HC Deb 22 March 1977 vol 928 cc1056-9
3. Mr. Churchill

asked the Secretary of State for Defence how much money has been invested, to date, in the Nimrod airborne early warning project.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Frederick Mulley)

About £14 million.

Mr. Churchill

Is the Secretary of State aware that as the only member of an alliance with a rival—I must say a very good rival—to the Boeing AWACS in a very advanced state of development, Britain has been patient long enough? Will the Secretary of State give a categorical undertaking to the House and to the industry, which has so many jobs at stake, that in the event of no decision being taken in Brussels later this week at the ministerial meeting the British Government will go full steam ahead and back Nimrod?

Mr. Mulley

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman, speaking, as I am sure he does, on behalf of the Conservative Party. I shall, of course, convey that view to my ministerial colleagues. I shall not at this juncture speculate on the outcome of Friday's meeting, but clearly, having stressed the urgency of the matter in December, I shall want if at all possible to reach a final decision on Friday. I shall be referring to this matter later in today's debate.

Mr. Flannery

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Yorkshire Labour MPs recently met a deputation of workers from the aircraft factory at Brough on this subject? There is a deep feeling that undue deference should not be shown to the Americans on this issue and that we should back this aircraft, as has been said from the Opposition Benches, because it is thought throughout the trade that it is better and that it will preserve jobs.

Mr. Mulley

I am much obliged to my hon. Friend. My ministerial colleagues and I have met about 30 deputations and we have clearly got the message of the importance attached to this project by the aircraft industry.

Mr. Arnold

Why is the right hon. Gentleman now prepared to reveal figures about this project when a month ago he was saying that security considerations prevented his doing any such thing?

Mr. Mulley

The only figures that we have been able to give are very rough estimates, because the negotiations in NATO about the final determination of shares are still not concluded. As regards the industry, both the companies and ourselves are in a difficulty in terms of disclosing figures in advance of what may be a contractual negotiation. Obviously we cannot begin this negotiation until a decision is taken to proceed.

10. Mr. Arnold

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he has now reached a decision with regard to the purchase of an airborne early warning Nimrod.

Mr. Mulley

No. But I very much hope that NATO Defence Ministers will reach a decision when we meet later this week. Meanwhile, work on Nimrod is continuing.

Mr. Arnold

Is it not the case that the Nimrod system is broadly comparable to the proposed Boeing AWACS? Why does the Secretary of State pretend otherwise?

Mr. Mulley

It is not the case that the two systems are comparable, because they were designed for different military requirements. The AWACS was designed to meet the needs of the congested land and air space in Central Europe, and the Nimrod, which was in competition but which, unfortunately, was not chosen by NATO, was designed and will fulfil the requirements of the Eastern Atlantic, the Channel and the United Kingdom air defence region.

Mr. MacFarquhar

Will my right hon. Friend inform the House of the results of the latest negotiations on AWACS between the Germans and the Americans? Is there any possibility of the French Armee de l'Air entering the AWACS scheme in place of the Germans if the latter pull out?

Mr. Mulley

The decision will have to be a collective NATO one, and the purpose of the meeting is to discover the answers to all these questions. I would like to have the answers before I go to the meeting, but at the moment I do not have them.

Mr. Dykes

Does the Secretary of State agree that in many characteristics the Nimrod is superior to the American alternative? Senior Army officers as well as representatives of NATO forces have privately as well as semi-publicly expressed that view. Why, then, are the Government so self-effacing about this matter? This is literally the last opportunity for the United Kingdom to assert itself in respect of a first-rate military aircraft.

Mr. Mulley

The choice, if it is on a national basis, will, for our purposes, be the Nimrod. Equally, it is clear that the Alliance has considered and rejected Nimrod as a capability for the whole of the NATO area. There is absolutely no chance, in my view—much as I would like there to be and much as I shall try to achieve it—of the Nimrod's being adopted for the Alliance generally.

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