HC Deb 12 October 1976 vol 917 cc219-22
3. Mr. Arnold

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he is satisfied with the current level of funding for the development of an AEW Nimrod.

13. Mr. Tebbit

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the progress made towards the choice of replacement United Kingdom and NATO airborne early warning systems.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Dr. John Gilbert)

At the June 1976 meeting of the NATO Defence Planning Committee, Ministers decided that further comprehensive proposals for a NATO airborne early warning system should be presented to them at the next DPC meeting in December. Work on this is in hand. In the meantime, we are continuing to finance initial development work on the Nimrod option.

Mr. Arnold

Is it not the case that an AEW Nimrod would cost much less than AWACS? Have the Government now arrived at contract definition for the Boeing E3A, and, if so, on what cost effectiveness is it based?

Dr. Gilbert

A great deal of work still remains to be done in determining what would be the total cost of either option. We are certainly not in a position to take any decision before the December meeting, although we are well aware of the urgency—and we have impressed this on our NATO allies—of getting an agreement as soon as possible.

Dr. M. S. Miller

If we must spend a great deal of money on sophisticated weapons—and I take no pleasure in conceding that we must—will not my hon. Friend at least ensure that it is British technology and British factories which produce the goods required? Will he push for Nimrod in the belief that it is as good as anything which could be supplied by any other country?

Dr. Gilbert

I can assure my hon. Friend that we shall take very seriously into account the industrial implications of a choice for Nimrod or AWACS. I am sure he would be the first to appreciate that considerable advantages would flow from having a uniform NATO system, if we can get one agreed.

Mr. Tebbit

Has the Minister yet tumbled to the fact that if we purchased the Boeing AWACS it would mean the termination of a line of development which could not subsequently be reopened in this country? Will he therefore make it a precondition of such a purchase, if one is made, that a new line of collaborative development, with guaranteed sales in the United States and among our other partners, will be opened up and that that collaborative venture will have British design leadership?

Dr. Gilbert

I do not know whether I tumbled to what the hon. Gentleman described as a fact, but clearly one looks at the range of collaborative possibilities between NATO partners over the whole field and does not take simply one example in isolation. Clearly, in a high technology development of this sort, if the decision goes one way rather than the other, certain options are foreclosed. This is to speak in platitudes with which the hon. Gentleman will be familiar. If one were to go for AWACS, one would be looking for further collaborative ventures in which the balance would be more in our favour.

Mr. Roper

Will my hon. Friend ensure that, if it is not possible to find a common airborne early warning system for the whole of NATO, the two systems will have a large degree of interoperability?

Dr. Gilbert

Certainly. As I am sure my hon. Friend will be aware, as he studies these things closely, the Nimrod system differs from the AWACS system, particularly in its characteristics in regard to overland or oversea capabilities. As I understand it, however, it would be possible to operate a split system without any problems of incompatibility.

Mr. Pattie

Does the Minister agree that, if the Government's decision is to support the AWACS project, this will mean cancelling the British project, with an effect on British technology and also eventually an effect on employment?

Dr. Gilbert

If I understand the hon. Gentleman correctly, obviously if we were to go for AWACS we would not go for Nimrod as well. But I emphasise that we are still some months away from having to take a decision either way.

Mr. Onslow

Will the hon. Gentleman explain why he thinks we are some months away from having to take a decision? Is he not aware that there is great pressure to get a decision on this by January? Is he also aware that there are other very important decisions which will be taken in the near future, in particular the American decision on the XM-1 tank? Can he say whether he regards these as interlinked, or how he expects to be able to go on spinning matters out?

Dr. Gilbert

I think that the hon. Gentleman cannot have been listening to my earlier replies. I made it clear that we could not expect a decision until the next DPC meeting, which will be in December.

Mr. Onslow

That is not months away.

Dr. Gilbert

It is at least two months away. The hon. Gentleman cannot count. Secondly, while one would not wish to be specific in tying one project in with another, obviously one looks at the whole range of possible collaborative projects. It is very far from a question of our spinning things out. All the pressure at the moment for getting an early decision is coming from the British Government.

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