The More Things Change


It is always interesting to compare and contrast the ‘language of defence’ used today and in time past.


This is from June 1981 and the then Conservative Secretary of State for Defence, John Nott.

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.

The Government have reviewed the defence programme, and a full account of our conclusions is contained in a White Paper, which will be available shortly in the Vote Office.

The Government intend to honour the NATO aim of 3 per cent. real growth in defence expenditure, and have, exceptionally, taken a firm decision now to plan to implement the increase until 1985–86, a full four years forward and two years beyond the published plans for public spending generally. This may mean that defence absorbs an even greater share of our gross domestic product, and, while it will be necessary to curb several of our forward plans and aspirations, the additional funding should enable us to enhance our front-line capability above its present level in very many areas.

The House knows of our basic problems, which are not unique to Britain. We have a defence programme which is unbalanced and over-extended. Last year, we suffered from severe cash problems, and similar difficulties are already emerging in the current year.

We cannot go on like this. We have no choice in the longer term but to move towards a better balance between the various components of our effort—front-line numbers, quantity and quality in equipment, and military and civilian support. We must determine this balance in terms of real defence capability rather than as the outcome of a debilitating argument over each Service’s budgetary share.

We have looked first at the defence of the United Kingdom itself, especially in its role as a crucial reinforcement base for NATO. For some time we have felt the need to give greater emphasis to our reserve forces. For the Territorial Army, whose readiness and efficiency were vividly shown in Exercise Crusader, my intention is that there will be a progressive increase in numbers of some 16,000 men and women, and there will also be an increase in training days from 38 to 42 a year. We will order new minesweepers for the Royal Naval Reserve as soon as resources permit, and we will expand the use of Royal Air Force Regiment reserves in airfield protection.

In United Kingdom air defence—a priority requirement—we will sustain all the programmes already in hand, including the Nimrod early warning system and the doubling of modern air-to-air missile stocks. As a new enhancement, we will provide Sidewinder air-to-air missiles for a further 36 of our Hawk aircraft, making 72 Hawks in all available to supplement our fighter force; we will run on two Phantom squadrons, instead of phasing them out as had been earlier planned, when the air defence version of Tornado comes in; we will examine the possibility of switching 20 Tornados to the air defence rather than the strike version; and we will substantially increase the VC10 tanker fleet, which multiplies our fighter force by prolonging patrol time and range. Around our coasts, we will increase our capability to counter enemy mining, and we have set aside funds for enhancing our defensive mining capacity to help secure our ports and maritime routes.

I turn next to the major land/air contribution on the Continent of Europe. BAOR’s manpower, which is above our Brussels Treaty commitment of 55,000 men, will return to that level, but we will retain in Germany our full present combat fighting strength of eight brigades and our responsibility for the forward defence of a vital 65 km of the central front.

We intend, however, to withdraw from Germany one divisional headquarters and other supporting staff, with a consequent reduction in the number of locally employed civilians, and this, together with other necessary economies, will enable us to move over the next five years towards a slightly smaller Regular Army of 135,000 trained men—7,000 fewer than at present, but partly balanced by the increase in the Territorial Army.

Suggestions have been made, I know, that we should go for a much greater reduction in our troops in Germany, but, quite apart from the fact that there is no one else to perform our task of defending 65 km of the central front, it would be much more expensive to bring the troops home, because we simply could not house or train them here without a massive new infrastructure programme. Only disbandment would relieve our budgetary pressures, and we cannot prudently cut our Army below a certain minimum level.

However, the small reduction in Regular Army manpower that I propose will help us to afford, as is our intention, the very wide range of re-equipment projects now envisaged for BAOR. The scale or timing of some of the projects will be modified, partly to restrain costs but mainly to provide for a further increase in war stocks and ammunition, to improve the combat endurance—the staying power—of 1st British Corps, which will be substantially enhanced. We plan, for instance, to increase further the buy of Milan anti-tank missiles.

The Challenger tank will equip four armoured regiments, new night sights for missile systems and tanks will be introduced, and improvements will be made both to the present Chieftains and, in due course, to Challenger. We will bring into service the 2nd Chinook helicopter squadron to enhance Army logistic support and mobility. We shall introduce the tracked version of the Rapier missile system and the TOW anti-tank missile launched from Lynx helicopters.

I am glad to announce that, subject to final negotiations, we should shortly be signing in Washington an agreement with the United States Government for the joint manufacture with the United States of the AV8II, the advanced Harrier. This has turned out to be an agile and effective aircraft, with a substantial weapon-carrying ability, and we plan to order 60 aircraft for close all. support. Within the total Anglo-American programme of some 400 aircraft, we are looking for a 40 per cent. share for British Aerospace and a 75 per cent. share for Rolls-Royce on the engine. There should be something like £1 billion work for British industry, the bulk of it for export to the United States.

I have decided that we cannot afford early replacement of the Jaguar, although possibilities remain open for new combat aircraft in the longer term, perhaps through international collaboration. On the other hand, we must exploit our investment in Tornado—some £10,000 million at current prices. We will continue with the JP233 system for neutralising enemy airfields, and we shall seek also to acquire new weapons to equip Tornado in an anti-armour role and for suppressing enemy air defences.

At sea, the Royal Navy will continue with the key task of providing a strategic nuclear force by the modernisation of the Polaris force with the Trident system. We have maintained one Polaris boat on station continuously for the past 12 years. One Trident submarine, invulnerable to any pre-emptive strike, will carry up to 128 independently-targeted warheads, which can hold at risk targets over a vast area of the Soviet Union. No enhancement of our conventional forces could possibly prove of equal deterrent value. In a world where nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented, it is the United Kingdom’s surest way of preserving peace.

However, we must also keep strong the three conventional elements of power at sea. In maritime air, in addition to present plans, we will fit a further three Nimrods, making 34 in all, to the full mark II equipment standard, which is as great a leap in technology over the mark I Nimrod as the mark I was over the Shackleton. Armed with the Sting Ray torpedo, the mark II will have great striking power against submarines. We will proceed with a new stand-off anti-ship missile to be delivered by Buccaneers—which we will keep on for this task—or by Tornado. Subject to the satisfactory completion of contract negotiations, we intend to acquire British Aerospace’s Sea Eagle anti-ship missile.

We shall increase our fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines, newly equipped with Sub-Harpoon, from the present 12 to 17. I have today confirmed the order with Vickers at Barrow of another submarine at a cost of £177 million. We shall also proceed as fast as possible with a new and more effective class to replace our present ageing diesel-powered submarines. These should also have a market overseas. We shall acquire a new heavyweight torpedo for all our boats, and are considering alternative British and American designs for this. Overall our maritime air and submarine capability will be much enhanced.

As regards surface ships, we shall go ahead with all the very large orders—20 new warships to a value, with their weapons, of about £2,000 million—already in hand in British shipyards, and shall be placing an order for a further type 22 anti-submarine frigate, at a cost of £125 million, which will sustain work at Yarrows on the Clyde. We are placing the order for five patrol craft with Hall Russell of Aberdeen for service in Hong Kong.

But I believe we must make changes here in a number of ways. First, if we want to build a reasonable number of new ships in the future, we must devise much cheaper and simpler designs than the type 22 frigate. We must accelerate urgently—and I have provided funds in the programme for this—a new type of anti-submarine frigate, the type 23, built with an eye to export as well as Royal Navy needs, for we have not sold a major British warship of Royal Navy design for over a decade. I intend to pursue as well the possibility of still more cost-effective, smaller ships than the type 23.

Secondly, we can maintain our surface fleet at its present full strength only through a continuous programme of refits and major mid-life modernisations of older ships, requiring a huge and costly dockyard infrastructure. Typically, it can now cost up to £70 million to modernise an old Leander frigate, which is actually more than our target cost for the new type 23 frigate.

If we are to be able to build new ships in our shipyards and fulfil other priority defence tasks, we simply cannot afford to sustain such a policy of refit and modernisation—or, for that matter, maritime air defence at the present level, where the planned forward investment in major equipment for the air defence of warships at sea has been about double that for the air defence of the United Kingdom itself.

It is for this reason that, while we shall complete the new carrier “Ark Royal”, we intend to keep in service in the longer term only two of the ships of this class, with their heavy demands on supporting anti-submarine and air defence escorts. The older carrier “Hermes” will be phased out as soon as the second of the new carriers is in operation.

Overall, we shall try to hold the destroyer and frigate force declared to NATO at around 50 ships compared with 59 ships at present. This will be achieved by disposing early of older and more manpower-intensive ships—for example, from the County, Rothesay and Leander classes—and timing their withdrawal so far as possible to avoid major refit or modernisation. We shall place some of these ships, without further modernisation, in the standby squadron, where they will still be available, though at longer notice, as part of our force declaration to NATO. There will be a consequential reduction of Royal Fleet auxiliaries.

On present estimates, the reduction in target numbers of the Royal Navy will be between 8,000 and 10,000 men by the end of 1986, rather more than the reductions of 7,000 in the Army. We shall maintain the three Royal Marine commandos, since we place great value on their unique capability, but we shall dispose of the two specialist amphibious ships rather earlier than planned.

In consultation with the United States Secretary for Defence about these changes, I have indicated our wish to play an enhanced role, alongside our allies, outside the boundaries of the NATO area. We envisage resuming the deployment of naval task groups—centred sometimes around a carrier, sometimes around destroyers or frigates—for substantial periods on visits and exercises out of area. We have made specific provision in our programme for the extra costs of such deployment. We are continuing with our plans designating an Army field command to plan out-of-area contingency tasks; for providing an extra stockpile of equipment and giving our Hercules aircraft the equipment needed for a co-ordinated assault by parachute troops.

As regards support, the change in policy on refits which I have described earlier will mean that we cannot justify keeping a dockyard organisation of its present size. I regret to inform the House that the base and dockyard in Chatham will have to close in 1984. Work at Portsmouth dockyard will contract very severely, though the naval base will be retained, and consideration will be given to alternative ways of fulfilling the Government’s obligation to support the economy of Gibraltar if it is decided that the dockyard work there cannot be kept up indefinitely. We shall consult closely the Gibraltar Government about how best to deal with the situation.

Much more naval training will take place at sea, and there will be a reduction in shore-based naval establishments, stores and fuel depots. Overall civilian numbers in the Ministry of Defence will fall by between 15,000 and 20,000 as a result of our measures. Our total work force will in due course be significantly below 200,000. Redundancies will, I am afraid, be inescapable.

I have described to the House the main thrust of what we propose and the substantial enhancement of our front-line capability in very many areas, but with a major reduction in the supporting infrastructure of defence.

I am asking my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to find time, as soon as possible, for a debate on all these issues. At that time I shall be able to explain more fully the background to my proposals.

In conclusion, the Government have, in accordance with their undertakings to the country, decided to provide the increased resources our defence demands by increasing spending by 3 per cent. in real terms for the next four years, and we have decided also to apply the extra funding in a revised programme which will enhance the combat endurance and the hitting power of our front-line Forces in the decade to come.

The response from the Labour benches, Mr Brynmor John, is equally interesting;

The Secretary of State made a statement which obviously has grave implications for the future defence of this country, and it is one that we shall want to study closely and to debate. His role has been that of a conjurer concealing by illusion what is really happening to the defence effort. His statement today has been altered from the worst case that was trailed in the Conservative newspapers over the last few weeks and he has tried to induce sighs of relief on the Conservative Benches. But I remind them that this is an illusion.

The right hon. Gentleman has told the truth to the House, but not the whole truth. For example, let me put to him the question of money, which enters crucially into the argument. The question of the funds available and what can we afford has been the subject of debate, yet the Secretary of State did not mention even one figure in his statement. How much will this exercise save compared with the Government’s published programme? How much will be saved next year and up to 1985? How much will be saved up to the end of the decade, when the Trident costs will start to bulge?

What percentage of GDP does the Secretary of State envisage for defence in all the programme years? He said that it might take a larger percentage of GDP, but, given that under the dead hand of the Tory Government GDP is not likely to rise in the immediate future, how much of it that is available will be taken up by defence?

My second point concerns the size of the Navy. The Secretary of State has announced what appears to be a reduction of nine ships, from 59 to 50, but he will know, as we all do, that the gross number of ships in the Navy is irrelevant. What is relevant is how many there will be in the front line and how many will be in reserve. Will he confirm or deny that all the 50 ships that he mentioned will be in the front line, or will some be put in mothballs, to be called up when necessary, and left to rot away quietly in some river, thus reducing our total front-line fleet to 30 surface ships, as has been mentioned in the press? Will the third through-deck cruiser be sold or scrapped?

How is it proposed to deal with the 8,000 to 10,000 naval redundancies and the 7,000 redundancies in the Army? Where are they coming from? Are they being made across the board? Does the right hon. Gentleman have any plans to get rid of the extraordinary number of senior naval officers who are still in the Admiralty, although the size of the fleet has shrunk by so much?

I turn to the job implications of the closure of Chatham dockyard. The area already has an unemployment rate of 14·3 per cent. If Chatham is closed, the rate will rise to 25 per cent., and with the indirect consequences it may go up to 33 per cent. At the same time we shall lose the greatest source of expertise inSSN—nuclear-powered submarine—refitting in the Navy. What does the right hon. Gentleman propose to do about that and about Portsmouth? Does he propose to launch any special schemes for redeployment? Will any alternative industry come in, or will Chatham and Portsmouth be cast aside as monuments to the Government’s monetarist folly?

What are the implications for British Shipbuilders? How many of the 20 ships that the right hon. Gentleman mentions on page 7 of his statement are already ordered and how many are new orders? If, as I suspect, there are no new orders for British Shipbuilders, what effect will that have on British Shipbuilders? Will it mean that its corporate plan has to be scrapped?

Is it not clear to even the most loyal, unthinking and compliant Government supporter that what we are hearing today is the first instalment that conventional defence has to pay because of the Trident missile system fitting into the defence review? This defence review has been shamelessly rigged, in that Trident’s efficacy has never been called into question. By lowering our conventional warfare capability, we are lowering the nuclear threshold. We are abandoning the NATO priority, which is for a strengthening of non-nuclear forces as opposed to nuclear. If the right hon. Gentleman will not cancel this nuclear folly, the next Labour Government will.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

PS, the bar has taken the final delivery of Gin and Tonic before my return.

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