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Defence: Force Improvement Programme

Volume 416: debated on Thursday 22 January 1981

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3.12 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will repeat the assurance given on 15th July 1980 that the purchase of the Trident missile system will not prejudice major force improvements previously agreed.

My Lords, the Government remain determined to improve both conventional and nuclear forces.

My Lords, while recognising the extreme care which the noble Viscount's present and former colleagues in the Ministry of Defence exercised when announcing their recent cuts, is it not a fact that but for the Trident programme they could have had that £200 million saving, the RAF their communication aircraft, and the Hawk trainer? Although the noble Viscount's colleague, the Secretary of State, was extremely sophisticated in his presentation of the Statement earlier this week, he was much less than clear on two items upon which I should like clarifica- tion. The first of these is the Sea Eagle. Could the noble Viscount say what his colleague, the Secretary of State, meant when he said:

"I cannot say at present that Sea Eagle will necessarily continue for all time"?—[Official Report, Commons; 20/1/81; col. 157.]
No one imagines that the Sea Eagle would go on for all time. But does that Statement mean that this project will go on to the production phase? Secondly, when the Secretary of State said that large sums will be spent on various aircraft, including improvement of our Harrier, does this mean that the Mark 5 Harrier will be bought?

My Lords, let me first say to the noble Lord that as both my right honourable friend and I tried to explain on Tuesday, when making the Statement in both Houses, these so-called cuts are not cuts but a trim of what was going to be clearly more than planned expenditure. I do not think that is so particularly funny. If you find, as I said on Tuesday, that the prices of sophisticated weapons systems have escalated to a major degree and that you are keeping up your increase of expenditure in real terms, in terms of constant prices, then you are not cutting. What you are doing is ensuring that you do not overspend your plans by an amount which you cannot afford. That was the purport of my right honourable friend's Statement on Tuesday. But I do not want to dwell on Tuesday.

In relation to the £200 million trim of the budget which my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in November of last year, the degree to which Trident has any bearing on this is very small indeed. As the noble Lord knows probably better than I do, Trident comes on stream, following the decision, pretty slowly, and the build-up will be gradual. So the main reasons for the overspend and for the necessary trimming of the budget have nothing whatever to do with Trident. The reasons for the planned budget looking as though it was likely to be overspent were clearly stated on Tuesday, and I do not propose to repeat them today.

My right honourable friend's Statement, which I repeated on Tuesday, covered the Sea Eagle and I cannot add to the words used. The Sea Eagle, at present in the research and development phase, will continue. All aspects of the defence budget—this huge budget involving £5 billion per annum—have to be reviewed every year against their technical progress and against the latest estimates of cost. There is nothing new about that. More, therefore, cannot be said on Sea Eagle.

Turning to the Harrier, the excellent British development which the Americans have taken up, again the noble Lord knows better than I do that the choice between the American AF8B and the GR5 is still under review.

My Lords, what do the Government imagine will be the likely reaction of President Reagan if, as hinted in the Statement on Tuesday, under pressure of economic circumstances we fail to achieve all or some of the improvements mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, at the same time devoting £500 million annually to a project which adds nothing substantial to a general scheme for Western defence led by America, in the absence of which we shall obviously all be at the mercy of the Soviet Union?

My Lords, the estimated £4½ billion to £5 billion over the 15-year period of the capital costs of Trident approximates to 3 per cent. of our defence budget. That is approximately in line with the cost of Polaris during the capital cost period. The operating costs are also comparable. We see the Trident and the nuclear deterrent part of our defence programme as being part of a total programme which has been well explained on many occasions. If your potential enemies in the Alliance have a vast preponderance of conventional forces which are increasing, in my view the importance of the nuclear deterrent is self-evident.

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that we are not untouched by the day-to-day questions of defence? The noble Viscount mentioned the word "trim". Where this hurts most is in the day-to-day running of our defence forces. Because of the cutback, or the trim, or whatever the noble Viscount likes to call it, the petrol allowance for the Territorial Army, or ships being unable to go to sea, is worrying us more than any of these highfaluting questions of major equipment. Surely the noble Viscount must be aware that even a sausage-making machine needs to be used from time to time so that its operators can be trained.

My Lords, if the noble Lord will study the Statement issued by my right honourable friend yesterday, I think he will find that there is a balance of stress on the importance of the vital new weapon systems and of the men of the Army and the Territorial Army, which I also referred to yesterday.

My Lords, I suggest that, as we have been 18 minutes on two Questions, we might move on.

My Lords, I do not think that 18 minutes have been devoted to this particular Question, which is a very important one.

My Lords, I said that we had spent 18 minutes on two Questions. There are two more Questions to come and there is a lot of business to come afterwards. I think we should move on, if the House would agree.

My Lords, with respect, may I press this matter? There are many skilled people in this country engaged on projects who want to know what their future is, and I am inviting the noble Viscount to give some assurance that in two particulars—the Harrier development programme and the Sea Eagle—it will be a question of longer-term development. Can he give some assurance of that kind?

My Lords, I cannot go further in reply to the Question that the noble Lord has tabled today. If he wishes to table a particular Question in relation to those two particular and very important systems on another occasion, I will do my best to answer, within the limitations that I have already made clear to him.