HC Deb 01 February 1965 vol 705 cc723-7

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

57. Mr. W. T. WELLS

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the grounding of the Valiant force.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Denis Healey)

I should first explain that I had intended to make a statement to the House about the disbandment of the Valiant force on Monday of last week. The sad circumstances in which we met on that day rendered this impossible. I was, therefore, compelled to make the news public through the medium of a Press release. I now welcome this opportunity of reporting directly to the House.

In August last year a fault was found in the wing structure of a Valiant. Investigations were immediately set in hand and, as a precautionary measure, some stringent restrictions on flying were imposed. By early December the widespread and serious nature of the problem had become so clear that the aircraft were grounded except in case of operational emergency.

It is now confirmed that the fault was due to metal fatigue and that this fatigue has appeared throughout the whole Valiant fleet. The only safe way of remedying the damage would involve replacement of spars in each aircraft which would be a long and costly process.

The Valiant, which has been in squadron service for about nine years, was the first of the V bombers to be developed. The average hours flown by Valiant airframes over that period are about 2,500. Existing plans envisaged that all Valiants in their various rôles would have been phased out of service in the next four years. The photo-reconnaisance version is to be replaced by Victors this year; and the tanker version by Victors over the next 18 months.

The Government have, therefore, decided that they would not be justified in spending the large sums of money involved in the major repair programme, taking into account the very limited useful operational life which could subsequently be got out of the aircraft.

The loss of the Valiant underlines the need for the earliest possible introduction of the Victor tanker. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Aviation has had urgent consultations with the firm, and hopes that it will be possible to get some tankers earlier this year than was planned. Meanwhile, the deployment of our fighters is being adjusted so as still to permit overseas reinforcement in the intervening months.

There are two points about this fatigue failure which should be stressed. First, it occurred throughout the Valiant force and was not in any way connected with low-level flying. Secondly, the Vulcans and Victors are not affected in any way. They are of later design and different construction, and they have been given far more thorough tests in the light of the greatly increased knowledge we now have of fatigue problems.

Plans for their future use take full account of the stresses of low-level operation, and there is no reason whatever to doubt that they will complete their full operational life. Nor are they affected by the temporary loss of a tanker capability, since air-refuelling does not feature at all in plans for their operation.

Some of the Valiants are assigned to S.A.C.E.U.R in a tactical rôle and S.A.C.E.U.R. and the North Atlantic Council have been informed of our decision. But the British strategic force, which is entirely composed of Vulcans and Victors, is unaffected. This country makes a contribution to the strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance in the shape of the V-bomber force assigned S.A.C.E.U.R.. This contribution to N.A.T.O. remains unchanged by the decision about the Valiant tactical bombers. Our proposals for a strategic contribution to an Atlantic Nuclear Force are also unaffected.

Mr. Thorneycroft

I thank the Minister for that statement and fully appreciate the reason why it was postponed from last time.

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm what a magnificent job these Valiant bombers, which were designed, and in part constructed, under the last Labour Government—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—have done? We appreciate that the announcement he has just made in no way affects the validity of our V-bomber force, whose strength has recently been increased by the addition of new weapons.

Mr. Healey

The Valiant bombers came into operational service in 1955—that is to say, the last four years of their development was during the period of the Conservative Administration—and the fatigue tests that were carried out on the Valiant bombers were carried out during the period of office of the last Administration as the right hon. Gentleman will agree.

I have already said that the strategic aircraft of the Royal Air Force are not affected by the withdrawal of the Valiant bombers, but in view of what the right hon. Gentleman said I must point out that it was originally intended that the Valiant bomber force should be phased out in 1965—this year—and be replaced by an aircraft like the TSR2.

The last Government took the decision to continue operating the Valiant force for another four years after its planned fatigue life was complete because the previous Government failed to provide a substitute in time to meet the needs of the Royal Air Force, or at a cost that the nation could afford. This, I think, helps to explain the view expressed today by the Air Correspondent of the Daily Telegraph that, owing to the previous Government's failure, At the moment all the R.A.F.'s front-line aircraft except V-bombers and Lightning fighters, are obsolete, even judged by a second class nation's view of military power. I can assure the House that the present Government are determined to correct those deficiencies.

Mr. Stratton Mills

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for the Secretary of State to base his argument on a newspaper correspondent's view?

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman estimates the value of the material he incorporates in his reply.

Mr. Thorneycroft

Without accepting for one moment the attempts to decry the validity of the Royal Air Force machines—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—may we say to the right hon. Gentleman that we are grateful to him for these powerful arguments for the rapid introduction of the TSR2?

Mr. Healey

I would be only too happy if it were possible rapidly to introduce the TSR2 at a cost the nation could afford. I regret to say that the last Government's plans for this particular aircraft have made it absolutely impossible to expect its introduction in under three years.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

Would the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the orders we placed in June of last year mean that the aircraft in the Valiant tanker force will be replaced by larger numbers of Victor tankers?

Mr. Healey

The right hon. Gentleman will recall, if he can think back five months, that it has never been the custom of Her Majesty's Government to give details of numbers, but I can assure him that it is planned that the Victor tanker force shall be adequate for all conceivable defence needs.

Mr. Shinwell

Can my right hon. Friend tell the House what expenditure was entailed in care and maintenance of Valiant bombers through failure by the last Government to detect the fault earlier?

Mr. Healey

I think that the total research development and production cost of the Valiant tanker force was £67 million. This was for the total force as originally planned. Details of the expenditure on maintenance over the last four years are contained in an Answer to a Question which my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) has already put down.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Is the Minister aware that his earlier statement will do little to encourage the V-bomber crews now based in Malaysia facing Indonesia? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] That is a fact. Will he confirm that there will be full operational employment for the crews of the Valiant bombers now grounded?

Mr. Healey

On the first question, I specifically said that the operational capabilities of our Vulcan and Victor V-bombers were not affected in any way.

So far as the Valiant bombers are concerned, no one is more bitterly conscious of the deficiencies than the crews of those aircraft, but I am glad to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that they will be absorbed on flying duties on other aircraft of the Royal Air Force.