HC Deb 13 November 1967 vol 754 cc177-90

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Howie.]

10.29 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)

A number of my hon. Friends have been worried for some considerable time about the future striking power of the Royal Navy, and the recent sinking of the Israeli destroyer "Elath" has confirmed our worst fears. She was a modern destroyer, ex-Royal Navy and British-built, which, I gather, was sunk at a range of 14 miles and was unable to do anything about it. She took avoiding action, but was attacked by a homing missile which followed the ship and sank her with ease.

Way back on 15th May, 1963, the then Member for Harrow, East, Commander Courtney, initiated an Adjournment Debate on the same subject—the need for surface-to-surface weapons in the Royal Navy. He made the case that we should either have these weapons or a guarantee from the then Government that the aircraft carrier replacement programme would be put in hand.

The Government spokesman of the day was my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) who accepted this view. He said that it would be much better to have an aircraft carrier and fixed wing aircraft because the aircraft was more flexible, because of the world wide commitments of the Royal Navy, because an aircraft can identify the target, whereas a missile cannot, because aircraft can carry early warning sets and are better for long range defence of the Fleet and have a positive strike capacity.

Therefore, he felt at that time that it would be wiser to continue building aircraft carriers and fixed wing aircraft than to go in for a new generation of surface-to-surface missiles. We accepted that view in 1963, and just before the then Government left power they decided to put in hand a replacement programme for the aircraft carrier.

I now come to the position today. I shall quote many figures, some drawn from Ministerial Answers and statements, other from "Jane's Fighting Ships" and other technical publications available to any hon. Member. The difference is that the Government now state that the aircraft carrier is to be phased out in the mid-1970s, which means that in six or seven years' time we shall have not only no aircraft carrier and no strike aircraft, but no ship-borne early warning set such as is carried in the "Gannet".

There seem to be three alternatives, to which the Minister referred last week. First, there are shore-based aircraft. The range of available aircraft will be very short for maritime purposes. The availability of aircraft is very questionable. The training of the R.A.F. to do this kind of work, which has been done by the Fleet Air Arm for generations, will be difficult, and I believe that in the vast ocean areas such as the Indian Ocean shore-based aircraft cannot guarantee the security of the Fleet or of our maritime communications.

Second, the Minister said that we have weapons with surface-to-surface capability. He was referring, of course, to our surface-to-air weapons, such as Sea Slug, but I understand that its range is about 12½ miles. That will not help against even the Komar class FPB, whose missile has a range up to 20 miles. Sea Dart has an even shorter range, though I shall not quote the figure.

Incidentally, we seem to be incapable of putting these weapons in vessels of less than 5,000 to 6,000 tons, whereas the Russians manage to get very good ones into a hull of 75 tons, such as the one that sank the "Elath". The Russians have new G.M. destroyers of the same displacement as the "Devonshire", but twice the armament, anti-ship, anti-sub-marine and anti-air. Seacat is the third surface-to-air missile. It is a close-range weapon which is visually controlled and, therefore, relatively useless in the dark, and it cannot be used to counter subsonic or supersonic missiles.

Thirdly, the Minister said that we must depend on the helicopter. He said that very soon most ships of the Fleet, frigates and above, will carry the Wasp, but if this helicopter carries an anti-ship weapon she cannot also carry anti-submarine equipment which is her primary rôle. The anti-ship equipment is the A.S. 12 wire-guided missile. This means that the target must be seen, and so it will be little use at night or in bad visibility. I understand that the range is about 7,000 yards, which would make a helicopter a sitting target for any gun in the vicinity. The endurance of the helicopter cannot be much more than one hour. If that is the future weapon of the Royal Navy then there is a poor future for the Royal Navy.

We also have the Wessex, which is carried in larger ships. It has anti-sub-marine radar, but no early warning set. The detection range is therefore limited to about 20 miles. An Anglo-French helicopter is envisaged for the future. I understand that it will have an AS-cum-early warning set, but it will not be a proper early warning set as we have in the "Gannet" today. It will, we hope, be equipped with homing missiles. But are these even designed as yet, let alone in production? My suggestion is that no helicopter, even the new Anglo-French helicopter, available in 10 years' time, will be able to carry both an early warning set and missiles because the weight factor is too high.

The threat today comes particularly from Russian designed ships—the fast patrol boats such as the Komar, a class built in 1960, having two rocket launchers and a missile range of 20 miles; the Osa built two years later, with the same missiles and the same range and four radar-controlled guns, which would make the future of a helicopter in the vicinity dangerous. These F.P.Bs. are controlled by long range aircraft, and so the F.P.B. or the missile does not have to make any electronic transmissions. It is difficult to avoid them as they are fitted with a homing head. It was such a missile which sank the "Elath". The U.S.S.R. has 50 Komars and 50 Osas; Indonesia has 12 Komars; Communist China has three and five respectively; East Germany has six and six; the U.A.R. has eight and 10; Syria has six Komars; Cuba has 12 Komars; and Iraq and Algeria have been supplied with these vessels.

What is more important, the Russians have now developed new destroyers. Forty are equipped with guided missiles; in other words, surface to surface missiles. The new Kresta class has twin missile launchers with a missile range of up to 150 miles. They also carry the Harp helicopter, which we are told has an early warning set transmitting the picture to the destroyer, and it can make surface contact of about 100 miles. The weapon is a cruise missile, which I understand is just subsonic, with a range of about 150 miles, and it has a radar altimeter locking on to the surface of the sea, much as was intended with the TSR2, though the TSR2 locked to the surface of the land. So one could be attacked by a sonic missile coming in at 100 feet and with a homing head. What do we offer against this destroyer? We have the AS12 and the Wasp helicopter.

Another form of attack may be a mass attack by F.P.B.s controlled by long range aircraft at ranges of up to 20 miles. As a counter we have a carrier and the "Gannet" early warning. We should be happy enough today if we had more carriers, or a reasonable hope of having more. My fear is that in seven years' time there will be no carrier, no real early warning sets, and helicopters armed with wire guided missiles of 7,000 yards range against ships that are fast and have radar controlled guns, and are themselves controlled by long range aircraft. An alternative form of attack is from Komar destroyers carrying helicopters with early warning sets giving cover of about 100 miles, and with missiles with a range of 150 miles and attacking at 100 feet.

I have compressed this picture of the existing threat into as short a time as possible as I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Sir Ian Orr-Ewing) wishes to intervene and the Minister must have adequate time to reply. It is our contention on this side of the House that the Government must recognise that anti-ship weapons—surface-to-surface missiles—are too heavy to be carried in helicopters and must, therefore, be carried afloat. I do not believe—and quite a section of informed opinion in other countries does not believe—that one can carry on the same helicopter early warning sets, anti-ship missiles and anti-submarine missiles. We do not believe that it is possible. The Russians do not believe it. They put their early warning sets in helicopters and surface-to-surface missiles afloat, where they should be.

We believe that there is need for a surface-to-surface missile small enough to be carried in small hulls. The Minister knows the story of Sea Dart—it became too big and heavy to sell abroad. But the Russians can do this. Why cannot we? We led the world in light coastal forces during the war. Now we only have four fast patrol boats left in the Navy. This is something which needs looking into.

We realise how difficult it is to develop these weapons quickly and how expensive they are. We believe, therefore, that there is need to keep carriers going for another generation. We accept the Minister's estimate that the C.V.A.O. I would have cost £70 million and was, therefore, too expensive. But we believe that we could have smaller carriers—not perhaps smaller in actual size but less sophisticated—which we have called Healey carriers operating vertical takeoff aircraft, "Healey's carrying harriers". Such vessels could cost say £15 million to £20 million each. We could have three for the price of the C.V.A.O. The control and guidance equipment could be carried in a smaller and less vulnerable frigate which could operate two or three carriers.

Has the hon. Gentleman read the Naval Review? He should subscribe to it. If he does not, I can let him have a copy. The October issue contains a plan for a Healey carrier, but calls it a "Woolworth carrier". We prefer to call it a Healey carrier and we believe that we need six such vessels.

I believe that there is serious danger to the Navy and the country—not so much now, but when the carrier is phased out in seven years time—and it is because of this that I have raised the subject tonight.

10.41 p.m.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing (Hendon, North)

I rise for only four or five minutes, as I know the Minister wants 15, to lend Front Bench support to my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) on this most important topic. We recognise on this side that Russia is increasingly supplying other nations with ships which have considerable surface-to-surface missile capability.

When the Government decided to cancel the 53,000 ton carrier, they recognised that there would be a need to furnish the Navy with some surface-to-surface missile capability. From all we know, this is not, however, being pressed with the sense of urgency it demands and the recent sinking of the "Elath" highlights the reasons for our anxiety. We feel that our potential enemies are not being deceived and it is wrong if we deceive ourselves and try to deceive the electorate on an issue of this seriousness.

The Government's basic fallacy is in trying to accommodate both the long-range early warning radar and a heavy weight missile in a helicopter. There is no helicopter in sight which could carry missiles of sufficient weight to sink an attacking ship. A helicopter is a desperately vulnerable target also. Not a sitting, but a hovering duck. The helicopter would be extremely vulnerable to radar guided guns or even the more unsophisticated anti-aircraft gun or missile.

The Russians have separated these functions. They have put the early warning radar in the air, getting extra range, and the missiles in ships. In the Komar class, their missile system weighs about 5,000 lbs.; in the more sophisticated Kresta class the weight is about 6,500 lbs. Such missiles could not be carried in helicopters foreseeable in the near future.

The Minister will no doubt reply by pointing out that there are the electronic counter measures, but this type of warfare is very sophisticated and depends on having the latest equipment on both sides and not being deceived. It would be entirely wrong to rely on the E.C.M. to get us out of this difficulty.

I add my voice to that of my hon. Friend and say that surely now we should look at a utility carrier, something which will be much less costly and less big than the C.V.A.O.I. and which might cost £15 million to £20 million. It would be furnished with Harriers or perhaps, in the foreseeable future, a better aircraft. I am sorry that the Government cancelled the P1154, which would have been a far more effective aircraft. Let us do what we originally decided to do—have an effective aircraft and carrier and then we can really counter the danger of the missiles. This combination can carry a man closer to his target and the closer one can carry a man to his target the better value one gets for money and the more effective one's overall system.

Man's brains and eyes can recognise a target, they can distinguish the importance and the threat of the target, whereas a missile is less effective in both these tasks. A man cannot be deceived so easily by counter measures as a missile can. Therefore, let us get back, let us re-examine this and see whether we could not have the utility carriers on the lines suggested.

10.45 p.m.

The Minister of Defence for Equipment (Mr. Roy Mason)

I should congratulate the hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) for his persistence in this matter. Especially on this occasion, he is fortunate in managing to get the Adjournment on what is really becoming a very special subject in his mind, and in the mind of the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Sir Ian Orr-Ewing). I know that he has taken a great interest in this in recent years, particularly this provision of surface-to-surface weapons in the Royal Navy.

I fully understand his interest in the subject, but I should have thought that enough material has been published on it to give him all the information he could reasonably want. There have been successive Defence White Papers—much fuller under this Administration than under the previous Administration. There have been full replies in debates on Defence and on the Service Estimates. There have been many Answers to Parliamentary Questions. That it not all.

I can recommend both hon. Members, if they have not already done so, to read the papers being produced by the Institute of Strategic Studies in the series "Defence Technology and the Western Alliance." These are extremely interesting and useful papers, giving the full background, economic and technological, to the defence equipment programmes of all the Western European countries.

Paper No. 5, "The Requirements of Military Technology in the 1970s", by Mr. Kenneth Hunt, includes a section on naval missiles which I recommend to them both. There was an extremely good article in The Guardian at the end of last month, which put well into perspective some of the things that were said when I last answered a Question from the hon. Member on this subject.

Nevertheless, I accept this is a big and complex issue. Basically, it is that of whether, when the strike carriers phase out, it is better to provide surface attack from a helicopter or from a fixed mounting in a ship. I therefore welcome the opportunity of going into it in as much detail as time permits.

To deal with the run-down of the carrier force. The background to our plans for the equipment of the Navy in the 1970s is the decision to run down the carrier force. There are two points which I should like to emphasise. One is concerned with timing. To hear hon. Gentlemen opposite one would think that the last carrier was paying off tomorrow. They are talking about whether the Royal Navy could protect itself against Komar patrol boats, and it is not well received by an extremely thriving Fleet Air Arm which will be with us until the mid-1970s.

This is the time-scale against which we must get our new equipment flowing to the extent that we need to cover some of the capability which we shall lose when the last naval strike aircraft goes out of service. To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, this is how he tried to present the argument. As to capability, I should like to establish quite clearly what we are not aiming to do.

We are not adopting the policy of the last Administration, which could only have produced one of two results, one of which would have been a vastly increased expenditure to maintain an effective carrier force. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the figure of £60m. to £70m. per carrier. The other result would be a demonstrably ineffective carrier force during the late 1970s, phasing out finally around 1980.

What was really the policy of the last Administration? In their 1962 White Paper, paragraph 27, they seemed to be thinking, not of Fleet strike carriers, but of "floating airfields" with a range of aircraft common to the R.N. and the R.A.F. In July of this year we learned: Certainly, in my day, none of us thought that to build another generation of capital ships in terms of carriers would be justified."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 25th July 1967, Vol. 285, c. 738.] That was an ex-Minister of Defence, Viscount Watkinson, speaking in the other place in July this year.

What were those "common" aircraft? The TSR2? The Buccaneer? How about the P1154, which the hon. Member mentioned? The previous Administration cancelled the naval version before they left office.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing

The Phantom is a good aircraft, used by both Services.

Mr. Mason

To what extent did the previous Administration take the decision on the Phantom at that time in 1963?

Let us look at paragraph 38 of the 1964 White Paper, which was the Conservative Government's last presentation, which made it abundantly clear that the concept was not one of "floating airfields" but of aircraft carriers for the Fleet. The carrier force will continue to form the backbone of the Navy throughout the 1970s was what the party opposite said. No reference was made then to the Royal Air Force or "common aircraft".

What sort of "backbone" did we, in fact, find when we took office? A firm programme, well under way, to build at least four new carriers? Quite the contrary—a plan to build only one new carrier—in other words, a refusal to face the basic fact that, if one really wants an effective and worthwhile carrier force, one must go ahead with a well-timed, very substantial and very costly shipbuilding and aircraft replacement programme.

We said last year in the Defence Review White Paper that we believe that the tasks for which carrier-borne aircraft might be required in the later 1970s can be more cheaply performed in other ways". In particular, we said that in the future, aircraft operating from land bases should take over the strike/reconnaissance functions of the carrier on the reduced scale of operations which we envisage and that our commitments will require after the mid-1970s. We re-emphasised this point in this year's Supplementary Statement on Defence Policy: After the last carriers go", we said, the Royal Navy, like the Army, will rely on the Royal Air Force land-based aircraft to support it". Therefore, we are not planning, and do not think that it would be right to plan, to replace the carrier's strike capability as we know it today. Our long-range strike capability, after the carriers have phased out, will reside in the R.A.F., and what we have to decide—it is one of the most important considerations affecting the shape of the future Fleet—is what sort of ship/strike capability we should provide against that background.

On naval missiles, again I must start with a distinction which is so obvious that it tends to get overlooked. We do not propose to go back to 16-in. guns, so our ship/strike may be provided either by missiles launched from on—or, rather, above—the surface and guided initially by radar, or missiles launched below the surface and guided initially by sonar—with built-in terminal guidance in each case for a final run-in.

One of the most promising lines is the under-water launched missile, especially now that we are building up a really formidable force of nuclear submarines which will provide the main striking power of the future Fleet. For these we are already developing extremely advanced torpedoes, and the hon. Member will be glad to know that we have studies in hand to see what measures might be taken to give them even greater weapon effectiveness in the longer term. However, his main interest has been in missiles launched on or above the surface, and that is the subject he wants me to deal with in detail tonight.

I am sorry about all this rather tedious spelling out of rather obvious considerations, but it has been necessary to give the proper background. Really, we want to talk about the light surface attack requirement, or the light tactical strike capability, mainly directed against small ship targets and notably against missile-firing fast patrol boats. Since last year we have been examining—and this is what the Defence Review White Paper said—the development of a small surface-to-surface guided weapon for use against missile-firing ships.

However, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Royal Navy said in the Navy Estimates debate in March, we have ranged more widely in our search for a solution, from ship-launched missiles with a capability comparable to that of the Norwegian Penguin missile, through surface-to-surface guided weapons of greater ranges, to surface attack missiles launched from helicopters or even from V.T.O.L. aircraft.

In deciding which to go for, we had, of course, to consider not only the capability provided, but also the relative cost —and that includes not merely the cost of producing and developing the missile, though that can be a very large item indeed, but also the cost of the vehicle that must carry it, and so the effect of the whole weapon system on the shape and size and cost of the ships needed to deploy it.

These studies pointed strongly in the direction of an air-launched weapon which could give much greater flexibility than a weapon fired from a ship itself, and which could be combined with an appropriate reconnaissance capability. There were then two broad alternatives before us. One was to deploy this surface attack/reconnaissance capability in a naval version of the Harrier; but this would have cost us an enormous sum of money for an effective force of aircraft with their missiles and backing, and it would have needed ships very much larger than the largest we are now planning to build.

The other alternative was to take advantage of the fact that all our ships of frigate size or larger would carry helicopters for anti-submarine work, and these aircraft could be given a dual capability. Bearing in mind our reduced commitments east of Suez in the later 1970s, the long-range strike capability of the Royal Air Force, and the ship/strike capability of the Fleet submarines, we decided that for light strike we should go for the capability which we could deploy in a much larger number of ships. That is to say, an air-to-surface missile to be mounted on helicopters.

Let me make absolutely clear that this capability is in no way inferior to a system of comparable size mounted in a ship. Quite the reverse. Mounting it in a helicopter gives added flexibility and range. Let me also spell out quite clearly that, for this particular capability, we are now talking in terms of a helicopter-borne attack system and that, in the light of our thinking, the concept of a surface-to-surface attack system, in the sense of a system mounted in a ship, has been superseded: I want to underline this.

As I explained the other day, the helicopter will be equipped with an AS12 missile. This packs a punch comparable with a 6-inch shell and will have a range giving an adequate stand-off capability against lightly defended targets, such as fast patrol boats, in service today. It will come progressively into service within the next 18 months—

Mr. Wall


Mr. Mason

I will give the range in a moment.

Hon. Members will realise that this is well before the carriers phase out, but we fully recognise the need to go ahead as fast as possible in the face of the threat which already exists from, for example, the missile-firing fast patrol boats.

In the meantime, work is going ahead to examine both more advanced weapon options, giving a greater "stand off" capability to protect the helicopter against longer range anti-aircraft fire, and also more advanced helicopters with better payloads and endurance. We shall have made up our minds on the options presented in good time to have the weapons and helicopters selected in service before the carriers phase out.

The story would not be complete, however, without some mention of the anti-missile capability which we plan to give the Fleet in the 1970s. Seacat and Seaslug already have a useful capability against the cruise-type missiles fired by Russian fast patrol boats and destroyers, and their successors will be fitted in the new classes of frigates and destroyers announced in the Supplementary Statement on Defence last year and will prove even more effective.

Time is getting short, and before I finish, I want to cover the point about the "Elath" and the AS12.

The AS12 outranges the fast patrol boat defence. The fast patrol boat's offensive missile is large, slow and vulnerable to the frigate's defensive armament. Therefore, the fast patrol boat needs to watch out for the frigate, even more than the frigate for the patrol boat; and even if the fast patrol boat gets off its shot before it is attacked, the frigate has a much better than even chance of shooting the missile down. The ranges of both the defence and attack systems are as follows. The AS12's maximum firing range is 7,500 yards, whereas, in the fast patrol boats, the cannon defence range is only 3,500 yards. The fast patrol boat's missile—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Eleven o'clock.