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Naval Defence Deployment

Volume 448: debated on Thursday 16 February 1984

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3.13 p.m.

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied that, given the present deployment of many British vessels in the South Atlantic, the Far Eastern tour of HMS "Invincible" and two frigates will not jeopardize the naval defences of this country that have already been declared to be inadequate, in time of war, by the NATO Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Atlantic and the Channel.

My Lords, in view of the evident confusion existing in the official mind on this subject, may I ask whether the Government are persuaded that the voyage of HMS "Invincible" and two frigates to the Far East served any useful purpose? Would they not agree that the sooner we can get back to the defence of this country the naval forces deployed in the South Atlantic the better for all concerned and for the safety of the United Kingdom?

My Lords, of course the principal threat that we face is the threat we face within the NATO area. But there are other threats, too—some outside the area—and we have to deploy our forces as necessary to meet these threats as well.

My Lords, arising out of his Answer, may I ask the noble Lord whether he realises that in two world wars what brought this country nearest to defeat was loss of sea power, and that sea power has never been so drastically reduced by any Government in British history as it has been by the present Government during the past three years? We have withdrawn the British naval presence from the Persian Gulf, Aden, and from the Mediterranean, with the exception of a toe-hold in Gibraltar now under sentence of death, and today we are unable to fulfil our obligations to NATO in home waters. Will the noble Lord give us an assurance that Her Majesty's Government will stop attacking the Royal Navy, and start' rebuilding our sea power, upon which we ultimately depend for our existence and survival?

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that our naval forces today are stronger than they have ever been in our history. The basis of the noble Lord's supplementary question is therefore in error.

My Lords, will the Minister not reflect that his ability to say no when he meant yes is the reason why many of us have serious fears when the nuclear potential is involved?

My Lords, coming from the noble Lord and his noble friends opposite, with the ability to say one thing when they mean another, that is rather surprising.

My Lords, would the noble Lord not agree that he is totally wrong in saying that our naval forces are stronger than they have ever been in our history? Is it not necessary to compare our strength with that of other countries, and particularly with the strength of the Soviet Union? Therefore, would he wish to withdraw that and make quite clear that our strength is much lower in relation to other countries than it has ever been?

My Lords, strength is not only measured by the numbers of vessels of a particular type which may be available for service at any time. It refers also of course to the fire-power of the weapons that they carry.

My Lords, I must ask the noble Lord, in view of his reply to my supplementary question, whether he realises that the naval forces in this country, which he says are far stronger than they have ever been, were barely able to cope with the Argentine?

My Lords, the essential threat which we face, to which I referred in answer to the first supplementary question, is the threat in Europe, the threat to NATO; and the Question on the Order Paper refers principally to that, too. As I have said, our naval forces are more powerful in many ways than they have ever been, and that is why they were indeed successful in the South Atlantic.

My Lords, do the Government agree or disagree with the statement of the NATO—that is to say the British—Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Atlantic and the Channel, that the forces at his command are quite inadequate at the moment to defend these islands?

My Lords, the Admiral's remarks were of course designed to refer also to all the NATO forces in the Western Atlantic, of which the United Kingdom forms only a part.

My Lords, the noble Lord has said that the British Navy is now the strongest it has ever been particularly in relation to its fire-power, and many of us interpret that as its nuclear fire-power. Why then do we need a foreign nation to place its nuclear weapons on this island when the Royal Navy is the strongest it has ever been? It does sound a contradiction in terms.

My Lords, it is because the threat is of course greater than it has ever been, too.

My Lords, would not my noble friend agree that noble Lords on the other side of the House, when they come to argue that it is better for us to increase our conventional weapons, will find themselves having to use the arguments that they need high technology and the degree of modernisation of weapons rather than counting the number of guns and the number of men?