HC Deb 18 January 1967 vol 739 cc404-8
10. Mr. Goodhew

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he has now reached agreement with the French Government on the joint production of a variable geometry strike aircraft.

23. Mr. Marten

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement about the Anglo-French swing-wing aircraft.

28. Mr. Wingfield Digby

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he will now make a further statement about the future of the Anglo-French swing-wing aircraft.

50. Mr. Wall

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the future of the Anglo-French variable-geometry aircraft.

Mr. Healey

When my hon. Friend the Minister of Aviation and I met M. Messmer the French Minister for the Armed Forces on 16th January, we agreed that the Anglo-French variable geometry project should go ahead. We decided to meet again in March to complete agreement on the technical specification and to take the further decisions required to implement the programme.

Mr. Goodhew

Can the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that this new aircraft will satisfy the needs of the Royal Air Force with its range, speed, weapon load and contour hugging? Can he say whether there is a break clause in this agreement?

Mr. Healey

The Air Staff is fully satisfied with the performance characteristics as so far defined for the aircraft, although we shall be consulting potential purchasers over the next few weeks to see whether any adjustments to these specifications are likely to attract a larger market. There is a break clause in the agreement because both the French Government and ourselves believe that it would be a great mistake to commit ourselves to a programme of this size without any right to review it at any stage later on.

Mr. Marten

Is the Royal Air Force getting these planes earlier than originally expected? If so, what is the cost of that early delivery? What is the cost of each plane calculated to be, and does that calculation include an allowance for escalation of costs?

Mr. Healey

The R.A.F. is planning to take delivery of these aircraft under this programme in 1974 or thereabouts, the time always envisaged over the last two years, although the French Government will be taking delivery of its version of the aircraft a little later than it originally intended. I do not think that I can give the House the current estimates of unit costs for the aircraft, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the French Government and ourselves have probed the cost estimates more carefully than the cost estimates of any previous aircraft project have been probed at this stage of development, and we have added a margin for contingency.

Mr. Digby

Will the right hon. Gentleman in due course give the House full details of what has been agreed—if not now, then by March? Will he say what order will be placed by the British Government and to what cancellations of other types of aircraft it is likely to lead?

Mr. Healey

I will, of course, follow the practice established by the present Government of giving far more details of cost and numbers of aircraft than were ever given in the past, and I will communicate such details as I feel to be appropriate to the House from time to time.

Mr. Wall

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider giving a clear definition of the capabilities of this aircraft? Is it not a fact that we expect to use it as a strike aircraft and that the French intend to use it as a fighter aircraft? Is it not supposed to do rather too much? How much will be allotted in the way of finance in the coming financial year?

Mr. Healey

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the great advantage of variable geometry is that great flexibility of rôle is conferred on the aircraft. The House must recognise, as I have said on many occasions, that the old idea that an aircraft can be built for a single role is now completely out of date. We require the aircraft primarily in the strike role, although we shall also use it for reconnaissance and to some extent for interception. The French require it primarily for interception, but at this stage we have succeeded in reconciling our requirements so far as is necessary. I cannot without notice give details of cost in the coming year, but it will be very small because we do not expect to authorise production of the prototype until the year is at an end.

Mr. Rankin

Will the methods employed in building this aircraft be modelled on those employed in building Concord?

Mr. Healey

I am not quite sure of the implications of that question, but what I can tell my hon. Friend is that we shall use the most up-to-date methods with the best chance of producing the aircraft as fast as possible at the minimum cost.

Mr. Powell

Is there to be a joint statement from the two Governments upon what has been agreed? What is the division of cost between the two countries in respect of research and development?

Mr. Healey

A joint statement was issued by the two Governments on Monday afternoon and was published in yesterday's Press. Agreement was reached on Monday and the communiqué was published. Development costs will be shared equally between the two countries, and it is expected that the two countries will take roughly the same number of aircraft and production costs will be shared in proportion to the number ordered by each country.

Mr. Robert Howarth

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is widespread satisfaction at the announcement of this agreement? Is he aware that the absence of congratulations from hon. Members opposite is rather significant? Will he ensure that this project, which is so important to the British and French aircraft industries, is pursued with the utmost vigour?

Mr. Healey

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I do not want to make any party points on this matter. I hope that both sides of the House will agree that this agreement lays the basis for the long-term future of the British and the French aircraft industries in cooperation with one another. I hope that, whatever disagreements we might have had about this matter in the past, we can now agree that the industry has a stable programme of military aircraft carrying it through the 'seventies and that both the industry and the Government have an equal responsibility from this stage on to see that nothing occurs which brings new instability to the programme.

Mr. R. Carr

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House something about the arrangements for the avionic equipment for the A.F.V.G.? Which country is to take the lead on that? Secondly, as we understand that the helicopter agreement is tied up with the A.F.V.G. agreement, can he say anything about the effects of that on the British helicopter industry, and, in particular, can he assure the House that quick administrative decisions will be taken about the British helicopter WG13?

Mr. Healey

The details of the requirements for the avionics of the aircraft have not yet been finalised between the two Governments, but we have agreed on the very important general principle that both research and development and production work should balance out across the programme as a whole. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the helicopter package is in no way dependent on the first. The helicopter package stands on its own feet as an agreement for the joint production of three aircraft which both countries need, balanced in such a way as to ensure that they both get a fair share of the development and production work in relation to their orders.