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Air Defence

Volume 417: debated on Wednesday 25 February 1981

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2.55 p.m.

rose to call attention to the urgent need to strengthen the air defence of the United Kingdom and its air defence region; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we are coming to the season when Defence White Papers are published. After having entered ballots over the past year for this short debate, I am fortunate in having won the opportunity for a debate on this subject at this particular time. The region we are discussing stretches from the Iceland-Faroes Gap in the north, 1,000 miles south, and from the middle of the Channel to the west of Ireland. It is an immense area which covers half a million square miles. For the next two and a half hours or so we shall be discussing the conventional defence of this area; and I think it is a very happy coincidence that my noble friend Lord Chalfont will later be initiating a debate on the deterrent and its possible effect on our conventional defence capability.

The defence of the United Kingdom region is of tremendous and vital importance to NATO, since the United Kingdom will be the reinforcement base for the massive United States forces flying and sailing across the Atlantic, and it is also the base for our reserves, which will be urgently needed in Western Europe. I plan to deal with the subject in three short parts: first, the changed and increasing Soviet threat; secondly, our current and planned capability to meet this threat; and, thirdly, to suggest comparatively inexpensive short-term actions which might be taken so as to help meet the immediate threat.

In the early 1970s the Soviets changed their tactics, and they switched from weapons of defence to weapons of attack. In 1974 the joint intelligence staffs became convinced that there was a likelihood of conventional attack on the United Kingdom, in particular, and on NATO, in general, and this led to changing the policy from what had been accepted, the "trip-wire" philosophy, to the graduated response. This change of emphasis is shown vividly in an analysis of the Russian defence budget. They now spend 40 per cent. of their entire budget on air power, compared with 24 per cent. on their army and 16 per cent. on their navy. The emphasis on air power also shows up in their equipment spending. Last year 27 per cent. was spent on aircraft, 10 per cent. on ships and submarines and 9 per cent. on land armaments.

A new generation in this phase of Soviet tactical aircraft—they are now known as the frontal force—have come into service. They are called the Fitter, the Flogger and the Fencer; and each type has been steadily improved and enhanced in performance since its introduction. The most formidable of these is the Fencer, which now has twice the range and three times the bomb load of earlier models. It is, of course, like the others, supersonic. It is roughly the equivalent of our Tornado.

At the same time the Soviets have been reducing the number of aircraft defending the Soviet homeland by 1,000, down to 2,500. There are 5,000 front-line aircraft in their frontal force. Of these, 3,000 could easily be deployed against Western Europe; and, of that number, 500 of these supersonic aircraft could be deployed against this country. In addition, of course, the Soviets have their long-range air force, their bombers. They have 100 of the Bear and Badger type and 100 of the far more formidable supersonic Backfire bombers. These are equipped with stand-off weapons, which can stand off 250 miles and still find their targets; and they, in their turn, have a nuclear, conventional or chemical head. All these aircraft are not only equipped but trained to carry conventional, nuclear and chemical weapons. Perhaps those who back the cause of unilateral nuclear disarmament could be reminded of how devastating an attack with conventional bombs and with chemical weapons could be if we had no possibility of a nuclear strike back.

How might this force be deployed? In the first few hours or days the primary task of the Soviets must be to attack the airfields, both military and civil, in this country and elsewhere, used by the British and US bomber aircraft. They will probably also attack our East Coast ports from which United Kingdom reinforcements would be leaving to enhance the European forces. They probably would leave such targets as power stations, broadcasting stations, power lines, waterworks, telephone exchanges and other vital establishments to the communists and moles in our country. Nor should we forget that help for these subversives might come from the crews of Warsaw Pact and Soviet ships in British ports. About six of these ships dock in or leave our ports every week. This is a total of 300 visits in a year. The mining threat also would be a formidable weapon to menace our reinforcements, both those coming in and those going out. Thus, the Soviets could concentrate a hundred long-range bombers and several hundred supersonic fences against our country.

The interest of the Soviets in the United Kingdom is shown by the fact that every week of the year our fighters intercept four or five long-range Soviet bombers coming mainly from the Murmansk area and round the north which probe our air defences. The majority of these are older aircraft but some Badgers have been intercepted. Some of these are in transit to their surrogate states, like Cuba and those in Africa. Soviet in-flight refuelling is practised. Therefore, some 225 Soviet aircraft are intercepted in the United Kingdom and NATO airspace every year. This illustrates the tremendous interest which that country is taking in our capability and our importance.

What have we to meet this threat? There are 70 front-line aircraft, mainly Phantoms and Lightnings, of which about 50 in normal circumstances would be serviceable and fully operational. By 1984 a further 36 subsonic Jaguars will be equipped with Sidewinders and could play a part, although they were designed for attack and not for interception. By 1984, in fine weather and in daylight, some 90 subsonic Hawks could provide some further help. That is the sum total. Our 70 front-line aircraft will be increasingly replaced by the air defence version of the Tornado. Unfortunately, while the Soviet current production rate of Fencers is about 100 a year, two every week, and the Backfires are being produced at 30 a year, our 165 Tornados which we have on order to counter them will not start coming into operational service until the middle 1980s, and thereafter about 50 will be delivered each year until 1989—unless financial restraint causes us further to delay even this programme. As each aircraft with its spares costs some £15 million, your Lordships will see how financial pressure could further delay them coming into service. By 1985, with the maximum help of our NATO allies, Britain, provided we have the political will and the guts not to make further delays or further cuts, should be ready to meet today's threat. But what will be the threat in five years' time?

It is a sad fact that the Soviets are now spending 12 per cent. to 14 per cent. of their GNP mainly on attack arms, and they are increasing their spend in real terms at 4 per cent. every year, so that the gap between their forces and our own forces, NATO's forces, is therefore every year getting wider and wider. All this has happened in the last 10 years in a period of so-called détente and while disarmament talks are bogged down.

In 1933, when I was studying physics at Oxford, the political and economic scenario had alarming similarities. We were suffering from a world recession; your Lordships will all remember that unemployment was very high. The Peace Pledge Union was collecting signatures against any war and eventually collected 11,666,000. The CND is doing the same today but it has some way to go. Hitler was re-arming rapidly; yet economies were called for. That great atomic realist and physicist, Lord Rutherford, came over from Cambridge, where his activities were renowned, to address us in Oxford. He said:

"Gentlemen"—

it was the beginning of the academic year—

"as money is short, we shall have to use our brains".

He might have added, and our ingenuity. I am making some constructive suggestions and I hope that many others will emerge during this useful debate. I will try to remember that advice and our financial restraints.

To begin with, short-term measures, because they have to be short-term. Having so few aircraft, we must use them intensively and protect them to the utmost. Our limited aircraft numbers surely deserve hardened shelters. The Soviets started hardening their shelters throughout the Warsaw Pact many years before NATO did. In the United Kingdom reluctance to spend on defence has postponed this action for too long. I cannot help feeling that if the Government are to prop up British Steel (as was announced yesterday) with another £1,500 million, surely a small portion of this money might be spent on substantial steel orders for such shelters. The construction firms, the steel suppliers and the cement industry are clamouring for work. Why not give them some in this area and get on with this job? With so few aircraft, our command, control and communications become ever more important. Our control centres are still not hardened; they are above ground. I believe that there are some delays because the exact size of the equipment which is to go into these control bunkers is still not decided and no work has yet started. I would remind the Government that 10 per cent. of extra space may be wasted; but costs escalate by 10 per cent. in 10 months. It is better therefore to take action now and not to go on postponing until we have exactly the right size and exactly the right design of building. The decision to place the contract for the automation of the air defence network was delayed for one and a half years while competitive NATO tenders were sought. Six months ago the consortium of Marconi, Plessey and Hughes was selected. Contracts and even instructions to proceed, I understand, have still not been issued. We must press on. It may be much later than any of us think.

Soviet air launched stand-off weapons, clever bombs, airfield denial weapons and ground-to-ground missiles, all conventional, could destroy all the soft targets. All our airfields and radar sites are pinpointed and targeted, so we must get on with their protection if we are to have realistic defence. It was sad to hear that the old but reliable Airborne Early Warning Shackleton force is to be reduced to six aircraft as a result of the last £200 million defence economies. Can we be assured by the Minister when he comes to reply that these will at least remain until the new Nimrods are fully operational?—airborne early warning is enormously important to the strength of our radar defences.

The vulnerable years are this year, 1982, 1983 and 1984. We shall be relying in that period on the same 70 aircraft. The basic designs of them are over 25 years' old, but improvements have been made. In recent years some squadrons of the USA Air National Guard have come to exercise in western Europe and, last year, in Norway. This volunteer force has 800 combat aircraft. They have 500 aircraft with an air defence capability. I see from a recent circular that eight Air Guard squadrons of this volunteer force are flying from New York to West Germany next Saturday for two weeks' exercises. The lists show that in all this volunteer force totals over 40 squadrons of interceptors and fighters. It is a bit late now to get this message to the Prime Minister because I think she is taking off at about this moment, but could we not open talks with the Pentagon now and invite two or three extra squadrons to come to Britain on a regular basis to boost our numbers? These would be additional to the Rapier surface-to-air missiles which the USA has ordered from the United Kingdom to help defend some of their bases. It is interesting that these United States airmen who fly in their spare time are trained to full operational standards, They were flying F102s and Phantoms, and they are now re-equipping with F16s. Surely this rejects the old argument that auxiliary Air Force pilots can no longer be of use to our country.

I turn now to manpower shortages and reserves. The RAF has an establishment of 16 air crew in squadrons of 12 aircraft. With so small a number of Phantoms and Lightnings, surely they will have to be flown, in a crisis, for as many hours in 24 as they can be kept serviceable? Currently, owing to fuel economies, they are not allowed to fly more than 17 hours a month. This is far too little. Ought we not to re-examine the use of reserve air crews? Even air crews well over 40 years' old can be used for the less demanding flying tasks, thus releasing front-line pilots to fly front-line aircraft to their utmost intensity. We were told in last year's White Paper that the Royal Air Force are experimenting with three RAF regiment auxiliary squadrons for the ground defence of three airfields. There is immense goodwill among people living and working within 20 miles of these RAF sites. Nowadays most of them have cars. Sabotage must surely be guarded against. The guarding is best done by locals with local knowledge. Surely we ought to form now extra RAF regiment squadrons. They are both effective and cheap. I joined the RAF's Civilian Wireless Reserve at the time of Munich. Should this not be resurrected, because on the 24-hour basis, seven days a week, a lot of extra manpower is needed for the operation and maintenance of all the radio and electronic equipment throughout the service?

In 1976–77 the Sixth Report of the Expenditure Committee of the House of Commons (which I have in my hand) dealt with reserves and reinforcements to all three Services. On page XV it says:

"We were surprised to learn that apart from the 800 men assigned to specific emergency duties, … none of the remaining 33,000 or so RAF reservists have any specified war time role. We were assured by the Ministry that the RAF could fulfil all its reinforcement commitments … without calling on more than 800 reservists."

Since then, the strength of the RAF has gone down and the threat has gone substantially up. Surely this position ought to be re-examined?

Now to summarise, because I do not want to speak for too long. There are many speakers and there is an interesting debate coming. The Soviet threat is great in numbers, its quality and sophistication are increasing fast, much faster than the allied response. Many informed commentators agree that in the next few years Britain and our NATO allies are dangerously vulnerable. The year 1984 is the time of the next presidential election and that is always a dangerous time for the free world. In the next few years our air defence is thinly spread and very vulnerable. Our front-line fighters, particularly those with all-weather and night capability, are all too few.

It may be that with our NATO allies we shall have to re-examine Britain's task and consider whether we can retain traditional and balanced forces for all three Services and all existing roles. Our capacity seems already stretched and we cannot afford to re-equip our forces fast enough. Any realignment as a result of such examination must take five or 10 years. In the meantime, let us scrape and borrow so that we can defend this base. From here 300 US bombers and over 100 United Kingdom aircraft—V-bombers, Buccaneers and Jaguars—will fly to help stop the 18,300 Soviet tanks if they start to roll from behind the iron curtain. Finally, I leave you with this slogan:

"When manpower is short, reserves are important: when money is short, reserves are essential.

My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.17 p.m.

My Lords, the whole House will be extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, for introducing this debate, and will furthermore be extremely grateful for the knowledge and work that he has put into his subject, and the dedication with which he has pursued it. I cannot match his knowledge but I can certainly match his fears for our country in this situation. The Minister must be completely frank—or as frank as possible, and certainly as frank as the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, has been—in giving the House the figures of the threat and of our defence.

It is quite extraordinary when one hears that we have 70 front-line aircraft; and when it is published in the popular newspapers it puts the fear of death into a great many people. It is all very well for people of our generation to look back and think of the days when, even though short, we had many squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes defending this country. I think that the Minister should tell us what the equivalent is because obviously the sophistication of radar, the weapons and indeed the enemy have all increased in that time. But what is a Phantom worth and what is a Tornado worth in terms of the reaction to the enemy? How many can they shoot down? I know that this is too simplistic but the country needs educating in the difference between the war now and the war they either know about or read about in terms of sophistication of weapons and their quantitative value.

For example, the figures I have been given from the Commons Defence Committee of the number of Backfire, Badger and Blinder bombers are slightly different to the figures that the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, has given. I think that the Minister ought to tell us what is the size of the threat and type of the threat and how great the concentration might be, and give us some real information as to the effectiveness of the number of lighters that we have against this potential threat.

I think also that he might reassure us of the capacity of the Bloodhound missiles, of how effective they are today and how quickly they will be replaced by the Rapier. It is frightening to hear of the number of orders going abroad and the slowness of the speed-up in the re-equipment of our own ground forces. Obviously, they will have a tremendous effect in the short distance defence of our aircraft. All this is information for which we should have the authority of the Government. I think, also, the Minister might say something to us about the morale of the forces. The morale, and the recruitment, improved—or perhaps one should say that the depletion of good men was stopped, by the recent review. But today the talk of cuts has again engendered some fears in the minds of key personnel that they are still at the mercy of a Government who will cut defence as much as a Labour Government would. In view of the previous attitude of the Conservatives, I think that it is a little hard that they now say that defence must take its share of cuts. Either defence is what we need or it is not, and I have heard Conservatives say this before they were in power. But we must have a minimum amount of defence, and, if there is anything surplus, then we must of course do without it. But I cannot see that defence should ever be in a position where it has to bear its cuts along with other Government services. Either we need it or we do not.

In this regard I think it is very important that the next debate is shown to play its part in this one. Whether we need to spend £5 billion on the Trident is very relevant to what is going on to this day. The noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, and many others are voicing their tremendous concern at the lack of build-up of our conventional forces and of our first line of attack or our likely hope of survival. It surely must be relevant that we intend to spend £5 billion on Trident. I hope the Minister will give us straight answers, a lot of information and some reassurance over the conventional weapons; and we shall await the next debate with some interest.

3.22 p.m.

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, for introducing this debate. It is timely. I think he set the scene well and brought home the fact that we do not have much in the way of aircraft and, if I may, I should like to touch on that further in a minute or so. He also, if we were listening closely, brought home to us that some of these enemy forces are going to get through and our nation and our land are not prepared to receive them. Our measures for defence against nuclear, against conventional and against chemical attack are virtually nil. Little is being done about it, even though we are conscious of the fact that the present Government put forward some money for civil defence preparation. But it was unwound, and it has to be wound up again.

I should like, if I may, to stick to some aspects of air defence during the next few moments. The first point I should like to make is that, when we talk about defence and the air defence capability of the Royal Air Force, what we must be very careful of is that we do not take away their offensive capability, because the sort of aircraft the Royal Air Force will be dealing with will have to be met way off the shores of this country. We are talking, as the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, said, of some 200 to 250 miles in the ranges of today. They will increase, and there is good information that the Backfire stand-off capability of a Russian aircraft could easily go up to 400 miles. Therefore we have to hit the enemy off the shores of this country.

Of course, anything we do in air defence has to be tied in with the NATO plans and the NATO arrangements, but there is no doubt that the key ingredient of any air defence system, as it directly affects Great Britain, has, in the timescale mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing—the timescale we are looking at, which is the next 10 years—largely to depend on the fighter.

I should like to look more closely at our present state with regard to the fighter. We have very few and, if you apply the simple rules of maintenance and of what is able to take off and fly—what is, in simple terms, being maintained or repaired on the ground—and even if you add the business of in-flight refuelling so that the aircraft and their aircrew can stay out on station longer, adding all this up, I do not think you will find we have enough for even a very limited—and I stress very limited"—battle. I would urge the Minister to look at the whole question of the state of fighter aircraft, however sophisticated and however good they are today.

It goes deeper than that. It is not just a case of bringing forward the Tornado into service. Perhaps the noble Minister would care to say something about whether we should have the Tornado before it is sold to Saudi Arabia. I think most noble Lords would agree that, although export is important, defence of the homeland takes first place. It is a question of whether the aerospace industry can cope with extra demand if such were to be placed upon it. I think noble Lords will find that the aerospace industry really does not have the present-day capacity to do more than it is doing at the moment. I believe this is an area where we have not made the right decisions, even if the finances were available to increase the numbers.

If I can return to the home base, which is Great Britain, we cannot deny that it is a prime target in any European conflict. It is the base from which everything emanates that we do in Europe or, for that matter, in the rest of the world. It is also going to become, in time of war and during the build-up for war, the major staging post for the United States. There are those who say: "As we are well to the left of the front line and behind it, we shall be dealt with last". I do not think you can apply that rule. I think we are known, as a nation, for fighting longer and harder than many and I feel that that makes it reasonable to believe that people would probably start to deal with us first, or certainly at the same time, if there were this onslaught that the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, mentioned of 18,000 tanks coming at us across the NATO borders.

For that reason, I should like to pose a question which the noble Minister may perhaps feel is a slightly unfair one. As I understand it, a considerable effort, including financial effort, is being put towards the air defence of our maritime strategy; and I wonder whether we are not slightly overplaying that. The point is that much depends on how long you think this war might last. Are we talking 90 days, 60 days, 30 days or what? Though we need a maritime strategy—and we need one pretty badly—for the actual battle of Britain, I wonder whether national survival does not lie in the sky and not necessarily, for the short term, on the sea. It depends on your concept and it depends on whether the Government have made provision for proper stockpiling and the logistics of all the things that would be needed for a war on any particular time-frame you care to believe it might be.

I would turn now, if I may, to the agony of our development cycle and everything that goes with it: the design, research, manufacture and eventually the production, and the training of the aircrews in some new aircraft. I wonder whether we always have to go for the most exotic, which means the most expensive—and, with the most expensive, you have the very few. Do we not need, and could we not make more use, in this interim period that the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, mentioned, of what I call" cheap and nasties"—cheap for us and nasty for the enemy? There must be some improvisation that can fill this need for a stop-gap. We need not debate it at length today, but I am sure many noble Lords can think of a number of measures that would be useful for all three Services.

I say this also because the agony of our development is that it is always behind the threat. Your Lordships heard today that we are behind the threat and we may not be able to measure up to it. Furthermore, like the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, it is certainly my belief that the next three to five years could be the most crucial in our history. They certainly will be the most dangerous. From somewhere we have to get stop-gap measures and we must improvise and make use of every available device and—for want of a better word—concoction that we can get going in this country.

It has to be said that we do not have an air defence system today that contends with the present threat and we must do something about it. It could be—and I have no wish to encroach on my noble friend Lord Chalfont, who will lead us in our next debate—that we should look even more closely to the whole area of having, being responsible for and controlling our own independent nuclear defence force. It seems to me that, in times of national survival, you can have friends and you can have allies—and we have plenty of experience of that. But, in a matter so great as our national survival, the responsibility rests with us. We have to take our own decisions and our own measures, and I believe that we should have some form of independent nuclear defence for our own country. I can conceive of occasions when our friends would let us down and when we should have to use it ourselves.

Therefore, to sum up, I believe we are in no position to take on the threat that is against us with regard to the air defence of Great Britain. I believe that we have to have stop-gap measures, because we cannot have the agony and the wait of the 10-year cycle, as it could be argued that we do not have 10 years in which to get ourselves ready. Lastly, I believe that national survival is not a question of leaning on friends and using your allies. It is our responsibility and we must have the proper weapons—nuclear, conventional and, if necessary, chemical—to deal with it.

3.34 p.m.

My Lords, it is a coincidence that the ballot box has provided us with two short debates today, both of which enable us to consider two separate and very important aspects of our defence. I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing for the opportunity which his Motion gives us to discuss the strengthening of the air defence of the United Kingdom and its air defence region. It is, itself, a most important subject and one which in recent years has not received the consideration which it deserves. I am particularly glad that the words of his Motion emphasise the urgency for improvement.

If your Lordships look at the list of speakers for this debate, I suspect you will find that they all speak with the same urgency and the same anxiety on this subject. Air defence has now become one of the most elaborate and complex aspects of our defence arrangements. Gone are the days when fighter aircraft took off from Biggin Hill and could carry out their air defence task without ever crossing Kentish airspace. In the last 15 years, the Soviet long-range bomber threat has been greatly enhanced with the development of high performance aircraft which are capable of long-range, supersonic speeds and low altitude penetration and, as has already been said, many of them will be equipped with stand-off weapons, which are capable of being launched at 250, 300 or, maybe, more miles from the target. Thus these islands can be attacked from any direction. To counter this, the threatening aircraft must be located at great distances away and engaged as far as possible from the target area. The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, has already pointed that out.

In my supplementary question to the Starred Question of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Hill-Norton, on 18th February, about the effects of defence cuts on our operational front-line training, I asked for an assurance that air defence exercises would not be limited. My noble friend the Minister, who will be replying to this debate, undertook to write to me on this point. However, I hope he will not mind if I again raise the question of that most important exercise which was held recently—Exercise Elder Forest. It was the most comprehensive and important air defence exercise to be held in the last 30 years and many valuable lessons were learned from it.

Because of the complexity and the great areas of airspace which are necessarily involved in modern air defence, it is no longer practical to consider the air defence of the United Kingdom in isolation. It is an essential part of the whole NATO air defence set-up and it must form part of that set-up. As I implied in my supplementary question, to which I have already referred, the most important conclusion from Exercise Elder Forest was the need for frequent air defence exercises, not merely to test our own air defences, but in conjunction with our NATO allies to test the integrated air defences of the NATO air defence region. I very much hope that current trimming of defence expenditure will not curtail this most important aspect of training. As my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing said, with our very small air defence resources, it is essential that we train hard with them in order to produce the maximum effectiveness with the small amount that we have available.

The other firm conclusion from Exercise Elder Forest was the need for greater airborne early warning capability. If supersonic, low altitude hostile aircraft are to be detected over long distances, it can be done only by aircraft which can remain airborne for long periods and which carry all the necessary radar and equipment for locating the approach of those hostile aircraft. Currently, this task is performed by the ageing, but effective and long-serving, Shackleton aircraft. As part of the defence cuts which were recently announced, the Minister of Defence said that he proposed to bring forward the date of phasing-out the Shackleton aircraft, and my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing indicated that they were to be reduced to a total of six. The Shackletons are due to be replaced in the mid-'eighties in the airborne early warning role by the new, and obviously more modern and effective, Nimrod aircraft. I very much hope that the phasing out of the Shackletons in order to satisfy or help to satisfy the necessary defence cuts and the introduction of the new Nimrod will not create a gap or a temporary weakness in our essential airborne early warning capability at the very time when the Exercise Elder Forest has shown the need to enhance it.

A third anxiety one must have concerns the additional squadron of Lightning aircraft. Previous air defence plans had indicated the need for an additional squadron of Lightning aircraft in the role of air defence fighters. Again the recent defence cuts scrapped that additional squadron but said that in an emergency the pilots would be found from the training establishment. Presumably they would not be pilots undergoing training at that moment but would be the instructors who would be withdrawn from the training establishments to man these aircraft, thus leaving the training establishment so short of instructors that they would be unable to train further pilots.

Finally, as my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing emphasised in closing his speech, the importance of a sound air defence system for the United Kingdom cannot be over-emphasised, not only for the defence of this country—that is, home defence—but also because of the importance that NATO attaches to the security of the United Kingdom base as a vital staging post for reinforcement.

3.42 p.m.

My Lords, I should like to draw further attention for a few minutes to this question of the cancelled Lightning squadron. It was in July 1979 that the Under-Secretary of State announced that an additional Lightning squadron was to be formed. It was one of three moves to help fill a gap in Britain's air defence, along with the arming of the Hawk trainer with Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and an improved weapon control system for the Phantom interceptor.

As has already been pointed out, the gap in air defence was foreseen to be apparent until the late 1980s when the air defence variant of the Tornado comes on to the scene—and due to concurrent increased strength, and to some extent activity, of the Warsaw Pact air defence capability. The Lightnings were to be brought out of reserve to provide this squadron and their pilots were to be drawn from a central pool of retrained pilots in ground appointments. It is significant that however many planes may be rolled out of reserve, the shortage of pilots remains a key factor in whether the planes can be used. And it takes a long time, at a huge cost, adequately to train more of them. It would be interesting to know whether the shortage of pilots was the main reason for disbanding this new squadron and indeed whether the new squadron ever got off the ground.

Furthermore, are the Lightnings back in reserve now, or were they never taken out of reserve? The situation suggests that retrained pilots should be enabled to keep adequate flying hours so that in an emergency they are able quickly to man the reserve aircraft and to provide an aerial home guard. Do they get enough flying for this?

Furthermore, one can perhaps assume that since the announcement in 1979 of the Lightning squadron there will have been an increased intake into the flying schools of potential pilots to man them. Where will these pilots go now, or can they be absorbed into existing squadrons without overmanning them?

Arming of the Hawk seems particularly good sense as there are large numbers of these small if subsonic trainers, and their comparatively slow speed and performance can be made up for in local home defence by the quality of their missiles. With the cancellation of the Lightning squadron it would be a fair question to ask how the arming of these Hawks is coming along, and the supply of missiles to them, or whether this plan has gone the way of the Lightning squadron.

Also, considering the ability of the Lightning, Phantom and Tornado to have in-flight refuelling, will the Hawk, taking into account the problems of interception and the likelihood of runway denial, also be given in-flight refuelling ability? Will they also have a share of hardened shelters that are reportedly to be built for the main air defence aircraft?

It is a matter of great concern that this gap in our air defences has now to be left unfilled by the Lightning squadron which was pronounced necessary two years ago. I hope the Minister will be able to tell the House that in the event of an emergency there are adequate plans and provisions to pull the planes out of reserve and provide adequate pilots to man them.

3.46 p.m.

My Lords, I must apologise to the House and to the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, in particular, that my intervention is not specifically addressed only to the air defence of this country. That question has been already well developed by him and by succeeding noble Lords. My intervention derives from the fact that towards the end of the last war I was for a time the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee of the Chiefs of Staff, succeeding another Member of your Lordships' House, the Duke of Portland. In that job at that time the rule was: "I before O"—intelligence before decisions on operations. It is on that single subject that I am going to speak and make a single plea this afternoon.

It follows on what Lord Halsbury said in lapidary words—he is here this afternoon and will recall them—in a debate on aerospace and defence some 10 years ago. He then said that we had every right to be suspicious of every Government on major weapons projects for the reason that they take far longer to develop and bring into action than the passing phase of one Government followed by another. I trust that the Minister who is to reply will accept that a certain suspicion is fair, and it has been echoed in friendly terms this afternoon. We only hope for reassurance that it is not only the short term but also the longer term that is borne in mind. It is the short term this afternoon which has been chosen for most of the comments, on an assumption which may or may not be right.

It may well be—Mr. Henry Kissinger believes that it will and has said so—that the period of greatest danger is likely to be in the first five years of this decade. But when we discuss defence and weapons systems to support it, we can only make such assumptions about the future as are reasonable, things being as they are, or extrapolated therefrom. Some commentators on defence speak and write as if this were enough and the Minister, after hearing what has already been said, may feel that enough is already too much. But in my submission it is not so.

When talking of major weapons systems we are trying to look forward to a state of affairs in the world at large up to the end of the century. We are thus talking about a 20 year spell and in my judgment it would be rash in the extreme to assume that we can know the shape of things to come at that range. As was well said in the Goncourt Journals:
"The imagination of man cannot hope to match the improbabilities and contrasts of life".
If proof of these improbabilities and contrasts were needed—and surely it is not—we only have to look backwards to a similar period in the past. Who, for instance, would have ever dreamed in the time of Battista's rule in Cuba that within a very few years the first major confrontation between the United States and the USSR should happen over Cuba? Equally, at that time it was accepted doctrine in the United States, both by President Eisenhower and by General Marshall whose influence was still great, that the United States should never again, after Korea, involve herself in land war on the continent of Asia. Wait. Within two or three years' time they had massive forces deployed, and with results on which we now look back to see what happened with sorrow.

This is not of itself an argument for this defence posture or that, or for this weapons system or another. It is merely an illustration of the fallibility of human forecasting. No, more; but none the worse for that. It is an acknowledgment of the limitations of intelligence appreciations however well presented, and the acceptance of the unknowable factor X in human affairs. That is the argument for keeping open as many options as are within reach. What is within reach? Perhaps here we could do worse than recall in Adam Smith's dictum "Defence is greater than opulence" and the ruthless application of that doctrine by the Russians.

No doubt the Government weigh these matters, as they do other connected topics, when considering new weapons systems or what priority to give to immediate defence requirements over the next five years and what must be set aside for a longer period; the dangers which may then be greater or they may be less. One cannot sit down and decide off hand. Other things arise, such as a spin-off in certain systems, which may be of advantage in other ways. Other considerations clearly include how optimistic we are about the economic development of this country; whether we take an exceedingly pessimistic view and say—as I have heard it said—that the economic and industrial future of this country after a few years will be somewhat to be compared with South Korea's. That is a matter of judgment and I trust that the Government take a very much more robust view of our possibilities of industrial support for our defence system.

So my plea to the Government when they answer these debates is this. First, of course, they will wish to concentrate on the specific questions about air defence which have been properly put to them, but, bearing in mind what the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, said some 10 years ago, I think it would be a comfort to many of us to know that they have very clearly in mind the longer-term requirements, weapons systems and defence postures, and acknowledge the fact that, although we may not be a world power in the same sense as we were when we could rely upon the Indian Army at the end of the war to supply some 2,500,000 troops to support our efforts, nevertheless we have world interests and these may have to be protected. Sitting here this afternoon, we do not know where and when that may be, but we shall have to have some means of responding to protect those vital interests, be it in Europe in the first place, and in our position, in my submission, we cannot exclude the rest of the world from our considerations.

3.54 p.m.

My Lords, we are indeed very fortunate today in having two short debates on defence initiated by my noble friends Lord Orr-Ewing and Lord Chalfont. As has been said, the subjects may appear different, but they are of course very closely related. I should like to start with a very short quotation:

"No one should be in any doubt about the crucial importance of air power in any future conflict. Soviet military planners have obviously come to this conclusion, as we can judge by the vast increase in their expenditure on new aircraft, well in excess of the more widely publicised 'blue water navy'".
It goes on to refer to the Soviet increase of 45 per cent. That was said by Mr. Geoffrey Pattie the other day in a speech to the Air League.

The airspace over the United Kingdom and its surroundings is vital, not only for the defence and security of our people but also for the successful defence of continental Europe. NATO's prospects of success against an attack by the Warsaw Pact would be in great jeopardy without a secure United Kingdom base. It is a plain fact that in the event of war the United Kingdom is where the vast majority of reinforcements must come, as the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, said. The area has been discussed already by my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing, from the North to the South.

The Air Defence Ground Environment improvement is very welcome although it is long overdue, but without sufficient interceptor aircraft and surface-to-air missiles which are capable of destroying Soviet Backfires, MiG 27s and SU-19 strike aircraft, which would attack us in force, our tracking ability is negated. All our airfields, naval bases (including the Holy Loch and Polaris base), ports and other military targets from the Orkneys to the Channel will be prey to very low level air attack with either nuclear or conventional weapons.

My noble friend Lord Cathcart mentioned exercise Elder Forest and I think that and other exercises show that perhaps our efficiency and effectiveness in this area is not as satisfactory as we would have hoped. It has already been said that 12 months ago an additional Lightning squadron was to be created from reserve aircraft and the Hawk Trainer was to be equipped with air-to-air missiles to help our rather meagre front line interceptor squadrons. But, as my noble friends have said, the Lightning squadron has been cancelled and the Hawk's capabilities, although it is a very fine aircraft, are perhaps, even with sophisticated missiles, somewhat limited against modern Soviet aircraft.

My noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing said that we would have 77 front line aircraft. I think he was being pessimistic, because I calculate that we shall have 78. We have a total of 108 and probably 25 per cent. of them will be out of action for various reasons. There is no doubt at all that the Lightnings and Phantoms (which these would be) would be more than fully extended just to cope with the Backfire.

When we look at the surface-to-air missile scenario, that is also rather depressing because there must be grave doubts that the old Bloodhounds would be really effective in a mass low level attack by modern Soviet strike and bomber aircraft. There are only two Rapier squadrons deployed in the United Kingdom at the moment and the US airfields are more or less unprotected; although when they get Rapier that will improve the situation, that will not be for a short while. Therefore, until the 165 Tornados armed with Sky Flash are operational in 1984, there is a very large hole in our air defence, particularly in the gap between Iceland and the North and West coasts of Scotland. I would mention here that the cancellation of Sky Flash 2 does not improve the matter or make it any easier.

In addition to the targets I have mentioned, there are many vulnerable targets for Soviet aircraft operating from the Kola Peninsula, such as ships in the North Sea and ships in the North Atlantic. If we think that by 1984 we shall be all right because we shall have the Tornado, do not let us forget that in all probability the Soviets will have improved their fire power in the next three years. An operational airfield at Stornoway would improve our interceptor capability because it would give a considerably longer loiter time but it too must be defended.

My Lords, we simply do not have the resources to do this. So I think we should look at the possibility of talking to our American friends, as was suggested by my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing. Perhaps they could come and deploy some F-15s and F-14s on some of their airfields and our airfields. Incidentally, both these aircraft can cope with the Backfire. This perhaps would help the suggestion made by the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, of "cheap and nasty". They might not be cheap, but they would be nasty and would be a considerable help to us. If they do not already realise it, I think we must impress on our NATO allies, and particularly on the Americans, the absolutely vital need to make the United Kingdom secure. Virtually all our radar detection and tracking systems are down the East Coast, but there is a very real threat from the west, because the Backfire does not need to refuel to attack from that direction. Here again our capability is severely limited.

I do have in the back of my mind a partial answer to this, and I have a slight vested interest in it, but it would not happen for three years. That is that there is an airship being built called the Skyship 5000 which could be available, and this airship would be perfectly capable of deploying all the airborne early warning equipment currently entering into service in the Nimrod. By using the aircraft and the airship our airborne early warning system would be greatly enhanced. This is particularly so because the airship would be able to remain on station for days rather than hours. Whether or not it would survive is another matter but at least it might give us the necessary warning time.

Command and control communications and enemy aircraft identification provide even more problems. In fact the other day a senior officer voiced the opinion that we might destroy more of our own aircraft than the enemy's, due to our identification and control system being unsatisfactory. This still has not been worked out through the rest of NATO. The Chief of the Air Staff has reluctantly accepted the recent cuts in defence expenditure, but with the warning that if we neglect our air defences it will be at our own peril. Let none of us forget that one of the main platforms of the Conservative manifesto for the 1979 election was to defend this country.

My Lords, I think we have to take a long, hard look at our priorities. We are about to have a debate on Trident, and without in any way wishing to pre-empt that debate, I wish to ask your Lordships a question which was similarly asked by one of my noble friends earlier. Does it make sense militarily or economically to spend £5,000 million, or probably nearer £7,000 million, on four submarines which, in the light of the Soviet's new "countervailing" strategy, could only be used as a last resort against Soviet cities, while the United Kingdom air base remans so inadequately defended? Since the current procurement programmes began 10 years ago over £4,000 million has been cut from defence expenditure.

My final, but I think extremely important, point is the lowering of morale in the Royal Air Force air and ground crews which lack of equipment and restrictions in training facilities must eventually produce. It would be a tragedy if conditions reverted to those of 1978, when all our armed services were at their lowest ebb at any time since World War II. Without adequate air defence neither of the other two arms of the Services can fulfil their roles effectively. I finish with a quotation, as I started, from my godfather the late Sir Winston Churchill:
"The only real security upon which sound military principles will rely is that you should be master of your own air".

4.4 p.m.

My Lords, I should like to echo the views expressed by other noble Lords who have stressed the importance and relevance of the Motion standing in the name of my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing. First of all, I want to concentrate on the adequacy, now and in the future, of our air defence radar network. This network, in conjunction with that of our allies in Europe and in Scandinavia, is the basis for identification of targets and the direction of fighters to counter them. There are, of course, obvious physical problems caused by the curvature of the earth's surface, which limits the effective range of radar and its ability to detect targets below a certain height. That is why it is necessary to use airborne early warning radar, presently in the ageing Shackleton aircraft using fairly old and unsophisticated equipment, but which in the mid-eighties is to be replaced by the airborne early warning Nimrod. This will enable us to detect aircraft at these greater ranges, particularly when they are flying low, below the surface-based radar horizon.

The sophisticated techniques now available to the Soviet Union and to ourselves in respect of electronic counter-measures and electronic counter-countermeasures point very clearly to the need to bring into service radar equipment which can meet this threat and deal with the jamming techniques which we can expect to be used against us, including the employment by aggressors of radar spoofs and decoys. Nimrod, I understand, will have this ability, but I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to give us some indication about parallel and similar improvements in ground-based radar, which must come into service concurrently with Nimrod, if not before.

I hope, too, that, if this is to be the case, he will also be able to confirm that additionally the promised much more sophisticated infrastructure will be brought quickly into operation, using automated data link and other secure facilities, in order that the various electronic inputs can be properly collated, particular threats assessed, and the physical reaction to the threats controlled and directed. But, if this is so, we do seem to be left with profound weakness, as has been stressed, when it comes to meeting the threat.

I entirely endorse the views expressed by other noble Lords who have drawn attention not only to the lack of sufficient numbers of fighter aircraft but also to the inadequate stock of air defence weapons, airborne refuellers, pilots, navigators and airfields, particularly satellite airfields for aircraft to operate from or to, in the case of their main base being rendered unusable. It does concern me that at present there seems to be no means of reinforcing forward operating bases with all that they need in terms of ammunition, equipment and spares to re-arm and service deployed fighters as speedily as would be necessary, by using military transport aircraft. I should be grateful for my noble friend's comments as to whether that is in fact the case, and, if so, what is being done to remedy it.

The introduction of Tornado F2, the air defence variant, in the mid-eighties will be a significant improvement in the quality of our air defence effort. Its improved range, loitering ability and fire power, and its ability to use shorter runways—hence more airfields—will be a considerable improvement on existing Phantoms and Lightnings. One aspect which does interest me is the ability of aircraft of this type not just to acquire but to identify visually their targets at the ranges and speeds and in the conditions of poor light that will be required of their crews. Equipment does exist to enhance visual acquisition in this way, using, for example, low-light television, as is fitted to the American F-15 in the United States. I understand that the cost of equipping all the air defence variant Tornados would amount to less than half the cost of one aircraft. I hope that my noble friend will be able to assure us that consideration has been given to this problem, and that we shall not end up in the sort of situation which so often occurs with military equipment, which I have seen myself, when we spoil the ship for a ha'porth of tar. What I do not want to see happen is for the aircraft to enter service, the need for some method of improving visual acquisition and identification to be re-identified, and an extremely expensive and extensive modification programme set in motion at a time when costs will have risen enormously and when the aircraft cannot be spared to be grounded for the modification, when the whole concept could have been sorted out in the development phase, as I hope has been the case so far as Tornado is concerned.

I endorse all that has been said in drawing attention to a rather gloomy picture. I am well aware of the difficulties, and the balances that must be struck in dividing the defence budget to give weight to perceived priorities. I believe that the position of the United Kingdom, not only as a base in its own right, but as a unique and vital link in plans for the reinforcement of Europe by the United States, is woefully weak, given our present lack of ability to safeguard our air defence region. The equipment to detect, assess and direct, exists and hopefully will be improved. However, it is no earthly good having this ability if we do not have the physical means of dealing with the aggressors over a suitably prolonged period. That is why I support entirely my noble friend's plea and that of others for an urgent strengthening of our air defences.

My Lords, I should like to be permitted to ask one short question of the noble Viscount before he comes to answer the debate. The Russians now have up to 200 SS20s already in position. We have no prospect of cruise missiles for at least three or four years. Will the Government bear in mind what that means as regards the defence of this country—civil defence, home defence and air defence—and also, in diplomatic terms, what it means as regards the question of any negotiations that we have with the Russians for a reduction of armaments?

4.11 p.m.

My Lords, the whole House is aware of the deep interest taken in defence matters by the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, and I know, of course—perhaps more than some Members of your Lordships' House—of his interest because we share a place on the all-party Defence Committee. We are particularly grateful to the noble Lord for introducing this very important topic of air defence.

I should like to begin by reminding your Lordships' House that the Government's Defence White Paper of 1957 announced a new defence strategy known as the "Sandys Plan", after the then Conservative Minister of Defence. Also known as the "tripwire approach", that strategy opted for major cuts ill conventional weaponry which were to be offset by an increased reliance on nuclear weapons. War was to be deterred, rather than fought. If war came it was to be fought primarily with nuclear and not conventional weapons. None the less, despite the existence of nuclear armouries, there have been wars and the combatants have not been deterred by the existence of nuclear weapons.

This "tripwire" strategy has dismantled Britain's air defence to a degree well beyond the reductions made to any other forces. As a result, our strength in combat aircraft in 1976 was just 13 per cent. of what it had been in 1957—that is, there had been a 85 per cent. reduction. By "combat aircraft", I am referring to aircraft intended for attack, defence and reconnaisance.

The NATO exercise last April, code-named Elder Forest 80—referred to by other noble Lords—showed just how vulnerable our defences are, and a preliminary assessment of one of the most concerted exercises ever staged to test Britain's meagre defences against air attack shows that too many "enemy" bombers managed to dodge our defences to hit their targets. Without adequate conventional forces to maintain a high nuclear threshold, NATO might be forced to use tactical nuclear weapons at an early stage of a conventional conflict. Elder Forest 80 starkly exemplified the need for a better prepared air defence.

It is hoped that by the mid-1980s the RAF will be improved both numerically and qualitatively and that replays of Elder Forest 80 would be unlikely. There are fears, however, that the Government may be forced to make cuts in conventional forces including the RAF—to make room for the successor to Polaris. The Government maintain they can buy Trident without prejudice to Britain's
"all-round contribution to allied deterrents and defence".
In order to make allowances for the expenditure, do the Government intend to do that by piecemeal reduction in the scale of spending on conventional forces? That point has been made in a number of places and it has also been made on occasions this afternoon in this debate.

The first such adjustment was announced in advance of Trident. It implied that the Rhine Army was to abandon the originally envisaged scheme for development of a new battle tank, the MBT-80, specially designed for armoured warfare in North-Western Europe. In regard to the next generation of tactical combat aircraft, the Government will perhaps also be similarly inclined to take the lower cost option of stretching the service life of existing types or engaging in modest upgrading rather than embarking on major new developments.

The mid-1980s were expected to see peak spending on Tornado, and high spending on other major projects like the airborne early warning aircraft, Nimrods; improving the Harrier; and development of the new tactical combat aircraft. The suspicion is that one or more will go. Future discussions to avoid or to delay new equipment developments would, whenever possible involve employment and industrial considerations as well as implications for defence. In fact it has already been announced that it has not proved possible, to advance the in-service state of the Tornado F2 at a cost which is acceptable.

The dilution of the quality of the conventional forces seems inescapable, at least for so long as there is an insistence of keeping up the appearance of "all-round contribution to the alliances". This contribution includes the retention of an air force capable of undertaking the full range of tactical air missions.

My noble friend Lord Paget of Northampton expressed the trade-off between nuclear and conventional weaponry very succinctly in this House on 8th May last, when, at column 1846, he said:
"It seems to me that we have been moving further and further away from defence and relying more and more on deterrence until we have very nearly reach the point where, if deterrence fails, we have no means at all of defending ourselves".
The principal threat to the United Kingdom and to our interests in the adjacent waters is seen to come from Soviet air forces in the context of any general hostilities between the Warsaw Pact and NATO countries. With both sides avoiding the use of nuclear weapons, the United Kingdom would be exposed to attack by conventional weapons delivered by the Soviet long-range air force, perhaps backed by units of the Soviet tactical air force.

In terms of air defence, the United Kingdom is assessed as a high priority target for Soviet air attack. In the words of the former Vice-Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Sir John Nicholls:
"It"—
that is, the United Kingdom—
"is the base for about 40 per cent. in terms of numbers and rather more in terms of effectiveness of the offensive aircraft available to the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. It also contains vulnerable military installations vital to the conduct of operations on the Continent and the sea".
In recent years the Soviets have introduced into their armoury the Backfire medium bomber, to which noble Lords have referred, and advanced longer range tactical aircraft. The 1980 Defence White Paper mentions particularly the Backfire and Fencer fighter bomber and considers that the Soviets:
"are likely to introduce still more effective aircraft in the next 10 years".
Indeed, the USSR is now spending more on research and development than the whole of the Western world put together. The Soviet Backfire bomber, however, is the most troublesome threat. Remaining unseen below the detection cover of shore-based radars, it can launch missiles aimed from some 300 miles at key targets such as airfields, radars, ports and communication centres. The Phantom missile control system's own airborne radar can search for them, but it is effective only at ranges of up to 30 miles. The Shackleton AEW squadron's radar, which provides low-level reporting cover, is virtually useless for this task because when looking down for low-flying aircraft it cannot see them among all the echoes reflected from the surface.

This explains why the development of the new Nimrods is so important. With their modern look-down radar they would be able to see the low-level intruders and direct the fighters on to them long before they could release their weapons. The Nimrod's radar will be able to detect cruise missiles as well as aircraft, and should be able to direct fighters even when the enemy is using electronic jamming techniques.

The Government's replacement of the Jaguar force, in seeking a ground attack aircraft by 1990, has been discounted as not being a viable option for the 1990s. As an alternative, the RAF is beginning to look seriously at an improvement programme for the Jaguar strike fighter force. Both the Jaguars and Harriers are limited in their operations at night and in bad weather because they are not fitted with terrain-following radar; nor are they fitted with self-defence missiles. About 200 Jaguars are in service with the RAF and would require extensive avionics and weaponry updates to keep them operational.

The deliveries of the Tornado strike-interdiction aircraft, which are scheduled for 1984, will permit the RAF to reduce the number of operational aircraft. The Tornado is to replace three of the long-range strike aircraft now in the RAF inventory. However, with the deployment of Tornado, Britain will have to investigate an air strategy, given the ineffectiveness of scatter-area type weapons, such as the Tornado, which is deployed at high speeds and low altitudes and which is only marginally effective at hitting specific moving targets, such as tanks.

While Britain is developing an advanced tactical aircraft, one wonders whether such an aircraft will ever come into service in adequate numbers, given the cost overrun by Tornado. The limitations of the Tornado should be acknowledged. It should also be noted that Britain is further inhibited on the ground by the fact that she is the only NATO nation which does not employ forward air controllers to direct battlefield attacks. The lack of these controllers puts further burdens on the pilots in combat operations.

This trade-off between multiple and close attack aircraft has worried the United States. In fact, the United States' ability to supply wider support is limited by Britain's inability to adopt a close observer to direct US aircraft. Since Britain occupies the key zone, the argument that British pilots do not need them undermines NATO defence, because one must realise that American effectiveness depends on them. Basically, Britain does not have all the resources necessary to make Tornado credible in all her roles. For example, in air defence the nation lacks coordination aircraft, long-range IFF—that is, identification of friend and foe—and a look-down, shoot-down missile.

According to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Mr. Geoffrey Pattie, the Tornado will form the backbone of the RAF's front line in the 1980s. The other major and complementary component of our front line is the offensive support aircraft fleet, which is currently provided by Jaguars and Harriers. Given the facts of these aircrafts' severe limitations, this is not very reassuring. In addition to more improved strike and air defence, the RAF is also in great need of a more flexible transport capability and a greater air-to-air refuelling capability.

RAF fighters, moreover, lack the elaborate electronic device which misleads enemy missiles as they approach the aircraft and also feeds false radar information on their direction into the enemy's computer. Besides the fighter "gap", the RAF still does not have all of its main airfields protected by point-defence missiles. The fields that the United States Air Force occupies are also not protected. Britain has no long-range missiles at all in the United Kingdom. Our plans appear to envisage nothing more than bringing a few old Bloodhound missiles back from Western Germany in a couple of years. Indeed, extensive modernisation is needed for our ground operation centres, communication systems and surveillance radars, under the name of the United Kingdom Air Defence Ground Environment, which will considerably enhance the capabilities of our defence command and control system.

A major test for this Government is whether they will have the political will to carry through the strengthening of Britain's air defence, which was embarked upon by the last Labour Government. Control of British airspace is a first priority if Britain is to remain a secure base in the collective defence of Western Europe. The importance of the United Kingdom in the early days of a conflict cannot be overstated. Our airfields and control systems would be in the forefront, handling the reinforcements on the air bridge from North America. The greatest challenge facing the new Defence Minister is the implementation, with the minimum of delay, of that vital decision to strengthen and improve the air defences of the United Kingdom.

4.26 p.m.

My Lords, I need the indulgence of the House, being only a little over a month old in this particular job and having originally volunteered for political service only in terms of industrial knowledge, which I have had on a full-time basis for 30 years. However, I have already learned that there is perhaps an industrial contribution to be made to solving the problems of the enormous escalation of costs of sophi- stication, which is one of the problems about defence budgets as a whole. I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Brooks, who has just sat down, that I very much hope that he and his party are prepared to face the consequences of the many improvements that he suggested should be made in this sphere of defence, bearing in mind—as this debate and, I think, the next debate will show—that we must maintain the kind of balance of defence for which the noble Lord, Lord Caccia, called and consider all defence aspects at the same time.

I shall not refer to the Trident decision in this debate because, clearly, the next debate is mainly about it; except to point out that the Tornado programme is bigger in capital costs and in absorbing a percentage of the defence budget than the Trident programme. Nor shall I touch on civil defence; and much as I should like, on another occasion, to follow the points which the noble Lord, Lord Caccia, has made, in the time available in a short debate I cannot obviously follow them now.

I do not think that there is any dispute between us on the enormous increase in the Russian threat in terms of its significance for the air defence of this country, particularly since 1970. The Government share the view that we probably stuck to the tripwire philosophy for too long and, as a result, to a degree our air-defence measures are lagging behind. But steps are being taken.

As I try to go through some of the main points which noble Lords have raised, I hope that I shall be able to leave your Lordships' House with a slightly less gloomy view than I feel may have come out of the contributions so far. I simply shall not be able to answer all the questions asked, and I shall write to noble Lords on those that I cannot mention. Yes, the Soviet Union has a million men in its air military component and 20,000 military aircraft; 80 Backfires facing the West and 30 more are being produced each year. The Soviet tactical airforce has 5,000 aircraft, three-quarters of which are dual capable. All those points made for me by noble Lords are indeed well and truly understood by the Government and by the experts who monitor their very formidable ability.

It is true that the strengthening of the air side of the armaments of the Soviet Union has been running at the fastest rate. It now absorbs some 27 per cent. of the procurement budget, we estimate, in 1980 for aircraft as opposed to 10 per cent. for ships and 11 per cent. for land armaments. I might mention that one of the big figures in reaching towards the 100 of course concerns missiles, 36 per cent. So there is no question but that we share that view. Indeed, the rate of growth of strengthening, although formidable in all arms, is probably nearly four to one in terms of strengthening of the air arm compared with the naval arm.

Noble Lords asked me to try to quantify the capabilities of modern aircraft in simple terms, for those of them who, like me, had a short period in the Services a long while ago; but one really cannot do that, because air defence today is not just numbers of aircraft. Greater sophistication and enormously greater power and greater cost mean that the battles must be fought with lesser numbers. The other thing I want to say is that it is not assumed—and some noble Lords made this clear—that we shall be fighting this battle on our own. We shall be fighting it in the context of the alliance. Although these numbers of Soviet aircraft are formidable, I must make clear that the percentage that they can divert to attack on this country is certainly not the majority; although clearly they could deploy large numbers and our numbers of aircraft are indeed thin, and, as has been mentioned, we have the area from Iceland to the Channel to defend.

But first I want to say that the figures in the 'seventies are really not correct. We have rather more than a hundred front line aircraft, Phantoms and Lightnings, and we do not accept that there will be 25 per cent. "off the road". We believe, particularly as we still believe that we shall get some indications of heightening tension, that that percentage can be reduced to a very small one. Nevertheless, this leads me to say straight away that I echo the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing—who has done us such a service by moving this Motion—in quoting Lord Rutherford. I was not there but I think the correct quotation, which is much quoted, is,
"We haven't got much money, so we must think".
Indeed, I believe that the experts in the Ministry of Defence and in the Services have been thinking very hard indeed, and a combination of their plans for the most sophisticated and invulnerable form of radar and communication systems, together with the refuelling plans using the VC 10s, will ensure that more than 100 aircraft can be used with enormous effect.

Defence is not just aircraft but is really three layers of defence as it stands at the moment. The first is of course radar. There are various points that have been raised here which I shall probably take in a not very logical order. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, that the movement on ground radar, both in terms of sophistication and in terms of the parallel movement with the Shackleton, will be on time. They have been broadly synchronised, and they are going forward as fast as possible.

So far as the whole scheme of things is concerned and Lord Orr-Ewing's emphasis on pushing it forward faster and building the concrete now, we are pushing forward as fast as we can and we are not being delayed by economy measures. We have to take note of NATO funding which requires the plan to be clearly set out and approved. But within that limitation, and within the huge limitations of the enormous costs of protection in terms of steel and concrete, we are moving as fast as we can. I note my noble friend Lord Kimberley's suggestion about airships. I shall pass it on to the experts. I should not like to fly one.

I have noted the emphasis on the possible threat from the West. We already have radar facing West, and the Services are planning to take account of that possibility. So radar is an early warning—and I shall come to improvements later—and is indeed the first line of defence, and the absolute essential if costly aircraft are to be used with effect. The second line is the fighters, of which I have spoken just now, with refuelling to support them; and in relation to the backup the availability of some 90 Hawks is indeed part of the plan for reinforcement, and they are to be armed with Sidewinder M9L missiles. The first of these modified aircraft should be available in about two years, unfortunately not earlier. We still have some Hunters.

The next line of defence is the medium range surface to air missiles. Although the Bloodhound is ageing we believe it still be to effective, and we shall be redeploying an extra squadron in East Anglia. Finally, there is the Rapier. We already have two squadrons of Rapiers deployed in the United Kingdom and four in RAF Germany. We shall push ahead with that protection as fast as we can. We are delighted that the Americans have decided to buy Rapier for their United Kingdom bases. This is perhaps a good moment for me to say that our industry, supporting not just aircraft but supporting advanced weaponry, clearly is still in good shape. With the size of the world in industrial and defence terms today, we can only be a part of it, but where we have leads we must try to keep them and plan to maintain them over the years, and that certainly is something that I hope to encourage. It was mentioned—and I make a note of it here because of the point about the effect of ever escalating costs on industry—that we had overrun our Tornado budget. I have not the percentage in front of me, but the Tornado budget has been controlled very closely to plan, despite a number of hiccups, which perhaps were partly produced by the problems of making international projects work more smoothly.

The Elder Forest exercise was very important, as my noble friend Lord Cathcart said. While it threw up a number of lessons and while as a result of that it is the intention to repeat something of the kind in 1982, nevertheless the general report from Elder Forest was surprisingly good and the degree of interceptions made with the equipment we had was surprisingly high. I take this opportunity to say, particularly against the background of the note of the daunting size of the USSR threat, that the general lesson from Elder Forest is that we can, and would, give a jolly good account of ourselves now and we shall certainly give an even better one in the future. We shall run a further exercise of that kind to draw more lessons and improve ourselves yet again.

I move from existing defence to improvements, and in doing so remind the House that 165 air defence versions of the Tornado are on order, that the trial aircraft are flying and that we are set for delivery in the mid-'eighties. I do not believe it is practical to consider, leaving cost on one side, a greater acceleration of that programme. But they are on the way and we shall be very pleased to see them in service. The tremendous power for long-range interception will of course be invaluable in terms of the next generation of Soviet aircraft and stand-off weapons and all those modern developments.

My noble friend Lord Glenarthur asked whether they are to be fitted with extending visual identification. That has not been included in the design and order of the initial aircraft. They have, of course, very advanced airborne intercept radar. The question whether to add extended visual identification is being studied, but I do not hold out to my noble friend any definite hope that the experts will decide that it should take the priority which he suggests.

It was mentioned that Skyflash Mark II had been cancelled. That was, of course, in the context of the general provisional agreement with the Americans for two new very effective air-to-air missiles, the AMRAM and the short-range equivalent, so I think the armament is moving on as well. And of course Nimrod, to which reference was also made, is vital. Some noble Lords suggested that we are leaving a gap between Shackleton and Nimrod. We are not leaving a gap. We are accelerating the phasing out of the Shackleton, but we are keeping a cover until the Nimrod comes in, and the Nimrod will certainly be an enormous addition to our air defence capacility.

We will arm the Hawk with the missile I mentioned. We have already formed three RAF auxiliary squadrons to protect airfields, and I would therefore point out to my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing that we are on that track, that the auxiliaries on air defence look a good use and that the early results look good, and we may well consider extending that further. We have it under active consideration to replace the Bloodhound in the longer-term. I must now wind up and in the time available go very quickly into—

My Lords, before my noble friend begins his wind-up, and as I would not wish to interrupt him during his peroration, may I ask whether he intends to answer the point about inviting American squadrons, particularly the volunteer squadrons from their enormous national airguard, to come and exercise here—perhaps the invitation could be extended to their regular squadrons as well—in view of the need for closer co-operation?

I was just coming to that, my Lords. The whole question of NATO reinforcements in an emergency is under renewed study at the moment. The discussions have to be with the United States Air Force because the auxiliary squadrons are there for support of their own air force. My noble friend's point will be taken note of and in the discussions we shall keep it in mind and see the degree to which that can augment the reinforcement measures which NATO will have to make sure are applicable to the current threat.

As for the third Lightning squadron, the aircraft are still there and will be kept in good shape. They can be manned not just by instructors—though partially by instructors—but also by RAF officers who are currently doing desk jobs and who have recently flown modern aircraft. We therefore believe that full utilisation of these aircraft in a time of tension will be able to be brought on stream.

I have taken too long already and have not been effective in terms of answering the many very interesting points that have been raised. I shall certainly follow them up. The overall note I wish to leave with noble Lords is that if we are guided, and continue to be guided, by Lord Rutherford's dictum, and if we realise that defence today is part of an alliance and is in several layers, as I described, I believe we need not despair; but against the growing threat we really must continue to discuss with the other members of the alliance how to be sure we can meet it and how to make sure that this country is adequately defended.

4.49 p.m.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Trenchard for the way in which he dealt with the matters raised in the debate, and I am sure we all particularly appreciate the way in which he individually answered so many questions from noble Lords in all parts of the House, I wish most sincerely also to thank noble Lords who took part in the debate.

We can take pride in the fact that we take a great deal of interest in the defence of our country. That applies to both Houses, Members of which pay a large number of visits to military establishments. We owe a debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, and the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, who did so much to found the All-Party Defence Group which has prospered and kept us well informed. We also owe a debt to all those who take time to brief us, whether they be in the Ministries or industrial establishments, when we make those visits. By that effort and by their conscientiousness and patience we are the better informed, and that must be not only in the interest of this House but of the country as a whole. Again, I am most grateful for the participation of noble Lords and I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.