month that they were for most of the post-1979 period. Government Departments are rather critical of them. The Defence Committee has produced a stream of well-argued and somewhat critical reports. The Government were not too pleased by the Committee's reports on the Westland affair, defence commitments and resources, and on business appointments. It remains to be seen how pleased the Government will be by our forthcoming report on the Gurkhas. Certainly the Government were less than euphoric about the Committee's report on the future size of the surface fleet. I am pleased that that report has been tagged for today's debate.
The Chairman of that Select Committee said that that report was not critical. Having re-read it, I am not convinced that his analysis is correct. It is a very critical report. A Select Committee does not exist to blow kisses at the Department concerned and to produce reports that will delight it. It exists to analyse objectively, and if a Select Committee's conclusions cause embarrassment, that is its job. It will praise where merited, but will also criticise where necessary.
The Government's response to the Defence Committee's report on the surface fleet was unfair. The Ministry either rejected most of its recommendations or made critical comments of what was said. The Committee confirmed the considerable over-stretching of the Royal Navy, particularly as we were in the middle of the Armilla patrol and of the Gulf operations. It reported the serious decline in the merchant marine and the detrimental effect that that would have on reinforcing and resupply from north America in the event of a crisis.
The Select Committee was sceptical about the strategy of forward defence. Paragraph 25 of its report comments :
"The aim of forward defence is to contain the Soviet fleet as far north as possible and thereby avoid or limit the amount of the threat which comes into the vast expanse of the Atlantic itself'. The Royal Navy would deploy early into the Norwegian Sea and then hold the ring' "--
in the words of the witness, Mr. Richard Mottram, from the Ministry of Defence--
"until the arrival of US carrier battle groups."
My great anxiety is that, if we participate in a forward maritime strategy with inadequate resources, and with ships that are not properly armed, the task of holding the ring
"until the arrival of US carrier battle groups"
could prove to be an exciting experience. I certainly would not wish to be on board any ship that, in the event of
Column 202conflict, would be subjected to the greatest concentration of air and maritime power in the world--in a very difficult area, off the coast of Norway--if the Soviet Union was successful in taking some airfields in northern Norway. One must remember how close is the Kola peninsula and the vast concentration of Soviet naval power to Norway. I would be cautious about adopting an almost gung-ho attitude, in saying that the Royal Navy will deploy far forward and that its task will be to "hold the ring".
The Select Committee was also critical of the Government's aspiration to maintain
"about 50 frigates and destroyers".
I believe that it made a great contribution to the Royal Navy by pointing out the serious shortfall that existed and that that would continue into the future unless the Ministry of Defence embarked on a programme of ordering that would allow it to meet its objectives. Not long after that report was published--clearly, the Secretary of State for Defence did not wish to appear to have been bounced by the Select Committee--an announcement was made that further orders would be placed.
However, as the Committee pointed out, 2.6 ships per year must be ordered over a period of more than six years. Even if the Government make an announcement soon, they will have to move quickly and be more diligent than they have been so far if they are to meet their target of 2.6 ships annually--albeit three ships one year and two the next. We do not want to see the Government playing games by using ships that have reached the end of their natural lives just to keep the number of about 50 and thus preserve their credibility.
Under the 1980-81 plan, which was the responsibility of John Nott, as he was then, the intention was to dispose early of older ships and to accelerate the introduction of the type 23. That simply has not happened. The Government, whatever they decide, have much more to do if they are to maintain the credibility of the Navy. As a number of hon. Members have said, the key to flexibility is numbers that are large enough to be flexible with. If we allow the surface fleet to diminish to such an extent that flexibility is no longer possible, that will be to the disadvantage of the Royal Navy. If we are not able to keep 50 frigates and destroyers of reasonable quality, the Government ought to come clean and say that there are some functions that they are simply not able to perform. That would be very difficult for them to do, so I hope very much that they will maintain an ordering programme that will allow them to meet their own stated objectives.
Mr. George : The Armilla patrol consisted of three minesweepers plus frigates and destroyers on site, with three en route and three going home. That is nine out of 30, 40 or 45 frigates and destroyers--a very high percentage. As a consequence of that operation, many of the Royal Navy's other tasks, such as training, had to be abandoned. We were told, indeed, that some small countries were engaging in more NATO training and exercising than was the United Kingdom.
The crisis in the Gulf and the involvement of the Armilla patrol showed two things. First, it demonstrated very clearly that Europe had the will and the capability to
Column 203operate out of area--and I think that the decision of the Western European Union and the various navies will be seen as epochal in the emergence of NATO and of the WEU. Secondly, it showed that, when there is a crisis, it consumes a high proportion of naval assets. One might extrapolate and say that, if it took 25 to 30 per cent. of British naval assets to patrol the volume of shipping going through parts of the Gulf, it is mind-boggling to imagine how many frigates and destroyers would be required should there ever be a convoy system from north America to Europe. One should put that in perspective. In the Gulf the Navy was very over-stretched. One can only be relieved at the ending of the conflict, not just for the sake of the people who were involved directly, but because the Royal Navy will be able to pursue its peacetime objectives rather more efficiently. Earlier, the Minister was rather soothing in his remarks about the potential crisis of the type 23s and about British Aerospace's Sea Wolf missiles not performing as they were intended to. Five Royal Navy type 23 frigates, when they enter service in the 1990s, will be unable to perform as was originally proposed. The cost of these ships is £700 million, yet, despite what the Minister said, I am not at all reassured that, should there ever be a crisis, they would be able to operate in a war environment. I say so because of the failure of the CACS 4 Ferranti system. It was quite wrong for a Conservative Member to tell the Opposition spokeman that he would have continued the CACS programme if he had been in office. Clearly, the system was imperfect. This demonstrates the imperfections not only of the contractor, who was unable to meet the specifications, but of the Ministry of Defence, which failed to monitor the programme in such a way that the alarm bells could be heard.
In effect, the Government are saying that, although the British taxpayer has spent £700 million on type 23s, our sailors might be sailing, inadequately defended, into a vulnerable area. Neither the Government nor Ferranti comes out of this episode particularly brilliantly. I have heard rumours that one of these five ships may be sent off to the West Indies, where the threat is not particularly high. What a deplorable waste of very expensive and very scarce resources. It is only right that the Government should be embarrassed by what has happened.
I should like to ask a question--perhaps I will get an answer--about some suggestions concerning the stress on the type 42, batch 3, hulls. Some type 23s have had to have their hulls strengthened, and I understand that this has happened in the case of HMS Gloucester, a type 42. How many vessels have gone through the process so far, and what has been the cost? How many more ships will have to have their hulls strengthened? Is there not some basic design or other failure that compels the Royal Navy to have hulls repaired before they ought to have been subject to the stress that has had such an adverse effect upon them?
Are the Government giving consideration to what will happen to our carriers when they reach the end of their natural lives? I know that it is rather ironic, in the light of the delays being announced in replacing Fearless and Intrepid, to ask whether the Government are giving serious consideration to whether we will have carriers after the end of the lives-- perhaps 25 or 30 years away--of our existing carrier force. But such is the expense and the
Column 204magnitude of construction and design that we shall no doubt soon reach a stage where some initial thought has to be given to the matter.
Let me move on fairly briefly to consider the Soviet navy. We are all aware that it has developed remarkably since the 1950s--indeed, since the second world war. It has been transformed from no more than a coastal patrol fleet to one with a blue-water capability. We have to be careful in evaluating the size, missions and capability of the Soviet navy. The remarkable increase in Soviet ship construction in the 1960s, and up to perhaps the late 1970s, largely under the influence of Admiral Gorshkov, appears to have begun to slow down. Probably that started when Ustinov became Minister of Defence. The Soviet Union has some fine high-technology assets, but it has much that is obsolescent. Quite clearly, the building of new ships is slowing down, but it took us some time to realise that.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a conference at Greenwich. One of the papers, presented by an American named Baker said :
"The size of the Soviet fleet--both in numbers and in total tonnage--has been acknowledged as shrinking".
It is true that the ships are now bigger and more complicated, but we must be careful not to argue that the inexorable rise of the Soviet navy is proceeding at the pace of the 1960s and the 1970s. In 1987, for example, the Soviets launched five submarines, three of them nuclear-powered. They launched two destroyers and one frigate, apparently for the KGB. I suppose that, like me, many people did not realise that the KGB operates ships in quite large numbers. All of this does not indicate a continuing massive build-up.
There are encouraging signs, over and above the slowing down in the naval shipbuilding programme. Clearly, the Soviet Union is not operating out of area, as we understand the term, to the extent that it was. As was mentioned earlier, there are far fewer operations in the north Atlantic. Any conclusion that that might encourage us to reach that the Soviet navy is retreating to become once more a coastal patrol would be premature. I am not arguing that the Soviet navy does not pose a potential threat ; all that I am saying at this stage is that we should not paint a picture more fearsome than the reality.
Convoying and the defence of the sea lines of communications play an important role in the security of NATO, affecting not just the British Navy but the Portuguese. Before any hon. Members interrupt to ask what that has to do with a debate on the Royal Navy, let me make it clear that there is a connection. The Portuguese navy is critically important in the Iberlant area between the Azores and western Europe : in fact, Portuguese ships are the only NATO ships operating permanently there. Because of straitened financial circumstances, the Portuguese have entered into a liaison with most NATO countries for the provision of three frigates, to be built by Blohm and Voss in Germany. Those ships will be handed to the Portuguese, although they will be making a substantial contribution over the next few years.
German and American contributions have been enormous, and even tiny Luxembourg has made a generous contribution to the construction and equipment of the three frigates. Our contribution, however, has been miserly. Initially the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) announced a contribution of £5 million. Inflation has been serious and over a period of some years
Column 205the sum has been raised to just over £6 million, but in my view that is inadequate to cover the possible provision of a helicopter for the Portuguese frigate programme.
Mr. Sayeed : Luxembourg contributes 1.2 per cent. of her GDP to defence spending ; we contribute 4.7 per cent. of ours. We provide far more than Germany, which spends 3 per cent. of GDP. It is about time that others started to spend a bit more.
Mr. George : I do not wish to focus on Luxembourg's deficiencies. I am simply saying that for a tiny country it makes an infinitely larger contribution to the Portuguese frigate programme than we do, despite our 600-year history of liaison with Portugal.
Westland hoped that the £6 million could be used for the purchase of one Lynx helicopter, and that perhaps the Portuguese would purchase another four. Recently the United States topped up its aid to Portugal following Portugal's criticism of its military, or security assistance, programme. A remarkable package including F16s for the Portuguese air force also included the offer of helicopters, which might be placed on the Meko 200s.
Unless the Government make a much improved offer to the Portuguese, Westland will run a considerable risk of not being able to make one of its helicopters, which the MOD will pay for, and then sell the rest. The Portuguese may be making a mistake, in that although they would get the helicopters for nothing, the cost of upgrading and altering the Mekos will make the offer eventually quite expensive. I hope that the MOD will reconsider its rather miserly offer--not just for the sake of Anglo- Portuguese relations or because of Westland, but because we owe it to ourselves, to the Portuguese and to NATO. The offer should be set against the offers made by the Dutch, the Canadians, the Americans, the Germans, the French and virtually everyone else. It is not a question of pouring money down a hole : money spent on helicopters for the Portuguese navy will directly benefit the security of the United Kingdom.
Disarmament at sea is not a subject that we in the West have been particularly keen to pursue, for a number of reasons. One is our superiority in naval forces. Most Western nations are by definition maritime--geography compels them to be--but the Soviet Union, despite making enormous strides in the 1960s and 1970s in building up its navy, is still basically a continental power.
Some of Mr. Gorbachev's offers on naval arms control were made rather truculently. As I tried to suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), they were not his best and most genuine offers. He extended them in Vladivostock and again in Murmansk, arguing for, among other things, parity in the Mediterranean. That is nonsense, because the sixth fleet is linked intextricably to the defence of Greece, Turkey, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and the whole of the Mediterranean. It is the glue that binds the geographically dispersed members of our Alliance in the southern region.
To withdraw the sixth fleet, or to drop it to the level of the Soviet Mediterranean squadron, would have widespread repercussions. Moreover, the Soviet Union could still deploy its forces in the Black sea and, by virtue of its surge capability--as long as it remained consistent with the Montreaux convention--could, over a period of
Column 206weeks, supplement its diminished force in the Mediterranean to a level much easier to achieve than that of the United States. The fact that the Soviet Union has been rather disingenuous in that respect distracts us from more serious proposals. We should give more consideration to naval arms control, on which the Soviet Union has issued many proposals, most of which seem detrimental to NATO. It proposes zones of peace, nuclear-free zones, an ASW-free zone, safe SSBN havens and, as I have mentioned, parity in the Mediterranean. We should also give more thought to naval confidence-building measures. Confidence building is not a substitute for arms control, but it is a useful supplement, and the Government should think more about enhancing confidence between the two alliances.
This is the first defence debate since the Labour party began a serious review of its defence commitments. The policy review will be completed in April and later put to the party conference--and, I hope, approved, if it contains policies different from those for the 1983 and 1987 elections. I do not say that because it would be more intelligent electorally. It has been known in parliamentary history for policies to be changed for purely electoral reasons, but they are the wrong reasons. Policies should be changed because they will be more relevant when changed.
I was saddened by the collapse of consensus on security matters in the 1980s. I consider it important--indeed, almost incumbent on Governments and Oppositions--to adopt security policies that will survive the passage of one Government or another. Such consensus exists in many countries. It exists in Norway but not yet in Denmark, although it is improving there. It is being re-created in the Federal Republic, although, I suspect, not for reasons that some would particularly like. It has virtually always existed in France. It exists in Italy, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, America, Turkey and even Greece. We think that the fracturing of the consensus exists everywhere because it exists here, but that is nonsense.
There is no way in which Governments and Oppositions will agree on every aspect of policy or in which the Labour party, at a general election, will have a defence policy that is identical or close to that of the Government. But there is progress and we may be on the way to re-establishing the consensus. To re-create the consensus, some Government concessions will be required. They must not simply wait for the Labour party to move towards their position. With a mixture of multilateral, bilateral and unilateral proposals--whatever the formula is--I hope that the Opposition will be able to devise a defence strategy that will meet the desires of party members and of potential supporters. That will be an enormous task and I wish the policy review process the best of fortune in the months ahead. There will be many crises and problems, and some people in the Labour party will not like the abandonment of unilateralism. It is sad for some when policies change, but if such change makes possible a greater consensus on defence and makes it possible for the Labour party to have policies on the Navy, the Army, the Air Force and nuclear weapons that will be viable internally and externally, then so be it. Although some party members may dislike such change, the overwhelming majority of potential Labour voters will endorse such a policy if, as I hope, it emerges from the policy review committee.
Column 2076.51 pm
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East) : It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). He is the one not so small voice of sanity within the Labour party. However, although I have great respect for his powers of persuasion, I do not believe that he will necessarily be wholly successful in returning his party to some form of sane defence policy.
I want to follow the hon. Member in a discussion of East-West relations and also on the treatment of the Select Committee by the Ministry of Defence. Peace is apparently breaking out in East-West relations, with glasnost, perestroika, the intermediate nuclear forces treaty and the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Some people appear to be suffering from the delusion that it is now safe to relegate defence spending to the second division, but at a time when the Warsaw pact forces have a 3 : 1 superiority over NATO in tanks and artillery and a 2 : 1 superiority in tactical aircraft and attack helicopters, when the Soviets are deploying Fulcrum, Flanker, Foxhound, the T81 tank and Typhoon and Oscar class submarines, the suggestion that defence spending no longer matters damages the ability of the Alliance to negotiate and the cause of peace. Despite Soviet rhetoric, in every sphere of weapons--nuclear, chemical and conventional--there continues to be a numerical imbalance in favour of the USSR. The Russian bear's growl has become a grin, but it has not lost any of its teeth. At a time when we require a new battle tank, when Jaguar and Phantom aircraft need replacing, when the defences of the northern area are under strength and when we lack maritime strength, in depth, we should not demonstrate a faltering determination.
We cannot be wholly confident that President Gorbachev will be able to surmount the entrenched self-interest, to overcome the bureaucratic inertia that is inherent in the Soviet system or to control the danger of anarchy which follows when a hint of freedom is offered to the oppressed. Although it is our fervent hope that he will be successful, we must acknowledge that such a success will be a first in the history of the Tsarist or Communist Russia. We cannot afford to let our hopes blind us to the possibility of President Gorbachev's failure or its consequences.
With all that is happening in East-West relations, and with defence inflation outstripping the retail price index, there is understandable concern about defence spending, and those concerns are shared throughout the Alliance. Yet I detect in certain members of the Alliance a simplistic approach to complicated questions, an over-optimistic assessment of Soviet intentions and a willingness to permit short-term political expediency to determine long-term policy.
Many of us welcome the United States Defence Department report "Allied Contributions to the Common Defence," which was published in April 1988. It is an important part of the burden-sharing debate. There is much to commend in the document, although I would criticise its emphasis on input rather than output--on the amount spent rather than what is achieves--and even when it deals with outputs, its concentration on quantity rather than quality damages the report and is regrettable. Although we must acknowledge the 340,000 United States troops who are permanently stationed in Europe, the United States reinforcement commitment and the nuclear guarantee, we should also recognise that those are in the
Column 208interests of the United States. The defence of America starts in Europe, as well as in the Pacific basin. Washington is closer to Europe than it is to Anchorage in Alaska or than San Francisco is to Japan.
We in Europe are not freeloaders on the whole. In conventional terms, we provide 90 per cent. of the manpower, 85 per cent. of the tanks and artillery, 80 per cent. of the combat aircraft and 65 per cent. of the major warships. Yet within Europe, there is considerable disparity of commitment. As I pointed out earlier, 4.7 per cent. of our gross domestic product is committed to defence, whereas Germany and Belgium contribute only 3 per cent. and the latter does not even participate in the common European air defence system. Italy contributes 2.2 per cent. and Denmark only 2.1 per cent., although it has one the highest per capita incomes in Europe. Spain's figure is 2 per cent. of GDP and it has enforced the withdrawal of the United States 401st tactical fighter wing. Luxembourg-- and I know that it is small--contributes a paltry 1.2 per cent. of its GDP to defence. The United Kingdom has 67,000 men permanently stationed in Europe. Our defence expenditure has increased by more than 20 per cent. in real terms since 1979. We have nothing to fear and everything to gain by opening up the burden sharing debate. We must persuade other European countries that it is in their interests to accept a fair share of defence costs; otherwise, the United States budget deficit and the ever present middle America isolationist pressures may persuade Congress that the United States withdrawal from Europe would be justified and Europe's own fault.
We can and should question how we allocate the massive, but finite, resources that we individually and collectively devote to defence. I would argue, as would other hon. Members, that the least likely line of Soviet advance is through central Europe, the most heavily fortified region in the world. I wonder whether such a concentration of defence spending does not have more to do with assuaging German sensibilities and fending off United States isolationist pressures than with providing the best value for money in defence terms. Despite an earlier incarnation, this is not a Navy versus Army debate, but a question of how we provide the greatest assistance to the NATO Alliance, while retaining the essential out-of-area capability. If we are to deter through strength, we must acknowledge that our sea lines of communication are vulnerable and that the likely line of any Soviet action would not be on land through Europe, but at sea via the northern area. Yet our policy of forward defence in that area is clearly deficient. First, it commits nearly all NATO maritime resources well forward, but the lack of towed array ASW frigates, maritime patrol aircraft and forward repair ships, which act as force multipliers, results in our being unable adequately to fulfil even current NATO policy.
Secondly, it is clear that, as our air, surface and submarine forces would be more than fully stretched fulfilling their ASW role in the forward area, there would be no spare assets to provide strength in depth and to protect our lines of communication and resupply. Up to one third of Soviet maritime forces are deployed south of the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap at any one time. With no allowance for attrition, with a decline in the NATO merchant fleet and with a ship, however capable,
Column 209not being able to be in more than one place at a time, the policy of forward defence in the northern area soaks up all our assets. It is fallible and dangerous to rely on it.
I have a few specific questions for my hon. Friend. During Exercise Teamwork, I saw on HMS Illustrious that they were using a coastal chart first published at the turn of the century. It is true that there had been minor corrections. Have we full access to all the sea-mapping data that the United States navy has been compiling since 1957 in the northern area? I have been advised by a senior serving Royal Navy officer, experienced in ASW, who has often liaised with the United States, that the United States continues to keep secret from us some submarine charts of the northern area.
From the number of vertically launched Sea Wolf missiles that have been ordered, it seems likely that the Ministry of Defence intends to order eight type 23 frigates in the medium term. Yet, as we know, those frigates will be commissioned without a command system that will integrate the weapons carried and permit the frigates to be effective fighting units. I agree with the hon. Member for Walsall, South : I have absolutely no confidence that those ships will be able to operate in a hostile environment until they have an effective command and control system. Recognising the complexity and the interaction of current weapons systems and those that will be fitted, there is no chance of sending men to sea in those ships and keeping them safe in any hostile condition until the type 23 command system is fitted.
Can my hon. Friend the Minister of State give any estimate of when he expects the command system for the type 23 frigate to be installed? How is Sea Wolf to be fired? I understand from the meeting that I had with British Aerospace two weeks ago that, as soon as the trials are finished, it intends to take off the control mechanisms. Can my hon. Friend provide an indication of the likely ordering pattern of the type 23? The answer will probably be no, as it has been to the Select Committee on Defence on numerous occasions. I will ask anyway ; if one does not ask, one never gets anywhere. Will my hon. Friend tell me how the Government intend to honour their commitment, given in 1981, to dispose early of old ships? We have in operation one batch 1 Leander, four batch 2 TAS Leanders, three batch 2 Leanders, five batch 3 conversion Leanders and two batch 3 broad beam Leanders--a total of 15--and six type 21s. There is no doubt that the batch 1 and batch 2 ships require replacement very soon. It does not matter how frequently the weapons systems are updated : the hull itself gets tired and noisy and is more vulnerable to submarines. Those ships are a danger to those who serve in them. Can my hon. Friend tell me whether there has been any change in our offensive mining capability since he last spoke? It was extremely poor and out of date. Can he tell me whether the Ministry of Defence has done anything about it?
I want to deal finally with the relationship between the Ministry of Defence and the Select Committee on Defence. One might have hoped that the Ministry of Defence would have welcomed the Committee's inquiry into the surface fleet, but its response to questioning and to requests for information made it seem that at times we were conducting a dialogue with the deaf. It may be a naive hope to expect the MOD to recognise that we are all on the same side, but I would have hoped that, after the report had been
Column 210published and the Select Committee had indicated its wish to continue to monitor the position, the MOD would not have continued its policy of obstruction and obfuscation.
I shall give the House an example. On 2 November 1988 the Select Committee wrote to the MOD requesting information that would enable us to keep tabs on what was happening to the surface fleet. Seven weeks later, on 19 December, just before the Recess, it replied, acceding to some of our requests but saying that information on the key area of interest was not held centrally. On 21 December--we move fast in the Select Committee--we wrote back, asking that we be given a copy of "The Fleet Operating Programme", a document already produced monthly, that covers nearly all the essential points of which we wished to be regularly apprised. It is true that such a document is not held centrally at MOD but at fleet headquarters at Northwood, but the Minstry's answer was pure semantics.
I have a clear impression that some officials in the Ministry are less than helpful. I believe that to be counter-productive. It is the House of Commons that has to authorise expenditure for the services. It is the House of Commons that set up the Select Committee on Defence to monitor defence expenditure, policy and administration. It is unacceptable that the attitude of a few officials within the Ministry, in their dealings with a Committee of the House, should border on dumb insolence.
I feel sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends do not believe that their Department encompasses the sum of human wisdom on defence matters. I have no doubt that my right hon. and hon. Friends welcome contributions from those outside the Department. What would the attitude of my hon. Friend the Minister of State be if he were treated by his officials in the way the Select Committee has sometimes been?
I have been somewhat critical of our maritime policy and our ability to fulfil even current objectives. I have urged Ministers to encourage other NATO countries to pay their full share of defence costs. I have asked specific questions and I have requested that it be made clear to those few civil servants within the Ministry of Defence who do not understand that it is to Parliament that their Department is ultimately responsible.
I want to end on a happier note, because I recognise that my right hon. Friend and his Ministers are struggling valiantly to provide the defence that we need at a cost that we can afford. A service debate gives us the opportunity to write an end of term report on MOD endeavours. My assessment of the progress of my right hon. and hon. Friends is, "Heart in the right place ; doing well, but could do better."
Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East) : On these occasions, few speeches fail to mention the professionalism and commitment of our service men and women. On this occasion I believe that we can claim that those who serve in our Navy are among the most dedicated and professional. An eloquent example of that is the success of the Armilla patrol. We know that our Navy has a proud tradition, which is still properly maintained, even in times of great technological change. However, we should be guilty of grave injustice to that tradition if we did not match the dedication and skill of those who serve in the
Column 211Navy with proper equipment and, if necessary, with a level of expenditure that allows them adequately to fulfil their responsibilities.
The equivalent debate to this one was on 3 March of last year. The Official Report on that debate repays reading again, because virtually all who contributed to it--with the exception of those who spoke on behalf of the Government--were concerned about the numbers of the surface fleet. Since then we have had the sixth report of the Select Committee on Defence, which has been referred to as challenging rather than critical, and then a little later in the debate, as critical rather than challenging. I shall leave others to form their own judgments as to its proper characterisation. I hope to show, however, that a number of issues and concerns raised by that report have still not been answered.
Following the printing of the report on 21 June 1988, on 11 July there was an announcement in the House of an order for three type 23 frigates. If one looks at the terms of the report and then the terms of the announcement, one is left with the suspicion that there may, in fact, be some substance in what one always thought to be the logical fallacy, post hoc propter hoc. On 19 and 20 October last year we had a debate on the defence estimates. On the first day of the debate the chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates), who has already spoken, said he would not change a word of the sixth report of his Committee in spite of the Government's response. Although he may have described his attitude this evening as being challenging, it is clear that he still would not change a word of that sixth report.
On 26 October last year, Admiral Sir Julian Oswald--soon to be the First Sea Lord--told the Press Association that the Royal Navy had reached the absolute minimum of destroyers and frigates necessary to meet its commitments. We know that since then, commentator after commentator has been critical of the Government's candour on this matter, and that commentator after commentator has been critical of the consequences to our responsibilities. Almost every day the belief is gathering strength that what was not achieved by the 1981 review is now being achieved by stealth or by indolence.
When the Minister began his contribution he gave a hint, as it were, of good news to come, but in truth that turned out to be no more than a hint-- it was a hint and not a matter of any substance. I refer especially to the issue of the size of the surface fleet. I welcome the announcement about the repair and refit of HMS Southampton and the fact that that is to be put out to competitive tender--those who are good enough to win the tender will deserve to have the work. However, one is entitled to ask what is our precise approach to the surface fleet. Do we determine our numbers by our strategy or are we determining our strategy by our numbers? That is an issue what will not go away.
As the debate has shown, the Select Committee's concerns have not been removed, nor, indeed, have its questions been answered. I shall remind the House of some of those concerns and questions. The first point made by the Committee was that there was no coherent long-term plan for the Navy. Secondly, it said that there was a need to order--not to put out to tender- -two to three ships each year. Thirdly, it said that the capability of the frigate