HC Deb 22 March 1967 vol 743 cc1669-81

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

12.29 a.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

In the small hours of Tuesday morning, my hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Stonehouse) made an important speech, which started at about 3.40, on the future of the British aircraft industry. That speech ought to be studied and read by all of us who are interested in these matters. I thank my hon. Friend, in view of the many problems which he has on his hands, for being here for this debate. It would also not be out of order, perhaps, to wish him well in all his present negotiations on the matter of the "airbus". We hope that these come to a satisfactory conclusion.

I say that partly because, although we are dealing with the technical details of variable geometry aircraft, this affects the whole future of the British aircraft industry, and I should like to ask him if he is sure that the proposition which is often stated that the British aircraft industry depends on sophisticated military orders is the whole truth.

Yesterday morning, thanks to the hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett), a number of my colleagues and I had the good fortune to visit the Comprehensive Designers' International at Southall. We saw a set-up there whereby a computer in Marietta, Georgia, can operate for the benefit of designers in Southall between one and 7.30 in the morning, American time. In that kind of situation, technological progress may overtake many of the discussions which we have been having about the future of the British aircraft industry, and these are matters which should be taken into account.

Before I come to particulars, there is one other question which is rather confusing, and that is the matter of the German visit in relation to the AFVG aircraft. I would refer my hon. Friend to a Question which I put to the Secretary of State for Defence on 1st March, when I said: Can the Minister say anything about the visit of General Steinhoff and his German colleagues to negotiate about this? Back came the reply: I am not aware of any such visit."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st March, 1967; Vol. 742, c. 479.] Last Monday, The Times carried the following: General Johannes Steinhoff, chief of the West German Air Force, will be in Britain for three days from tomorrow. Anglo-American competition for re-equipping the German Air Force makes his visit of special interest. General Steinhoff will visit aviation concerns, including Rolls-Royce and Bristol-Siddeley, and will be shown the variable geometry (swing-wing) aircraft. It is hoped here that the British Jaguar, which is a tactical aircraft and advanced trainer for the early 1970s, could replace the German G 91. The swine-wing aircraft is a possible successor for the F104 G Starfighter. What worries many hon. Members is the question of the political control of the Ministry of Defence. I am willing to believe that there is some explanation for this, but it seems to some of us that the sale to the West Germans of extremely sophisticated nuclear strike aircraft, which is what they are, like several other current planes, is a matter of major consequence. In this debate, I am not passing judgment on whether such negotiations are right. I say merely that their importance can hardly be disputed.

The purpose of this Adjournment debate is to discuss some of the technical aspects of the Anglo-French variable geometry aircraft. I do not propose, therefore, to repeat the concern about the wide issues of foreign affairs, defence, and strategic commitment in relation to the AFVG which I displayed during the Air Estimates debate on 14th March. Rather, my task this morning is to enlarge on some detailed points made in the debate, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) had neither the time nor, I suspect, the Departmental authority to reply. That is no reflection upon him.

However, there is one general point which I wish to make, and it is that many hon. Members are conditioned by their own past experiences. I am conditioned by my own, having sat every Tuesday and Thursday for three years on the Public Accounts Committee. Any man who has had that experience is by nature sensitive to the dramatic escalation in aircraft and weapons costs. If I cannot bring myself to believe the Departmental estimates, it is partly because of memories of Seaslug, Thunderbird, Blue Steel, Blue Streak, Skybolt and the TSR2. Nor can more recent experience of Concord provide much comfort, since costs have rocketed by a factor of three from an original estimate of between £150 million and £170 million to over £450 million and probably more.

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Hastings) can deploy the figures for the TSR2. In December, 1959, the cost of TSR2 was estimated to be between £80 million and £90 million. By March, 1962, it had risen to £137 million. By January, 1963, the estimates had been revised to between £175 million and £200 million. With the extension of the time scale for introduction into service, by January, 1964, the costs had risen to between £240 million and £260 million. What is now known about forward cost- ing which was not known during the early sixties at the time of TSR2?

However, there are reasons other than past experience for being sceptical about an estimate of £200 million for research and development on the AFVG. We are dealing with experiment and unknown factors where there may be a simple expense curve but where, equally, the expense curve can easily show a sharp incline due to the introduction of unexpected problems. For example, I understand that probably the AFVG will depend to a marked degree on the success of current titanium research. Is my hon. Friend aware of the difficulty and, therefore, the expense in which Lockheed found itself involved in problems of titanium extrusion for its A11 high altitude aircraft? Will Britain profit by Lockheed's experience? If so, what do we pay for that experience? If not, what is the estimate of the costs of titanium research and the setting up of the necessary giant presses? In this field of activity, if it is to be good, research needs to go deep. One is continually finding new problems.

Again, the Secretary of State has claimed that we are "streets ahead" of the Americans in variable geometry techniques. That is a statement that has not yet been substantiated, and I should be grateful for any evidence that that is so. I should like to be clear that the £200 million R & D costs include the extensive and expensive wind tunnel facilities used for demonstrating the feasibility of aircraft substantially lighter than the F111 using variable geometry techniques. Can my hon. Friend confirm or deny that?

Then there is the whole question of the time-cost relationship. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of all American achievement in this field of activity is the remarkably short time that they have taken from concept to drawing board, to roll-off, to service use. If I understand it correctly, in the case of the F111 it is probably about 2½ years, as it is for the C5a, the great military transport aircraft. But, even if all goes to plan, the AFVG will not be ready until seven years from now. Perhaps five years, at any rate, is a comparable figure with the Americans' 2½ years.

Yesterday, I asked my hon. Friend what estimate he has made of the number of months between the start of drawing board work on the AFVG aircraft and the coming of the first AFVG into Royal Air Force service. His answer was: Until we have completed the project definition study it is not possible to estimate precisely how long development will take. But the present intention is that the aircraft should enter service with the R.A.F. in the mid-seventies."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st March, 1967; Vol. 743, c. 226.] That answer, by implication, casts the gravest doubt on any cost estimate figure. How can an R & D cost estimate be given if the project definition study has not been completed? I repeat the question about how many prototypes are to be set up. Are we saying that we need less than the 15 models which the Americans needed to the test the F111?

My hon. Friend assures me that extensive wind tunnel research is being done on weight problems. Are we quite certain that these weight problems have been overcome, and what importance does he attach to comparable American experience?

May I give another example of one of the many problems? I understand that flying at from 200 ft. to 600 ft. at supersonic speeds—and even at high subsonic speeds—the bomb bays will heat up to the order of 250°F. That is the technical opinion I have. At this temperature, conventional explosives become unstable and melt, and if the plane jerks they may well explode. Are the Government working on research into an insulated bomb casing and, if so, at what cost? I give this as an example of one of the very many problems involved. Has it or has it not been taken into account?

Outside the Government service nobody to whom I have talked on these matters can really bring themselves to believe that on a production of 300 we can get a unit cost of £1.5 million. What is being done to ensure a smooth production run?

There is also the question of modifications if we are to export this aircraft. I understood in November that there was a datum design. We know from previous experience that modifications are extremely sophisticated and awkward, and therefore expensive. What is the result of negotiations with the Dutch and the Germans on this matter?

What are the exact terms of the break clause, and what do the French Press mean when they talk about the financial barrier being "broken this November"? Any information my hon. Friend can give on the exact terms of the contract would be extremely welcome.

I turn to the question of quantity, in the light of yesterday's news that we are to go ahead with the purchase of 40 extra F111s—a subject on which I shall not now comment; nor do I make any innuendo in saying that. Why, in terms of quantity, should we require both the AFVG and the F111 if one assumes that by the mid-'seventies we shall not be committed to a world rôle?

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South is extremely concerned about the welfare of the Royal Air Force, and I am concerned about the pilots of the aircraft—I really am. Flying this kind of aircraft involves a totally different order of risk from that involved in flying a Canberra or a V-bomber. The tragic crashes at Edwards Air Force base bear testimony to the hazards to test pilots, let alone trainees.

In these circumstances, neither my hon. Friend nor I would wish to commit the men of the Royal Air Force to such aircraft without all the latest equipment. That is common ground between us. This may mean neither more nor less than research on and production of malfunction equipment and recording system equipment for light aircraft. Has any calculation been made of the costs involved? My information is that Lockheed and other firms have found this extremely expensive. I should also like to know about the cost of training pilots when using terrain-following equipment—again an extremely difficult matter. And could we be told anything about initial payments as between Britain and France?

I should like to know what arrangements have been made for the future costing of our commitments. Yesterday, in a Parliamentary Question, I asked the Prime Minister: … if he will instruct the Secretary of State for Defence and the Minister of Technology to set out in the OFFICIAL REPORT a table showing the total liabilities which it is at present estimated will be incurred in 1968, 1969 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, and 1977, respectively, on the development and purchase of military aircraft at home and abroad." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st March, 1967; Vol. 743, c. 240.] Whatever may be one's views on the matter, and they are very wide across the House, the Government should set out absolutely clearly what the present estimates are in relation to this highly expensive equipment.

Time is running out, and I end by quoting the Prime Minister, quoting the Financial Times with approval, when he said that we should leave to others … the fatuous search for national prestige through the belated and the technologically inferior production of weapons that belong in the arsenals of powers richer than ourselves. If I seem to be persistent and obstinate on this issue, it is because I believe that in this matter, although technologically the Government have done many extremely good things—I am a great supporter of the Ministry of Technology—we are set on a course which is catastrophic for this party, catastrophic for this Government and for ensuing Governments of whatever party, and catastrophic for Great Britain.

12.45 p.m.

Mr. Stephen Hastings (Mid-Bedfordshire)

I have no wish to cut into the time available to the Minister for his reply, but only desire to put two questions to him. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) on bringing up this important subject this morning, on his grasp of it, and on the detailed way in which he has put his questions.

These are my questions. First, on the question of General Steinhoff's visit, which is a most important development, is he here to negotiate for the re-equipment of the German Air Force, or is it a question of participation in this project? Details would be very welcome to this side. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman said that this aircraft appears to be scheduled to come into service in the mid-'seventies. Will this be in time for it to compete if compete it has to, with the American AFX project? Is it not possible that the AFVG could be produced earlier if we were prepared to push on with that project a little faster than now appears to be envisaged?

12.47 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Technology (Mr. John Stonehouse)

I am grateful, as I am sure the House is, to my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) for initiating this debate. It is an extremely important subject, not only because of the great amount of money at stake but because our defence requirements need us to have sophisticated aircraft of this type. It is better, if we can, to provide this from our resources rather than be dependent on supplies from the United States.

I am glad that my hon. Friend did not develop his thoughts on the operational requirement aspect, as this is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force. We must accept that when the Royal Air Force has this requirement, which must be met, we must do our best within the Ministry of Technology to meet that requirement from our own resources.

We have acknowledged that we cannot develop advanced aircraft of this character merely to meet the requirements of the Royal Air Force. We have, therefore, entered into discussions with the French with a view to fulfilling their needs as well as ours from a joint development programme. We decided that we could not afford to go on with the development of an aircraft like the TSR2, so, in May, 1965, we signed the first Understanding with France. Since then, we have been engaged in extensive operational, technical and financial discussions with our French partners in furtherance of the project.

It is not, of course, easy to engage in these advanced technological developments as between two powerful nations. Each has its own ideas, and these must be reconciled. In this particular case, the French, as is well known, want the aircraft as an interceptor, while we want it for strike. We also have to decide exactly how the work shall be shared out as between the chosen aircraft contractors, that is to say, the British Aircraft Corporation and Avions Marcel Dassault, and the engine manufacturers, Bristol Siddeley and S.N.E.C.M.A.

On all these complicated matters we have made considerable progress. British and French officials, as well as the contractors, are working well together on the project. There are certainly important technical difficulties still to overcome. and the precise way in which we shall meet the different operational requirements of the two countries will be examined further at a meeting between us and the French at Ministerial level next month.

We then hope to embark on the precise project definition study by 1st May. This should last for six months and at the end of this time we ought to have a precise specification of the aircraft, including engines and equipment, which is to be built and a full development cost plan against which technical and financial progress can be monitored. We ought then to be able to proceed to the building of prototypes at the beginning of 1968, so that the aircraft can enter into service with the R.A.F. in the mid-70s.

My hon. Friend asked a number of questions about the estimated cost of developing and producing this aircraft. We and the manufacturers have, of course, already done a number of detailed studies on this aspect of the problem. Indeed, it is fair to say that the cost estimating which has already gone into this project has been more detailed than that devoted to any other British or Anglo/French at this stage of its life.

My hon. Friend also raised a number of technical questions and asked for a breakdown into constituent parts. This we have done for the AFVG in great detail, we have a wide range of experience in this field, including developing and manufacturing supersonic military combat aircraft—notably the Lightning and the TSR2. In many areas of work such as the numbers of designers and technicians required and in manufacturing effort such as the man hours per aircraft weight and the rates of flying at which this development can be conducted, good relationships have been developed. We believe that much more reliance can be placed on the efforts required than previously in the construction of similar aircraft.

On the production side, similar progress has been made. Similarly, on the engine costs, we have related the cost of the AFVG to high performance aircraft engine cost such as the Spey and Olympus. The cost takes account of different equipment such as that for reconnaissance and strike versions. If these techniques had been available at the time when plans for the TSR2 and Con- cord were made they might have resulted in estimates which were very much closer and more in line with an appreciation of the costs.

We have improved our control of this sort of development, and we have a project director. He has a branch in which is centralised the technical and financial responsibility for estimating and control of the project. Moreover, the AFVG has been going through a prolonged feasibility study phase because of the need to reach detailed agreement with our French partners and different United Kingdom and French requirements. This feasibility study has been done in much more technical detail than would have been the case with a normal United Kingdom project.

We know that it is not until a project is more closely defined that we can get a true estimation of other development or production costs, but we have the experience of the degradations in drag and weight growth which have usually occurred during earlier definition studies. When we have completed the definition study stage during this year we shall be able to give more precise figures as to the actual costs. We shall have up-to-date costs as to estimates and take into account the final specification of the aircraft including its engines and equipment.

If the sort of aircraft we have defined cannot be bought within the target we have in mind, which is a realistic target meeting our requirements within a certain cost figure, we shall certainly have to review our decision. My hon. Friend and the House would generally agree that this is a sensible course to adopt but we have not yet reached that stage and we are doing a great deal of work to ensure that when we make a decision on the next stage we shall have all the available information to make a sensible decision.

My hon. Friend asked about the export potential, especially in relation to the Germans. We are hoping slightly to "bend" the design of aircraft to meet the requirements of customers. We are taking all possible steps to inform prospective customers of our plans and what we can offer them. For example, an important presentation was made to the Dutch last month and the Germans were very interested indeed in our proposals.

I am glad that General Steinhoff, the Chief of Air Staff of the German Air Force, is visiting B.A.C., Warton, and Rolls-Royce this week in connection not only with this project, but also with the Jaguar. The House may be assured that we shall continue with the French to press forward with the idea of aligning Germany with the project. The object of the visit is fact-finding. We are anxious to provide information to General Steinhoff and any proposals he can make will be considered. The time scale is very important if we are to have a chance of capitalising on the export potential. I hope very much that we shall be able to complete the aircraft on the time scale laid down. This gives a very good chance indeed to compete against other aircraft which may be produced in the United States.

The next question that my hon. Friend asked was about the break clause—and allied with this the development by Marcel Dassault of the Mirage 3G. There is, of course, a break clause in all our agreements with the French on these aeronautical projects except the Concord. And I think that the House would have it so. In the case of the VG project, either side can withdraw without notice up to 1st June, 1967. Thereafter, withdrawal becomes effective after 14 months of the date of having given first notice of the intention to withdraw.

The provisions are part of the understanding which was reached by my right hon. Friends with the French in May, 1965. Because, however, the VG project has been slower to get under way than we first anticipated we and the French are now discussing putting back the date of 1st June, 1967, up to which time, as I have explained, either side can withdraw without notice.

The fact that Marcel Dassault are building a prototype VG aircraft—the Mirage 3G—seems to me to have nothing to do with these withdrawal provisions. The 3G is a single-engined VG aircraft—and because it is single engined it is not favoured by either the French or the British staff. It does, however, provide valuable experience and M. Messmer has already stated that this will be put freely at the disposal of both sides.

My hon. Friend referred to various projects of development of a sophisticated aircraft of the character of the AFVG. I can assure him that there is immense experience both within B.A.C. itself and within the Ministry for the development of a swing-wing plane of this character. I am sure that it is well within the capability of the British aircraft industry and our engine firms to produce an aircraft to the specification that is required by the Royal Air Force.

Mr. Dalyell

Do I understand that it is the hope of the Government that no firm decision will be arrived at until such time as the project definition study has been completed even though that may be later in the year?

Mr. Stonehouse

We are proceeding to the projects definition study provided that we have the assurance I have described.

The debate having been concluded, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER suspended the sitting till half-past Two o'clock, pursuant to Order.

Sitting resumed at 2.30 p.m.