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Lord Carrington – 1966 Debate on Defence Estimates By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Having been away at the CAS Air Power Conference when the death of Lord Carrington at the age of 99 was announced and with the expectation that much I my later output this week will be restricted to commenting on some very interesting company interim results, I thought that this morning I would take the opportunity of reminding some of Peter Carrington’s many qualities by recalling his part in one particularly fascinating House of Lords debate on Defence Estimates that took place in March 1966.

There is of course always much for all of us to learn by reminding ourselves of relatively recent history, albeit in this case 52 years ago, and also for those of us engaged in and around defence, of how government and opposition viewed defence back then. With defence seemingly moribund now until the full measure of Modernising Defence Programmes review is made known in November we are left with little choice but to play a waiting game and live in hope that the current impasse between MOD and Cabinet Office on future requirements will be resolved.

At the time this particular debate occurred on the 8th March 1966 and having soldiered on for almost two years with a House of Commons majority of just 4, then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson was just about to call a General Election. The result of the General Election held on 31st March would give Wilson a majority of around 96. Dennis (later Lord) Healey was then in his second of six year as Secretary of State for Defence.

A former First lord of the Admiralty under Harold Macmillan and later Secretary of State for Defence in the 1970 Heath administration, Lord Carrington would, under Margaret Thatcher, become the last Peer to hold the position of Foreign Secretary in the House of Lords. Following that position he became NATO Secretary General, a position he held for four years from 1984 to 1988.

At the time of this particular Defence Estimates debate in March 1966, Lord Carrington was Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords. At that time Lord Shackleton, a very worthy opponent for any member of HM Opposition and one of the most respected Labour members of the Government, was Minister of Defence for the RAF. Two years later he would become Leader of the House of Lords.

Due to the detail and length of the 1966 Defence estimates debate I include here only the part that Lord Carrington played. I do so in part as demonstration of why strong opposition to Government matters:

LORD CARRINGTON rose to move, as an Amendment to the Motion, to leave out all the words after “House” and to insert instead: “regrets that the Statement on the Defence Estimates 1966 shows that there has been no real attempt to match military resources to political commitments, and fears that the policy announced will lead to a growing gap between our commitments and our ability to meet them “.

“My Lords, I beg to move the Amendment which stands in my name on the Order Paper. The House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, for the way in which he introduced the debate, and for the care which he has taken, though I must say that I thought that towards the end the speech deteriorated a little and got a bit shrill. But I imagine that on April 1, as the noble Lord leaves the Ministry of Defence for the last time (a reference to Lord Shackleton) knowing the regard in which the Royal Air Force holds him, there will be some regret at the electorate’s decision that there should be an immediate” Shackleton replacement”. [Note: In the event Shackleton continued in MOD RAF role for another year]

“Of course this White Paper is wholly unacceptable to those who sit on these Benches. I shall try to explain why. But first perhaps it is worth pointing out that if an outside observer were to look at the statements on defence policy made by the Labour Party when in Opposition—and it is rather embarrassing, but you are going to hear it. If an outside observer were to look at the statements on defence policy made by the Labour Party when in Opposition, and compare them with those made now, in Government he—this outside observer—might be rather surprised. Our memories are not so short that we do not recollect the statements of the Prime Minister and other Ministers that a Labour Government would concentrate on our conventional forces; that the nuclear deterrent was wasteful and expensive; that the Nassau Agreement would be re-negotiated; that the Atlantic Nuclear Force was to be negotiated and set up within NATO; that our conventional forces would be greatly strengthened, and, in particular, that they were in favour of a larger Navy”.

“My Lords, none of these things has happened. We still retain our independent nuclear deterrent; the Government are proceeding with the construction of four Polaris submarines; the Nassau Agreement has not been re-negotiated. Not that I am criticising the Government in this: I am delighted that they have seen the powerful and overwhelming arguments which led Sir Alec Douglas-Home and the Conservative Party to initiate and maintain the nuclear policy which the Labour Party have so carefully and rightly followed. Perhaps we may at a later stage of this debate get a courteous acknowledgement of that from the Leader of the House. After all, they used to be very rude to Sir Alec Douglas-Home”.

“The Atlantic Nuclear Force (A.N.F.) has not emerged—not that anybody ever thought it would, as it was so transparently a device to appease the Left Wing of the Labour Party. I must say that I was astonished to hear the Prime Minister refer to it at Question Time the other day, and to see that it is mentioned again in the Labour Party Manifesto. I thought it was to be left to die decently, if un-mourned, alongside the other gimmicks which had outlived their usefulness. Our conventional forces have not increased. In fact the reverse has been the case; and certainly the Royal Navy has not grown in strength. I was re-reading the other day a speech made by the Prime Minister at Plymouth in September, 1964. He said: I wish that the world were such that I did not have to say this, but I believe we shall need an expanded naval shipbuilding programme. How are we going to pay for it? Out of the savings made through stopping the wasteful expenditure on the politically inspired nuclear programme. We know they did not do that. There has been no sign of an expanded naval programme; not one single ship has been laid down, or ordered, which was not in the programme left by the Conservative Party”.

“It was interesting to note in the Prime Minister’s speech what importance he attached to the aircraft carrier force. Quite a large part of it was devoted to criticisms that aircraft carriers had not been available when needed, and drawing the conclusion that the number we had were so few that it was taking dangerous risks with our defences. He ended by saying: I believe, and I state this with all the sincerity at my command, that I believe our reappraisal of defence policies, with our emphasis on the role of the Navy’s regular job, will provide better security, better assurances for the future than the vacillations of Tory defence policy. My Lords, I tremble to contemplate what will happen to the Services when the Prime Minister speaks on defence without all the sincerity at his command. The Army and the Royal Air Force must be keeping their fingers crossed that Aldershot and Bomber Command are not on the Prime Minister’s list of speaking engagements”.

“We have also seen drastic proposals to cut down our reserve forces and the Territorial Army, about which some of my noble friends will, I have no doubt, be speaking, and speaking with greater knowledge. For the same reason as the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, I cannot deal with everything, and there are other matters I want to talk about. All I will say is this: that I am glad, at any rate, that the pressure which we exerted in this House has to some extent modified the Government’s proposals—proposals which could in no sense be said to be in keeping with the promises of increased conventional forces made at the time of the last Election, which ignored home defence and were announced in complete isolation from the results of the Defence Review. Perhaps I should have added to my Amendment that it was a pity that no real attempt had been made to match military resources with political commitments and no attempt whatever to match performance to promises”.

“As soon as the Government were elected, they announced with a fanfare of trumpets that they intended to hold a comprehensive Defence Review. We are now debating the results of that Review. I have no quarrel with the need to have a Defence Review. Every new Minister and every new Government must necessarily undertake one. But what we do quarrel with are the terms under which that Review was undertaken. The Minister of Defence and the Government announced in advance of the Review that in 1970 we should be spending no more than the equivalent of £2,000 million at 1964 prices—in other words, an arbitrary ceiling, and not a target, as the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton rather disingenuously suggested in his speech; a ceiling on the amount of money which could be spent on defence. That sum was not related to our commitments or to the arms, the aircraft or the ships which it was necessary to have to discharge those commitments, or to the cost of the weapons. Of course money must be a vital consideration when a Defence Review is undertaken, and I shall have more to say on that later, but it must be wrong, if a genuine Review is intended, to set a ceiling which overrides all the other factors involved—national safety, national commitments and national honour.”

“I do not imagine that noble Lords opposite will agree with this quotation—I think single ship has been laid down, or ordered, which was not in the programme left by the Conservative Party”.

“It was interesting to note in the Prime Minister’s speech what importance he attached to the aircraft carrier force. Quite a large part of it was devoted to criticisms that aircraft carriers had not been available when needed, and drawing the conclusion that the number we had were so few that it was taking dangerous risks with our defences. He ended by saying: I believe, and I state this with all the sincerity at my command, that I believe our reappraisal of defence policies, with our emphasis on the role of the Navy’s regular job, will provide better security, better assurances for the future than the vacillations of Tory defence policy. My Lords, I tremble to contemplate what will happen to the Services when the Prime Minister speaks on defence without all the sincerity at his command. The Army and the Royal Air Force must be keeping their fingers crossed that Aldershot and Bomber Command are not on the Prime Minister’s list of speaking engagements”.

“We have also seen drastic proposals to cut down our reserve forces and the Territorial Army, about which some of my noble friends will, I have no doubt, be speaking, and speaking with greater knowledge. For the same reason as the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, I cannot deal with everything, and there are other matters I want to talk about. All that I will say is this: that I am glad, at any rate, that the pressure which we exerted in this House has to some extent modified the Government’s proposals—proposals which could in no sense be said to be in keeping with the promises of increased conventional forces made at the time of the last Election, which ignored home defence and were announced in complete isolation from the results of the Defence Review. Perhaps I should have added to my Amendment that it was a pity that no real attempt had been made to match military resources with political commitments and no attempt whatever to match performance to promises”.

“As soon as the Government were elected, they announced with a fanfare of trumpets that they intended to hold a comprehensive Defence Review. We are now debating the results of that Review. I have no quarrel with the need to have a Defence Review. Every new Minister and every new Government must necessarily undertake one. But what we do quarrel with are the terms under which that Review was undertaken. The Minister of Defence and the Government announced in advance of the Review that in 1970 we should be spending no more than the equivalent of £2,000 million at 1964 prices—in other words, an arbitrary ceiling, and not a target, as the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton rather disingenuously suggested in his speech; a ceiling on the amount of money which could be spent on defence. That sum was not related to our commitments or to the arms, the aircraft or the ships which it was necessary to have to discharge those commitments, or to the cost of the weapons. Of course money must be a vital consideration when a Defence Review is undertaken, and I shall have more to say on that later, but it must be wrong, if a genuine Review is intended, to set a ceiling which overrides all the other factors involved—national safety, national commitments and national honour”.

“My Lords that is quite a different thing from announcing in the Defence White Paper that you do not intend to have any military presence in Aden in 1968. With what relish must that decision have been received by President Nasser, bogged down, as he was, and is, with 60,000 or more troops in the Yemen! Already he is, as we have seen, claiming that our withdrawal from Aden is a direct result of his Yemen intervention. With what dismay and anger it must have been received by the Sheikhs and Rulers in the Persian Gulf, who rely for their protection on Britain and on Britain’s undertaking! And with what astonishment it must have been received by the Government of the South Arabian Federation, to whom an undertaking had been expressly given that, should they wish after independence to retain British protection we would be prepared to defend them—an undertaking of which it seems Mr. Healey was in total ignorance! All these, my Lords, are serious reasons. But I feel bound to say, and to say plainly, that to break an undertaking of this kind is something which no British Government should do, and no British Government should be allowed to get away with. By their decision to withdraw from Aden, it seems to me that they have not only reduced their capabilities but dishonoured their word. I do not, therefore, see that it is possible for the Government to say that they have greatly reduced their commitments”.

“The second big decision they have taken is not to continue the Fleet Air Arm carriers after the life of the carriers now afloat. This decision is justified in paragraph 4 on Page 10 of the White Paper, which says: Experience and study have shown that only one type of operation exists for which carriers and carrier-borne aircraft would be indispensable: that is the landing, or withdrawal, of troops against sophisticated opposition outside the range of land-based air cover “. Then the White Paper goes on to say that we could not do this alone in the 1970s”.

“Even if that were true—and I do not believe it is true—the certainty with which the Government assert that we shall not want to do this thing in the 1970s fills me with alarm. Britain, the White Paper says in another place, will not accept an obligation to provide another country with military assistance unless it is prepared to provide us with the facilities that we need. But might it not be in our vital interests to do just that? Might we not want to do it? Might it not be outside the power of the country asking us for our assistance to provide these facilities? In how many countries in South East Asia could we find the necessary facilities in which the F 111s could operate? How many countries have airfields with adequate runways, the necessary air-conditioned workshops for the maintenance of the highly sophisticated equipment of these aircraft? How many countries have the necessary storage space for the fuel and ammunition? Might not the request for help have come too late for such facilities as existed to be still in friendly hands? Those, surely, are a few of the questions which one can bring to mind. Maritime airpower is dependent on none of these things”.

“A statement such as that in the White Paper must greatly limit our capability of military intervention. One might really ask the Government at this point whether they have seriously considered the implication of those words upon the whole structure of the Royal Navy. If we do not intend to undertake operations of this sort, why do we continue with the commando ships, and why have we just commissioned an assault ship and are carrying on building another one, if the operations for which they were expressly designed are no longer to be undertaken? What are these ships for? Why do we continue with them’? Perhaps the noble Earl the Leader of the House, in his speech to-morrow evening, or the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, will give some answer to these puzzling questions”.

“I served for a good many years, one way and another, in Defence Departments, and if I learned only one thing it was this: it is a grave mistake to predict with too much certainty and assurance what is going to happen in ten years’ time, and dogmatically to lay down conditions which must be satisfied before Britain should intervene. Of course one must try to look into the future. Of course one must do one’s best to forecast what the world will be like and the sort of operations which are likely to take place. But, in the end—and this is really important—our forces must be organised and equipped in such a way that they are flexible and mobile enough to deal with the unexpected. To say in advance that you will do A, B and C and that in no circumstances will you do D, E and F is, in my view, asking for trouble. I remember that when we were discussing the earlier programme in the days of the Conservative Government we did an exercise on the number of incidents and alarms which had involved the Armed Forces since 1945. In very few of the forty or so incidents had anybody foreseen the likelihood or possibility of British intervention. In most of these cases with which I was associated, the very first question asked by the current Minister of Defence was, “Where are the aircraft carriers?”

“My Lords, I could give some examples. The noble Lord will know of the incidents which took place from 1951 to 1965—he mentioned some himself. In all those cases the aircraft carriers were in one way or another of vital importance to the task which we carried out. The Services were always having to meet the unexpected, and in order to ensure that they could continue to do so it was our intention and our purpose that they should be equipped so that they could be both mobile and flexible. There is no doubt that the decision to restrict any British intervention, unless supported by the Americans—which is really what the sentence means—to within the range of a land air base, greatly narrows the areas of the world, much more than the Government have admitted, in which Britain could usefully intervene and reduces the capability of our Armed Forces, except in certain fairly narrow areas”.

“No doubt anything I say about the carrier force will be looked upon as gravely suspect. But let me say this. When I became First Lord in 1959, I started with no particular prejudice in favour of aircraft carriers, and with no particular bias in favour of the Royal Navy as opposed to any other Service. But the longer I stayed at the Admiralty and the longer I studied the problems which faced us East of Suez, the more convinced I became that, if we were really serious in our stated intentions East of Suez, it would not be possible for us to discharge our commitments without maritime air power provided by the aircraft carrier. I do not know of anyone in the Royal Navy who would want to keep the Fleet Air Arm just for the sake of having a large and impressive Navy. Nobody wants to go to the admittedly big expense of a carrier force unless it is absolutely necessary. If the Government decided that they had no commitments East of Suez, and that a global war in which it was necessary to maintain our sea communications was out of the question, then there would be no case for an aircraft carrier. But this is not what the Government have decided. On the contrary, they have expressly acknowledged our commitments and declared their intention to remain a military power in South-East Asia”.

“I have said that I do not believe it possible to discharge these commitments without maritime air power. I am comforted to think that that view is shared not only by the Admiralty Board and its professional naval officers, but also by all the political heads of the Navy, whether Conservative or Labour. I hope noble Lords opposite will read Mr. Mayhew’s speech again, for he sets out very clearly and starkly the fundamental mistake the Government have made. In any intervention which takes place East of Suez it will always be necessary for the Royal Navy initially to convey the Army to the area of action and to maintain it with supplies. On the way there, and when it arrives, it will be necessary for the force to be protected with strike aircraft, fighter aircraft and reconnaissance aircraft. According to the White Paper, all this can be done by the Royal Air Force. I do not for one moment doubt that the Royal Air Force will do their very best, but I just do not believe that it is going to be possible. There is no suggestion in the White Paper that the strength of the Royal Air Force is to be increased. Indeed, the F 111s, so few in number, are going to be supplemented by V-bombers whose capabilities in the early 1970s must begin to be called into question later on by the Anglo-French Swing-wing aircraft”.

“Is it really practicable to think that, as well as doing the job which it does now, without any additional strength the Royal Air Force can take on the entire work of the Fleet Air Arm—strike, fighter, airborne, early warning and reconnaissance? If this is so, why not get rid of the carriers now? Why go on until the 1970s and spend perhaps £30 million on modernising the “Ark Royal”, and a great many millions more on refitting the other carriers to enable them to continue their job? What miracle is going to happen in 1975 which is suddenly going to render the Fleet Air Arm totally unnecessary? The conscious decision was taken after the war that for its strike capability the Royal Navy would rely upon the aircraft and not upon a surface-to-surface weapon. I do not believe it is realistic—and we did studies on this when I was at the Admiralty—to substitute for the striking power of the aircraft a comprehensive range of surface-to-surface missiles. Of course, it would be possible, given the money and the time, but it would entail an enormous amount of fundamental research and development, new ships would almost certainly have to be built, and the cost would be probably as much as a whole fleet of new carriers. In any event, the loss of flexibility would not make it worthwhile, since aircraft have certain very obvious advantages over the missile”.

“It follows from this—and the Government have confirmed it—that there is only a proposal to equip the Royal Navy with a small-range surface-to-surface weapon. This small weapon will be the only strike capability which the Royal Navy has under its control, other than the existing guns with their very limited range. Upon this they will have to rely to deal with such possible weapons as the Komar-class Russian ships—small, fast vessels which have a guided missile with a range of some seventeen miles—weapons which have been sold or given to a number of countries, some of them our potential enemies. I do not know how the Royal Navy will deal with this sort of situation, unless it has within its own control weapons which are capable of dealing with threats of that magnitude. Is it really feasible to imagine that in the middle of a limited war operation on land and sea land-based aircraft will be able to deal with the day-to-day, hour by hour, minute by minute requirements of the Fleet? I just do not believe it is possible. The Government, by their decision not to continue with the Fleet Air Arm, have in one blow removed the eyes of the Navy, removed all its teeth and cut off the hands which it uses for self-defence”.

“I beg the noble Lord’s pardon; I am so sorry. I was referring to not continuing with the fixed-wing element of the Fleet Air Arm. At the same time this decision has greatly lessened the chances of proper strike and fighter protection being given to the Army in circumstances which, in spite of what the Government say, may well arise in the future. We on these Benches have decided that we would go ahead with the construction of this cancelled aircraft carrier because we believe that in 1966 it is much too early to make these definite statements about what is to happen in 1975. We believe that not to continue now would be taking a risk which is quite unacceptable at this stage”.

“Already there have been criticisms that what the Conservatives propose will cost too much money. Mr. Callaghan, in a flight of fancy, talked about runaway prices. The prices have not been runaway. In 1956 we were spending 8.1 per cent of the gross national product on defence; in 1959 we were spending 7.1 per cent.; and in the last two years of Conservative Government we were spending 6.6 and 6.5 per cent. There is nothing runaway there. Indeed, it becomes ill for Mr. Healey to talk about 1s. 6d. on the income tax, when over the years of Conservative Government income tax and other taxes were greatly reduced, whilst in the 500 days of Labour Government and their five Budgets taxation has been greatly increased”.

“We believe that it is possible to finance our Defence programme at or about the current percentage of the gross national product, and we who sit on this side of the House maintain that it is in our national safety and in our national interests to do so, because our national interests are at stake. We do not see any reason why this expenditure should now present greater difficulty than it did in the past. Of course, all of us want to see greater prosperity at home. That is why all of us, regardless of Party, are in politics. We want to improve the standard of life of the people of this country, but those of us who sit on these Benches do not want to do it at the expense of national safety and our honour and our standing in the world”.

“My indictment of the Government is this. They have fixed an arbitrary ceiling of defence cost, unrelated to our defence and political commitments. They have not cut our commitments, but they have cut our military capability. They are pretending that we can discharge our obligations with this reduced military strength. This is a false prospectus. It is often said that at Election time the electorate is not interested in anything other than that which most nearly touches its personal welfare. I personally believe that there are very many people in this country who consider that our national safety and our national interests are of paramount importance. To-morrow your Lordships will be given an opportunity of giving them a lead. I hope you will condemn the Government’s Defence policy, and condemn it decisively. I beg to move my Amendment”.

If you got to the bottom of this, very well done and even if only in small part, I do hope that you both enjoyed it, found it interesting and indicative of what good opposition should be and also, learned something from this, particularly in references to Carrier and some of what is missing in our national stance on defence today. Normal service resumes tomorrow!

CHW (London – 30th July 2018)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon

hwheeldon@wheeldonstrategic.com

@AirSeaRescue

 

 

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