FUTURE OF THE ROYAL NAVY – 12 November 1998

Dr Julian Lewis: There have been several heartfelt speeches in the debate so far. Hon. Members on both sides of the House were impressed by the outstanding contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Gill). He referred to the reluctance of people sometimes to put principle before preferment. Anyone who knows the history of the last Parliament could never make that accusation against him.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr Rapson) whose sincerity and commitment shone through everything he said. He drew on a wealth of experience. He kindly invited me to participate in the armed forces' parliamentary scheme. I am just coming to the end of my time on the RAF contingent of the scheme – which is perhaps why he did not notice me from sea level when I flew over him in a Tornado a few months ago. I am sure that he and the hon. Members for St. Albans (Mr Pollard) and for South Derbyshire (Mr Todd) would be happy to join me in paying tribute, not only to all the officers and men who make our 21 days with the service of our choice in the course of a year so memorable, but to Sir Neil Thorne, a former Member of this House, whose inspiration it was to set up the scheme. Some eight years ago he recognised the diminishing experience of right hon. and hon. Members of service in the forces.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr Sayeed) spoke about the Royal Naval Reserve. I was in the RNR for about three years at the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s when I held a lowly position on the minesweeper HMS Glasserton. My hon. Friend's point about the mistake of winding up specific units manned by the RNR and placing reservists to fill gaps in existing units is the one that Conservatives are making now about what is being done to the Territorial Army. The mistake made by the previous Government should not be made by the present Government in relation to the TA.

In the strategic defence review and, inevitably, in debates about the services one finds a great deal said and written about equipment, but rather less about strategy. I shall refer to four or five paragraphs of the review because it is worth putting extracts on the record so that people who listen to the speeches – I know that the numbers may not be large, but they are significant – without necessarily having ploughed through the documents can understand the points that concern us.

My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Defence referred to the concern of Conservative Members about the sudden shift – which we hope is not a real one, but is a temporary flight of fancy by the Prime Minister – away from dependence on NATO and towards a position where our defence policy could be interfered with by conflicting structures from the European Union – not even the Western European Union, but the EU itself.

It is worth reminding the House of what the SDR says in paragraph 18. It states:

"We are a major European state and a leading member of the European Union. Our economic and political future is as part of Europe. Our security is indivisible from that of our European partners and Allies. We therefore have a fundamental interest in the security and stability of the continent as a whole and in the effectiveness of NATO as a collective political and military instrument to underpin these interests. This in turn depends on the transatlantic relationship and the continued engagement in Europe of the United States."

To mess around with new defence and security organisations which have amongst their members neutral countries, and do not have among their members the United States of America, is folly in the highest degree.

Chapter 3 is headed "Defence missions and tasks" and sets out eight tasks. The only time that the word "strategic" occurs among the tasks for defence is in the eighth of the eight tasks. At the bottom of the order of priority, one tends to think, it lists "Strategic Attack on NATO". Paragraph 45 states:

"For the foreseeable future, we envisage that the largest operation we might have to undertake would be involvement in a major regional conflict, whether as part of NATO or a wider international coalition. We need, however, to retain a basis on which we could reconstitute larger capabilities should a strategic threat to NATO ever begin to re-emerge."

Therein lies the recognition that one day we might find ourselves facing a strategic threat. Any restructuring of any of the armed forces – especially the Royal Navy, where there is such a long lead time between the laying down of naval units and their coming into service – must try to bear that possible strategic threat in mind. It is always the case that at any particular time in a nation's history the threat of a conflict breaking out is relatively small. As hon. Members have already remarked, however, when such a conflict breaks out the likelihood that it will not have been predicted is relatively high.

Paragraph 56 refers to the possibility of a strategic attack on NATO. It states:

"No threat on this scale is in prospect. It would, however, be unwise to conclude that one could never reappear but the conventional forces needed to threaten such an attack would take many years to create. This Mission therefore provides for longer term insurance through a credible nuclear deterrent and the retention of the essential military capabilities on which we could rebuild larger forces over a long period, if circumstances were radically to worsen."

That leads us to the key role of the Royal Navy and the strategic deterrent itself – Trident. It is music to my ears to hear the chorus of approval from all parties in support of Trident and the strategic nuclear deterrent. It was not always thus, but I am glad that it is now.

I make one little appeal in connection with Trident to the Minister in my last reference to the contents of the SDR. Paragraph 67 states:

"We will have only one submarine on patrol at a time, carrying a reduced load of 48 warheads. This compares with the previous government's announced ceiling of 96."

With respect, that is not to compare like with like.

In July I tabled a series of written questions asking about the number of warheads which had been typically deployed on the Trident system since it came into service in mid-1994 under the Conservative Government. The Government were forthcoming and explained that the figure of 48 that is now being deployed is the exact number of warheads on the Trident submarines and that the typical number of warheads deployed on Trident submarines from the moment of their inception in service was 60. Sometimes it was slightly fewer, sometimes it may have been a little more, but it was never more than 65. We are talking about a reduction of about 20 per cent. in the number of warheads deployed on Trident. As the Government have been honest and open enough to say what the figures are and what they were, they should stop comparing the current actual figure with the ceiling under the previous Government and compare it with the actual figure under the previous Government.

We have heard that there has been a shift from concentration on blue water or open ocean operations to power projection. That means that the Navy goes looking for trouble, sorts it out and operates near the littoral of a country where trouble had arisen. I am concerned about the danger of losing techniques that we must at all costs preserve, in the event of the re-emergence of the unlikely but possible long-term strategic threat that the review recognises. Those capabilities must not be abandoned.

Although I am not on the Royal Navy part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I had a unique experience on 14 May when I went to sea with the third of our Trident submarines, HMS Vigilant. We were operating in the Scottish exercise area shortly before she went into permanent service. It was a remarkable experience and particularly poignant for me because of my involvement in the 1980s in the campaign to bring Trident to fruition.

When we hear about £40 plastic buckets and other expenses that could be trimmed, it strikes us as a little inappropriate that the Navy feels that it can no longer afford to spend money on presenting plaques with crests of warships to visiting naval figures or host naval ports, as has traditionally been done. I am sure that the House will approve of the fact that I can vouch personally for the presentation of a plaque from the House of Commons to the officers and crew of HMS Vigilant, which is even now out on patrol protecting these shores. It is fascinating to consider that its submerged displacement is 16,000 tonnes, rather more than that of any of the cruisers that took part in the famous battle of the River Plate, and heavier even than that of the Graf Spee, the pocket-battleship sunk in that conflict.

We know the balance sheet for the Navy in the SDR. We know about the cut from 35 to 32 frigates and destroyers, and the loss of two attack submarines – a prospect which was widely trailed and was criticised in a letter in The Times from Sir Patrick Duffy, a former Labour Navy Minister. We know that the number of mine counter-measures vessels will go from 19 to 22, and not the planned 25.

During his evidence to the Defence Select Committee on 20 July, the then First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jock Slater, was asked what he disliked about the review. He replied:

"if I lose platforms, whether they are destroyers and frigates or nuclear submarines or helicopters, then I am less than happy. I have to look at it, along with the other chiefs, in defence in the round. If one looks at the package and providing that package is delivered, then I was content to accept reductions in certain areas."

That was, of course, code for the two great aircraft carriers that are somewhere over the horizon. That point was made explicit by his successor as First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, on 27 October, when he told some of us in the all-party defence study group that the best news in the review was the "unequivocal commitment" to two large carriers.

It was said earlier that what goes around, comes around. I too can remember when the late Christopher Mayhew, a man to whom the country owes a great debt for the many battles that he fought in both war and peace to defend this country, resigned as Labour's Navy Minister because of the decision to scrap aircraft carriers when we were considering our commitments east of Suez. It is strange to think that the wheel has gone full circle with the likelihood of two large carriers being built.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr Sayeed) mentioned how cunningly the Navy chiefs managed to keep the concept of the aircraft carrier alive by creating the "through-deck cruiser", which miraculously metamorphosed into an aircraft carrier after a few years in service. Perhaps if the Labour party had decided to scrap our ballistic missile submarines, the Admiralty would have built them anyway and classified them as "mobile nuclear power stations". We cannot always rely on such ingenuity to keep the potential and capabilities of the Royal Navy alive when politicians are pulling the rug from underneath the feet of the Admiralty. The Royal Navy is willing to live with the package if the whole package comes to fruition. It will be a long time before we know whether the new carriers will materialise. We must hope that the Government mean to do what they say in respect of them.

I conclude on a more personal note. I was thinking of the tribute that we paid yesterday to those who died in the First and Second World Wars and in other wars this century. I want to pay tribute to someone whom I regard as representative of the generation that did so much to ensure our freedoms, a constituent of mine, David Balme. As a Sub-Lieutenant aged 20 on HMS Bulldog, when it had trapped the German U-boat U-110 – which could have blown up or sunk at any second – he led a boarding party onto the submarine and seized from it the Enigma codes, precipitating one of the turning points in the intelligence battle of the Atlantic. While yesterday we were remembering those who did not survive the tremendous battles, it is appropriate to pay tribute, in the context of a Royal Navy debate, to people like David Balme, and the young men who fought with him and survived, who by heroic measures – he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross – helped keep the sea lanes open and win the Battle of the Atlantic, and helped us to survive as a free and democratic country.