HC Deb 29 April 1964 vol 694 cc551-60

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

10.13 p.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

Perhaps one of the most important announcements in the speech of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence in the House on 26th February was that relating to the supply of Phantom aircraft to replace Sea Vixens for the Fleet Air Arm. Hon. Members will recall that my right hon. Friend declared that he proposes to acquire a substantial number of Phantoms for this purpose, subject to their proper technical evaluation.

In this country we have a magnificent fund of aeronautical knowledge upon which to draw. We also have in some parts of the aircraft industry a shortage of orders. It is these two factors which have compelled me, coupled with the suspected size of the proposed order, to raise this matter on the Adjournment tonight.

My right hon. Friend's declaration was greeted with a certain amount of surprise, because only seven months before, on 30th July, when he was announcing the proposal to build a new Fleet aircraft carrier, he had said: I have also had under consideration an air craft replacement for the Sea Vixen. I am now able to announce that the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force have reached agreement on the characteristics of a common aircraft that will replace both the Sea Vixen and the Hunter. This aircraft, which will be capable of operation either from land or from carriers, will greatly increase the flexibility of our use of air power and provide the opportunity for economies in its disposition. The aircraft will be based on the Hawker P1154 and a detailed study is at the moment proceeding."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th July, 1963; Vol. 682, c. 237.] We now know that it was found impossible to evolve a common aircraft for both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force from the P1154, and presumably the decision which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence announced to buy foreign was based on one of two possible reasons. The first possible reason was the inability of our aircraft industry to produce the right type of aircraft and the second possible reason was the prohibitive cost of possibly producing only a limited number of this particular requirement.

The first of these two ideas I find impossible to accept, because I am quite certain that our own aircraft industry is capable of producing aircraft as good as any in the world, and that, given adequate warning of the operational requirements, it would have been able to produce an adequate Sea Vixen replacement.

As it happens, we have a magnificent example of what the civil side of our own aircraft industry can do in the first scheduled flight of the VC10 which took place today to Lagos in Nigeria. Perhaps I might mention, in passing, that this aircraft is by now in Lagos, having reached there at an average speed of over 600 m.p.h., with 150 passengers.

We all agree that the Fleet Air Arm must have the finest type of aircraft available—as good as or better than any which the crews are liable to meet in the skies. With that in mind, it is essential to agree on an early replacement for the Sea Vixen which are already becoming out-dated. There is almost certainly no time now to go through the lengthy process of producing a British replacement ready for service before the end of the decade, but what I should like to ask my hon. Friend is: why was not this lengthy process started years ago?

I remind my hon. Friend that in 1957, when the Estimates Committee reported on the supply of military aircraft, the Committee considered no fewer than 26 different research projects on aircraft which were in hand or had been in hand between 1945 and 1955. It seems extraordinary to me that out of those 26 aircraft on which the Committee reported not one proved to be an adequate successor to the Sea Vixen.

It might possibly be that we pinned a little too much faith on the dual rôle of the P1154, but I am convinced that a firm operational requirement given to our industry in the 1950s would have produced the right plane in a year or two's time. The operational requirement for the Phantom was given only in 1955 by the American Government to their industry, and their first prototype was flying in 1958.

The other possible reason for this decision to which I referred earlier is perhaps the prohibitive cost of producing a limited number of this aircraft with virtually little or no expectation of export orders. Obviously, this is a matter of great importance, and my right hon. Friend himself referred to this as being a limited buy for the Royal Navy only. The number required will be limited to that needed to equip three or four aircraft carriers until the 1980s. I do not know the exact number—perhaps 100 or 200. In view of the cost of producing, say, 150 aircraft of the equivalent of the Phantom, it is not a simple mathematical calculation of the actual purchase price required.

There is a great value to be placed on the way in which such an order placed in Britain enables the British aircraft industry to keep abreast of technical "know-how". It helps to provide jobs not only for the aircraft factories producing a specific plane, but also for the myriad of supporting industries which go to make the components. It also helps our industry to keep abreast of scientific and technological advances.

A few weeks ago Short's, of Belfast, announced a substantial reduction in its labour force to take place in the fairly near future. In my own constituency, at Bitteswell, where, for a number of years, the Argosy aeroplane has been being completed and assembled there are fears of great redundancy in a large labour force from 1965 onwards.

I therefore ask my hon. Friend what arrangements my right hon. Friend has made to effect compensatory sales for British aircraft and engines abroad to keep our own factories humming. If this order must be placed with the Americans—it appears to me to be very likely that this is the case—in what manner, to put it bluntly, are Her Majesty's Government attaching strings to the order?

We are all concerned with the "brain drain" from this country. It is precisely because decisions of this nature are taken that our scientists and technologists are encouraged to go abroad, perhaps to the United States, where opportunities are greater. The drain from the aircraft industry will become a flood if many months pass like the last month—March—which not only saw this large order for Phantom aircraft announced, but also saw an order for 90 Italian-built American helicopters to be bought for use by our Army.

I ask my hon. Friend whether it is such a good thing to put the British Spey engine into the Phantom. I know that it has been considered to be a step to improve the capabilities of this aircraft, but is there not a danger that adapting the aircraft to suit the Spey will result in delay in production of the aircraft and may result in a possible overpowering of the aircraft? Surely it would be better to order it complete with the two General Electric engines which are installed in the standard model now, and which have already enabled the plane to break a large number of world speed and performance records.

At the same time as ordering the plane equipped with its General Electric engines, we should make it quite clear that our order will be placed subject to a firm order by the United States for the equivalent in British aircraft and engines.

To sum up, I hope that the House will be given answers to three questions. First, what progress has been made in the evaluation and technological studies to which my right hon. Friend referred in February, when he announced the possible purchase of the Phantom? Secondly, why have we no suitable British aircraft to effect this replacement? Thirdly, may we be told what compensatory sales have been arranged, or it is hoped to arrange, before any firm order is placed?

10.26 p.m.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

I appreciate that time is short and I do not wish to ask the same questions as were posed by the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr). He asked a number of questions about the effects of this decision on the aircraft industry and the men employed in it, and he pointed out that it is bound to mean a loss of employment. We cannot assess this loss until we know the answers to one or two questions which I wish to ask.

How many aircraft will be purchased? We have tried to get this information from the Government on previous occasions but, until now, they have been rather cagey. The hon. Member for Harborough spoke in terms of 100 or 200 aircraft, although I recall that when the announcement was made reports appeared in the Press of there being between 40 and 50 aircraft. There is a wide discrepancy here and this demonstrates the variety of rumours that are going around. I see no reason why the numbers should not be divulged.

We know that the Phantom will be fitted with the Rolls-Royce Spey engine but we were told that negotiations would be begun to see whether we could make the airframes here under licence. What has been done about this, and has any progress been made? This is particularly important from the point of view of employment in the industry. Although the engine will be made here, if, in addition, the airframes could be manufactured under licence in this country the impact of this decision on the men who work in the industry will not be as serious as it might be.

10.28 p.m.

Commander Anthony Courtney (Harrow, East)

I will not delay the House for long. I wish to make only one point in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr), to whom we are all grateful for raising this important matter tonight.

Are we certain that this question of aircraft replacement for our Services is really in tune with the changing strategic situation? It seems that it is not and that it is time we changed our ideas drastically in this matter. The events in Libya, the Far East, South-East Arabia and the fact that our overflying rights are being affected each day—perhaps by Turkey, as a result of the Cyprus trouble, interfering with our overflying rights and with those of the Western allies—represent a deteriorating situation which can be met only by the provision of an alternative to land-based aircraft; namely, aircraft that use the aircraft carrier.

We have heard, and have read in the Estimates, of various types of aircraft—the P1127s, the P1154s, the TSR2s and others—and the House will know that not a single one of them, as far as I am aware, coming from British sources is being specifically designed with the requirement of landing on an aircraft carrier. We seem to have lost our sense of proportion in this respect. I hope, therefore, that we will be given an indication tonight that there is a change of thinking with regard to the replacement of aircraft for the three Services, in accordance with changing strategic requirements as history develops.

10.30 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aviation (Mr. Neil Marten)

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter, though I very much regret that I have only 10 or 12 minutes in which to do so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) traced the history of the case accurately. In essence, we found it technically impossible to design one aircraft to give operationally satisfactory results to both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Had we found such a compromise aircraft, the export prospects—and this is the point that my right hon. Friend made—would have been very slight indeed. But the version of the P1154 which will be coming into service with the Royal Air Force will, I hope, be most attractive to many foreign air forces having, of course, the same land base requirements as our own Royal Air Force.

My hon. Friend asked whether we could not build a Sea Vixen replacement ourselves. Of course, we could, but to develop a new British aircraft to meet the naval requirement would have been very expensive—certainly very much more expensive than buying an aircraft already developed—and any such new British aircraft would have taken longer to introduce. Though the experience of all aircraft producing nations shows that there are delays and cost increases in the introduction of almost any aircraft into the Services, the solution which we are considering will minimise those risks.

Commander Courtney

Is it not the fact that in 1957 there was a design study for a Sea Vixen to replace the P177? Why was that given up?

Mr. Marten

That was a very long time ago. We are now looking forward to the 'seventies, when such a study would not have been applicable.

The aircraft under consideration is the McDonnell Phantom. I would emphasise that this is still only a proposal, and is subject to our being satisfied both on the cost and on certain technical modifications. My hon. Friend asked for a report on these matters, and I can tell him that we have received preliminary cost estimates which show that adoption of this aircraft would be substantially cheaper than developing a new one of our own; but we still need firmer figures and further negotiations before reaching a final decision.

The technical modifications relate to the nose-wheel—to permit catapult-launching from British carriers—and to the aircraft's ailerons, so as to reduce the aircraft's landing speed by the small amount needed for operation on British carriers. We expect to receive answers to these problems by about mid-summer. I might say that we have also been working on the development of a new arrester gear, and expect that that gear will be available if and when Phantoms come into service.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) asked about numbers. I will not give him that information because, as he knows, to do so is contrary to public policy——

Captain John Litchfield (Chelsea)

Will they be based on one new carrier, two new carriers or three new carriers?

Mr. Marten

I think they are on three British aircraft carriers. My hon. and gallant Friend asks whether they would be new carriers or not, but that I cannot answer.

Naturally, we would regret making a foreign purchase—if, indeed, we do eventually decide to buy the Phantom. However, especially within the limitation of our financial difficulties, we cannot always expect to produce our own solution.

Concern was expressed by my hon. Friend and by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East about the employment situation. As the House knows, the British aircraft industry is currently engaged on very large defence contracts, and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Commander Courtney) mentioned some of them.

If we buy the Phantoms they will be engined with the Rolls-Royce Spey. My hon. Friend asked what strings were attached to the possible contract if it was finally signed, and that is one of the strings we attach. These engines will represent about one-third of the cost of the whole programme. My hon. Friend also asked whether it would be safe to put the Spey engine into the Phantom. The answer is that it would not be put in if it were not safe. They are certainly a better engine for us. They are faster and I believe that they are more suitable for the purpose for which we would require the planes, if indeed we have them.

We would, naturally, hope that there would be scope for other British components in the aircraft, and, obviously, we would do our best to ensure this. My right hon. Friend, when he was in America recently, took this up with the Americans and they, of course, are fully aware of our interest. I would not, however, wish to mislead the House into thinking that the Phantom project will inevitably carry with it component orders for the British industry. While possibilities exist we shall certainly press for them and will take them up, but we would be reluctant to have the additional delays which might be involved by modification of the aircraft.

My hon. Friend asked about reciprocity or compensatory sales. It would be unrealistic to insist on a directly-related American purchase of some British aircraft. But as my hon. Friend knows, we are big buyers of American equipment and we cannot go on indefinitely buying from America without obtaining compensatory orders from the Americans. My right hon. Friend made this point very clearly in his recent visit to Washington and I welcome the opportunity of this debate to make the point publicly now. We realise that the Americans have their own large industry, but we believe that our common policy of interdependence ought, in practice, to lead to a greater mutual adoption of each other's weapons.

As for import restrictions, I should mention that the restrictions on the purchase of foreign products currently operated by the United States Department of Defence could seriously affect our export trade. While not unsympathetic to the balance of payments difficulties confronting the Americans in 1960–61, which led to the imposition of the present restrictions, we hope that the United States will feel able now to relax them. Our views are well-known to the American Government and we hope that there will be an opportunity to raise the matter of the "Buy American" Act in the discussion on non-tariff barriers during the forthcoming Kennedy Round of G.A.T.T. negotiations.

I do not think that I need tell the House that we continue to make every effort to increase our aeronautical exports. I was glad to note that, in total, these exports increased last year. The 1962 total was £112.5 million and the 1963 figure was £117 million. In the context of the present debate it would be out of order to go into the civil aspects, but I am happy to say that our exports of military aircraft, which rose slightly between 1961 and 1962, more than trebled between 1962 and 1963.

Mr. Willis

Can the hon. Gentleman say whether, when his right hon. Friend was in America, he also pursued the question of building airframes under licence?

Mr. Marten

My right hon. Friend may have discussed it, but no conclusions were come to. I do not think that it is "on" for financial reasons. The cost would be very much greater if we were to do it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Eleven o'clock.