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Armed Forces: Training And Cash Limits

Volume 417: debated on Wednesday 18 February 1981

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

The Question wsa as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what proportions of operational front-line training for each of the three Services have so far been lost through the application of cash limits in the current financial year, and what is the corresponding forecast for 1981–82.

My Lords, it is not our practice to give details of this kind, nor is it possible to calculate meaningful proportions. Activity in all three Services has been reduced, leading to some loss of operational training. In some areas activity has been cut; in others it has been maintained at or about normal. Levels of training will not be cut below those required for essential operational efficiency.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount the Minister for that unsatisfactory and incomplete reply. Might I ask the Minister further what is now regarded as a reasonable minimum number of flying hours for front-line pilots in both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, and, secondly, to what extent has our participation in both national and NATO exercises been curtailed for the reasons given in my Question?

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble and gallant Lord believes that that was an unsatisfactory reply; I have indeed had detailed discussions with the Services to see whether I could make it a more informed one. The fact is that the policy of trying to curtail the over-expenditure on the defence budget means that only after the event will one be able to work out details of the kind that the noble Lord asks for. So far as the flying hours are concerned, I think it is well known that the NATO guide on minimum hours is an average 15 hours a month, and we shall maintain that level as an absolute minimum. So far as exercises generally are concerned, some lower priority exercises have been curtailed, but major exercises, which as the noble Lord knows include "Crusader", have been maintained at normal level.

My Lords, would not my noble friend the Minister agree that the most important conclusion from the United Kingdom air defence exercise nicknamed "Elder Forest", held last year, was the need for such exercises to take place more frequently, not only to practise the defence of the United Kingdom base but also to co-ordinate all the elements of the NATO air defence environment known as NADGE? Can the Minister say to what extent this vital training programme will now be curtailed?

My Lords, I cannot answer the detail of my noble friend's question without notice, but I will write to him on that detail. I think that in general all I can say once again is that there is a difference between what we acknowledge is a thoroughly desirable level for operational training and a minimum which one has, with some reluctance, been forced to adopt in order to curtail within reasonable bounds—and "reasonable" may be a slightly unwise word—the over-expenditure on an already increased defence budget.

My Lords, may I ask the noble Viscount whether he would agree with me that the manoeuvres that were undertaken about 12 months ago in Europe disclosed inadequacies in operational training, and why have they never been revealed?

My Lords, if the noble Lord is referring to "Crusader", I believe that this exercise was in effect thoroughly successful; it showed that in the main we were able to increase the effective defence in Europe roughly according to plan. Yes, the purpose of the exercise was to highlight shortcomings. Some shortcomings were highlighted and some of them have a training application, and where these are a priority they will still be included.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware, as regards the figure he gave for a pilot in training—I think it was 16 hours a month—that taking into account leave periods and all the things that could go wrong, it is barely enough for a man to keep in flying training, let alone the flying equipment that is worth many millions of pounds?

My Lords, I am not one to argue with my noble friend as to the exact correctness of a NATO guide, advised, I think, by all experts in this area, that 15 hours a month should be the minimum. That is what is advised as the minimum and we shall not drop below it, and as soon as we possibly can we shall increase it.

My Lords, will the noble Viscount bear in mind a bit of history—that in the early 'thirties the same sort of stupidity was carried on by the Government of the day? Will he remember what was said at the outbreak of war: that if it had not been for the Navy being called out on patrol for the Spanish Civil War they would have forgotten how to navigate and signal?