HC Deb 25 July 1978 vol 954 cc1350-1
9. Mr. Rhodes James

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he is satisfied with the ground attack—air-to-surface—capability of the Royal Air Force in support of ground forces, particularly in Europe; and if he intends to propose further developments in that capability.

Dr. Gilbert

The RAF's capability for ground attack is judged adequate to cope with the current threat. As indicated in the statement on the Defence Estimates, a number of improvements are under consideration, including the introduction of Tornado GR1, increasing the capabilities of the Harriers and Jaguars and their weapons systems, and the eventual replacement of these latter aircraft with a new tactical combat aircraft.

Mr. Rhodes James

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he not agree that this capability is absolutely crucial, particularly in the European sector, and should have high priority?

Dr. Gilbert

I entirely accept what the hon. Gentleman says.

Mr. Kinnock

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we shall not have any oysters, purple or otherwise, or any air capability if we do not pay the people who support the Forces' efforts and properly maintain both aircraft and naval ships? They simply will not be there to provide that service. The capability will go to hell.

Dr. Gilbert

I think that I accept my hon. Friend's proposition. I am not quite sure what relevance it has to the Royal Air Force which, unlike the Navy, tends not to rely on civil servants for most of its support.

Mr. Pattie

Is the Minister aware that there is widespread concern in the country about the lack of depth of our air defences? Can he confirm that the Government are considering an off-the-shelf purchase from the United States, the reciprocity for which would be the provision of Rapier units to defend United States forces in Europe?

Dr. Gilbert

There are certainly several proposals in an advanced stage of consideration for improving air defence arrangements for this country. I do not know of one that could be described in precisely the terms that the hon. Gentleman has put to me, but I shall be happy to write to him if he would like more details.

Mr. Churchill

Since we have fewer than 90 aircraft, including all reserves, for the air defence of the United Kingdom, and as there are no air defence aircraft in the pipeline until Tornado ADV comes on stream in the latter part of the 1980s, what plans does the Minister have for enhancing our air defence capability in terms of fighter aircraft?

Dr. Gilbert

If the hon. Gentleman had been listening to the answer, he would have heard me say that there would be a replacement of the Harriers and Jaguars with a new tactical combat aircraft. I think that the hon. Gentleman is confusing in his supplementary question, which relates to air defence, the Question on the Order Paper, which relates to air-to-surface capability in support of the ground forces.

Mr. Heffer

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it usual for Opposition Members, or anybody else, to give the actual numbers and figures of aircraft, and so on? Is that not stepping over the lines of official secrets?

Mr. Speaker

Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will raise that matter after Questions.