HC Deb 13 December 1965 vol 722 cc912-7
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Denis Healey)

On 6th April I informed the House that Her Majesty's Government had no intention of requiring our forces to forgo the aircraft then planned to replace the Canberra towards the end of this decade without making quite certain that they could carry out their operational tasks by other means. I also said that it would not be possible to define these tasks precisely until the Defence Review was completed.

Her Majesty's Government secured from the United States Government an option on the F.111A aircraft under an arrangement which did not require the option to be exercised until the end of this year. The arrangements made also provided that any initial order would be a very small one and that further orders would not be required until April 1967. As I indicated at the time, we wanted to be sure that we would not need to place even an initial order until we had completed the main work on our Defence Review.

I believe that it would be a mistake to take a decision on the Canberra replacement separately from other major decisions on the future structure of our forces. In any case the House will wish to consider the implications of the Report of the Committee under Lord Plowden, which is to be published this week, before final decisions on the aircraft programme are taken. I have therefore asked Mr. McNamara to postpone the initial F.111A option for two months until 1st March, and I am glad to say that he has agreed to this request. I believe that this change will meet the convenience of the House.

Mr. Powell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Government have been wise to comply with the advice tendered in the Motion placed on the Order Paper last week? May I ask him if the terms of his statement indicate that by 1st March there will be a comprehensive statement by the Government on the defence commitments which they accept and the forces which they consider to be appropriate for fulfilling them?

Mr. Healey

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, but I must tell him that I initiated action on the postponement of the option ten days before the Motion to which he refers appeared on the Order Paper.

On his second question, we shall put the most comprehensive statement possible of our future defence policy and the forces structure to support it in next year's Defence White Paper.

Mr. Edelman

Could my right hon. Friend give the House a little more information? When he talks about the F.111A, is he talking about the F.111A Mk. II, and is it not true that the cost of the F.111A Mk. II, which has electronic equipment, is now rising rapidly towards the same price as was quoted last April for the TSR.2?

Mr. Healey

The latter part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question is inaccurate and irrelevant, since it is now unlikely that we shall need to buy any F.111A Mk. II aircraft. The addition of a computer which the Americans are incorporating themselves to the basic F.111A will give us the performance that we need.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

On 6th April, the right hon. Gentleman was categoric about the necessity for the F.111A Mark II. He now says that it is no longer necessary. Will he make the position more explicit than it appears from his statement?

Mr. Healey

I have explained many times, both in April and since, that there is no such things as an F.111A Mark II. There are varieties of avionic equipment which the Americans themselves are considering putting into the same airframe so that the aircraft can perform different rôles. The particular F.111A aircraft which we propose to buy goes by the industrial name of the "min-min-mod version" and incorporates a new computer which the Americans themselves are using in the aircraft they intend to buy.

Mr. Lubbock

The right hon. Gentleman said that there would be the fullest possible statement of the Government's defence policy in the Defence White Paper next year. Does this mean that the Defence Review which we have been discussing for so many months will not be published as a separate document, but will be part of the Defence White Paper itself? Secondly, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, before a decision is made on a choice between the F.111A and the Spey/Mirage, he will publish a White Paper setting out the relative costs of these two aircraft, the amount of British production that will be incorporated in each, and, as far as security will allow, a comparison of their performances?

Mr. Healey

On the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, perhaps I might tell him that later today my right hon. Friend the Minister of Aviation will give a good deal of information on the comparison between the Spey/Mirage and other potential Canberra replacements. On the first part of the question, I have made it clear for many months past that the Defence Review conclusions will be published in next year's Defence White Paper.

Mr. Amery

The right hon. Gentleman says that the min-min-mod version will give us the performance that we need. Can he say whether this is the same as that of the TSR.2 replacement, or whether it involves a down-grading?

Mr. Healey

This does not involve any substantial down-grading of the TSR/'s performance, though I must make it clear that in many respects the F.111A is superior to the TSR.2, particularly in radius of action and flexibility.

Mr. R. Carr

The right hon. Gentleman used the words "propose to buy". Was this a Freudian lapse indicating that in fact he had already made up his mind?

Mr. Healey

No, Sir.

Mr. Bishop

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will give some satisfaction to many right hon. and hon. Members on this side of the House who, a week ago, requested such an assurance? Will he assure the House in the meantime that he will take all possible steps to seek an alternative to the F.111A if such is necessary?

Mr. Healey

Yes, Sir. I should make it clear that no Minister of Defence in this country would wish to buy a foreign aircraft if there was a British or part-British aircraft which could perform the task, but I hope that there will be agreement among the majority of Members on both sides of the House that the major responsibility of Her Majesty's Government in this field is to meet the operational requirements of the Royal Air Force.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing

Is the right hon. Gentleman having some difficulty in negotiating a firm price which fixes the price not only for the aircraft, but of the spares and support costs? If he is, would it not have been wise to have left the TSR.2 in being, and the jigs and tools in being, so that he could have negotiated from strength, and not from weakness?

Mr. Healey

I think that the hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong. We negotiated a firm price before we decided to discontinue production of the TSR.2.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing

Including spares?

Mr. Healey

Yes. We have reached agreement on the cost of spares under which we shall receive them at the same price as the American Air Force receives its spares for the same aircraft. Furthermore, I am glad to be able to inform the hon. Gentleman that there has been no increase, as stated in one newspaper today, in the expected cost of spares and support costs for the F.111A.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Will my right hon. Friend say to what extent the Minister for Disarmament has been consulted in this matter?

Mr. Healey

My noble Friend the Minister for Disarmament and I pursue a steady course in the same direction at all times.

Mr. Powell

Does the operational requirement of the Royal Air Force to which the right hon. Gentleman referred include a nuclear weapon carrying capacity?

Mr. Healey

I have made it clear many times that our purpose is to find a successor to the Canberra as a strike-reconnaissance aircraft for carrying conventional weapons. It would not be necessary to buy such a sophisticated nay-attack system as we propose to get in the F.111A or any other potential aircraft that we are considering for this rôle if it were required only to drop nuclear weapons.

Mr. James Johnson

Does my right hon. Friend accept the view that the British Buccaneer Mark II is the finest aircraft of its kind in the world? It is subsonic, but has he considered making it supersonic by installing Spey engines similar to those in the Phantom?

Mr. Healey

I think that the Buccaneer Mk. II is the finest aircraft of its type in the world, and this is one of the aircraft, or a development of it, which is under consideration as a Canberra replacement.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that sufficient trials are being carried out with the Mirage IV, and if not, will he have this done in the intervening period? Would not it be a good thing to have the two months' delay stretched to three months so that we can get the General Election out of the way?

Mr. Healey

I shall not comment on the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question. The Spey/ Mirage does not exist. The Mirage aircraft is a high-level nuclear bombing plane. What we want is a low-level conventional support aircraft, and there is no means of finding out what a Spey/ Mirage aircraft would look like, or what it would cost, or what its performance would be, in under a period of some years, but in so far as it is possible to make assessments of these various parameters, my right hon. Friend will discuss the problem this evening.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. We shall be debating some of this later in the day.