§ 6. Mr. Graham
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many mine-laying vessels are currently in service with the Royal Navy.
§ Mr. Ian Stewart
The Royal Navy has a large number of vessels which are currently capable of laying mines.
§ Mr. Graham
I understand that there is only one purpose-built mine layer in the British fleet. What is its age and when will it be replaced? It is incredible that we should enter into negotiations with our NATO partners on developing advanced mines when we do not even have any ships, except for that one, to lay them.
§ Mr. Stewart
On the hon. Gentleman's last point, advanced mines are a long-term project. On the immediate position, I believe that he must be referring to the minelayer HMS Abdiel, which is over 20 years old. We have not felt it necessary to have a specialist replacement ship for mine laying, because mines can be laid by a wide variety of vessels. They can be laid by submarines, offshore patrol vessels, Royal Maritime auxiliary vessels, Royal Fleet auxiliaries and aircraft. The task can be done by any suitably modified vessel at short notice. We do not regard it as cost-effective to have a specialist ship for that replacement.
§ Mr. Robert Banks
Can my hon. Friend say whether NATO has an agreed plan and strategy for the laying of mines and whether he has sufficient powers for the commandeering of merchant ships and other vessels and aircraft for that purpose, if the need were to arise?
§ Mr. Stewart
I can assure my hon. Friend that NATO has confidential plans for these matters and that arrangements for taking out ships from trade are also available. I hope that such contingency plans will never have to be put into practice.