HC Deb 19 March 1969 vol 780 cc631-88

Question again proposed.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

This rivalry continued through all the vicissitudes of the bombers versus battleship controversy and so on. In 1937 Mr. Neville Chamberlain, the then Prime Minister, announced the Inskip Award which created the Fleet Air Arm.

Mr. Speaker

With respect, I hope that the hon. and gallant Gentleman will come to the Estimates.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

I was explaining the very important point of the relationship between the two Forces which are the most important part of the Estimates.

In the new situation which we now face in 1969, co-operation between the two Services is even more urgently needed. I do not want to rake over the embers of any old controversies, but urge that the Navy and Royal Air Force shall once and for all bury the hatchet in the predicament they face under these Estimates. In using the term "bury the hatchet" I do not wish to imply that there has been serious bad blood between the two Services. At working level, cooperation has almost always been excellent, and I confess an enormous admiration for what the Royal Air Force has done and for what it is today.

It is very apparent that the most serious differences of opinion between the two Services are liable to arise in Whitehall. It is understandable that officers who reach the top of the tree in their own Service should find it necessary to fight tooth and nail for the very survival of the Service to which they have belonged all their Service lives when it seems to them that it may be in peril. The more cuts are applied, as is happening in these Estimates, the more true this becomes.

Tragically, the result has been, and must always be, that the disunited Services will be seen off by the "Abominable No-men" in the Treasury. Fortunately, we have today both a Chief of the Air Staff and a First Sea Lord who are big enough men to see the need for real co-operation and, I am sure, to act upon it.

It is arguable that the nuclear deterrent should be provided on a completely separate Vote both for manpower and finance, that could be part of the central Defence Estimates and not a millstone around the neck of whichever Service is responsible at the time for providing it.

It is no good jobbing backwards. Now that we have come to this watershed in our history there are three essentials for the Services in the light of the current vast Soviet maritime expansion. The first is that the Royal Air Force must take really seriously its new responsibility for flying from ships, Second, the Navy must accept the new state of affairs. It must not lament the demise of the Fleet Air Arm, and it must work with the Royal Air Force to produce really effective air support and air defence both for the Fleet and—I emphasise this to the Minister—our seaborne trade world-wide. Third, both Services must co-operate urgently to produce the technical infrastructure which this new relationship will require, particularly as regards what ships are to be built, what technical manpower is to be trained for servicing our Royal Air Force aircraft at sea, and so on.

The Royal Navy understands the threat from the sea because trade protection has always been its foremost task. Fortunately, there are signs that the R.A.F. understands this too. I was delighted to see the following passage in an article by the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Coastal Command, in an excellent R.A.F. publication called The New Dawn. He said on page 13: Two main factors … have now emerged. These are firstly the missile firing submarines … and secondly the nuclear deterrent stalemate, with the consequent increased likelihood of limited wars. It is also of note that the influential Air League has emphasised the importance of maritime air, including the use of aircraft carriers.

But nothing the Services can do by cooperating together can be of any avail unless the Secretary of State will also cooperate and provide the men, money, ships and aircraft. At this point, the spotlight focuses directly on him—and incidentally he is not here. We see him ruddy and chubby, blinking at the light, but not showing much sign that he understands the magnitude of the new task he has given to the R.A.F. This year's White Paper on Defence devotes only one paragraph in its policy chapter to the threat at sea. The realities are very different. I shall not, however, weary the House with a tabulated list of the huge threats, which other hon. Members have mentioned.

It is not good enough for the Secretary of State to give the R.A.F. this great additional responsibility and not provide enough aircraft for the purpose, nor the men to man them, nor the flat-topped ships for them to fly from. The vast and vitally important maritime task which the right hon. Gentleman has given the R.A.F., and which it will wish to carry out efficiently and effectively, simply cannot be reconciled with his boast that he hopes to reduce expenditure on defence to 5 per cent. of the gross national product by 1972.

The right hon. Gentleman is trying to deceive the House, the country and the officers and men of the R.A.F. This is why we condemn him and his policies.

One of two things must be true. Either he does not realise the facts, in which case he should resign; or else he does realise the facts but cannot carry his point in Cabinet, in which case all the more so he should resign. I therefore end up with a call for his resignation.

10.8 p.m.

Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

I want to concentrate on what I believe to be the purpose of the debate—the question of the financial control exercised over this part of our defence expenditure. The difficulty about discussing the strictly financial aspect of this Vote is that we are discussing only estimates, do not know how the appropriations will eventually work out and have no immediate comparison, since we have no detailed appropriations even for 1968–69. I hope, therefore, that I shall not be ruled out of order if I look at some figures going back just three financial years. The point I wish to make is that there does not seem to have been in the past very tight estimating or very tight control over the enormous sums of money which the House has provided on the Vote.

In 1965–66, the Air Estimates were under-spent by £28 million—an error of 4½ per cent. In 1966–67 the under-spending was £26 million, which was an error of 5 per cent. We did somewhat better in 1967–68, with an error of £10 million, or only 2 per cent., which was not too bad.

Hon. Members may ask, "Why are you worried about under-spending? If there was a large over-spending of what had been authorised you might get worried, but why worry if the expenditure has fallen somewhat short of what was originally forecast?". The reason why I am worried is that these figures seem to show that the original forecasts were not intelligently and coherently thought out, and contained large sums of money which were not required, and in the event were not used.

The Vote in which the greatest error occurs is Vote 7 to which my hon. Friend referred in passing, and which constitutes about half of these Estimates. In 1965–66 there was an error of no less than £55 million on the calculation for Vote 7, which was an error of 20 per cent., but it looked rather better when the figures were published because the TSR2 was cancelled and the Department managed to set off against that £55 million error £35 million compensation for the cancellation of the TSR2, a sum which was not included in the original Estimates, but which made the out-turn look somewhat more respectable. The error on Vote 7 in that year was a 10 per cent. error, even after the £35 million offset for the TSR2 cancellation. Whereas in that year £281 million had been asked for, only £257 million were spent.

In 1966–67 there was again a 10 per cent. error, when £260 million was asked for, and only £236 million were spent. I am glad to see—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Member will come to the Estimates in due course.

Mr. Hooley

Mr. Speaker, thank you very much for allowing me to go as far as I did. It is somewhat difficult to make a sensible appraisal of the current figures without trying to compare them with figures we know. We cannot now know the out-turn of these Estimates, nor, I am sorry to say, do we know the outturn of the 1968–69 figures, so that even an immediate comparison is not sensible, and it is difficult to assess how sensible these Estimates are unless we have some firm figures of out-turn with which to make a comparison. I apologise for going back to those figures, but they are the only firm figures which exist.

The striking thing about Vote 7 in the current Estimates is that it has shot up to the incredible figure of £302 million, compared with an actual expenditure three years ago of £236 million. This is an increase of 30 per cent. in cash terms, but probably somewhat less allowing for the decline in the purchasing power of money. This is a 30 per cent. increase, at a time when we are told by the Government that we are scaling down our commitments, that we are withdrawing from the Far East, that we are withdrawing from the Middle East, and when the rôle of the Royal Air Force will presumably become integrated with our N.A.T.O. defences generally and concentrated on Europe. I think that the Government owe the House an explanation for this startling escalation in Vote 7 which accounts for half of the Estimates, in the light of the deliberate and calculated reduction of commitments—which I support—and which presumably result in a reduction in the commitments of the R.A.F. itself.

The House is entitled to ask, "Why complain if the Department spends less money than it originally claimed it wanted? Is it not much more unsatisfactory if it overspends?". My answer to that is that it depends on the degree either way. An overspending of a very small percentage would not be regarded as seriously worthy of criticism, but an error in estimating of 10 per cent.—and these votes in past years have contained errors of 10 per cent.—indicates that there is no proper control over this vote and that the sums of money asked for are wildly inaccurate. One wonders just how tightly control is exercised when the actual appropriations take place.

The first objection to this state of affairs is that the estimating itself is grossly inefficient. I cannot accept an estimate with an error of 10 per cent. as being an efficient estimate. The second objection is that when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence comes to make his claim on the public purse he is in competition with other Departments of State, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer must rule on the demands he makes in the light of the demands made by other public sectors for the total money available.

If, therefore, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is preempting large sums of money—and these are large sums of money, £24 million and more—which his Department does not require and which it clearly has not accurately calculated, it is doing so to the detriment of other Departments of State, such as Social Services, Education. Health and so on, which might make very good use of these moneys.

Further, if the Services have at their disposal sums of money of the order of £24 million which they do not require, they have a considerable amount of leeway or slippage to play around with, which can scarcely encourage tight control of expenditure when they come to decide whether or not they want the money for a new weapon, a new piece of equipment or for research.

I turn now to the purchase of Phantom aircraft, which I believe was originally authorised in 1964, which in itself was a perfectly sensible decision. It was a decision to do away with the need for uncertain expenditure on research and development and to purchase from our major military ally a proven battle aircraft of unquestionable value in military terms and one which, presumably, the R.A.F. decided it could use for its own purposes. What happened? It was decided first to put in a new engine. The airframe then had to be altered to accommodate the engine. The avionics and the attack system were then changed for reasons which are not clear. The Public Accounts Committee was by no means convinced of the necessity for this change in navigational attack and radio equipment, and said so in its report last year.

This was a proven aircraft; 3,000 had already been produced for the United States Air Force. The whole advantage of buying an off-the-peg aircraft was completely destroyed by the demand for the new engine, which meant a change in the airframe and changes in the electronics, the avionics and the attack system. The result of making all these changes was that the aircraft cost twice as much. The unit cost was about double what it would have been had we bought the United States aircraft straight off the peg.

There may well have been technological reasons for the change in the engine. There may have been reasons for the change giving advantages to British industry. What I am less certain about is why the R.A.F. needed this special avionic and attack system all of its own when we were purchasing an aircraft from one of the major military powers in the world, an ally with whom we have to work in close co-operation.

Mr. Dalyell

Would not my hon. Friend agree that this is a classic argument for co-operation at a market level rather than at a production level?

Mr. Hooley

I shall be coming on to the question of co-operation when I consider the Anglo-German aircraft.

What it indicates is that, when the R.A.F. goes shopping around for aircraft, obviously it must have the aircraft that it needs, but the Department must resist the demands for specialised requirements peculiar to our own Defence Forces.

I want to elaborate that point in relation to the Anglo-German multi-role combat aircraft, which was referred to earlier in the debate. The principle of co-operation in this is perfectly sound. Obviously it is intelligent for two, three or four major allies within the N.A.T.O. Alliance, if they want this kind of weapon, to team up in order to produce it. What is not clear to me is why we want two versions of this aircraft. Why is the R.A.F. requirement different from the German requirement? Why does this have to be a compromise aircraft?

We are agreed that, in the future, the R.A.F. is not to have a rôle outside Europe. We are winding up our Far East and Middle East commitments and, to the best of my knowledge, there is no intention of assuming commitments in Southern Africa or other parts of the world. If the aircraft is being built for operational requirements within N.A.T.O., why is it that the operational requirements of the R.A.F. are so distinctive from those of the German, Italian and Dutch air forces? Apparently the French do not want this type of aircraft at all. It is true that we have achieved an 80 per cent. common design requirement, but what is not obvious to me is why we cannot agree on an identical aircraft for what is bound to be an identical role. It is in the same theatre for the same purpose, and I cannot understand why the R.A.F. has to have its own special version.

I would ask my hon. Friend to assure us that, in view of the increasingly enormous sums which this House is being asked to vote, proper control and supervision is exercised over the expenditure of these monies.

10.23 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)

I want briefly to refer to what I believe to be three serious gaps in the Government's stewardship of the R.A.F. The first concerns the absence of a long-range strike reconnaisance aircraft.

The House knows that the deterrent has been taken over by the Royal Navy's submarines, but I suggest that there is a need for the R.A.F. to have a long-range strike aircraft armed certainly with conventional weapons and probably also nuclear weapons. Whether or not hon. Members agree with that, I believe that they will agree that it is essential for the R.A.F. to have a long-range reconnaisance aircraft both for operations in Europe and for the defence of shipping throughout the world.

The Canberras and V-bombers are exercising this rôle at the moment. However, both are obsolete and gradually are being phased out. The TSR2 and the F111 are not being proceeded with, and all that we have and are likely to have for the next few years is the Buccaneer. That is an excellent plane. It is built in my constituency, and I have a good knowledge of it. But I would remind the House that it was designed some ten years ago as a maritime aircraft. Now it is being used in a different rôle. Perhaps I might also remind the House that, seven or eight years ago, I was trying in the House to persuade the R.A.F. to take this very aircraft. If it had taken it then, a tremendous amount of Government money would have been saved. However, because of friction between the Royal Navy and the R.A.F., unfortunately, it did not happen. This plane is subsonic. This can be an advantage because it can get in under the radar beam when attacking a target.

I should like to know whether the order for Buccaneers which was announced at the end of last year is for the Mark 2 or for an improved design with perhaps more range and, therefore, a longer reconnaissance capability. The reconaissance capability is vital to the future of the R.A.F. if the plane is to fulfil its functions well into the 1970s.

I should like to ask the Minister about the M.R.C.A. I imagine that this aircraft will eventually supplant the Buccaneer as the long range reconaissance and strike aircraft. It is not really the successor of the A.F.V.G., which I think was more of a fighter. This is to be a long-range aircraft in the strike and reconaissance rôle. I hope that the Minister will confirm that. Is there not a grave danger, unless this aircraft is designed and produced in the near future, our design teams will begin losing their expertise? It seems when we drop one design after another and purchase American aircraft we lose a number of our design teams which are essential to our future research and expertise.

I remind the House, as did my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley North (Sir E. Bullus), that the Daily Telegraph, in an article on 1st March, stated that the R.A.F. combat strength had fallen to 460 aircraft, which included 144 Canberras which are now obsolete. This puts Britain in 14th place below countries such as North Korea, Sweden, Turkey, Italy, Japan and even India in respect of combat strength. This is a serious matter and must be taken seriously by both sides.

The second matter concerns maritime aircraft. The Minister must agree that shipping has to be protected. There are over 2,000 British ships at sea in various parts of the world. It is possible, in the era of nuclear stalemate, that we could possibly get a conventional war at sea— for example, in the Indian Ocean with a "middle Power". Therefore, our shipping would have to be protected from the air.

I put to the House in an earlier debate that to cover shipping from possible air attack we need two aircraft airborne and four at two minutes' notice. If we provide these aircraft from a carrier, flat-top, call it what we will, we can do it with one squadron. If we do it from a land base some distance away we will need six aircraft over the convoy or ship, six aircraft on their way out and six aircraft on their way back. The ratio is one squadron to nine. I want to know what the Government are doing about it. They did not question those figures when I put them to the House. Presumably they accept them. Therefore, they must accept that there is an important rôle for the R.A.F. in operating from ships at sea.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Could the hon. Gentleman explain how a ship at sea could be protected from a rocket?

Mr. Wall

The real object of aircraft protection of ships at sea is against other aircraft or possibly against missile discharging warships. The defence of ships at sea from rockets or missiles would be from their own surface to air missiles which are being considerably improved in the Royal Navy.

Concerning the Mediterranean, it is clear that the R.A.F. can operate from land bases. But this could not happen in the Indian Ocean area. We have Gan, Diego Garcia and Masera, and that is about all. Therefore, it is essential for aircraft—probably vertical take-off aircraft—to be provided operating from ships. The Minister agreed this was being examined by the Government and said that they would have to be provided for the R.A.F.

What measures are the Government taking for training the R.A.F. for operating from ships? This is not an easy matter. It caused a great deal of controversy in the 1920s and 1930s, and experience during the war revealed the need for specially trained pilots to operate from ships as well as from land bases to cover to protect our shipping. One does not get value from these pilots unless they are specially trained for this work.

What plans does the Minister have for training R.A.F. crews in this task? I am not making a party point in asking this question because I realise that throughout the history of the R.A.F. priority has never been given to the protection of shipping, whichever party has been in power. It is clear that unless the Government ensure that special measures are taken to train special R.A.F. crews in this work—perhaps a section of the R.A.F. could be devoted to this task—our shipping will be inadequately protected. There would therefore be an advantage in maintaining the existing Fleet Air Arm for this purpose, at least while additional crews are being trained. Naval and R.A.F. aircrews would then be interchangeable.

In a previous debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy said that he had found a part of my speech, in which I had referred to the Simonstown Agreement and the Beira Patrol, amusing. I hope that the Minister will not burst his sides laughing tonight when I refer to the possible sale of Nimrods to South Africa. It seems utterly crazy, since we have the best modern aircraft of its type in the world, that we apparently do not intend to sell it to South Africa. I hope that the Minister will not reply that South Africa has not placed orders for this aircraft. We all know that the South African Government will not place such orders until they know that they will get the necessary export licences. Does not this illustrate the neglect of maritime strategy that is occuring under the present Government and their general neglect of the British aircraft industry? It all stems from their basic failure to appreciate that an island such as ours lives by trade alone. Unless they appreciate this and initiate a proper maritime strategy, there will be danger ahead for us; and I hope that the Minister will concentrate on this issue and answer some of these questions when he winds up.

10.32 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)

I beg to move, That the said number to reduced by 1,000 men. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Robert Howarth) described the Motion as "unfortunate". He may be right, although it is highly traditional. It is the sort of Motion which has been moved from time immemorial in this type of debate. Both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence have moved similar Motions on previous occasions.

Having made that clear, I wish it to be equally clear that the terms of the Amendment are governed to some extent by the Table Office. We are technically discussing Vote A, and even if we had wished to do so, we could not have moved a more drastic type of Amendment to, for example, alter the Government's defence policy. In other words, we are limited to moving to reduce the strength of the R.A.F. by 1,000 men, but in doing so we are entitled to indicate our displeasure with some aspects of the defence policy.

Compared with the sort of defence policy that hon. Gentlemen opposite would introduce, this one is good. The summary of the policy, of which this Vote is a part, contained in the conclusion of the Green Paper is sensible and reasonable. It is certainly more sensible and reasonable than the sort of policy that hon. Gentlemen opposite have indicated they would introduce if the country should suffer the misfortune of the Conservatives being elected to power. Apparently they would pursue a policy entirely without any regard to the relative position of this country to other countries. They would pursue a policy without regard to the financial strength of the country. The general policy they have put forward, to come to the particular question—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harry Gourlay)

Order. We are not debating defence policy as such, but Vote A of the Air Estimates. Perhaps the hon. Member will confine his remarks to that.

Mr. Jenkins

I will follow your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In opening the debate, my hon. Friend confined his remarks very closely to the question before us, but the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield), who followed him, ranged over the whole of defence policy. You were kind to him on that occasion, and I hope that if I follow him a little way you will permit me to do so, but I shall try to remain within the guidance which you were so kind as to give me.

In the speech of the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield), I was rather reminded of those officers with whom I had the honour to serve in the war. They carried on their breasts an R.F.C. badge and had to be placed in positions of lesser importance because they tended to think they were fighting the 1914–18 war.

Mr. Corfield

That is, of course, the standard crack of those who are determined not to face reality.

Mr. Jenkins

I think that when the hon. Member dies it will be found that engraved on his heart will be 1939–45.

I had the privilege of serving in Fighter Command, and I am not without affection for the Royal Air Force. It was a civilised command, because it was engaged on a defensive operation; we were engaged in repelling attack. What frightens many of us is that that kind of defence is finished; no longer is there defence but counter-offence. This is an alarming development. It is no longer a question of mounting a response to attack. All the countries of the world in their air forces are mounting a policy of counter-offensive.

I have put forward this Amendment to reduce the strength of the Royal Air Force because, although I think my right hon. Friends are pursuing a defence policy which is much more realistic and sensible than the policy which would be followed by hon. Members opposite, even my right hon. Friends have not come to terms with the realities of the situation in the world. The policies they are following entail an unnecessarily larger air force than this country is capable of deploying. If they were to follow not even the relatively sensible policies in the defence Green Paper, as distinct from the policies of hon. Members opposite, but which were put before the electorate in 1964 and 1966, particularly in relation to air defence, which reflected the views of the party to which they and I belong, it would be much more sensible.

Mr. Goodhew

The hon. Member is putting the accent on defence, particularly in the case of Fighter Command in the last war. Does he not realise that once the crew is in the air, whether it is the Few in 1939 to 1945 or the crew today, it is very much a matter of offence and attack?

Mr. Jenkins

The hon. Member is forgetting that there is a difference between attacking a civilian population and defending against a fighter. Anyone who knows what happened in the last war knows that the standards declined. At the beginning of the last war, we were issued with things called rules of war and were told what was right and what was wrong and what not to do. By the end of the war we were bombing civilians wholesale.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will assist the Chair by indicating to which pages in the Defence Estimates dealing with the Royal Air Force he is relating his argument. The Estimates are for expenditure in the coming year, not for expenditure in 1939.

Mr. Jenkins

Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to you for giving me that advice, which I will immediately follow. I was drawing attention to Vote 7, Class C—Armament, Ammunition and Explosives. I was about to suggest that the nature of the armament, ammunition and explosives currently employed by the Royal Air Force fits it for a rôle entirely different from that which it used to perform. In other words, it is a counter-offensive rôle at best and an offensive rôle at worst. There is no defensive rôle such as at least one command in the Royal Air Force used to perform.

I come to why I seek to reduce the number of men engaged by 1,000. I want to press the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), who asked what the armament, ammunition and explosives would entail. I, too, would like to know how much napalm is included in this item of Aircraft armament, ancillary equipment for guided missiles, ground defence weapons, etc. To what extent is nuclear armament involved in Ammunition, rockets, bombs, guided missiles, torpedoes, etc."? Are there any proposals for the distribution of chemical and biological means of warfare? Are they concealed in these subheads? If so, how much is involved in the spreading of disease among other people? What preparations have we got for that under this Vote?

I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will enlighten us on some of these points, because in some ways the Vote which we are discussing serves to conceal rather than to reveal the facts of air warfare as it is in these times. The more we know about the real nature of air warfare the better we shall be placed to evaluate the question whether we are getting value for money, so to speak.

In relation to air warfare, and possibly in relation to all other warfare, the last sensible large war has already been fought. There is not likely to be any more major warfare of a sensible character. This relates particularly to the question of air warfare and the amount of money and numbers of people involved. It therefore is closely related to this Vote and to the Amendment. My right hon. Friends would be well advised to reconsider their policy and see whether they could not reshape it and bring it more into line with what was laid down in their 1966 manifesto, in which they said, as regards our activity in the air and as regards our defence activity generally: Labour's immediate objectives are agreements to stop all nuclear tests and prevent the spread of nuclear weapons; further, Labour will seek agreements to create nuclear-free zones and make possible agreed and verified international disarmament. There have been signs in recent months that my right hon. Friends have moved in that direction. I hope that they will continue to do so. In the meantime, I suggest that they investigate the possibilities of adopting a more defensive attitude to defence and not lining themselves up, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State seems to have lined himself up, with the policy which was advocated by the right hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys) in 1957—the counter-nuclear policy whereby a conventional attack is countered by a nuclear response, in which aircraft would no doubt play a substantial part. It appears that the policy which we attacked when we were in opposition is one which we have adopted now that we are the Government. I hope that my hon. Friend can assure me that we have not in government adopted the policies that we attacked when we were in opposition.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. R. Chichester-Clark (Londonderry)

I was rather disappointed at the beginning of the debate, when the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) did his best to provoke the Minister of Defence for Equipment into a short adventure in the Caribbean in the neighbourhood of Anguilla, that the Minister would not follow him there. Had he done so, I should like to have taken him a little further and pinned him down and asked him how he proposed, in the event of an attack upon it, to defend British Honduras and with what aeroplanes and from where. However, it was fairly clear that the Minister was not to be drawn, unless we hear from him later in the debate.

In his very forward-looking speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) referred to the importance of Coastal Command and spoke sadly of the fact that we had only 38 Nimrods in place of seven squadrons of Shackletons, and one of which has since February been in the Mediterranean. It is largely because we have only 38 Nimrods that I am speaking in this debate, because the moment I heard that the number was to be only 38, I was well aware that it was unlikely that three Coastal Command stations were to be kept open in the United Kingdom. And so it proved. That is why I am on my feet tonight to make—I do not apologise for it, because it is of importance —a purely constituency speech about the closure of one of those Coastal Command stations, the Royal Air Force station at Ballykelly, in my constituency.

As I said last year in this same debate, this means unemployment for hundreds of my constituents in an area of very high unemployment. It also means a loss of spending power of about £1¼ million in an area which cannot afford that loss and where the economy is really the economy of the Royal Air Force. Indeed, the whole community there has grown up around the Royal Air Force. If the closure comes about, it will have an appalling effect on the little village of Ballykelly, Limavady and the surrounding district.

I spoke last year of the cost to the local authorities of the amenities which they provided as facilities for the Royal Air Force and as a result of Government pledges which flowed very glibly from right hon. and hon. Members opposite in the months before. I spoke in some detail also last year on what that decision had done to the local authorities concerning the large new primary school, which was virtually built specially for the progeny of personnel in the Royal Air Force. Two-thirds of the pupils for that school, which was built at a cost of £¼ million, would have been the sons and daughters of personnel in the Royal Air Force.

I also spoke of the other schools in the area, which were enlarged almost at the behest of the Ministry of Defence, and also of the rate increases which will fall on local residents when the Royal Air Force moves out. I recounted the hardships which would be inflicted on small shopkeepers, hoteliers, restaurant owners and the like, who had in some cases put, as I know for a fact because I have seen them and talked to them, their life savings into improving and modernising their premises as a result of assurances given by members of the Government.

I do not want this year to embarrass right hon. Gentlemen opposite by a repetition of the pledges which they scattered around so liberally in years gone by before the closure was announced. I suppose that one cannot nowadays expect Ministers to resign because they have closed down, or are about to close down, an airfield in Northern Ireland, even at the sort of cost which I have explained. That is too much to expect. But one can ask for some contrition, a little sense of guilt and a sense of the moral responsibility they ought to have for what will happen to the people in that community.

Only on 14th September, 1966, the Leader of the House of Lords, speaking in Londonderry said: It is highly desirable that the R.A.F. should continue to have a strong presence in Northern Ireland. The R.A.F. for as far ahead as we can see, will remain in Ballykelly. And so it went on. Pledges fell from the lips of Ministers like rain from the sky in that particularly wet summer of 1967. Even on 13th December, 1967, I was given an oral assurance in the House that all was well. This R.A.F. station is permanently in my "Brought forward" file. It is of such importance to the economy of that part of the world that, virtually every three months, it comes to the top of the file and I ask Questions to see that its future is assured. An oral assurance was given on 13th December, 1967, yet only 15 days later the closure was announced. That is the sort of situation with which we have had to deal.

I hold strongly the view that the Government have a moral responsibility towards these people, in view of their pledges. And so I ask these questions. Have they reconsidered their decision? Are they reconsidering it? If not, what success have they had in finding alternative uses for the airfield, and when will they tell us about them? What can the Minister of State for Equipment tell me about the future of the men who are likely to be displaced? Can he put me in the picture on how fast the rundown is going and what the phasing of it will be in the future? If he cannot tell me all that tonight, perhaps he will be good enough to write to me about it.

Now, another aspect of the matter. Here I thank the Minister's former colleague, who was extremely helpful. The aerodrome there is already being used by one civil operator, Ulster Air Transport. This is very useful, and I have had a great deal of help in the way of bringing that about. In a series of Questions and Answers since then, we have established that the airfield can be used by civil airlines on certain occasions and for certain purposes. What I wish to know is if British European Airways or British United Airways want in the future to use this airfield as a diversionary airport instead of distant Dublin, and if they find in so doing that they must have staff on the premises should diversions occur, will the Minister undertake that premises and accommodation will be found for them? That might make a decision considerably easier.

I have not consulted Ulster Air Transport on the matter, but it is possible that some sharing of accommodation might be feasible and help to solve the problem. If not, it would be useful to know whether the R.A.F. would provide other accommodation.

The Minister of Defence for Administration (Mr. G. W. Reynolds)

There are two airfields which are to close which are permanently emblazoned on my mind: one is Brawdy and the other is Ballykelly. If it is possible to find any alternative use for either of them, we shall do it. The hon. Gentleman is interested in Ballykelly. As regards providing facilities at the aerodrome, I am sympathetic to his request. I assure him that I shall be only too pleased if it is possible to help in any way in the particularly difficult problem which he has in that part of Ulster. I am prepared to look at any request which he makes.

Mr. Chichester-Clark

I am grateful for that reassurance. If I may have a little more detail in answer to my specific questions, perhaps on another occasion, I shall be grateful.

Lastly, I come to the question of safety and facilities, so to speak, pertaining to safety. May I be told how the safety facilities at Ballykelly compare with those which are likely to be available at civilian airfields used in the normal way by civil airlines elsewhere? That would be most helpful information.

Mr. Reynolds

I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Chichester-Clark

I end as I began. The Government have a self-inflicted responsibility for the people in this area. It must be discharged. What I want is an assurance that it has not been forgotten.

10.55 p.m.

Mr. Tarn Dalyell (West Lothian)

Having visited the constituency of the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Chichester-Clark) two years ago, I have a genuine sympathy with the predicament in which he finds himself. I, too, hope that some alternative use can be found for Ballykelly. But it strikes me that his problem is symptomatic of the genuine problem before the House, and that is the way in which these Votes are presented.

I think the Defence White Paper was a superbly-written and extremely coherent and clear document, but I am not happy about the way in which these Votes are presented. If it is decided that the hon. Gentleman's constituency should rightly be helped, the item should not go on the Defence Vote. It should be a distinct Vote on the notion that social aid has to be given to this area in Northern Ireland. It ought to be separate from the Defence Vote as such. I suspect that constituencies like the hon. Gentleman's have perhaps suffered by an over-compartmentalisation of decision-making in Whitehall. There is a genuine Whitehall problem here which has to be considered.

This brings me to the point where I agree with the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield), who said that these civil by-products of military research are valuable. But if there are by-products from research, should not they be manipulated out of the Defence Vote as such? I hope that by next year, as I have said in previous Defence debates and Estimates debates, some genuine thought will be given to the reconstruction of the Vote as such, and if it is social aid, or OpMac, or research by-products, the figures should appear under separate Votes from the Defence Vote. By all means add the items on the Defence Vote, but let the items be separate because defence policy then becomes more efficient and much clearer.

I am a little impatient with the way in which this debate has taken place and with the way in which the Opposition have constantly asked for more of very many different items. Contrary to general belief, I am not one of those who have ever asked in this House for a general slash. I agree that if we slash things too far, we get into trouble in which a force is no longer a force. But, having said this, it becomes a rather different matter when, for instance, the hon. and gallant Member for Wembley, North (Sir E. Bullus) asked for 500 extra front line aircraft. We have got to be clear what we mean by this. Do we mean 500 extra Phantoms or 500 extra Hunters, or what? There is an obligation on those who ask for this order of escalation in our aircraft needs to be very precise about what they want, why they want it and what it will cost.

It will be within the recollection of the Government Front Bench that I put down a Question about the cost of the 300 or so extra aircraft for which the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Sir Ian Orr-Ewing) asked in the Defence debate. The answer was, I suppose somewhat naturally, that no figure could be given because I was not specific about what kind of aircraft were wanted. But I think it is up to the Government Front Bench to extract from the Opposition precisely what is meant when time and again the Opposition spokesmen say that it is totally inadequate, that we are behind Turkey, North Korea, Italy and various other countries in the number of front line aircraft.

If Defence debates are to be meaningful—and, regardless of party, I think they should be meaningful—we have to be clear about this sort of situation. It would be much clearer if we were given rather better information about unit costs.

I interrupted my hon. Friend on the subject, and it struck me as unreasonable that we could not be given the unit costs of the SA330 and the SA340 helicopters. I know them, but I will not quote them, especially in my position ! It would be meaningful for the debate if these costs were given. I do not believe that they are secret, and I am dissatisfied with the Answer which I received to my Parliamentary Question asking about the unit costs of the SA330 and SA340 Anglo-French helicopters respectively. This seems to be an example of the unnecessary secrecy about which Fulton complained.

I will not repeat many of the points made, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley), about the multi-rôle combat aircraft except to express a view on cooperation. I grant my hon. Friend that the Jaguar has been a success and I also grant him that co-operation at sophisticated levels is becoming better and better. But I wonder whether this kind of co-operation at the production level is, in fact, the optimum kind of co-operation. There have been great difficulties not only in civil developments but also in connection with many of the international fighter and combat aircraft. As my hon. Friend the Member for Heeley said, if there are to be these differences—and I challenge the need for different requirements—in Anglo-German variable geometry aircraft, and if we have to have separate avionics, which leads to separate airframes, which in turn leads to separate engine requirements, then we get to the situation to which my hon. Friend referred—the extraordinary story of the Spey engine being fitted into the Phantom. Anyone who reflects on the work of the Public Accounts Committee and of my hon. Friends the Members for Bebington (Mr. Brooks) and Heeley, and anyone who looks at the reports which they have been producing, must wonder about the future of international co-operation. I should like to see a situation in which one country in the Western Alliance produced, for instance, the combat aircraft and perhaps we produced the Harrier or the V/STOL or whatever was required by the rest of Europe. I leave that argument on the basis of market co-operation.

May I refer to the very good job which my hon. Friends are doing in the important matter of the career structure of the R.A.F. I hope that the facilities at Cranwell will be used. From my knowledge of the situation, they have done excellent work in creating a situation with the universities, and I hope that it is a success because, as was rightly said in the opening speeches, this is a bold stroke and a risk, for reasons into which I need not go at eleven o'clock. Nevertheless, my hon. Friends deserve great credit.

As my hon. Friend at the Home Office knows, a day's visit was arranged for me to Hendon. It is a pity how few Members of Parliament materialise for such visits. I found it extremely impressive to see the way in which computer techniques were being adapted by the forces. These comments in praise ought to be made, particularly by one such as myself who in the past has been somewhat critical on Air Estimates debates.

I am a little concerned about Mallard. I asked a Question on the subject and the reply was that it was too early to give any indication of production costs. This is linked with another problem. It is all very well for my hon. Friend the Member for Heeley to ask for more accurate accounting. In theory, I am wholly in favour of more accurate forecasting and accounting, but I am not sure how we get the Services to do it in the absence of sufficient technical cost officers. It is a difficult problem whether we should try to pull people out of industry to be technical cost officers when they are the very people of whom the aircraft industry is desperately short.

I beg the Government to look at the whole problem of adaptation. It seems to me that adaptation over the years has led to an escalation of costs that is entirely unjustified by any supposed gains that we should get from it.

Other hon. Members want to speak, the time is late, and so I should like to rest my case there.

11.5 p.m.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) is right. Time is pressing, and I do not wish to detain the House unduly long. Therefore, I shall make one general point straight away, followed by three particular ones.

My general point is that it becomes clearer, year by year, as we go through these stilted, ritual debates on the Service Estimates that we need a better system of keeping ourselves informed on what is going on and the way in which money is being spent in the name of defence. This is not a satisfactory debate, and moreover we know well that tomorrow we shall be extremely unlikely to have any further debate on the Royal Air Force, because other matters will crowd it out. Each year the case for establishing a Specialist Committee on defence becomes stronger and stronger.

I now come to the first of my particular points. In concentrating on them I would not like it to be thought that I under-estimate the importance of the Royal Air Force in our defences, or that other points raised by other speakers are not important. But it would be well for the House to turn its attention briefly to these three matters.

The first is the general use of R.A.F. airfields for civilian purposes. My right hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry (Mr. Chichester-Clark) touched on this briefly in relation to Ballykelly. I have had some exchanges with the Department on the general subject of the use of the R.A.F. stations in the United Kingdom for civilian flights, and I note with interest that there are only four stations at which scheduled flights operate. There are about 30 stations at which there are less than one civilian flight per week on average, and although there has been a considerable increase in the total number of flights, from some 46,000 non-scheduled flights in 1965 to 60,000 in 1967, this is very largely accounted for by the enormous activity at White Waltham, where there was a total of about 35,000 non-scheduled movements in 1967. The next largest in that year was Manston where the figure was 9,300. Then the total drops away very rapidly until one comes to Northolt which, although it is comparatively amongst the larger entries in this log, appears to have had no general increase in civilian movements and to be static at the total of about 1,200 movements a year. That seems to me to be quite inadequate.

Taking that with the apparent overall decline in scheduled movements, I consider that there seems to be a considerable under-utilisation of the resources involved in R.A.F. airfields up and down the country. The Department should make every conceivable effort to encourage the civilian use of these fields. I know that there are security considerations. One cannot readily accept civilian flights at a Q.R.A. field. But the competitive development of domestic air services must become more intense. We need regional networks to provide for third level carrier, we need more facilities for air taxis and we need them at weekends and on a 24-hour basis. Though individual station commanders are generally helpful in this context, I am by no means satisfied that the Department's attitude is always as constructive and helpful as it could be.

My second point touches on a matter that is of some sensitivity to the Government as regards security. I am strongly tempted to move that strangers do withdraw before I deal with it, but I realise that this would take up the time of the House. I hope, however, that if the Minister feels he can give an answer he will not hesitate to move such a Motion so that the House may hear it.

My point concerns the number of flying hours of R.A.F. pilots. I have had some exchanges with the Government about this, culminating in an Answer on 18th October last year, when I was told that it would not be in the public interest to publish the average monthly total of flying hours of R.A.F. pilots because: Taken together with other information which is available it would enable a hostile intelligence service to arrive at a significantly closer assessment of the operational capabilities of the Royal Air Force."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th October, 1968; Vol. 770, c. 177.] That may be true, although I am sceptical about the validity of the smokescreen. If there is something that should be known about this, it is surely important that the House should be told. Hostile intelligence services probably know it already.

The House has great need of this information, because the operational capability of the R.A.F. depends upon the skill and practice of its pilots. I am told that this matter causes considerable concern to those who employ and train ex-R.A.F. personnel for civilian airlines and that the average monthly total of hours flown by R.A.F. pilots may be as little as 15. If that is so, it is a matter of considerable concern. If it is because of economy that the number of flying hours is being cut down, the House must probe it further and be given full and satisfactory answers.

My third point concerns the publication of the R.A.F. accident statistics—again an item on which I have had exchanges with the Government, as has the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock), who is not present. Once again, indeed, in a debate on the Service Estimates, the Liberal Bench is unoccupied. The Minister of Defence for Administration told me on 19th February that he hoped to be in a position to make a statement in the near future. Last October, I was told by his hon. Friend that it was hoped to complete the review of the practice with regard to the publication of military aircraft accident statistics by the end of the year. We have not yet had a statement on the subject and this is to be regretted.

Such researches as I have been able to undertake suggest that we should take the subject very seriously. Dealing with only three types of aircraft—the Hunter, the Canberra and the Lightning—I am told that, in recent years, accidents in and around the United Kingdom—I exclude accidents overseas—totalled as follows: In 1963, there were 8; in 1964, again 8; in 1965, there were 4; in 1966, there were 8; in 1967, there were 10 and last year there were 6. That reaches a considerable total.

These statistics may or may not be accurate—I am in no position to judge— but they are the only information I have. The House should be given full and accurate information on the subject, as is recognised in a number of other countries. It would enable us to judge the operational capability of our air forces and to see whether there are some defects or shortcomings in training or operation which are placing aircrew at risk.

Secondly, and perhaps more important, we should have this information so that we may be assured that operational flying is not taking place in conditions which place the general public at risk. Unfortunately there are from time to time accidents in this country and there have been civilian casualties. There have been crashes by aircraft of other nations as well—for example, the French aircraft crash at Farnborough last year. From time to time there are crashes by American Air Force planes based in this country.

Why may we not have much greater information on this subject? Why may we not be taken into the confidence of the Government? Is there something here which they feel we should not know? This is a matter of which the House should be much better informed and on which, again, there is no justification for the Government to hide behind a smokescreen. If, for one reason or another, the Minister finds himself unable to cover these points, I ask that they be covered in next year's Defence White Paper because they are matters of continuing public concern and it is necessary that the House should have an adequate opportunity to probe and be satisfied about them.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Edwin Brooks (Bebington)

I hope that the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) will forgive me if I do not follow him on the specific points which he raised. Instead, I will launch into the major matter to which I want to refer.

Like other hon. Members who have spoken, notably my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley), I am disturbed about some of the estimating which has taken place in the past and which appears to be taking place at present. I am concerned tonight to draw special attention to one or two ambiguities which appear to thwart any attempt to follow what is happening in aviation expenditure.

On pages 2 and 3 of the Estimates before us, there is an item, "Purchase of United States Aircraft", and some extraordinary figures are given under the headings "Gross" and "Repayments", showing apparent discrepancies of only £1,000 in all cases. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I have been privileged to learn something of the reasoning behind it, but I shall be surprised if hon. Members who do not serve on that Committee know what it means.

However, at the end of the summary, we see that it is accounted for by page 188, Ministry of Technology, and there we find an extraordinarily short item referring to large sums of money under the heading "Purchase of United States Aircraft (Net)". The figure for 1968–69 was £171 million, and for 1969–70 it is £90 million.

We are told on page 188: In due course an Estimate will be presented to Parliament for the Ministry of Technology (Class IV, 21 and 22) for expenditure by the Ministry of Technology on the supply of equipment for Government Departments and other customers; and the purchase of United States aircraft and for research and development connected therewith. I went to the Vote Office to inquire whether the due course had expired and the Estimate had been presented to clarify these sums. I discovered that it has not been presented so far.

Mr. Roy Roebuck (Harrow, East)

I expect it is confidential.

Mr. Brooks

It is not in the least confidential. It is available for last year and, I hope, will be for this year within a few days. I feel that my hon. Friend's intervention is unhelpful, but at least it assists me in revealing how ignorant of the situation many hon. Members are.

Mr. Roebuck

Had my hon. Friend been here last night, he would know to what I referred. Hon. Members were not allowed access to a document which was said to be "Confidential". My aside was meant to be humorous.

Mr. Brooks

I was here for as long as my hon. Friend—unless he stayed after midnight, that is—

Mr. Roebuck

I was awake.

Mr. Brooks

When one turns to page 185, where the expenditures of the Ministry of Technology are set out in more detail, one sees the heading "Vote 20 (Ministry of Technology) (Aerospace)" and the figure of £147,248,000. As it is impossible to clarify the breakdown of this, since the Civil Estimates have not yet been presented to Parliament, one might be forgiven for assuming this to be an unambiguous global sum. However, looking at the corresponding Civil Estimates for 1968–69, one finds on page 111 the heading "Ministry of Technology (Aerospace)", under which there is a similar tabulation to that on page 125 of the Defence Estimates, and the figure for "Research and Development: Work by Industry, etc." of £166,087,000, which is substantially different from the figure which I quoted just now.

Clearly, something very odd is happening here. It may be that, by going through the breakdown given in last year's Civil Estimates, it is possible to discover how some of the discrepancy has arisen. I do not pretend that there is anything mysterious or formidable about the problem, but the form in which these Estimates are presented to us, without having the simultaneous presentation of the Technology figures to show the basis of this global total, is a matter which we should criticise. We are dealing with extremely large sums, and it is important to know what is happening.

The final example I have time for this evening to illustrate the ambiguity of these figures was touched upon by my hon. Friend the Member for Heeley. He pointed out, on page 155, relating to Vote 7 of the Defence Estimates, that there is a discrepancy of some £32,500,000 in the 1968–69 figures compared to 1969–70. If we look at page 154, we find that rather more than £32,500,000—£33,500,000—is explained by the discrepancy in one particular item, "Airframes &c", and this is further elaborated as "Airframes, airframe repairs and the occasional purchase of aircraft complete with engines and installed equipment."

In 1968–69, the figure was £39 million, and in 1969–70 it was £72,500,000. This is a difference of the order of two to one. I suspect that there may be a simple reason for this, but I would have thought it would have been helpful if, in presenting these Estimates with such a tremendous change in this one item, we had had a short footnote or something to illustrate how on earth this has arisen.

It would be possible to spend a great deal of time in dealing with the ambiguity involved in the presentation of these figures. I am not trying to be clever for the sake of it, but I do submit that the time has come when it is important, if we are to have a debate on the Defence Estimates which is meaningful, to look rather more carefully at the way these are presented and elaborated.

I have two final points to make in the form of extended questions. The first point is one which has increasingly concerned many members, not only of this House but no doubt of assemblies throughout the world, ever since the U-2 incident at the beginning of this decade. I am referring to the growing problem of the surveillance of our country, and indeed of the world, by satellites, some of which have been called—I think quite properly—spy satellites. They are capable of proceeding more or less at will above our country and capable of taking information of considerable detail and up-to-date accuracy.

A few days ago, the United States revealed that a large Soviet rocket is on the launching pad ready, presumably, to land a complicated apparatus on the Moon, and we have a detailed exposition of how it is possible to do this from photographic evidence. If that sort of military information is available, clearly there are virtually no secrets left.

This raises another point, to some extent a point of law, which perhaps should not therefore be addressed to my right hon. Friends tonight but which should be addressed to someone. Increasingly in recent months we have heard reports of various countries prepared to ban overflights by supersonic planes. It seems interesting to speculate at what point a country's airspace terminates. Concorde will be flying in its supersonic configuration at some 60,000 feet—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is right. It is not a matter for the debate today.

Mr. Brooks

With respect, I am trying to make the point that if we are talking about the safety of this country's airspace, it is important to know what the dangers are that face us, and what protective devices we have, or should have. I cannot accept without further elaboration that this is in any way out of order.

We have spent a great deal of time in this debate, not least because speakers have given us the benefit of their wisdom at length, but I would go on to make a further point about the four-minute warning. At Fylingdales and other stations there are various systems, presumably to give advance warning of rockets launched from the ground which will be identified at certain points of their trajectory. We are now hearing of orbiting bombs which I should have thought present a quite new order of difficulty for this type of early warning system. Again I should be interested to know what response, if any, is possible against this sort of very serious threat.

This brings me to my final point. In the United States, and doubtless in the Soviet Union, thought has been given to possible protection against this type of attack and against the more traditional type of inter-continental ballistic missile. I refer to the Sentinel system upon which the President of the United States has recently made a most important announcement. I am not sure how far this has been taken in consultation with the N.A.T.O. allies. I suspect that we shall have pressures, as the years go by, to make this relatively light scatter much denser across the United States, if only because the Chinese ballistic strength will increase. Therefore, it is most important that we and our N.A.T.O. allies should have the fullest possible discussion with the United States over the wisdom or otherwise of the military implications of a decision of such magnitude.

I am sorry to have spoken so hurriedly. I feel that we are entering a period of more technological sophistication and it is important that we should be one or two steps ahead of those who are thinking along these lines elsewhere.

11.26 p.m.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

In the past, my constituents have had many reasons to be grateful to the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym). They will be all the more grateful to him tonight in his capacity as a usual channel in having made it possible for me to raise certain points on their behalf.

I should like to put my points briefly and basically in the form of questions.

The first two concern Transport Command. First, has the Belfast aircraft, which I had the pleasure of seeing in some detail both in Cyprus and in the Persian Gulf, been entirely satisfactory in operational service? If so, why is there a type, to which the pilots refer as the "fast back", flying at a considerably lower speed than was intended at the point of manufacture? Can the Minister say that the teething troubles, if that is what they were, with the Belfast aircraft have now been satisfactorily ironed out?

Secondly, concerning Transport Command, we have been told of the need and the intention to continue to fly our troops to the Far East. At present the airstrip at Bahrein is used. Can the Minister say how we shall manage to perform these operations when, as is intended, Bahrein is abandoned?

I now turn to two strategic matters. First, can the Minister say whether it is or is not the view of the Government that the Soviet Navy in the Mediterranean could be sunk by air power within a matter of hours? I should like a clear answer to that question. I have recently done a tour of the Mediterranean for the W.E.U. and I had the pleasure of talking to a number of N.A.T.O. admirals. I have also recently put some questions to senior officials in the United States. None of these people agree with the British Minister who claimed that the Soviet Navy in the Mediterranean could be sunk in a matter of hours because, for one reason above all else, we do not know where all its submarines are.

The second strategic question concerns the statement by the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Hugh Jenkins). He said that we might as well forget all about defence, because the offensive ballistic missile has pretty well ruled that out.

I have had the pleasure of discussing the A.B.M. system in the United States in some detail. The hon. Member for Bebington (Mr. Brooks) is right in saying that President Nixon's decision is perhaps the biggest single decision that has been taken in matters of defence in a decade. It is of crucial importance, and it is a great tragedy that we are not able to discuss it in the House of Commons. Nevertheless, I believe that defence can be credibly established by the combination of the Sprint and Spartan missiles and by the perimeter acquisition radar. I do not want to go into detail. Has the matter of effective anti-ballistic missile defence been considered by the Government? Has it been discussed in any detail with the United States? I hope that the Minister will deal with those questions.

I suppose that Suffolk has one of the greatest concentrations of air power in this country. We have the three American bases at Mildenhall, Laken-heath, and Wethersfield, and the three substantial Royal Air Forces bases at Stradishall, Honington, and Wattisham. I am concerned only with Stradishall and Honington, and I start with the latter.

Honington is an excellent base which has had a chequered history. First it was to have the F 111s, then it was not to have them, then it was to have some of the F 111s. I was given personal assurances, in writing and by word of mouth, that even though the Press was saying that the F 111s would be cancelled I could tell my constituents and local authorities that this was all hot air, that the Government in the person of the Minister of Defence had personally guaranteed that they would come. Of course we know that they did not come. In the process of this in and out of Honington the local authorities and the local population were put to great difficulties, and indeed so was I.

I am glad to say to the Minister that now that the whole of the Buccaneer force is to come to Honington we are delighted. The presence of the R.A.F. at Honington is something that gives us great pride, and I should like to say to the Minister, with whom I have had correspondence on this matter, that we are very pleased indeed. When is this base to be opened for operational purposes? Is there likely to be sufficient housing there? Will there be adequate transport, particularly for the married families to get into and out of the nearby towns? What is the Minister doing about noise control?

My last point concerns Stradishall, another excellent base, but sadly it is to be closed when the R.A.F. air navigational training facilities are consolidated elsewhere. I observe that the Minister is taking no notice. I do not know why I am asking these questions, but my constituents at least are concerned. When is the rundown to start? What is to happen to the unestablished personnel who will be discharged? There are 125 unestablished personnel, and 45 established. What facilities will be provided by the Ministry of Defence, or by the Ministry of Productivity and Unemployment, or whatever it is called, in view of the fact that in the neighbouring town of Haverhill there are few jobs available at the present time? What do the Government intend to do about helping these redundant personnel to find alternative employment?

I wish that it had not been necessary to put a number of complex points in this rather staccato fashion, but I am sure that the Minister will understand that it was not the product of any discourtesy on my part, but rather an intention to deal briefly with a large number of subjects.

11.33 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

I have attended many dull and dreary debates in this House during the last 20 years, but this is about the dullest and dreariest of the lot. I think that some responsibility for this must rest with the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield), because he is the best sleeping pill and sleeping draught that I have ever known. It takes a long time for the House to recover from his orations.

We are very lucky this evening to have more time to debate the Air Force than we had to debate the other two Services. This is due to a procedural accident. If the Opposition had not come forward with a Motion of censure this afternoon, I suppose we would have had to conclude our debate at ten o'clock, and the Royal Air Force would have had two hours less in which to discuss its affairs.

Hon. Members


Mr. Hughes

Because we would have had to adopt the procedure which operated in respect of the debates on the other two Services.

I appeal to hon. Members on both sides of the House to protect their interests and to see that Estimates are not rushed through as on this occasion. If this process goes on, I should not be surprised if the House of Commons were soon asked to pass huge Estimates on the nod.

We are here spending £563 million, and that is far more important than the House of Lords, and yet we are doing so with only a small number of hon. Members present, largely because hon. Members who have often contributed important technical speeches on these subjects have become "browned off" through being unable to get into these debates. I hope that the House will revolt against the Government's attempt to rush through these enormous sums without adequate discussion.

What is the Royal Air Force for? In the midst of a maze of technicalities, I have been trying to find out why we need to spend this exceedingly large sum on the R.A.F. I am still mystified. This afternoon the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs explained the circumstances in which the Government would be prepared to use armed force. Presumably, the R.A.F. has been engaged in the latest operation in the Caribbean. It appears to have taken troops to the island of Antigua and then to have dropped leaflets, a harmless and inspiring exercise. I do not know whether the R.A.F. or the Foreign Office has had to pay for the leaflets.

When the Foreign Secretary was asked this afternoon how force would be used in other circumstances, such as in Rhodesia, he said that force would be used only in circumstances when it would not create a great deal of human misery. That is a new definition and a new outlook. If this goes on, the Foreign Secretary will soon be trying to expound the sort of pacifist ideas which I have been trying to explain for a number of years. If the R.A.F. is not to be used in circumstances when it would create greater misery, or more evil or cruelty in the world, I do not see how there can be war.

What are the kinds of wars in which the R.A.F. is likely to be engaged in the foreseeable future? Let us consider the R.A.F. in the light of the statement of the Minister of Defence. We are now told that the conventional forces of potential enemies are so large that if a conventional war broke out, we would have to retort by the use of nuclear weapons. Presumably, that means using the R.A.F., unless it means using Polaris which it would be out of order to discuss in this debate. What would be the rôle of the R.A.F. in the event of the Government of the day deciding to use nuclear weapons to meet a conventional attack?

I recall hearing the Prime Minister telling a meeting of women in Glasgow that Britain would never be the first to use nuclear weapons and that we would not press the button first. I do not know how such weapons could be used without the button being pressed or without the necessary signal being passed to the R.A.F. How does my right hon. Friend's pledge square with the doctrine elaborated by the Secretary of State for Defence at Munich? No wonder Lord Wigg affectionately described the Secretary of State as "Suicide Healey". If we are not to use nuclear weapons or, alternatively, if we are committed to a policy of suicide, I cannot envisage how this great number of aeroplanes about which we are speaking will defend the population of this country.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

Is it possible that the Prime Minister was thinking of the excuse given by the young lady who had an illegitimate baby and said, "It is only a little one"? Perhaps the Prime Minister was thinking only of little nuclear weapons.

Mr. Hughes

If I start talking about illegitimate babies I will soon be called to order. Perhaps my hon. Friend will raise that matter when we are debating the Ministry of Health.

Why do we need all these aircraft? Will they take part in a European conflict? My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Robert Howarth) spoke of the massive air power of the Soviet Union. Russia has, under Communism, developed amazing air strength, which is not my idea of what Communism should be doing. Hon. Members who have travelled across Siberia to Japan in large aeroplanes which use virtually the same engines as bombers appreciate the tremendous destructive power of the Soviet Air Force. But are we being asked to enter an arms race with the Soviet Union? We boast about the Concorde, but Russia is technologically ahead of us even there.

On the other side is America, with its enormous destructive air power. President Nixon has been talking about anti-ballistic defence systems. We talk in terms of millions of £s. They talk in billions. To enter an arms race with the United States or try to compete with Russia would beggar us and eventually bankrupt us.

Hon. Members talk about conventional defence of shipping. One word we have not heard in this debate is "rocket". Hon. Members do not realise the tremendous technical developments in delivering atomatic weapons by rockets. Russia and America have developed a technique for taking rockets to the Moon. If they can take them to the Moon, to Venus or Mars, they could drop enough hydrogen bombs in a couple of minutes on this country to destroy it. Yet we are talking about the Air Force as if it is relevant to the situation developing in the world and which will develop much more in the next decade.

We are wasting a large amount of money. Instead of reducing this Vote by 1,000 men, which is the traditional approach, we should reduce it by £500 million and put that £500 million into civil aircraft. Then we could have a civil aircraft industry. Instead we are taking away the resources and energies of the country and putting them into an air force which, if it is not obsolete now, will certainly be obsolete during the next decade. I appeal for a little realism in these debates. I do not see why we should go on spending £2,000 million every year without looking at what is happening in the world.

When we were in Opposition we moved votes of censure on the Government. I remember the last one in which we said that £20,000 million had been wasted in different kinds of aircraft in the previous 13 or 14 years. The same process is going on now, perhaps at a slightly reduced rate. We are still putting these enormous sums of money into buying American aircraft and into manufacturing aircraft of our own. I do not see how this House can get enthusiastic about spending this money one week and then complain about balance of payments when we come to the Budget. When the Government said we were to abolish TSR2 I thought that we were on the road to regaining our sanity, but instead we are spending our money on American aircraft. It is still a bit of a mystery, but it means spending large sums of money.

Every year I make my protest. If anyone survives another war and reads this debate, they will see that my hon. Friend and I have taken the proper line in making an emphatic protest.

11.49 p.m.

Mr. Stephen Hastings (Mid-Bedfordshire)

I want, first, to apologise to the House and to the Minister for having arrived late this evening during the course of the debate, through circumstances beyond my control. If in the course of my speech I touch on anything which has been fully covered already, I will immediately accept from the Minister any recommendation that I should pass on, because I know how irritating repetition can be, particularly late at night.

The speech just delivered by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) deserves attention. In these debates which take place year by year, we are always indebted to him for the light that he throws upon our problems. He is the Don Quixote of defence in the House of Commons. Every year, in one debate or another, he mounts his ancient horse, lowers his lance, and charges at everything—bows and arrows, the A.F.V.G., the TSR2, or whatever the most modern defence equipment may be. The hon. Gentleman does it with absolute conviction. We always respect him for that.

The hon. Gentleman admitted frankly that pacificism was his creed and that this was the reason for his mounting his horse every year. It is, perhaps, not unfair to suggest that, boiling the hon. Gentleman's views down to their essence, he believes that all defence and all concepts of war are reprehensible and wrong —who would deny this; nevertheless, some of us would say that war is inevitable in some degree in this wicked world; the hon. Gentleman says, "No"—but that, if it has to be, it is better the equipment is in the hands of the Soviet Union than in our hands.

Mr. Emrys Hughes


Mr. Hastings

This is my interpretation of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Therefore, he argues, if defeat has to be, because this implies victory or defeat, it would be better that we should be defeated than that the Soviet Union should be. This is where the hon. Gentleman is hoist on his windmill as the years pass. The hon. Gentleman complained that the R.A.F. was engaged in this tremendous operation on which the Government have embarked in Anguilla and was dropping leaflets. I had not heard about this. The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs spared us this desperate news this afternoon.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

The hon. Gentleman has misrepresented my argument. I am as much against the Soviet Union spending colossal sums on so-called defence as I am against our spending colossal sums on it. I say it is leading to suicide. I want neither the Soviet Union nor the West to commit suicide.

Mr. Hastings

I entirely accept that. But there is a gradation of opinion in the hon. Gentleman's head; having listened to him diligently during the several years I have been here I would say that that was it.

Mr. Emrys Hughes


Mr. Hastings

Yes. It is exactly what he has said this evening, as right hon. and hon. Members, at any rate those on this side, will testify to. The hon. Gentleman asks: why should we presume to compete with the Soviet Union, since from his journeys through Siberia or wherever it be he thinks that their power is unassailable; if there has to be a balance of victory or defeat, it had better be in favour of the Soviet Union. Anybody who has listened to the hon. Gentleman throughout the years will agree with my interpretation of his attitude.

I turn from the hon. Gentleman's interesting speech to two fairly narrow points which I wish to put to the Minister. The first concerns the question of the multi-rôle combat aircraft. The second concerns the question of helicopters. It will be no news to the Minister that, since the present Government came to power, I have done my best to explain why of the various shortcomings of their policies over the years what they have done in defence aviation has been perhaps as damaging to Britain as anything at all.

I do not want in any way to embark upon the general point tonight. I merely remind the Minister that there is only one project on the drawing boards in Britain today which matters at all in defence aviation—that is the M.R.C.A. There is nothing else. This is an international project. It is going reasonably well, I understand. There are two versions—the two-seat and the one-seat. If it is to be the two-seat, then the design leadership rests at Preston. If it is the one-seat, it goes to Germany. The commonality between the two is something which can be worked out and, given an international company to direct the affair —as, for instance, Sepicat in the case of the Jaguar—things could go well. There are four companies involved—B.A.C., Fiat, Fokker, and Messersmicht Bolkow.

There are two questions on this subject which are of critical importance. We have heard that the whole of Britain's defence aviation in the future rested on the word of the Secretary of State for Defence upon the A.F.V.G.—and down it went Now we have only this one. In the industry and in the R.A.F. this is of principal and categoric importance.

Can the Minister satisfy us on these two points? First, what about the engine? The engine can only be, I think, either a Rolls-Royce concept or a Pratt and Whitney concept. In the case of either alternative, we are talking about paper work and no more. There is no hardware, there is nothing on the bench. They are theories at this stage. Doubtless Pratt and Whitney would represent that their work is further advanced, and Rolls-Royce would deny this.

We are permanently in a dilemma about this as long as we are stuck with the Plowden concept of the inevitability of international co-operation. If the countries and firms concerned accept a British engine, they will ipso facto insist upon design leadership on the airframe. Rolls-Royce, however, depends for its existence and its future upon the existence and the prosperity of a British airframe industry.

How will the Government work this out? Is not this at the base of the falsity, possibly, of the whole concept of international collaboration? I am not questioning the M.R.C.A. It may be inevitable. I hope that it succeeds, but let us at least be aware of the limitations of the whole idea and of the disastrous advice which that Plowden Committee gave us a year or two back. That is the first point on the M.R.C.A.

Second, what are the French up to? Their greed is amazing. Their aim and their belief is that they can establish a European dominance in airframe design. That is what they are after. We have learned our lesson a time or two. The A.F.V.G., the cornerstone of British defence aviation, as the Secretary of State described it—

Mr. Wall

The core.

Mr. Hastings

I beg his pardon.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Core, as of an apple.

Mr. Hastings

My right hon. Friend is, of course, quite right.

Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

The core, to be thrown away.

Mr. Hastings

Down it went. I and a number of my hon. Friends warned that that would happen, because some of us are connected with the industry and we knew what Dassault was up to. We knew that the Mirage 3G was on the stocks. "No", said the Secretary of State, "not at all." The Minister said that any suggestion that such a thing could happen was ridiculous. But, of course, it did. The A.F.V.G. was cancelled "for financial reasons," said the French Government, and three or four weeks afterwards up came Dassault with the Mirage 3G. Since then, and at this hour, the French are indisputably busy in Bonn advancing the Mirage 3G as an alternative to the M.R.C.A. That is undeniable.

It may be that our German friends in Messerschmidt and the German Government say that such talk is idle and that the French cannot expect to have any success in their permanent attempts to prise the German aircraft industry away from any connection with this country unless they produce orders for this aircraft which would make it worth while. That would seem to me to be an entirely acceptable proposition and likely to be true.

There are, however, rumours, and the Minister will surely not be unaware of them, that perhaps the French may be making headway here. I would welcome any news that the hon. Gentleman can give tonight as to whether this vital project for the British aircraft industry is as firm as we have every right to hope that it may be.

I turn to the second of the two points which I wish to raise with him, I feel in a sense that I should apologise to the Minister, because I base this on no more than rumour and hearsay, but there is always a good deal of hearsay and rumour going round in an industry as alive and as far-ranging in its implications as our aircraft industry. It is also a matter of history that a number of the rumours which have circulated over recent years have turned out to be nearer the truth than fiction.

The premise is this. Of the various new concepts in aviation, one of the most important over recent years—and it has emerged from practice in Vietnam—is that of the gunship or the armed helicopter. Is it not a fact that, for a long time now, this idea has been going the rounds in Whitehall, and there has been a fairly extensive disagreement between the Army and the R.A.F. about who should arm helicopters designed, for instance, for tank busting or attack from air? Air cavalry the Americans call it— an evocative and descriptive phrase.

I understand that the argument has now been settled, and it will be the business of the Army to arm helicopters for tank busting. If that is right, we are in the game in terms of our own defence—I give credit to the Government for having taken an important decision—and we are also in the market on a world scale for weapons of high sophistication, and with little competition, save from the United States.

The rumour is that, having arrived at this point, the Army is, naturally, in a hurry to arm the helicopters. What weapon should be used? There is a choice of two. I ask the Minister to pay particular attention to this part of my speech. From what I know of the position, I take it that either we buy the French SS11 or we use Swingfire. The difference between the two is clear. Nord-Aviation absolutely depend on the order. It would, I should imagine, reduce the price to peanuts to sell the SS11. It is immensely important to that company. But it so happens that the SS11 is obsolescent.

On the British side, Swingfire might or might not cost a little more. I question whether it would be delivered slower than the French weapon. I do not think that there would be trouble there. And it is a second-generation weapon, infinitely more efficacious, with a two to one cost-efficiency advantage over the French and with a guidance system which is so much better that it is not in the same league.

I am not talking in a nationalistic way about choosing British rather than French. I am talking about a potential market for a new arm, which the Americans have certainly proved in action, and which we are in a good position to furnish worldwide. For heaven's sake, let us not make a mistake here.

For nearly five years now, we have suffered such a lot in defence matters under this Government. I say at once that I am not making this as a personal attack upon the Minister or his hon. and right hon. Friends who have been on the Front Bench this evening. Most of the disasters we have suffered over defence equipment in this country as a result of this Government's decisions predate the appointments of the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends. I do not make a personal attack, but what I do say is that it will be decades before we get over what we have done to the aircraft industry and the country's capability to defend itself in terms of air defence.

Having reached this stage, let Ministers make no mistake of the kind I have foreshadowed. I have put two matters to them tonight: first, the only project—alas, an international one and not our own—which is potentially on our drawing boards, the multi-rôle combat aircraft; second, there is the concept of the armed helicopter. Let them get it right. I hope that we shall have some explanation from the Minister on the two matters which I have put to him.

12.5 a.m.

Mr. Victor Goodhew (St. Albans)

I share one thought with the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), and that is one of regret that those who take part in this debate seem to be under some pressure because of the rather heavy overloading of the Government's programme today.

However, having said that, may I congratulate the Minister on having presented this first set of Air Estimates and, having done so, say that, like my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wembley, North (Sir E. Bullus), this is the first time that I have taken part in a debate on the Air Estimates in which there has been no Minister responsible for the Royal Air Force here to answer the questions which have been asked. It is not the Minister's fault, but I think it is unsatisfactory that it should be so, and I hope that the Prime Minister will not make a habit of appointing to the various Ministerial posts noble Lords, however worthy or good, who sit in another place. We have to debate these matters in detail in this House and it is not fair to the Minister of Defence for Equipment that he should be expected to know so much detail about the R.A.F. as a Minister responsible for that Service would have in his own mind.

We have to look at the rôle of the Royal Air Force, as with the other Services, in the context of the overall policy outlined in the Statement on Defence. This seems to be broadly that we are aiming at greater flexibility—that is to say, less dependence on nuclear weapons and a greater dependence upon conventional weapons. The R.A.F. has carried the nuclear burden with honour for some years now, and it is to hand the task over entirely to the Royal Navy when the third Polaris submarine becomes operational some time this year. When this happens, the Vulcans of Strike Command will then be transferred to a tactical rôle.

What I should like to know, like my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall), is what is the R.A.F. to do for a long-range strike reconnaissance aircraft after 1970 when the Canberras have finally disappeared from the scene? If we are to rely more upon conventional weapons than on nuclear weapons, clearly the tactical strike reconnaissance rôle becomes more important and not less. It will be remembered that the TSR2 was to have filled this rôle up till the moment when it was cancelled by the then Chancellor in his 1965 Budget speech.

However, this having gone, the Anglo-French variable geometry aircraft was to replace the cancelled TSR2 and this was to be in service by the mid-1970s. The gap between 1970 and the mid-1970s was to be filled by the Vulcans supplemented by the F111 as a spearhead type of aircraft. But the F111, as the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force pointed out at the time in the Air Estimates debate in 1967, was to have a "vast radius of action", to quote his words—far longer than the Anglo-French variable geometry aircraft —and the need for it was not confined to the area east of Suez. Indeed, we were to have two-thirds of the force stationed in the United Kingdom.

He said: … the principal rôles of the F111 aircraft will be tactical and particularly reconnaissance to support our forces in any military operations and to discharge our responsibilities to our allies."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th March, 1967; Vol. 743, c. 247.] He said that the F111 would fulfill its rôle long after the AFVG comes into service. But the AFVG was abandoned and the F111 was cancelled.

What is the R.A.F. to do now for tactical strike and reconnaissance? We are told that discussions are taking place— and these have been referred to by my hon. Friends—with Germany, Italy and the Netherlands about producing a multi-rôle combat aircraft. We hope these negotiations will be successful. But this aircraft is not likely to be ready by the mid-1970s even if agreement is reached. Indeed, the Government have acknowledged this. Whilst the Supplementary Statement on Defence of 1968 spoke of having it in the mid-1970s, the Secretary of State, in presenting the Statement, said on 25th July last year: The major problem remaining for the R.A.F. is to introduce a new combat aircraft for service in the middle or late 1970s when V-bombers and Bucaneers are no longer adequate for the task."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th July, 1968; Vol. 769, c. 1013.] Already we see that the multi-rôle combat aircraft is slipping, as the AFVG slipped before it finally disappeared. Are the Vulcans expected to continue until the late 1970s? I suspect not. But even if they are, they require supplementing by the F111, according to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force at that time. He said, in the Air Estimates debate in 1968, The V-force, due to operate in the tactical rôle, could not fill the gap unless it was bracketed with a spearhead type of aircraft— the F111—the Vulcan remaining, to the mid-1970s. He went on to say that the cancellation of the F111 created "a serious gap". Indeed, he added, as well he might, The whole question is very difficult". As reported in column 787, in reference to the Buccaneer Mark II, he said, I am advised that this aircraft is not in the same class as the F111.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th March, 1968; Vol. 760, c. 786–87.] We had the Minister telling us on 4th March that the Buccaneers will form the backbone of the R.A.F. I suspect the word "backbone" after what has happened— strike reconnaissance, both here and in Germany in the next few years."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th March, 1969; Vol. 779, c. 353.] The R.A.F. is to be given as the backbone of its strike reconnaissance force an aircraft considered to be inadequate only a year ago by the Minister responsible for the R.A.F. at that time, an aircraft inferior in class to that required.

Speaking in the Air Estimates Debate two years ago, the then Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force justified the proposed purchase of the F111 in these words: Although we do not plan to indulge in major operations without the co-operation of allies, this does not absolve us from the responsibility of maintaining a balanced force capable of making a contribution which those allies would value, nor indeed from the responsibility for providing our own forces of all three Services with strike reconnaissance support."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th March, 1967; Vol. 743, c. 245–46.] What has happened in the last two years to render that statement invalid? If that were true two years ago, why are we now told that the R.A.F. is to make do with the Vulcans and the Buccaneers? The hon. Member told us two weeks ago that qualitatively, our new European posture will make relatively little difference to the content of our equipment programme."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th March, 1969; Vol. 779, c. 350.] We therefore know that the change back to Europe has not affected this decision about what the R.A.F. needed. I hope that in his winding up speech he will spell our in careful detail the defence reasoning behind this volte face and will also tell us what changes in the rôle of the R.A.F. have been made to take account of this downgrading of a vital operational requirement.

I hope that he will also tell us what plans he has for equipping the R.A.F. with a new strike reconnaissance aircraft in the late 1970s should the present negotiations with Germany, Italy and the Netherlands collapse. Is he prepared to give the British aircraft industry, as my hon. Friends have suggested, a chance to build an aircraft to meet the R.A.F.'s needs, or will he buy in France or America? The lesson of the Harrier is that if this country produces a good aircraft there is always a market for it, and for that not to be remembered now would be a tragic event. One point is certain: we cannot go on indefinitely allowing this requirement to be filled by stop-gap second-best aircraft.

We are worried not only about the types of aircraft but also about the numbers. I should like the Minister to answer a question about the number of aircraft in R.A.F. Germany. In an intervention on 5th March my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Sir Ian Orr-Ewing) asked the Minister of Defence for Administration what were the aircraft figures to support B.A.O.R. at tactical strength in 1964 and what they are today. The right hon. Gentleman merely said, The aircraft are still there, and in the United Kingdom, as they have been in the past".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th March 1969; Vol. 779, c. 455.] That was a very convenient way of not answering the question.

Mr. Reynolds

The correct way of answering it.

Mr. Goodhew

The reason the right hon. Gentleman did not give us the answer is that he knows, as I have no doubt the Russians also know, that there has been a drastic reduction in the number of aircraft in R.A.F. Germany over the past two years. It is absurd that we in the House should not be told when this must be perfectly well known to the Russians and everybody else.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

It is not the Russians that the Government are trying to keep it from—it is our allies.

Mr. Goodhew

One sometimes wonders how the present Government are dealing with defence.

It is very difficult for hon. Members to obtain detailed information about squadrons and aircraft. For some unknown reason the Defence White Paper supplies us with a list of the Royal Navy's fleet of ships so that we may judge the Government's performance in running them down to a dangerously low level, but apparently when it comes to the R.A.F. we are not allowed to know. We must scratch about in all sorts of places picking up bits and pieces to try to put the jigsaw puzzle together, and when we have done this there is no chance of our ever confirming whether the picture we have built up is accurate.

One thing that is certain is that the number of front-line aircraft in the R.A.F. today is probably well below 500. That is about a quarter of the R.A.F.'s strength at the outbreak of war in 1939 and about one-twentieth of its strength in 1945. One is bound to ask whether the Government appreciate the indispensable rôle of air cover in all military and naval operations, quite apart from the need for air reconnaissance, strike and defence capabilities.

We should also ask whether the number of aircraft is to increase with a renewal of the accent on conventional as opposed to nuclear weapons. One aircraft carrying a nuclear weapon can knock out an airfield quite simply, but when conventional weapons are used two squadrons are probably needed to do the same job. Has account been taken of this by the Secretary of State for Defence in his present plans?

The White Paper tells us many things. I should like to comment on a number, but I shall try to be brief, as I know we are under pressure.

One thing that disturbs me is the idea that suddenly we have to have graduate entry for the R.A.F., that we cannot have direct entry except from university graduates, though I know that the Supplementary List is for non-graduates. This is rather worrying. The Minister said that the university authorities are enthusiastic. Of course, they would be. That is natural. They would like to be providing the officers, pilots and so on for the R.A.F. But it is sad to see the Cranwell cadet depart from the scene. I am sure that no one on either side of the House would wish to let this moment pass without mentioning the great record the cadets from Cranwell have had in the Air Force. I have no doubt that Cranwell's traditions will be carried on when it continues as an officers' training school.

The shortage of commissioned entrants to the Engineers' Branch has been with us for some time. What is being done about it? This is a particularly sensitive area in which to be short.

Looking through the figures for both commissioned entrants and airmen, one finds very disturbing shortages. Is this just the result of the uncertainties of the continuing defence review, or is not the now infamous decision to transfer the responsibility for Service pay from the Grigg Committee to the Prices and Incomes Board responsible for much of this uncertainty and unhappiness?

Mr. Reynolds

One of the problems was that they were all told 10 years ago that the manned aircraft was finished.

Mr. Goodhew

I do not see what relevance that has to the Grigg Committee and the Prices and Incomes Board. I know that the right hon. Gentleman worries about this problem. In particular, I hope he is worried about the Medical Branch. May we have figures of the number of doctors in the R.A.F. and what the shortfall is? This is glossed over in the White Paper. The reason, of course, is that we have a situation in which Service doctors who should have been kept 15 per cent. ahead of the pay of general practitioners have been allowed to get about 34 per cent. behind, and the Government seem content to leave it that way. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has talked to the B.M.A., which refused to take advertisements for the B.M.A. Journal because it could not recommend its members to undertake Service careers.

Mr. Reynolds

The B.M.A. for two years refused to talk to me, but I have talked to it recently.

Mr. Goodhew

That is encouraging. Perhaps the B.M.A. was disturbed by what the right hon. Gentleman had done. I am glad that he has been able to persuade it to talk to him again. I shall skip great chunks of my speech —[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]— although I can always use them if hon. Members wish—and will merely say, therefore, that the manpower shortages in the R.A.F. are particularly disturbing in the light of the slip which is included in the fine recruiting pamphlet—from which, I notice, sadly, one or two photographs of aircraft have been removed—and in which we are told by the Director-General of the Royal Air Force Manning that half the men in the R.A.F. now are due to leave by 1973. If that is so, I do not know how hon. Members opposite can sit there laughting as they do this evening. They should be a great deal more concerned than they appear to be.

We have constantly criticised the Government and the Secretary of State in particular for the continuing uncertainty they have created over the past four years for those serving the country in the Armed Forces. We have warned the Secretary of State again and again of the likely effect of this not only on those already serving but on those who might otherwise decide to serve. We welcome the Government's belated recognition of the validity of our warnings, which, at the time, they rejected, and we hope they will now recognise the equally damaging effect of the delays imposed by the reference to the Prices and Incomes Board.

The country owes a great debt of gratitude to the men and women of the Royal Air Force for their fine devotion to duty It may sometimes appear to them that this is taken for granted. I am sure that is not so in this House and we on this side wish to place on record tonight our personal gratitude for all that they do.

12.23 a.m.

Mr. John Morris

We have had an interesting debate. I shall not detain the House unduly at this late hour. I shall follow the example of the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew) in that he laid on one side large chunks of his speech in fairness to the House at this hour. If I have to be highly selective in the points to which I reply now, I will write to those hon. Members who have raised matters with which I have no time to deal tonight.

There was a certain air of innocence in the hon. Member's remarks just before he sat down when he complained that the House was not allowed to know certain details about figures and numbers. There has been no change in practice under this Government from what the Conservative Government did in regard to numbers, ranges and specifications. If he was not aware of this, I have enlightened him now, so perhaps he need no longer give a picture of injured innocence.

We had a comprehensive speech from the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield). I thought at times that it was rather gloomy. When I interrupted him it was in order to indicate that perhaps he should give a rather more balanced picture in discussing the various aircraft projects and the success which had been achieved in collaboration over a period of years. I thought at one stage that there was a measure of inconsistency in what he said about collaboration. In the case of the Jaguar, for example, we have had a successful collaborative venture. We hear little about it, perhaps because of its success and the variants which are in process of being produced.

Mr. Corfield

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will recognise that it is very much easier to co-operate with one other country, as opposed to three, and he must admit that there is a bigger difference of opinion between us and the Germans as to what is wanted than there was between us and the French.

Mr. Morris

I agree that there is in creased difficulty when there are more than two partners, but one can also discuss the collaboration which is taking place on helicopters—

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman seems to be under the impression that we are up against some sort of time schedule. Is this debate to be concluded for some procedural reason, or is the hon. Gentleman at liberty to answer the points which have been raised without shortening his speech for some procedural reason?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harry Gourlay)

At 10 o'clock, the House suspended the Standing Order.

Mr. Morris

The hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) has not been with us for all or, indeed, any part of the debate. I thought, in much the same way as the hon. Member for St. Albans, that, as a matter of courtesy, it would be intolerable to detain the House unduly at this late hour. It was in that spirit that I made my opening remarks. However, we have noted the hon. Gentleman's contribution to the debate.

The first point raised by the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South concerned the Harrier. As he knows, the order for the additional 20 aircraft was announced in November, 1968, as part of our intention to increase our contribution to SACEUR following the Czech crisis.

The Harrier is the first V/STOL aircraft to reach squadron service, and we cannot extol its virtues too highly. It represents a completely new concept of military aviation capabilities, to complement our close-support squadrons of conventional aircraft.

Over the next year or so, our aim will be to explore and exploit the operational advantages of this new capability and so identify the technical and logistic problems of operating it from dispersed bases in the field. The extra power expected from the uprating of the Pegasus engine will permit the Air Force to assess the possibilities of operating the Harrier from the decks of naval vessels as well as from land bases in the way that I outlined in my speech in the Defence debate. The outcome of this experience will show whether it would be right to put more of our effort into V/STOL capabilities, perhaps in the form of more Harriers, or whether the present balance of our air forces should be maintained.

Meanwhile, there is great overseas interest in the Harrier, especially with the advantages of the uprated engine, which is a very different kind of animal. It would be premature, however, to deal with any country or any buyer with whom we might be able to make some contract.

The M.R.C.A. has been raised by a large number of hon. Members, and here I deal briefly with the issue of collaboration. The experience of the last few years has emphasised the dangers of embarking on large advanced military aircraft development projects on our own. That is why we are trying to launch joint projects on a collaborative basis, a number of them in collaboration with our European allies.

Collaboration is not easy at any stage, but it cannot get oft the ground without basic agreement on operational requirements. This, in turn, inevitably involves compromises amongst air forces; for instance, approaching operational problems from differing national standpoints. This is exactly what is happening with the M.R.C.A., the project for a future N.A.T.O combat aircraft which we are discussing with the German, Dutch and Italian Governments. We are now in the final stages of a feasibility study aimed at meeting the aircraft needs of all the participating countries from one basic aircraft design, and it is very worth while spending a good deal of time and effort on this vital initial stage.

It is now very likely that this can be achieved with a degree of commonality amounting to some 80 per cent. It is, however, a feature of the project that it will be able to accommodate each country's particular requirements with regard —particularly in the case of the R.A.F. —to avionics, terrain-following radar, and all-weather capability. Our hopes in this field are now concentrated on the M.R.C.A. project. It would be inconsistent with this type of collaboration to pursue a purely national project or the prospect of collaboration with some other country.

Mr. Dalyell

Some of us are still very curious why there should be different operational requirements between countries for M.R.C.A. in the first place, as between ourselves and Germany. This was the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley). Are not staffs prone to be too fussy, and cannot we have more than 80 per cent. commonality?

Mr. Morris

This is a difficult point for me to elaborate at this juncture. The various air staffs have been in the course of prolonged discussions which I have followed closely in the last few months. All I am trying to say is this—when the partners geographically are not exactly in the same position as to the potential use of the aircraft, the philosophy of the countries cannot be exactly the same. What we are trying to achieve is a high degree of commonality between the different approaches of the different countries.

I am sure the hon. Member will agree with me on reflection that while these discussions are taking place, and we have the hopes which I have set out today, it would not be useful for me to elaborate any further. What we are trying to achieve is the greatest commonality possible.

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Hastings) asked a number of questions on the engine. All the studies have so far been carried out on the basis of a Rolls-Royce design, but the actual choice of engine will be a separate decision. All the members of the consortium want the best engine at the cheapest price, and of course we hope a British engine will be chosen. But other possible designs will also have to be considered on an objective basis. These, I hope, will be studied in the very near future.

We have heard some newspaper comment on this, but there is no truth at all in the suggestion that there is, I quote, "a plan to equip the Royal Air Force with the Mirage G".

The French are not at present a member of the M.R.C.A. consortium, and it is this consortium which is at present providing the focus for co-operation on a future European combat aircraft.

Mr. Hastings

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves this point, can he tell us anything about the extent of the offers which the French at this moment are making to the Germans over the Mirage G, and their attempts to take them out of this arrangement over the M.R.C.A.?

Mr. Morris

My responsibility is to answer for Her Majesty's Government and not for the German Government, and I am not able to comment any further on what the hon. Gentleman has said.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of Malaysia, and a return to Labuan by the R.A.F. and the supply generally of fighter aircraft to Malaysia linked with the proposal for this return. The Government have considered very carefully the question whether we should be justified in stationing R.A.F. aircraft permanently in East Malaysia again, but we do not believe there is at present any threat which would warrant the return of the R.A.F. to Labuan. I can assure the House that we can carry out our obligations in the area, if necessary.

Concerning the Hunters and Harriers, the Government and British aircraft firms are in close and continuing touch with the Malaysian Government about their requirements for fighter aircraft. An evaluation team, headed by chiefs of the air staff of the Royal Malaysian Air Force will be in this country next week to see and discuss the aircraft which might meet their needs. I shall have talks with them. I can assure the House that the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Technology and the firms concerned will give the team all the help and advice that they can. I hope that, as a result of our efforts, the Malaysian Government will buy British aircraft. Certainly they will not find better aircraft anywhere else.

I am sure the House will forgive me if I do not deal with the points made about the offset credit arrangements. I have a large amount of material on this matter and I will write to hon. Members about it.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) asked about the types of aircraft used in the Anguillan operation. We used a number of different types: VC10's, Britannias, Hercules, Andovers, and a Comet. It is much too early to give any indication of the cost of the operation. However, I hope that the troops will not be there for very long. We hope for an early withdrawal.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Ellis) enjoyed himself tremendously in his speech on weather forecasting. We can all remember the times when the weather forecasters are wrong; we never remember the times when they are right. My hon. Friend's catalogue of grievances and his case for more specific and more detailed information has been noted. I was fascinated by what he had to say. He made a point of great value when he said that the aim all the time should be to provide to an even wider range of people the kind of service that is now enjoyed by a large number of industries. This is what we should aim for. Certainly the forecasts should be more accurate. There is not time to deal with the new computer, but I will write to my hon. Friend about it. However, I hope that this new computer, which will be one of the largest in the country, will be able to provide the service with the ability to give an even better service of the kind that my hon. Friend wants.

Mr. Ellis


Mr. Speaker

Order. Interventions prolong speeches. I have, however, no power to stop them.

Mr. Ellis

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I should like my hon. Friend to examine how forecasts are made to adduce how well they have been carried out. I think that we need better criteria.

Mr. Morris

I have noted the need for some kind of better inquest machinery.

The hon. and gallant Member for Wembley, North (Sir E. Bullus) has apologised for not being able to stay. I think that my remarks about the transport fleet of the Royal Air Force earlier dealt with the anxieties that he expressed.

There were many other points, but I should like to deal with the point raised fairly late in the debate by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire about the aiming of helicopters. In case he should think that I am avoiding the issue by curtailing my remarks, in courtesy to the House, I will deal with this point immediately.

We have taken a decision to arm helicopters for the Army. They will be armed with the SS11. The order for the SS 11 is a small one to meet—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire raised the matter, and in courtesy to him I should be permitted to reply. As I was saying, the order for the SS11 is a small one to meet an urgent operational requirement to strengthen the anti-tank capabilities of the B.A.O.R. This weapon is already in service with the Royal Navy on the Wasp helicopter which is the naval version of the Scout. This order is without prejudice to any future weapons which may be considered for use in arming Army helicopters. I thought that the hon. Gentleman would be unhappy about what I had to say, so out of courtesy to him I thought that I had better inform him of that.

Mr. Hastings

It is madness.

Mr. Morris

The hon. Gentleman has had his chance, and I am now having mine.

The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) asked about the release of information relating to flying accidents. The practice of not publishing regular statistics of accidents involving Service aircraft is of long standing, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we have been carrying out a review of this policy, the results of which will be announced in the near future. All useful information about Service aircraft accidents which have a bearing on flight safety is already released to the Board of Trade and others directly responsible for flight safety, as well as to the Ministry of Technology and the aviation companies, on a confidential basis.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that from the point of view of improving flight safety the publication of accident statistics is of less value than the lessons to be learned from the circumstances of individual accidents. Each accident is the subject of detailed investigation and searching analysis, and the results of each case are discussed fully with the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Technology. The Board of Trade makes full use of this knowledge in discharging its responsibility to civil aviation.

I am sure that at this late hour the House will forgive me if I do not deal further with any of the detailed points which have been raised. Perhaps I might be allowed to conclude by saying that the right theories and the right equipment are important, but that they are nothing without the right men—thoroughly professional in training and discipline, organised, responsive, leaving nothing to chance, yet with an adventurous spirit ready to rise to every challenge. The Royal Air Force has a remarkable tradition which combines high professionalism with a bold spirit, and in every way this tradition is fully maintained. It is a great Service, with a great future, which offers a great life to a young man worthy of it.

Question, That the said number be reduced by 1,000 men, put and negatived.

Original Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That a number of Officers, Airmen and Airwomen, not exceeding 118,000, all ranks, be maintained for Air Force Service, during the year ending on the 31st day of March 1970.

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