HC Deb 18 December 1973 vol 866 cc1129-31
10. Mr. Wall

asked the Minister of State for Defence if he will now make a statement on the employment of V/STOL aircraft at sea, and particularly in the new through-deck command cruisers.

19. Mr. Wilkinson

asked the Minister of State for Defence whether he will make a further statement on the proposed Royal Navy variant of the Harrier aircraft.

Mr. Ian Gilmour

I have nothing to add to what I said during the defence debate on 12th December.—[Vol. 866, c. 434–435.]

Mr. Wall

Is it not likely that these aircraft will be operating in the American, Spanish and even the French navies before operating in the Royal Navy? Is my hon. Friend aware that many people feel that these command cruisers will be a waste of money unless they operate with V/STOL aircraft? When will he be in a position to make a statement?

Mr. Gilmour

In reply to the first part of the supplementary question, with respect my hon. Friend is under a degree of misapprehension. The aeroplanes that are being used by the American Marines and that will be used by the Spanish navy are the Harrier version that we have already, not the maritime Harrier. Obviously, we have now to look at our defence programme as a whole in the light of the emergency, and I cannot give a definite answer as to when we shall make an announcement.

Mr. John Morris

Have not the Government been dithering on this issue year in and year out? Is it not high time, one way or the other, that the Fleet Air Arm was put out of its misery? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House frankly that it is one of the casualties of the present cut-down and part of the £178 million?

Mr. Gilmour

That is untrue, because we have not yet made a decision. When we do we shall communicate it to the House. As I have said before now to right hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition Front Bench, they should be cautious of opening their mouths on this matter. On their defence policy, in so far as they have one, there is no question of the maritime Harrier being afforded.

Mr. Wilkinson

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that export sales of this aircraft could recoup the development costs? Furthermore, would it not be a dangerous precedent that would not go unnoticed in the Kremlin if industrial action in this country were so to disrupt the economy as to incur a unilateral cut in defence expenditure on critically important programmes like this?

Mr. Gilmour

As my hon. Friend knows, we are fully aware of the export potential of this fine aircraft, and it is certainly one matter that we have to take into account. On the second point, as I said before, we have to assess the priority of this aircraft against other equipment.

Mr. Dalyell

May I send a public message to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that each through-deck cruiser costs £120 million and that through-deck cruisers were considered by many naval officers to be vulnerable and not worth the money even before recent events?

Mr. Gilmour

I have noticed that even the hon. Gentleman's private communications become public. Unfortunately, I missed the hon. Gentleman's speech in the defence debate in which he said that the Government had assented to that figure of £120 million, and I intended to write to him today about it. That figure of £120 million is not correct; it is purely his own figure.

Mr. Morris

Do I understand the Minister to say that he is still considering priorities? Does that mean that he does not know where the £178 million cut is to fall?

Mr. Gilmour

We do not know the exact details. Nobody pretends that we selected £178 million. The defence budget is making its contribution to the grave national emergency but, obviously, we cannot at this stage settle the exact details of the cuts.