HC Deb 15 June 1979 vol 968 cc869-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. MacGregor.]

4.15 p.m.

Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)

The subject of this debate is the decision in principle to increase substantially the number of air defence fighters available for the defence of the United Kingdom. That need is real and urgent.

I have no intention of engaging, either now or at any other time, in arguments about who is most blameworthy for the situation. Enough facts exist to support the case from whichever narrow party political view one wishes to argue. There is nothing to be gained from such sterile debate. The cold reality is that the rapid growth over the past decade in Soviet offensive air power poses a grave threat to Britain. Virtually the whole of the United Kingdom is now within range of the land-based aircraft of the Soviet air forces, spearheaded by the new Backfire bomber, now rapidly entering service with Soviet air forces, which is capable of supersonic flight and both high and low level penetration of United Kingdom air space.

Since this growing threat was first perceived in about 1971 the pattern and the implications of the developments of Soviet air power have entered more and more, into this country's defence considerations, with the result that improvements have been introduced or planned for nearly all elements of air defence. But there can be no doubt that the growth in Soviet offensive airpower will continue, both in quantity and in quality.

The hard fact must be faced that Britain is on the borderline of having insufficient fighter aircraft to meet the present threat. The situation is likely to deteriorate over the next few years unless positive action is taken to increase the number of air defence fighters available to the Royal Air Force for the defence of the United Kingdom.

What should be done? Indeed, what can be done? In reply to a question that I asked about this whole matter of fighter aircraft, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence said that he was considering the possibilities and their implications."—[Official Report, 11 June 1979; Vol. 968. c. 12.] I hope that he will accept this debate as a constructive contribution to that process.

There is no doubt about what should be be done. The decision in principle that has already been taken to increase the number of fighter aircraft must be carried through with the minimum of delay. This means a shift of defence resources to air defence. The percentage of the Royal Air Force Department's budget spent on air defence needs to be increased. When we are faced with this massive threat to the homeland, that would be a proper allocation of Royal Air Force resources.

The present cost of air defence is a mere fraction of the total defence budget. Therefore, I am not necessarily arguing for an increase in defence expenditure, but I am arguing on the basis of priority for a realignment of defence resources, a realignment in favour of the air defence of the homeland and of the protection of those vital assets of NATO and Europe, the air bridge from North America and the ports and harbours of the United Kingdom, so essential for the seaborne reinforcement of Europe.

Let there be no illusions. This essential reallocation of resources within the defence budget means tough decisions both within the Royal Air Force Department itself and between the competing demands of the other Services. Let no one lose sight of the simple fact that if conflict comes the survival of Britain and the protection of facilities so vital to Europe and to NATO may well depend on the outcome of the first few hours of conflict. The deployment of air power in defence and attack in those first few hours of conventional conflict may determine the fate of mankind, for the containment of conventional attack may well avoid the appalling alternatives of surrender or nuclear escalation.

What, then, can be done? First, there is Tornado F2, the air defence variant. It is hoped that this will be with the RAF by 1984. It is an expensive aircraft. What would an extra 50 or so cost? Would it be the best answer? The cost would probably be anything from £½ billion to £1 billion on defence expenditure. The probability is that the extra aircraft would not be ready to enter service with the Royal Air Force until the late 1980s or the early 1990s.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) rose

Mr. Wellbeloved

No, I am not giving way in an Adjournment debate. There is a lot to be said, and there will be other opportunities for the hon. Gentleman to speak.

The Phantom is an excellent interceptor aircraft that needs some improvement in its weapons systems and other equipment. But, updated, the Phantom may well prove to be not substantially below the performance of the ADV in some aspects. It has the advantage that it is already in service with the Royal Air Force and could well run on into the 1980s. Phantoms might fill the long-term as well as the short-term gap, but a decision needs to be taken soon before acquisition opportunities fade. The Minister should not rule out the possibilities for this aircraft.

Phantoms from the United States, new or refurbished, will be different in some major aspects from RAF Phantoms, which will mean problems of maintenance and spares. I ask the Minister, if this option shows promise, to bear in mind that the problems of different types of F4s might be minimised by bringing RAF Germany Phantoms to the United Kingdom for air defence and deploying the acquired Phantoms to RAF Germany. There are many benefits, which I need not discuss at this stage, in that possibility.

Other fighter aircraft might be available—for instance, the F14 and the F15. I shall not press the Minister at this moment on the subject of those aircraft because I am aware of some of the delicate considerations. Without downgrading the importance of European collaboration or the prospects for the European aerospace industry, can he say whether he has ruled out the possibility of buying, leasing or reaching some other arrangements with United States manufacturers, the United States Air Force, or other United States agencies?

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell the House his estimate of the target date for completion of his studies of the possibilities and their implications and to give a commitment to report back to Parliament the outcome of those considerations. Whether it is ADV, Phantom or some other type of fighter, it will take time before the aircraft are in service. But the need is urgent. The short term, as well as the long term, is vital. What options are open within existing resources?

I hope that the Minister can tell the House what is to be done with the "Ark Royal" Phantoms. Are they to be used for air defence within the United Kingdom? What about the Lightning aircraft in storage? They are not an insignificant number. Can the Minister indicate how fatigue studies into that aircraft are proceeding? No one would seriously argue that bringing back a couple of squadrons of Lightnings is the ideal answer, but they could help to fill the gap. Even the earmarking of qualified personnel to form a shadow squadron is not without some merit.

What consideration is being given to a war role for the Hawk aircraft? Could it be used, properly armed, for localised air defence? Or could it take some pressure off the RAF budget in the ground attack role and ease the situation in respect of the AST403?

I hope that the Minister will take the House into his confidence on these matters. On the basis of the information provided to him, the Minister may want to take the view that the manning situation, particularly in some categories of aircrew, precludes any short-term solutions. However, with 6,000 or so aircrew officers receiving flying pay ranging up to £4 per day, 365 days a year, year after year, whether they are on flying or ground duties, the taxpayer may raise an eyebrow and Parliament look with concern at manpower deployments. I hope that the Minister will not let up in the task of ensuring that aircrew, and in particular pilots, are employed generally on flying duties.

Of course, fighter aircraft are not the only response to the threat ranged against Britain. Improvements in ground environment are also vital. I will not rehearse today all that has been done in recent years. It is a formidable list, ranging from air-to-air refuelling to Nimrod air-borne early warning, from hardened shelters to missiles, from radar to data and communication links. But more fighters are the key to the threat that faces us.

I should like to turn briefly now to the controversy that has arisen since an article of mine was published in The Daily Telegraph on 24 May. My purpose in writing it was not to score petty party debating points or to seek party advantage but to record my firm conviction, based upon experience in the Ministry of Defence, that the conclusion reached—that air defence was a matter of high priority and that a substantial increase in the number of air defence fighter air-craft was vital—should be carried through.

From his speech to the Chicago conference in February of this year, from his article in the Daily Express on 15 September last year, and indeed from his words from this very Bench in our debates, I know that the Minister has a deep concern for air defence. It will take all his strength and courage to push ahead without delay on the vital decision in principle to put more fighters into the skies of Britain to ensure that this country is adequately and properly defended from the developing air threat.

I wish the hon. Gentleman well in that task, because the cold reality of the threat to Britain posed by the dramatic growth in Soviet offensive air power remains the same for politicians whether they speak from this side of the House or that side, whether they are in office or out. Action must be taken. I hope that the Minister will tell us just how far the Government have progressed along that road in the few short weeks that he has had responsibility.

4.28 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Pattie)

I welcome this opportunity for a debate on a vital subject. I thank the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) for his good wishes on my succession to his post. I could not help thinking, as he spoke, of how many times he must privately have written that speech, only to find that it was not possible to make it when he was standing where I now stand.

I should have felt able to be more constructive today had the hon. Gentleman not taken what I consider to be a mischievous posture in his recent article in The Daily Telegraph and in his pronouncements surrounding that article. It is all very well for him to say, as he did today, that he was seeking to draw attention to the air defence gap, which has been widely known for some time and which has been addressed by many hon. Members, including myself and others equally well versed in these matters.

The problem which the hon. Gentleman's article raised was simply that he sought to give the impression—as I say, wholly mischievously—that a firm commitment had been entered into by the outgoing Administration to close that gap. Let me say, in clear and unequivocal terms, that that is not die case. I do not wish to be personally offensive to the hon. Gentleman, but if he is going to play ducks and drakes with recent history I should set the record straight.

In the course of his speech the hon. Gentleman said that the extent of the threat from Backfire was perceived as long ago as 1971. That is not true. It is only recently that the threat from Backfire has become fully perceived—well within the lifespan of the Labour Government. None the less, the House recognises style when it sees it and holds a grudging admiration for it, particularly when it takes the form of a 180 degree shift in opinion performed in, apparently, less time than it takes to hold a general election campaign.

We should like to feel that the hon. Gentleman's transition is nothing less than a deathbed repentance. However, nowhere in what he has written or said in the House has he expressed any regret for the failure of the Labour Government to tackle the problem caused by the shortage of fighter aircraft dedicated to the defence of this country. At no time have we been reminded of the opportunities that he must surely have had during his term of office to remedy that shortage. We are now receiving an elegant and persuasive hand-wringing exercise, without any pause to direct the attention of the House to the fact that he was responsible for the air defence of the country for the past few years.

I should like to quote from an intervention by the hon. Member in a debate on 27 March of this year, the last day before the confidence vote. He said: The Air Force Department has therefore given careful consideration to the possibility of increasing the number of air defence fighters available to the United Kingdom. A decision has been taken on the general principle and detailed studies are under way. I hope it will not be long before the gap can be filled."—[Official Report, 27 March 1979; Vol. 965, c. 341.] We all say "Amen" to that last statement.

The word "decision" implies, in Government terms, a corresponding commitment in terms of resolve and resources. The hon. Gentleman was in Government long enough to know that. It is one thing to be resolved to do something. It is another to put the resources alongside that resolve. Far from the Labour Government being committed to increasing the number of air defence aircraft, they agreed only to commence studies following a belated recognititon of the deficiency in our defences. That deficiency was pointed out repeatedly by my hon. Friends and myself to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. How different was his tune in those days.

In his article the hon. Gentleman referred to the hard-fought nature of the decision. That can only be a further figment of his fertile imagination. The solution remains with this Government. It is all very well to say "Do not worry, we have taken a decision in principle and we have a study in hand". That does not get aircraft into the sky, which is where the hon. Gentleman and the great British public want to see them.

I should like to draw the attention of the House to another mischevious comment made by the hon. Gentleman in his article. He spoke about clouds on the airborne early warning Nimrod's horizon. There is nothing worse than someone in a responsible position—an outgoing Minister—making such a remark without considering the implications. Has the hon. Gentleman thought what the Royal Air Force or the people working on the programme might feel about those remarks when they read what is written by someone well qualified to speak on the subject? The remarks were wholly unfounded. The Nimrod programme is a firm fixture in the RAF's plans. It will be built and developed here, and I look forward to welcoming the hon. Gentleman to the roll-out of the AEW-Nimrod, built and developed in this country, some years in the future. It is now clear that the hon. Member's intervention in the debate on 27 March was no more than a last desperate throw of the dice by a gambler who, having lost his short, was pretending that he still had assets with which to play.

However regrettable, it is perhaps understandable that a former Defence Minister of a Government who depleted and demoralised their Armed Forces should feel the need to seek credit, through mere decisions in principle, for prospective future improvements to our national security. It is therefore perfectly misleading for the hon. Gentleman to attempt to create the impression that the previous Government had reached firm decisions, even in principle, on this matter. As I have explained, a requirement has been identified. No one seems to be arguing about that. But there had been no agreed plans for satisfying it. This is not the appropriate place, at this early date, for me to review all the various options that exist for satisfying this deficiency.

What is more important, there was no allocation of funds for the extra aircraft and manpower needed. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said from this Dispatch Box when the matter was raised during Question Time on 24 May—when the hon. Gentleman assumed less than his statesmanlike pose of today—the so-called decision to which the hon. Member attaches so much weight was virtually valueless without the commitment of resources to carry it through.

That, then, the House will wish to know, is the hollow nature of what the hon. Member represented in the House and, subsequently, in The Daily Telegraph article where he wrote of The strengthening of Britain's air defences embarked on by the outgoing Labour Ministers. One can say in truth that that was more barked upon than embarked upon!

The hon. Gentleman has been at some pains to imply that there has been a delay. I must advise him that this will be a long and full Parliament and that we certainly welcome having Labour Members who are informed on defence, but he will have to make certain that he paces himself carefully over the life of this Parliament, because he is firing off all his rockets in the first few weeks.

As this Government have been in office for scarcely as many weeks as the previous Government were for years, and as the hon. Member was longer in office than any previous Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force—and I commend him on that—I find it hard to accept that I have to come to this Dispatch Box and be prepared either to give him target dates when I shall come back and report to the House, or even come out with all the options fully deployed here in the House today.

Mr. Wilkinson

Will my hon. Friend ask the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) where the resources for the extra fighters were to have come from had Labour been returned to power, since the Labour manifesto suggested that defence should be cut by £1,000 million?

Mr. Pattie

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That is part of the problem that the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford has had. He knew of the deficiencies in air defence. He is an intelligent and sincere man who was doing his best as the Minister for the Royal Air Force. But he was not able to put forward these deficiencies until the dying days of the outgoing Administration, when he was able to say that a decision had been taken in principle.

Now the new Government are being asked what we have done about this decision in principle. We have shown that we mean to be fair to Service men in matters of pay and conditions. We have arrested and reversed the sharp deterioration in morale in the Armed Forces, as evidenced by the serious outflow of skilled and experienced personnel in recent years. It is too early to say yet what this means in terms of figures.

All the feedback that we have been getting from the Armed Forces since the pay award has indicated that not only are our Service personnel terribly pleased with the award itself, as one would expect, but that they are thoroughly delighted at the prominence given to them in the Queen's Speech and in the utterances of Ministers since, so that they now feel fully valued. This is critical. They must feel not only that their pay is right but that their value is right as seen by society.

If the outflows following premature voluntary retirement had been allowed to continue, it would have been impossible even to maintain the present level of forces, let alone to permit expansion. I do not know how my predecessor hoped to increase the number of fighters in any meaningful way when the policies of his Government were driving personnel, and pilots in particular, out of the Service in large numbers.

We have provided more resources for defence. The hon. Gentleman will have heard my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor announce on Tuesday that we have increased the defence budget for this financial year by £100 million—not some distant percentage away in the future but £100 million actually this year. This is an excellent start in moving up from the level to which defence spending had been allowed to drift by the previous Government, a level lower even than their own forward projections of the cash requirements of the defence programme made after their defence review in 1974. Moreover, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) has just pointed out, it would have been even lower had they been returned to office.

It is not without significance that the final year of the previous Administration's term of office marked the lowest level of defence spending in real terms since the Korean war, and this at a time when, as the hon. Gentleman so eloquently said, there is overwhelming evidence of the mounting threat.

I have spoken of our increases in defence spending this year. As for the future, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence last month accepted NATO's call to aim for real growth in defence expenditure of 3 per cent. a year up to 1986. This prospect of increased resources will, I hope, enable progress to be made in remedying some of the gaps in our military capabilities bequeathed by the previous Government. Included here is air defence, where the priority for improvement is extremely high, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Air Staff are continuing to examine the practical possibilities of making improvements.

The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to draw attention to various speeches and articles of mine in the past, and he is right so to do because my present position will, I hope, enable me to help accelerate the progress upon which both he and I are determined, namely, to remedy the serious deficit in our air defences. But in sharp contrast—I have to say this again—to the false impression which the hon. Gentleman has been attempting to convey, I do not want to suggest that there remains any quick, cheap or easy way of increasing our fighter strength.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that no possibilities have been ruled out at this stage. All the options are still in play. No target dates can be set for when the present review may be concluded, so the question does not arise as to when I shall be in a position to return and announce a decision to the House, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I should wish to do so as soon as possible. For my part, no day will be too soon to get on with the key business of strengthening our air defences.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that, despite the slightly acerbic tone of some of my remarks, since obviously we have felt that the best interests of air defence have not been served in recent weeks by the hon. Gentleman's pronouncements in The Daily Telegraph and at Prime Minister's Question Time, I am confident that I can count on his support for any measures designed to strengthen our air defences in the future. I hope—and this is a particularly urgent hope—that he will be able to presuade his right hon. and hon. Friends, whose steadfastness on defence matters in general, and air defence in particular, has not been noteworthy in the past, and I know that we can look across the Floor in the days to come and think that on those Benches, now without this beard but still as intelligent as ever, there sits an ally across the political divide—someone who shares our belief and our determination to remedy our air defence position which was left in a deplorably inadequate state by the outgoing Administration.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to Five o'clock.