HC Deb 23 June 1980 vol 987 cc35-164

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

3.50 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force (Mr. Geoffrey Pattie)

When the Royal Air Force last had a debate to itself, in April 1978, my predecessor, the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) spoke at length of the Service's sixtieth anniversary and referred to its 60 years of splendid achievement in peace and war."—[Official Report, 3 April 1978; Vol. 947, c. 36.] That is a sentiment that I wholeheartedly endorse after my first year of responsibility for the RAF. I am proud to report a year in which the officers, men and women of the RAF have given themselves unstintingly to the service of our country through their unrelenting work and dedication to duty.

The past years have been difficult ones for all the Services. They have borne a period of uncertainty with patience and fortitude. When we came to office, the Government made certain commitments to the Services. We have kept them, and I shall be detailing later the measures that we have taken. I believe that they have provided a useful platform for the resurgence of confidence and trust that was so badly needed but that we found to be so sadly lacking when we came to power.

I should like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to all the men and women of the RAF. In the course of the past year I have worked on visiting RAF units, at a rate of approximately one a week, including a mixture of front-line stations and other equally important but less glamorous stations. In all cases, I have seen a motivation and a sense of purpose that manifest themselves in a desire to do tasks as well as possible without thought of pecuniary reward and without looking at the hands of the clock—attitudes that used to be common in society at large, but that, sadly, are not found so often now. It is a privilege to serve as the political head of such a fine service.

The Government are committed to the maintenance of a stable defence effort in the coming years, but, as we stated in the White Paper: we shall not feel obliged to adhere slavishly to a particular growth path, nor shall we consider it a failure of policy if we modify our spending plans in either direction from year to year as new information becomes available. Some have interpreted that statement as a "sell out"—an acceptance that the imperatives of finance will defeat us in our fight to enhance the security of the nation. That is not so.

It is inevitable that policy and finance are interrelated, each influencing the other. The policy cannot survive without money, and money can be well spent only with in the framework of a coherent policy. Both can change the parameters of our defence effort. What we offer when confronted with such issues is not to take the course of least resistance by having less of everything and doing everything less well. We cannot offer an escape from the financial and economic realities in which we find ourselves. These are elements within the overall equation of defence spending. But we can face up to them by being determined to use the resources that are available to the best effect.

The defence of our nation lies firmly within the framework of NATO. The existence of the Alliance has contributed to more than 30 years of peace in Europe, but we cannot be complacent in the face of changing world circumstances if we wish to safeguard our future and that of our children. We must ensure that the Alliance can respond firmly and flexibly to any challenge so that it remains a credible deterrent to aggression. We face an ever-growing threat from the relentless buildup of the Warsaw Pact armed forces.

I remind the House that the Royal Air Force provides forces to all three of the major NATO commanders. Our maritime aircraft patrolling our sea areas and providing airborne early warning cover are assigned to SACLANT or CINCHAN. Other United Kingdom squadrons protecting the home base are assigned to SACEUR, and so are our forces in RAF Germany, which, as part of NATO's Second Allied Tactical Air Force, would be an integral part of the central region order of battle in war in the strike/attack reconnaissance, ground support and air defence roles, as well as providing part of SACEUR's specialist quick reaction forces.

I do not think that I need offer an analysis today of the Warsaw Pact's daunting and growing military capability, which has been well reported in the House and elsewhere. The challenge that faces us is to maintain as our contribution to the Alliance the high standards both of our personnel and of the equipment that we dedicate to NATO's aims in the most appropriate areas to meet the increasing threat. We have made a promising start in facing that challenge and we shall sustain our efforts, as I shall outline in the remainder of my speech.

On Tuesday 17 June my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence informed the House of the two bases in the United Kingdom that would house the 10 flights of United States ground-launched cruise missiles to be based in the United Kingdom. This deployment is only one part of a wider programme, agreed upon 12 December 1979 by NATO Defence Ministers, to modernise the Alliance's long-range theatre nuclear forces by the introduction into a number of European countries of 464 new cruise missiles and 108 Pershing II ballistic missiles. The implementation of the modernisation programme underlines the determination of the Government, and that of NATO as a whole, to give first priority to the continued security of our peoples, and underlines our resolute commitment to NATO's policy of deterrence, which has preserved the peace in Europe for more than 30 years.

As the White Paper categorically states, our defence depends on the quality and commitment of the men and women of the Services and the civilian staffs who support them. The latter are an often forgotten, but still essential, element of our defence effort. I take the opportunity of thanking them, especially those associated with the RAF, for their work and loyalty—demonstrated by their turnout of over 90 per cent. on the TUC's abortive day of action on 14 May.

As for dependence on our Service men, it is a question not only of recruiting adequate numbers to maintain strengths but of retaining those in whom we have made a considerable investment in money and the acquistion of skills, so that their experience and expertise is not lost to us. In 1977–78 increasing numbers of experienced officers and men chose to leave the Service prematurely. One of the main reasons was dissatisfaction with pay, exacerbated by overstretch and increased turbulence, which had sapped confidence.

On taking office the Government immediately restored the Services' pay to full comparability with their civilian counterparts, as we had promised before and during the election campaign. We undertook to maintain it therefater at those levels. We endorsed the concept of the military salary and accepted that the Armed Forces Pay Review Body should continue its independent work of assessing and recommending fair and appropriate levels of pay.

During 1979–80, 316 male RAF officers applied for premature release, which represents a reduction of nearly 50 per cent. compared with the 601 who did so in the previous year. The number is less than at any time since before 1972. The picture for airmen is equally encouraging, with 1,782 having applied during 1979–80, compared with 3,132 in the year before—a drop of about 43 per cent.

Recruitment has also benefited significantly from the rise in pay and the Government's commitment to defence. In the year ended 31 March 1980 we took in 50,652 new recruits to the three Services, against 43,366 in the previous year—an increase of 17 per cent., and with only one exception that has been the best performance for 17 years.

The total covers some impressive achievements. In many cases the numbers of good-quality recruits have been limited only by the number of vacancies. On the other hand, there are still problems in finding enough candidates for some trades, including some of the most skilled. With that and the impending decline in the numbers of young people in the population in mind, there is no room for complacency.

In the context of this debate recruitment to the RAF has been well in line with the excellent overall performance of the three Services. In 1979–80 the RAF recruited a total of 11,261 United Kingdom personnel, which is about 11 per cent. higher than in 1978–79 and the highest total for seven years. Like the other Services, however, this achievement, impressive though it is, masks some areas of concern, notably in the recruitment of officers, where we fall short of our targets in some important ground branches, particularly engineers and fighter controllers.

We are taking steps to remedy this state of affairs. In particular, I can inform the House that we shall soon introduce two new incentive schemes aimed at attracting potential young officers. The existing university cadetship scheme is essentially designed for those who are prepared to commit themselves before going to university to a regular career in the RAF. We believe that the length of commitment required by this scheme may be a disincentive for some people who are nevertheless attracted by the idea of a commission in the RAF. In order to tap this potential source we intend offering university bursaries to suitable candidates who are prepared to commit themselves to serving in the RAF on short service commissions. The second scheme—sixth form scholarships—is intended to encourage the promising 16-year-old to focus his interest on the RAF with a view to joining the Service as an officer at the age of 18.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

On the question of university cadetships for general duties cadets who will become pilots or navigators in the Service, will the minimum length of engagement when these cadets leave university be eight or 12 years, which is the normal length of a short service commission? Also, will that period include their time at university?

Mr. Pattie

To make sure that I give my hon. Friend a detailed reply, I shall include that answer in my summing up.

I feel that the recruiting potential of the Air Training Corps also deserves a mention. In 1979, former ATC cadets made up 20 per cent. of the total RAF officer intake, 23 per cent. of the airmen and no less than 38 per cent. of apprentices came from the corps. These figures show how much the RAF relies on the ATC for its recruits, and I welcome this opportunity of expressing my thanks to the many men and women who devote their time and skills to the work of the ATC.

In pursuing proposals contained in a report initiated by my predecessor, work is progressing towards the reorganisation of our recruitment network so that, wherever possible, the Service careers information offices can be collocated to their mutual benefit. The final studies stemming from the report have now been completed, and by the late 1980s we hope to have a total of around 190 CIOs, of which nearly 80 will be shared by two or three Services. This compares with current figures of 241, of which 57 are collocated. The recommendations will, naturally, take some time to implement. In many cases the leases held on current CIO sites are extremely advantageous and we would not wish to relinquish this benefit until their term has expired. Implementation must, therefore, of necessity be on a "where appropriate" basis if excessive additional expenditure is not to be incurred. Undoubtedly the establishment of collocated offices will, in the short term, prove to be rather more expensive than at present. This is primarily due to the rise of leasing costs in recent years. We could not realistically hope to get new leases on such advantageous terms as previously existed. However, in the longer term the overall recruitment effort should be carried out in a more cost-effective manner.

These are the means by which we seek to obtain and retain regular manpower for our defence needs. However, there are deficiencies. All cannot be put right overnight. It will take time to undo the damage done in previous years, but I am encouraged by the response given to the steps taken by the Government. I am also heartened by the response to our efforts to enhance our defence posture by harnessing the goodwill, patriotism and enthusiasm of many members of the public who wish to do their bit in the volunteer reserves. In July 1979, three Royal Auxiliary RAF Regiment squadrons were formed to assist in the defence of United Kingdom airfields. Recruitment to these units has been good, and has been assisted by the increased rates of training bounty announced during 1979. As hon. Members will know, in a time of emergency we would have to rely to a large degree for reinforcement of our forces in Europe upon civil aircraft flown by civilian aircrew. The Civil Aviation Bill, which is at present going through Parliament, will ensure that the aircraft will be available when needed. I am considering whether any changes need to be made in the legislation relating to aircrew. One possibility might be to embody them into a reserve, but this may not be the best arrangement, and, indeed, a similar scheme tried some years ago was not particularly successful. The issue is complex but vital, and still requires further study. I hope to be able to report progress to the House in the near future.

Although our Armed Forces are all-professional, they are not large. The RAF is only about 90,000 strong. Consequently, we must make the most of all our defence assets—both Regular and volunteer manpower and their equipment—by ensuring that they are highly trained, proficient and professional in their duties.

To ensure the maintenance of the highest standards, for which the Services are justly renowned, it is obviously essential that the forces should train realistically in those tasks that they would have to undertake in war. For the RAF this includes practising its role of attacking from the air the ground forces of any aggressor and striking at his airfields, bases and supply areas. To penetrate the Warsaw Pact anti-aircraft screen, both land and air based, our planes will need to fly fast and low. These are demanding requirements, and our pilots and aircrew must constantly practice such sorties over representative terrain in order to maintain their skills.

Whilst we utilise training areas overseas, the great bulk of such flying takes place over the United Kingdom. I fully appreciate that there must be a balance between these military needs and the safety and convenience of the general public. Accordingly, we minimise the hazards and disturbances by requiring aircraft to avoid densely populated areas, airfields, nuclear power stations, hospitals, and many other areas. They must fly higher and slower than they would in combat, and to the greatest degree possible we also restrict activity over weekends and after dark.

Thus, the low flying that my colleagues see in their constituencies is really a compromise to enable pilots to be trained as far as possible for the far greater speeds and lower heights at which they would need to fly in wartime to stay beneath the enemy's radar cover. Most of the peacetime training is carried out between 250ft and 500ft, and we therefore welcome the chances to go to the United States and Canada for the Red Flag and Maple Flag exercises, where our aircrews have an ideal chance to fly at the much higher speeds and very low level that they would fly in wartime.

In that context, I add that we are currently discussing the possible use of Goose Bay, in Canada, for very low-flying training using the Tornado aircraft's terrain-following radar.

As most hon. Members know, from 1 January 1979, the United Kingdom low-flying region was expanded to cover most of the country. Consequently, many more people unfamiliar with such activities were seeing low-flying aircraft than was previously the case. As a consequence, there was an initial increase in the number of complaints. There is no question but that the enlargement of the areas has greatly improved the training facilities and has distributed the low flying far more evenly throughout the United Kingdom than was possible before. Some residual inconvenience is, however, unavoidable, and I apologise to those people who feel that their localities are seeing and hearing too many low-flying aircraft.

In 1979 there were, regrettably, a number of aircraft accidents, and these have been recorded for the first time in volume 2 of the White Paper. It is true that there were more accidents in 1979, compared with some previous years. However, flying accidents do not occur with predictable regularity. If they did, there would be reason to suspect a common cause—and it would be a mistake, therefore, to draw premature conclusions from the recent spate of accidents, all of which happened in quite different circumstances. The media have tended, erroneously, to link many of these accidents solely to the demands of low flying. Again in 1979 I authorised the release of summaries of accident reports to the House and to other people in order to provide more details and better informed comment on such incidents. This constitutes one more element in our overall campaign to make more information available for a wider debate on defence issues.

In speaking of accidents, I know that hon. Members would expect me to mention the one that involved a Buccaneer aircraft participating in the Red Flag exercise, Nevada, on 7 February of this year, tragically killing both crewmen. We have of course kept the House fully informed of the progress being made. Currently, the position is that flight trials of a specially instrumented Buccaneer are continuing along with the investigation of the cause of the accident in February. Neither programme of work has yet enabled a definite conclusion to be drawn, but I can report growing confidence that sufficient information may be available as early as next month to allow a decision on the resumption of flying by the greater part of the Buccaneer fleet. In the meantime, the Buccaneers remain available and declared to NATO for their war roles and we are satisfied that aircrew skills can be kept up to the required standard for this period on Hunters and simulators.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said about accident statistics, especially as I have campaigned for normal publication of them for a number of years. Will he go one step further than merely publishing the losses of aircraft and the casualties involved and undertake that where the inquiries conducted by the Department make it possible to identify the cause of the accident, that information will also be published? If it is, it will go even further to establish full confidence in the concern of the RAF for its safety and that of the public as a whole.

Mr. Pattie

I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that the new procedure of publishing a narrative of the board of inquiry proceedings will go a long way, if not all the way, to meet the point that he made, because it will cover the cause of an accident. If he is referring to the defence White Paper, I should explain that I am talking about each accident as it occurs. It might make the White Paper unduly long if we were to publish all the figures as a compilation at the end of the year.

The Buccaneer is one element of our current front-line force of aircraft. Members will not wish me to give an exhaustive list of the present familiar inventory of types and the roles they are expected to perform. However, I should like quickly to run over some of the types now entering service and the new equipments which we hope to have in the future.

The first Tornado GR1 aircraft is to be delivered to the tri-national training establishment at RAF Cottesmore in a few days' time ready for the training of British, German and Italian aircrew to begin early in 1981. Out of a total planned RAF purchase of 220 GR1s, 146 aircraft have so far been ordered for the RAF in three batches, while a fourth batch is due to be ordered later this year. This fourth batch will include for the first time a production order for the Tornado F2 air defence variant, of which a total of 165 is planned.

A number of production GR1 aircraft have already flown at British Aerospace, Warton, and at MBB in the Federal Republic of Germany, and last October saw the first flight of the air defence variant. This prototype, the first of three due to be flying by the end of 1980, has so far handled very well and is performing in line with our expectations.

The Tornado will form the backbone of the RAF's front line in the 1980s, and the Service is looking forward to the considerable enhancement to our capability that this aircraft will bring.

The other major and complementary component of our front line is the offensive support aircraft fleet currently provided by Jaguars and Harriers.

In my closing speech in the defence debate on 29 April 1980, I gave then, and I repeat now, an assurance to my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) that there would be no unnecessary delay in announcing a decision on AST403 which specifies a new offensive support aircraft. The House will be aware that AST403 now deals only with the Jaguar replacement. Studies had earlier shown that technology was not sufficiently advanced to permit a V/STOL capability to be combined with the required supersonic performance and handling qualities in a single airframe. Therefore, it was not possible to find one solution to both the Jaguar and Harrier replacements. As a result, and because we firmly believe in the need for V/STOL, we have decided that our present Harriers should be improved to enable them to remain effective in service until the end of the century.

In accordance with our objective of seeking collaboration where the conditions are advantageous, we have for some time been investigating the possibility of a joint project with France and Germany to develop a new tactical—or European—combat aircraft to meet AST403. While at first blush this sounds an attractive proposition, there are of course many different factors—budgetary, operational, industrial—which need to be taken into account in deciding whether collaboration is the right way to go. It is too soon, at present, to say when decisions might be reached. Our prime aim must be to provide the RAF with the most cost-effective aircraft to meet its needs.

A good example of the sort of benefits which may be gained through collaboration with our allies is that of the advanced airfield attack weapon JP233, currently being developed by a joint United Kingdom-United States team. Although the costs of this joint programme are being shared equally between the two countries, virtually all the development work is being carried out in the United Kingdom. Similarly, initial production work is likely to take place in the United Kingdom. We know that our American allies share our commitment to this vital runway denial programme. It would be unwise, however, to assume that the Soviet Union is not also actively interested in runway denial weapons. That being the case, the advantages of the Harrier V/STOL force are obvious. The ability to operate at a time when runways would be in short supply could be the crucial element in attempting to halt an armoured breakthrough. That being so, we wish not only to continue with the Harrier in increased numbers on the central front but to enhance its performance capabilities. We are examining options for this improved version.

Two ways of meeting this requirement—known as Air Staff Requirement 409—have been identified. One is a British Aerospace development which features a larger and thicker wing, giving greater lift and fuel capacity, and with extra pylons for weapon carriage, plus other im provements. The other option is that being developed by McDonnell Douglas for the United States Marine Corps and known as the AV8B. This features design improvements within the Harrier concept. We are currently working towards a decision between these two options and this will take account of a recent programme of flight evaluation of the AV8B pre-prototype undertaken by British pilots in the United States.

I am sure that the House will appreciate that several complex and interlocking factors are involved in our deliberations and that while there must be no unnecessary delay in deciding the way forward, we equally recognise the importance of not rushing into decisions. Important industrial considerations need to be carefully weighed, and the position of the United States Government and their commitment to any joint AV8B programme, which, by virtue of a large combined order, could generate considerable work for British industry, has to be established. Thus, while I hope that it will be possible to announce a decision on the Harrier before too long, I am not yet in a position to say when that might be.

We are also of course mindful of the need to maintain the effectiveness of the existing Harrier force, and are considering what improvements could usefully be incorporated in our present aircraft.

Mr. Victor Goodhew (St. Albans)

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind the large time scale involved in arriving at decisions on in-service or replacement aircraft? The Tornado was the replacement for the TSR2, which was cancelled about 15 years ago by the then Labour Government. It is essential that we should make decisions at an early stage if we are to make the replacements in time.

Mr. Pattie

I agree with my hon. Friend. I only wish that we could have aircraft like the Tornado in service now, instead of having to wait.

I know that the House will agree that the Harrier is an example of supreme British inventiveness which confers considerable operational benefits on our forces and is one that we should continue to exploit.

As some hon. Members are aware, there is a need to replace the Devon and Pembroke aircraft in the RAF's communications fleet. These aircraft are over 25 years old and will become increasingly more expensive to maintain and difficult to operate within the crowded airspace of North-West Europe. Negotiations are being pursued to provide the replacement aircraft in the early 1980s, but, since these negotiations involve complex industrial and financial factors, it would not be proper for me to go into further details until they are completed.

In the field of missiles, it was recently anounced that an improved Mk II version of the Sky Flash medium range air-to-air missile, currently in service, is to be developed. This missile will make the most advantage of the sophisticated radar installed in the advanced Tornado F2 when it comes into service in the mid-1980s, and will greatly enhance the RAF's capability in this area. The Aim 9L Sidewinder short range missile is expected to come into service with the RAF next year. Together these missiles will form the main armament of our air defence aircraft for some considerable time to come, although we are already considering what form the next generation of missiles might take—possibly a collaborative project.

To go with these new air defence aircraft and missiles, it is equally important to have a modern command and control system. Two major components of this are the airborne early warning aircraft and the ground-based radar chain. The programme to develop the Nimrod airborne early warning aircraft to replace the Shackleton force is continuing, and the first of the three development production aircraft has only recently come off the assembly line at British Aircraft Establishment Woodford. This aircraft is to begin a programme leading to its first flight in August of this year. These aircraft will form the United Kingdom contribution to NATO AEW force and will provide the surveillance cover essential to the air defence of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

The Minister talks about missiles in the context of a joint collaborative project. What kind of missiles is he talking about in that context?

Mr. Pattie

I am talking about air-launched missiles of different ranges. If the hon. Gentleman develops his question in a speech later, I shall be glad to respond. There is a proposal to consider a package of air-to-air missiles, which would be either short or medium-range. The difference is largely a function of range.

One squadron of this NATO AEW force will be equipped and will build up gradually to become operational in the mid-1980s. The United Kingdom radar stations are being modernised in a comprehensive programme, and the first contract for two of the new radars has just been announced.

In this review of some of our new equipment I have mentioned the Tornado F2, the Nimrod AEW aircraft and air-to-air missiles, all of which, together with our surface-to-air missiles and land-based surveillance radars, will come together to form a closely inter-related and interdependent set of systems. For the first time, we have included in this year's White Paper a detailed description of how these many elements, which together comprise our air defence forces, would act in co-ordination to counter the threat of air attack in the United Kingdom. I promised in my closing speech in the defence debate to cover the subject of air defence on this occasion.

The strategic importance of the United Kingdom makes it an inevitable target in any conflict with the Warsaw Pact. Hon. Members have seen recorded in the White Paper that the number of interceptions which we chose to make of Soviet aircraft entering the United Kingdom air defence region rose from four a week in 1978 to five a week in 1979. Accordingly, air defence is a matter to which the Government attach great importance. There is a very large forward programme for upgrading these defences, costing hundreds of millions of pounds. This includes, in addition to the Tornado F2 air defence aircraft, the extensive modernisation of our ground operations centres, communications systems and surveillance radars under the acronym UKADGE—United Kingdom air defence ground environment—which will considerably enhance the capabilities of our air defence command and control system, together with the conversion of nine ex-civilian VC10 aircraft to the air-to-air refuelling role.

Mr. Alan Clark (Plymouth, Sutton)

My hon. Friend used the word "modernisation". Does that include hardening?

Mr. Pattie


We are also actively considering the possibility of giving our existing fleet of transport VC10s an in-flight refuelling capability.

On coming to office we announced, within weeks, additions to that programme which included: the formation of a third Lightning squadron; improvements to the Phantom's missile control system; and the arming of part of our Hawk aircraft fleet with the Aim 9L missile. The number of Hawks able to carry this missile has risen to about 100, following the additional buy of that aircraft announced in the defence debate.

Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned a third Lightning squadron. When does he expect that it will be formed and be able to fulfil an operational role?

Mr. Pattie

I expect that the squadron will be operational in the early part of 1982.

The pilot shortage which we inherited on coming to power has not been allowed to prejudice the improvements planned to the RAF air defence forces. It is our firm intention to keep the air defence front line up to strength at all times. Steps to remedy the pilot shortage have already been taken by the opening of a third basic flying training school last year at Church Fenton to increase our training capacity. However, fully trained pilots are not produced overnight, and it will take time for these measures to take effect.

I have said previously in the House that I am not satisfied with the current state of our air defence, and it is certainly an area where, ideally, I should like to do more, but there are formidable difficulties. For example, introducing a new foreign fighter aircraft would be damaging to our industry and would pose severe logistic problems. It has not proved possible to advance the in-service date of the Tornado F2 at a cost which is acceptable. Some may regard the measures already announced as modest, but I believe that they are none the less significant and valu able improvements. Our record at least demonstrates that we are fully alive to the advantages which such possibilities might present.

Mr. Robert Atkins (Preston, North)

If my hon. Friend so chooses, when will he be in a position to announce the conclusions that arise from the Elder Forest 1980 exercise?

Mr. Pattie

I shall come to that in about five seconds. We regularly hold exercises to test our air defences, and hon. Members will have seen the extensive media coverage given to the latest of these, code-named Elder Forest, held on 14 and 15 April. This was the first time since the 1950s that we had tested the whole of the United Kingdom air defence system against simulated enemy raids of the size and density that might be expected in war. The attacking forces, comprising aircraft from other NATO air forces as well as some of our own RAF offensive aircraft, simulated an attack plan concentrating on United Kingdom air defence bases and radars.

I know that there is a good deal of interest in the outcome of this exercise, but the House will realise that detailed information on interception rates and numbers of sorties achieved by defending fighters would be of great intelligence value to a potential enemy and therefore cannot be published.

However, all elements of the air defence forces performed well. Had these been real attacks I have no doubt that we would have been hard pressed, but we would, nevertheless, have given a good account of ourselves. I can tell the House that the interception rates which our pilots and SAM units achieved would have inflicted heavy losses on the enemy. This kind of joint exercise is further evidence of the active and valuable co-operation within NATO. Although we are grateful to all the NATO air forces that took part, I should like to single out the presence of the United States F15 fighter aircraft from Bitburg for a special welcome.

Such exercises draw attention to another objective of our air defence policy, namely, the maintenance of the ability of our airfields to continue functioning, even after attack. Uncovered aircraft on the ground present attractive and particularly vulnerable targets. Without hardened aircraft shelters, a significant number of aircraft are likely to be destroyed on the ground whatever other measures are provided. The RAF has therefore begun a major programme for the construction of hardened facilities at its airfields.

Work is also currently in progress on the construction of hardened facilities at four East Anglian airfields used by the United States Air Force as main operating bases in this country.

Rapid runway repair is one aspect of a whole range of problems associated with the repair of airfield damage in wartime. Progress here has not been as rapid as we would have hoped, but we are currently studying what we hope will be economic solutions to the problem.

Hon. Members will also know from previous statements in the House that the Rapier low-level air defence system is now fully deployed with six squadrons of the RAF Regiment, four of which are in RAF Germany and the other two at RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Lucas. Initially, equipped with the optical version, three of these squadrons have now received the Blindfire all-weather equipment, and the others will be converted over the next 12 months or so, as equipment is delivered by the manufacturers. When all the Rapier squadrons in Germany have received their Blindfire kits, the Bloodhound squadron in Germany will be redeployed to the United Kingdom to strengthen the air defences in Eastern England. I am also extremely pleased to say that detailed negotiations with the United States authorities are in hand for the purchase of this excellent British system by the USAF to protect its bases in the United Kingdom. This can only be to our mutual advantage, since I consider that sale of Rapier to the USAF is of singular importance not only to British industry but to the United Kingdom as a whole. It will demonstrate what can be achieved in the field of NATO defence co-operation to the mutual advantage of both ourselves and the United States. I visited Washington last week, and I was able to confirm that negotiations are proceeding satisfactorily.

Mr. Onslow

I am glad to hear that. However, does my hon. Friend also recog- nise that the need for the Americans to provide adequate point defence of their bases in this country is an overriding NATO obligation? We should not therefore feel particularly grateful to them for buying a piece of British kit on this occasion. It is an obligation which they should discharge, irrespective of any industrial offset.

Mr. Pattie

I think that I can assure my hon. Friend that the Americans realise that this is a prime NATO requirement.

On that note of optimism for British industry, I think it appropriate to draw to a conclusion my opening remarks. Of necessity, this must be something of a "snapshot", albeit a rather lengthy one, of the current state of the Royal Air Force—a sophisticated, accomplished and highly professional Service in which we can show justifiable pride; pride—but not complacency. There are areas, such as air defence and pilot numbers, where things could be better. I have not attempted to gloss over these problems. In my speech as an Opposition spokesman in the 1978 defence debate I said, among other things, that we should not hide difficulties. This is a policy that we have actively followed in the White Paper and the defence debate, and I hope that hon. Members will feel and accept that I have pursued the same course this afternoon.

Defence is expensive. Our problems cannot be solved without the expenditure of scarce resources, and the solutions will take time to come to fruition. But solved they must and will be.

4.30 pm
Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

It is, perhaps, appropriate that I should make this speech immediately on returning from the United States where, together with the Minister, I participated—if that is the right term—in "Exercise Sealink 80". Indeed, during my time in the United States in the past week I viewed with amazement the openness with which defence decisions are discussed in that country and the vast array of material available for public consumption. American defence officials reminded me that the cardinal rule in defence discussions was best summed up by the former American Defence Secretary James Schlesinger, who said: While everyone is entitled to his own opinion, no one is entitled to his own facts. It seems that the Government deny precisely that principle.

When they came to power, the Conservative Government publicly declared their conviction that an open and intelligent debate on defence was essential, yet defence decisions continue to be made in secret. Indeed, I was embarrassed when I was in the United States at showing a couple of Congressmen our defence White Paper when theirs comprises a densely packed 300 or more pages, supplemented by a 100-page statement issued by the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Congressmen were amazed to learn that here we have just a one-day debate on a matter of such vital importance as air defence.

The important issues of cruise missile deployment and Polaris replacement were not mentioned during the Minister's speech.

Mr. Wilkinson

One is American and the other is for the Royal Navy. That is why.

Mr. Snape

Regardless of where one stands on this issue, one must, as the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) has pointed out on a number of occasions, resent the secrecy. I saw the hon. Member for Aldershot in the Chamber earlier, but he is not present now. One must resent the secrecy with which these decisions are made and the scant information that is offered to the House of Commons.

Although the Polaris replacement might appear to be primarily a Navy matter—as one newly-fledged expert has just pointed out from a sedentary position—it cannot be separated from any aspect of the debate about defence.

I believe that there are not enough resources to do the things that the Government say they will do in the White Paper. If the Minister but turns the book of history back a couple of pages, he will come across a very interesting publication which he wrote with a gentleman named James Bellini. He said in that book: The industrial implications of defence policies should be integrated with wider economic planning procedures. He went on to say: Such integration of defence planning with national economic planning would be an essential part of any realistic programme for economic regeneration. Defence production should be treated as a priority category in longer-term planning by the NEB and NEDO. Far be it for me to throw those words back at the hon. Gentleman. He is an ambitious man. There is nothing wrong with that. Perhaps I fall into the same category. Many of us are ambitious once elected to this House. However, I do not feel that the present Prime Minister would approve of such interventionist philosophies, particularly from one of her defence spokesmen. I shall be interested to hear, later tonight perhaps, whether the Minister still holds those views. If he does, I should like to know whether he intends to publish them again or to keep them quiet.

Under the Government, defence expenditure is isolated from general economic policy. While public spending is being cut, and despite the fact that we are already devoting more of our gross national product to defence than is any European ally, the Government say that they will go ahead and increase defence expenditure.

Surely defence spending cannot be harnessed to the good of the nation, because the Government have rejected the whole principle of economic planning for the nation. In this book—although I would not say that it was compulsive bed-time reading, it is certainly interesting stuff—the Minister went on to say: Avionic requirements provide jobs for several thousand specialists at Ferranti, Marconi-Elliott and Smith. Will the Minister say today that he is satisfied with last week's decision concerning Ferranti? I know that he was not present for it. I was not present either, but I have read it and I hope that the Minister has read it, too. Is he satisfied that that is the best method of promoting technological industries, which play such an important role in Britain's defence? The Minister would do well to reacquaint himself with his book and to recognise that defence expenditure depends on a healthy economy.

In short, a nation cannot build tanks, ships and aircraft which are necessary for its defence when a large proportion of our industrial plant lies idle, when vast numbers of the work force are unemployed and when inflation is running rampant. Resolving our economic problems should be our No. 1 defence priority, yet under the Government that appears to be impossible.

Doubtless there will be many speakers in the debate who will tell us about the dangers of a Soviet onslaught. Indeed, when listening to Conservative Members I sometimes feel that they do more to promote the myth of Soviet invincibility than does the KGB. The defence White Paper tells us more about the Soviet air force than it does about the Royal Air Force. Therefore, it is important, particularly in debates such as this, to put the Warsaw Pact threat—for threat it is—into its proper context and perspective.

For example, as the International Institute for Strategic Studies recently stated: Any squadron comparison that is, between the two respective armed bodies— really ought to take into account that a United States squadron averages between 12 and 24 planes, while the average Soviet squadron comprises 10 to 14 planes. Again, according to the same study, NATO at present outnumbers the Soviets in fighter and ground attack aircraft by 2,125 to 1,675. I have no doubt that the Soviet Union is doing everything possible to right that imbalance. Playing the numbers game is one thing that the Soviets are extremely good at, and one aspect of their defence policy which has been consistent over the years. Whilst they have a large number of interceptors, they have only 113 air refuelling tankers currently, as compared with over 500 such tankers in the United States Air Force.

Although there will no doubt be a few speakers in this debate who will dilate upon the subject of the Backfire bomber, studies conducted by the Congressional Budget Office recently show that the nuclear striking power of 66 FB111s is equivalent to that of more than 200 Backfire bombers. Again, according to the international institute, NATO has a higher proportion of multi-purpose aircraft of good performance over their full mission profile, particularly in range, payload and all-weather capability. In comparison, the Soviet all-weather capability is recognised to be fairly low.

Mr. Wilkinson

I am fascinated by the hon. Gentleman's analysis. He has spoken about the International Institute for Strategic Studies and he has quoted from Congressional hearings. He has not once mentioned the professional advice of the heads of the Royal Air Force, such as the late Sir Andrew Humphrey, Sir Neil Cameron and Sir Michael Beetham, who have all, in succession, emphasised the increase in quality, hitting power, training and effectiveness of the Warsaw Pact air forces. That is remarkable.

Mr. Snape

It is only remarkable that the hon. Gentleman has made two interventions, one from a sedentary position, during the six minutes of my speech. It is a little difficult to mention every aspect of policy, whether on air defence or anything else, during about seven minutes. I merely thought that it was about time that the House heard what I might perhaps call more impartial observers than the hon. Gentleman feel about the comparative strength of the two pacts.

Mr. Wilkinson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Snape

I have given the hon. Gentleman one opportunity. He will not get another bite at the cherry. He will have to make his own speech in his own time.

Mr. Goodhew

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Snape

No, I must move on. If the hon. Gentleman would care to intervene later, I should be only too glad to allow that.

The institute points out that NATO has a higher proportion of multi-purpose aircraft than does the Soviet Union. The Soviets dispose of only four types of all-weather jets. The most capable of these, the Fencer, constitutes only 4 per cent. of its present aviation inventory. The institute estimates that it is scheduled to become only 14 per cent. of that inventory, as a maximum. Soviet pilots, so far as is known, receive only 60 per cent. of the training received by NATO pilots. Any expert comparison indicates that Soviet pilots' technological ability, technical ability and ability to fly and control their aircraft is vastly inferior to the ability of Royal Air Force pilots.

No discussion such as that which we are holding would be complete without some mention of strategy in the future. This was conspicuously absent from the Minister's speech. Any discussion of such strategy must surely start from an appraisal of the defence budget itself. After all, such a budget is supposed to reflect a nation's aspirations and apprehensions in the present world. More importantly, it should be an admission of each nation's limitations and the specific role that it can play in maintaining world peace.

Britain's current defence budget does not reflect a real world view. Basically, the defence White Paper conveys the aspirations of a super Power, while seemingly implying that the nation's resources are endless. At present, Britain is faced with a strange paradox. Although in the future we might spend more on defence, we might end up being less secure than we are at the present time. By pursuing Tornado, Britain can boast the best aircraft in the world. However, it is questionable whether the idea of maintaining all-round forces, through aircraft like Tornado, supports Britain's claim as a substantial medium-range Power at the present time.

The RAF strategy, as outlined in the White Paper, appears to have two deficiencies. It seems to be undermining the allocation of defence resources to real contingencies by perpetuating the forces needed to fulfil a political role, apparent only to many Conservative Members. It also subverts the NATO goal of collectively balancing those forces and permits, through that imbalance, additional problems that will appear and according to the Minister, have appeared, in air defence.

This misconception warps the air budget as expressed in the White Paper. The most costly of the budget programmes cover all front-line squadrons of the Royal Air Force. It involves the sum of £865 million, or 17 per cent. of the budget, over 50,000 Service men and 11,000 civilian employees. Through Tornado, Britain could control three nations' air programmes. However, the question that should be posed is whether such a multi-role aircraft, stressing deep interdiction, is not out of tune with the blitzkrieg attack that stresses the need for defensive air power. This is particularly important for Britain because its Army is probably the most deficient in fire power of almost all the NATO allies.

Britain's air role is seemingly based on the concept of deep interdiction to disrupt any reinforcement and re-supply of Warsaw Pact forces based on a long war scenario. But, surely, in a blitzkrieg, such attacks would not affect the initial combat capabilities of the Warsaw Pact forces, which would be largely self susstaining. A Congressional Budget Office study entitled "Planning the Tactical Air Force", dated December 1977, stated: Assistance to ground forces from the first moment should be of high priority. Attacks on enemy forces, facilities and logistics far behind the battle lines will not be immediately effective in slowing the Pact onslaught and this should be accorded a secondary priority. The short war assumption has significant implications for tactics and priorities. It suggests that long range interdiction and counter air attack should rank well below battlefield involvement and the attainment of local air superiority through aerial combat. For these tasks, relatively few highly sophisticated and extremely expensive multi-mission aircraft could be less suitable than a larger number of simpler, cheaper and specialised aircraft.

Mr. Wilkinson


Mr. Snape

I have given way once to the hon. Gentleman. I have heard his sedentary interventions. He must make his own speech in his own time, if he succeeds in catching Mr. Deputy Speaker's eye.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)


Mr. Snape

I have also listened to the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) on numerous occasions in the House. I do not intend to give way.

Britain, perhaps to preserve stature by rushing this expensive programme to demonstrate that it can produce the world's most expensive and sophisticated aircraft, is avoiding the changing nature of modern air power. The new strategy has been fostered by two developments.

Mr. Goodhew

For whom is the hon. Gentleman speaking—the national executive?

Mr. Snape

Many opposition Members resent implications of lack of patriotism if at any time we dare to question any aspect of defence expenditure.

Mr. Goodhew

The hon. Gentleman has made a personal attack. Will be give way?

Mr. Snape

I have not even started on the hon. Gentleman. The new strategy has been fostered by two developments. The first is the mounting cost of tactical aircraft. New aircraft now being deployed in the West, like the F15 and the Tornado, cost almost four times the amount of the aircraft they are replacing. Tornado is by far NATO's most expensive aircraft. It will need NATO's most expensively trained pilots. The second reason is changing technology, particularly the development of precision guided munitions and electronic counter measures.

Historically, offensive air power has implied mass firepower, largely because of the basic inaccuracy of the dropped bomb. Dependence on mass firepower was the result of two related factors. First, little more than inspired guesswork was attached to the release of the weapon, until comparatively recently. Secondly, variables affecting the precision of the bomb, such as actual height, speed of the aircraft and wind velocity were hit-and-miss affairs.

Experience in Vietnam showed that in order to destroy a small bridge, 160 bombs were required. Later in the war, with the introduction of precision-guided munitions—PGM or so-called "smart bombs"—only four laser-guided bombs were needed. Precision-guided weapons have saved money in bombs and, more importantly, they have saved pilots and aircraft.

The launching of 160 bombs required 10 aircraft which released their bombs in groups of eight in two passes over the target. Each time they were vulnerable to low level anti-aircraft fire, while the rest of the group, waiting for their pass, was vulnerable to SAM missiles. Waiting for 20 separate passes increased the time of aircrafts over targets, while subjecting more pilots to the hazards of low level defence. In comparison, four smart bombs were delivered by a single aircraft with his wingman for cover. The pilot did not have to subject himself to low-level anti-aircraft fire, and made only two attack runs, so vastly decreasing the time over the target.

Precision-guided weapons have revolutionised the concept of close air support. Traditionally, close air support was coordinating air strikes to soften targets and to remove obstacles. Given the inaccur acy of bombs, specific targets would have to be taken by infantry or destroyed by tanks. PGM allow aircraft to strike directly at targets. No longer is air power relegated to creating havoc behind enemy front lines or to attacking supply lines. It could almost replace the need for tanks on the battlefield.

Given the blitzkreig nature of the Warsaw Pact threat, one must question the need, as Congress has done, to attack supply lines. In a short war, the advancing forces would be largely self-sustaining. More importantly, it makes little sense to attack the enemy rear end when his forward forces have just destroyed one's own defences. With Tornado, the British selected battlefield interdiction rather than close air support. As a swing-wing fast plane designed to drop a large number of free-release bombs at very high speed, its accuracy is obviously questionable.

What is surely needed, particularly given Britain's overall lack of fire power compared with our NATO allies, and the fact that we will be defending them in what is most likely to be the invasion area in Western Europe, is perhaps a slower moving and less technically superior aircraft which can fly behind enemy lines, propping up friendly tanks.

Mr. Keith Best (Anglesey)

If the hon. Gentleman is seriously suggesting that aircraft can take on the role of tanks on a battlefield has he spoken to any RAF pilots? They will tell him of the severe problems involved in trying to follow the directions of a forward air controller, especially when flying very low. It is impossible for them to undertake the role that he is trying to assign to them.

Mr. Snape

I have spoken to RAF pilots about this matter and to pilots who have flown in combat in other parts of the world.

Mr. Robert Atkins

Does the hon. Member mean that he has been talking to Russians?

Mr. Best

What did they say?

Mr. Snape

I thought that I was doing my best to tell the hon. Gentleman what they said, and to explain that the strategy which the present Government are following, and which the previous Labour Government might also have followed, and might have been overtaken by events. I am trying to do no more and no less than that.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

Is this a change of policy?

Mr. Snape

I am not givng way to the hon. Member.

A comparatively simple aircraft such as the American-built A10 is a fairly simple rugged aircraft with a large weapons and anti-tank capability. It carries a 30 mm cannon which fires armour-piercing ammunition at a high velocity and rate and will be armed with a Maverick missile. Because of its slow speed, it is designed to work in conjunction with ECM aircraft, flying low behind enemy lines and propping up forces such as tanks. Again, that is a view that has been publicly expressed by the United States Congress.

The hon. Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins), who is another Tory Member prone to sedentary interventions—they are more effective than the ones that he makes on his feet—has an understandable desire to protect the jobs of his constituents. What I cannot understand is why he should object to strategic and tactical differences between the two air forces being discussed in the House. After all, that is exactly the purpose of debate. It is what the House of Commons is for.

Mr. Robert Atkins

What I was concerned about, as are many of my hon. Friends, is the implied slur on the aircraft—the Tornado—being made by the workers of Preston and on what it is designed for.

Mr. Snape

On the contrary—the hon. Gentleman was not listening—I am casting no slur on his constituents. I concede that in a temporary aberration they sent the hon. Gentleman to this House, but I am sure that they will put that right at the next election. Basically, I do not believe that Britain has the money necessary to make the Tornado credible in all her roles. For example, in air defence the nation lacks coordination aircraft, long-range IFF and a look-down, shoot-down missile. Thus, air defence will probably revert to close-in dog fights, where a simpler aircraft such as the A10, but not necessarily the A10—there is nothing to stop the hon. Member's constituents from building a simpler aircraft and I am sure that they are good at it—may be better suited.

Interdiction is questionable in a blitzkrieg, while scatter-type weapons at low altitudes and high speed are inappropriate for tank busting. Helicopter strategy also needs revamping. This all contributes to the paradox that, despite spending more on defence, we may over the next decade end up less secure. What is needed is a fundamental reevaluation of the role of air power in both Britain's and the United Kingdom's defence.

Britain's dilemma with Tornado is similar to the F111 controversy of a few years ago. Despite being a world-beating aircraft and a jack-of-all-trades, its costs threatened even the United States' ability to acquire the other types of aircraft required for an effective air strategy. That accounts for the United States' embarrassing decision to scale down the programme. For example, Strategic Air Command bought only 76 out of the 210 originally envisaged.

My hon. Friends who were in the House in the late 1960s will remember the calumny poured on the Labour Government then because of their decision to cancel the purchase of the F111. It turns out that that decision was exactly the right one, although, predictably, it was not supported by the Tory Party.

No such debate as this would be complete or proper without some discussion of pay—probably the most important aspect affecting morale in the RAF. Under both Governments in the 1960s and 1970s, there have been periods when RAF pay has lagged behind civilian levels, causing both a drop in morale and an exodus of highly trained pilots and technicians to the better paid pastures of civilian life. What is needed is a commitment from both parties to maintain Service pay, particularly in the RAF, where so many highly skilled men and women are required.

Mr. Robert Atkins

Give that commitment.

Mr. Snape

Will the Minister comment on the report in yesterday's Sunday Express and The Guardian this morning about the borrowing of pilots from British Airways? I have brought with me the report in The Guardian, since I prefer that paper to the Sunday Express. If the report is accurate and pilots are given short service commissions in the RAF while remaining in British Airways and are likely to have their salary levels raised to ordinary civil and commercial levels, it is most unfair on long-serving pilots who have given their careers to the RAF to be half-price pilots alongside their newly militarised colleagues. It might be better at least to study the United States and Israeli air forces' scheme of a pool of highly trained reserve pilots, rather than continue on our present course.

I notice that the Minister carefully avoided any mention of his current problem on pay. Because of the delay in reporting by the Top Salaries Review Body—a delay which I personally find disappointing—an air commodore now earns £3 more a day than he would if he moved one step up the promotion ladder to air vice-marshal. What will the Government do about that? Will they do anything? What will the Minister say to the Prime Minister if she urges pay restraint on top people—presumably including Members of Parliament—while refusing to acknowledge any necessity for a pay policy elsewhere in British industry?

Almost as important as pay is the problem of Service accommodation for both married and single men. A problem that arises time and again in my discussions with senior officers of the RAF is the frustration involved in dealing with the Property Services Agency. Station commanders have told me that it can take up to eight weeks to get the simplest job done, such as the replacement of a barrack room or married quarters window. Perhaps the Minister will consult the Secretary of State for the Environment about the bureaucracy and incompetence that I am told exist within the PSA. In my Service days in the Army—admittedly a long time ago—routine maintenance was carried out by a garrison work force on the site. On the few occasions that it was necessary, a few sharp words at senior NCO level, let alone from the commanding officer, were all that was needed to get the job done.

The modern airman has more to concern himself with than the labyrinthine procedures of the PSA, and all too often blames the military system, including his own station commander, for any deficiencies in his accommodation. Particularly since the concept of the military salary was established, and the fact that Service men must now pay for their accommodation, better standards are long overdue. The Minister might inform his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment of the total shambles which seems to be common-place so far as routine maintenance, and even major works, are concerned. That is due to incompetence at the Department of the Environment.

The Government's defence posture is a sham and a fraud. No attempt has been made to debate the desirability of this country retaining a nuclear deterrent. If precedent is anything to go by, there will be no attempt to debate that topic in this House. The frightening sums of money involved could not be afforded in future by a Conservative or a Labour Government. Not even a Government as insensitive as the present one would commit this country to spending the billions of pounds needed to stay in the nuclear arms race. Any commitment to go ahead, for example, with Trident—

Mr. Douglas Hogg

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Snape

Any commitment to go ahead with Trident—

Mr. Hogg


Mr. Snape

No, I am not giving way. Sit down. Any commitment to go ahead with Trident involves an estimated cost, so we are told, of £6 billion over the next 10 years. If the Prime Minister is still in office—that is a terrifying, but unlikely prospect—not even the abolition of the National Health Service, the total suspension of the house building programme and the withdrawal of all local government grants as we know them would meet that bill.

Mr. Antony Buck (Colchester)

I think, with respect, that the hon. Gentleman is being unfair. I call the attention of the hon. Gentleman to the debate on 24 January—Hansard, c. 672—where the Secretary of State put these matters before the House. The hon. Gentleman is unfair. Perhaps he will withdraw his remarks concerning this nuclear matter.

Mr. Snape

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck). I respect his expertise—as I do not respect the views of some of his colleagues—in this matter. However, the Secretary of State has twice refused to issue a Green Paper on this subject. We have had no opportunity to discuss it. There is a big difference between the Secretary of State presenting the House with a fait accompli and our having a genuine debate on the desirability of going ahead with this ridiculously expensive programme.

It was apparent—as was said in the debate on the Royal Navy last week by Conservative as well as Labour Members—that such a programme could be funded only by the virtual abolition of our conventional forces. All three Services would no doubt be totally emasculated if this programme were to go ahead, and the British Army would probably suffer most.

Such a programme would almost certainly mean the collapse of NATO and would not make us sleep any more soundly in our beds. As eminent a military man as Lord Carver recently said that he could see no circumstances in which the United Kingdom would be prepared to use its nuclear forces without the use of nuclear weapons by the United States at the same time. The patriotism of Lord Carver would be in question if he said anything with which the Government disagreed, but he said that. The likelihood is that any attack by Warsaw Pact forces would be by conventional means, and a nuclear Britain would, by the end of this decade, have no option but to use the ultimate weapon because we would have nothing else.

Britain remaining in the nuclear league in the 1990s would mean putting all our people, men, women and children, in the front line. Our three Services—particularly the RAF—surely deserve better. They deserve better than a defence White Paper which is a sham and a facade. They deserve better than delusions of nuclear grandeur, which is all that the Secretary of State for Defence can offer.

The arguments about Britain's nuclear deterrent will be over and forgotten by the end of this decade. Under the present Prime Minister our conventional forces would, by that time, be virtually non- existent. The RAF deserves better. It deserves a sensible programme which fits the present-day world. It will be for the next Labour Government—I pray for everybody's sake that we have one sooner rather than later—to bring about that sensible programme.

5.4 pm

Mr. Michael Hamilton (Salisbury)

The speech of the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) was remarkable. The message of that speech which will remain with me—if anything remains—is that the hon. Gentleman is critical of the Government for mounting too great a defence effort. If that is so, I regard that as a considerable compliment to the Government.

It is appropriate in a debate on the Royal Air Force to consider what goes on at Boscombe Down. I do not know whether the House appreciates that there are no fewer than 82 different types of aircraft in operation today with the Armed Services. Before any new type, or any updated type, of aircraft can be handed over it must be rigorously vetted and tested. That process has to be carried out by an organisation quite independent of the aircraft industry. It is carried out at Boscombe Down which is 10 minutes' drive north of Salisbury.

I first took an interest in the place in the early months of 1965. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew) reminded us a few minutes ago that at that time the TSR2 was undergoing its tests there. Almost every day we would see it flying overhead but, as many hon. Members will recall, in his Budget speech in April 1965, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Roy Jenkins, condemned the TSR2 project to death. It was an extremely controversial decision which I thought represented an unjustifiable risk. The gap created in our defences by that decision has yet to be closed.

However, we have heard some good news today. The Tornado is being tested at Boscombe Down. Tornado is on its way and, fortunately, Mr. Roy Jenkins is safely on the other side of the Channel dreaming of a Centre party.

Boscombe Down has a fine runway of more than 10,000 ft. It has clearer skies than has Farnborough and it has a dedicated staff. There is a high degree of work satisfaction at Boscombe Down and it is common-place to find a father and son working on the same project. In recent weeks, as my hon. Friend the Minister said, the place was visited by American airmen and their aircraft. They were warmly welcomed. Our people marvelled at the immense scale of manning of the American forces and the Americans marvelled, equally, at what we achieved on a shoestring at Boscombe Down.

All is not well there and I have one message, and one only, for the Minister. It is that there are civil servants and civil servants. There are men working at Boscombe Down who are condemned to spend their days preparing returns for the Treasury, and we all know what the Treasury is like. But there are test pilots and scientists, far advanced in avionics. These men are also civil servants and they are at the sharp end of Britain's defences. They are the teeth and not the tail.

Pay is a problem though it is not the main one. It is true that from time to time a local aircraft manufacturer such as Bristows may tempt a skilled man away. But the main problem is the curb on recruitment. That curb constitutes a major problem and yet if the Minister would authorise the recruitment of 50 skilled men those men could be found and the problem would be resolved. It is as simple as that.

We all favour the rundown of the Civil Service. However, I do not believe that the Minister appreciates the extraordinary Alice-in-Wonderland system. If the administrators at Boscombe Down were free to effect their own rundown, free to choose to dispense with one job rather than another and not to replace one man rather than another, there would be no problem. As things are, if a key man dies or retires it is likely that he will not be replaced, such are the regulations.

If defence matters—and most of us believe that it does—the system is nonsense. If a skilled man is working on a Tornado and an urgent operational need occurs in Northern Ireland, that man will be taken off his job and switched. The result is slippage in the Tornado programme.

I am sure that the Minister is not aware of how the system operates. If he were I am sure that he would not tolerate it. If he has grasped my message—that the ban on recruitment must be eased—I need say no more. If he has not grasped my message—and I have no doubt that the fault is mine—I shall continue to press the point.

Earlier this year the Prime Minister spent a night at Salisbury. I was anxious that she should fit in a short visit to Boscombe Down. I was told that that was not possible. The Minister is directly responsible for the RAF. Will he take out his diary and arrange a personal visit to Boscombe Down at the earliest opportunity? It is within two hours of his desk in Whitehall. The work there is crucial to our defence. I am confident that if he sees what is happening he will remedy the problem.

5.13 pm
Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)

I was delighted that the Minister declared that the first priority in defence is our membership of NATO. That should be repeated. Without membership we should not have enjoyed over three decades of peace, nor could we look forward to the coming decades with any sense of security. I proclaim unashamedly my full support for the continuation of Britain's membership of the Alliance in the sure knowledge that it is the only way in which we can preserve our peace and freedom and the peace and freedom of the world at large.

Because I believe that so strongly, I believe that the debate is particularly important. The air defence of the United Kingdom within the framework of NATO is the most vital part of our contribution to the European theatre of potential operations. If the United Kingdom is not defended in the air, it will not be a secure base for rapid reinforcement from the United States of America and everything that entails for the protection of our ports and airfields. In office and out of office I am convinced that air defence should have priority within the defence budget. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I hope Government Members who shout "Hear, hear" will also agree with me about the inadequacies of the Minister's statement to the House today in respect of air defence.

The contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) was refreshing. He explained the thinking on the other side of the Atlantic. He brought into question many of the accepted conventions and strategies to which we have been wedded for some time. He has performed a service to the House.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wellbeloved

The hon. Gentleman must make his own speech in his own time. I do not intend constantly to give way, because many hon. Members want to speak. It would be unfair for me to prolong my speech by giving way to numerous interventions.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East rightly asked whether we need a less sophisticated type of aircraft to secure and maintain air superiority over the battle front. I do not seek to decry Tornado. It is the greatest thing that has happened to the RAF for many a decade. Officers and men are anxiously awaiting the day when Tornados come into operation. My remarks should not be construed as being derogatory to the Tornado.

It would be a great test of nerve for an operational commander to commit an aeroplane costing over £10 million to attack anything but a first priority target in a battle. We need a lower cost aircraft for ground attack and for air defence, fighter-to-fighter battles. We cannot rest completely secure without one. We must look ahead to the next generation.

The Minister read out a long list of actions which he implied had been taken by the present Government to improve our air defence capacity. He mentioned the VC10 air-to-air tankers for refuelling. He will forgive me for saying that the present Government claim credit for that because it was agreed and put into effect long before he took office. The same can be said of the Nimrod decision, of ground—air defence and many improvements ranging from filling the gaps in our radar coverage to the hardening of shelters and the toning down programme. They were conceived and put into operation long ago. Sky Flash, Aim 9L and the JP233s were well on their way long before the Minister took office.

I was staggered when the Minister mentioned Church Fenton and training. One would have thought from his manner that he was responsible for Church Fenton.

Mr. Dalyell

I certainly thought so.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Even Church Fenton was scheduled for reactivation under the last Administration. Everything that the Under-Secretary of State announced today in terms of increased air defence was either being put into operation or about to be before the general election.

Mr. Pattie

Does the hon. Gentleman intend to comment on the measures that were announced last July?

Mr. Wellbeloved

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I hope to miss nothing in my remarks. If by any chance I do, I shall be delighted if he intervenes.

The Under-Secretary of State will recall that he wrote an article in the Daily Express on 15 September 1978. I am sure that he has not forgotten it. The headline read: "Fewer than the Few." He wrote: … how many fighter aircraft do we have? The answer is 108, and of these, some are unserviceable so that at any given time the active strength is probably not much over 90. The hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill), who unfortunately is not in his place today, claimed on a number of occasions that we had only 74 air defence fighters to protect us. I wonder whether the Under-Secretary of State is now in the happy position of being able to tell us who was right. Was it the hon. Member for Stretford, with his 74, or was it the Under-Secretary of State himself, with his 108—or is the hon. Gentleman now adopting a more responsible attitude, having decided that bandying words across the Floor of the House and making allegations about the number of air defence fighters at our disposal is not quite right in the national interest?

That is the sort of behaviour that the House had to tolerate month after month when some Conservative Members, though not all of them, were concerned only to secure one end. It had nothing to do with the air defence of the United Kingdom. It had everything to do with their petty—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) was not here in those days. I have told him already that he must make his own speech in his own time. The hon. Gentleman, like so many of his hon. Friends, was not here in those days and did not hear the scurrilous and unpatriotic statements of his hon. Friends, who lost no opportunity and who crawled under every available stone to denigrate the Royal Air Force and its capacity to do its job.

I wonder whether the Minister wishes to intervene. I shall give way to him willingly if he wishes to tell the House how many aircraft are available, 13 months after he assumed office, to defend the country against a potential attack. The hon. Gentleman sits silent because, apparently, he is now adopting a more responsible attitude with the constraints of office upon him.

Mr. Pattie

I am responsible enough, I like to think, to take the hon. Gentleman's comments sufficiently seriously to include a reference to them in the remarks that I hope to make at the end of this debate.

Mr. Wellbeloved

I am sure that the real answer is the one that the hon. Gentleman had to give earlier, which was to the effect that he would outline the position in his later remarks. It may be that he has to wait until those who advise him have put the facts into his hands. Perhaps the facts are that he cannot recall from memory the true position now, that he cannot drag a figure out of the air.

Mr. Robert Atkins

If things in the garden were as lovely as the hon. Gentleman hopes to make us believe, why did he feel constrained to write the letter that he did so soon after the election, which, it might be argued, reflected on his own tenure as the Minister responsible?

Mr. Wellbeloved

Let me make it clear that I was dissatisfied, and I remain dissatisfied, with the state of our air defence. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, both in and out of office I adhere to the same basic principles. The hon. Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) will not find it possible to sustain an attack upon me on the basis of his intervention.

I want to press the Minister about another matter that he announced. It concerns the third Lightning squadron. Why do we have to wait until 1982 for that third squadron to come into operation? The Minister knows as well as I do that there are a substantial number of Lightning aircraft in store. They have been subjected to a very detailed examination for fatigue, and that examination was almost concluded 13 or 14 months ago. The hon. Gentleman also knows that the outgoing Administration had begun to earmark aircrew to man additional Lightning squadrons.

Perhaps the Minister will explain why, after all that he and his hon. Friends said about air defence and with many Lightning aircraft now in store, he is unable to bring forward that addition to our air defence capacity a little earlier than 1982.

I hazard a guess that we now have some-will be. The hon. Gentleman hinted at it in his speech. He will say that his Government inherited a pilot deficit. However, before he relies on that excuse, I remind him that in a written answer to me on 26 March of this year he disclosed that between the ranks of group captain and flight lieutenant we had 3,401 general duties pilots drawing flying pay. Perhaps the Minister would care to tell us how many aircraft we have in the RAF inventory. Is it 600, 900, 1,000, or a lot more?

I hazard a guess that we now have somewhere in the region of a ratio of three or four pilots to one aircraft in the RAF. I base that on the number of pilots receiving flying pay. If we take into account all the other categories of pilots, we begin to see that there is no shortage. Will the Minister say, for example, how many specialist aircrew we have in the fast jet stream? How many general duties pilots are there in the fast jet stream? How many single list pilots do we have in the fast jet stream? I hazard a guess that the total comes to between 1,300 and 1,400 pilots who are trained and are being paid flying pay for fast jet flying—not multi-engine flying, but fast jet flying.

How does the Minister justify waiting until 1982 before he fills the gap in our air defence, which is crying out desperately, not for words but for positive allocations of aircraft and crew to defend our skies?

If the Minister cannot find the right means of getting those aircraft into operational service he ought to apologise to the House for his irresponsible attacks on the Labour Administration. Within the NATO framework, air defence remains our first priority, and this Government, for all their bold talk, have failed dismally to take one new constructive step to try to fill the gap.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

The hon. Gentleman must realise that he is over-simplifying the argument. The figures which he gave he knows about because of his past involvement in the Department. Can he say how many of those pilots have been in the Service for a sufficient number of years to be of an age when they would be no longer able to fly these new and more sophisticated aircraft? If the number proved to be sufficiently large, would not the Minister, therefore, have to depend on recruitment?

Mr. Wellbeloved

On the basis of the grand total of trained pilots available, obviously there will be some who are not capable of flying these jets. However, I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear in mind that all these pilots are in receipt of flying pay. If they are receiving flying pay, one must assume that they are capable of performing the duties for which they receive that specialist pay. If that is not the case, perhaps we should review the system. But, as I have said, the number of pilots of the right age who are at the moment in the fast jet stream must total, on my rough calculations, based on the Minister's answer of 26 March, about 1,300 or 1,400. If the hon. Gentleman cannot scrape together enough from those fast jet-trained pilots to put into operation another one or possibly two Lightning squadrons before 1982, he should come back to the House and apologise, and he should withdraw the scandalous statement that he made in opposition. In the same article of 13 September he said that: during the early 1980s we will be weaker in in air defence than we have been at any time since 1935. The charge I make is that the hon. Gentleman cannot in office justify that sort of misleading, disgraceful and unpatriotic claim.

Mr. Pattie

The hon. Gentleman is talking about being unpatriotic. We can also look back to the years when the hon. Gentleman held my post and ask him what he did about getting the Lightning squadrons together. What did he do about all the people who drew flying pay while he was in office?

Mr. Wellbeloved

I can tell the hon. Gentleman what I did about it. I called first for a complete trawl throughout the whole of the RAF to see how many of the people claiming flying pay were on non-flying duties. I was proceeding quite vigorously with that review when I left office. I did not accept then—and I do not accept now—that it is right for highly and expensively trained pilots to be squandered on ground duties when it is claimed that we have a shortage of pilots to man our fighter aircraft.

As to the main issue of air defence, the hon. Gentleman knows that when evidence was given to the Defence Select Committee, the representatives of the Royal Air Force made clear that it was not until 1974 that the joint intelligence committee made known to the Ministry of Defence that there were certain threats which required an increase in our air defence fighter strength.

Since that date, of course, many things have happened, right up to the decision in principle—which the hon. Gentleman sought to decry in an Adjournment debate—taken by his predecessor and by the Royal Air Force board at that time, that we needed more air defence fighters and were to press ahead with that demand. I want to know just how far the Minister has got in putting into practice that decision in principle to have sufficient aircraft available to defend the skies over this country.

The Minister referred to boards of inquiry. I welcome the very modest step that has been taken in making available a summary of the outcome of boards of inquiry, but I do not think that that goes far enough. I ask the Minister to look at the matter again and see whether it is possible to make almost the whole of the reports of boards of inquiry available to Parliament and to the public. If we are to maintain the confidence of the general public we need to make available to the broadest possible extent the details of why accidents occur in the Royal Air Force. The Minister must look again at that.

I congratulate the Minister on the progress that has been made in implementing the new low flying system. I am 100 per cent. in support of the need for the Royal Air Force to train over the United Kingdom and to use the techniques of low flying. Without that experience and that training, we shall not be in a position to have a Royal Air Force capable of fulfilling its operational role. The Minister can look to me at any time for support in defence of the United Kingdom low flying system and the use that the Royal Air Force makes of it.

I should like to refer to one detailed question that has caused me, as a constituency Member, some considerable concern over the last few years, namely, personal locator beacons. The Minister will know that a substantial order was placed with one of our major manufacturers, Pye. That was after some contest and dispute about tendering, but none the less it was placed. People sitting not 100 miles from me may also recall the matter. I received representations from a constituency firm about that order. The personal locator beacon is a vital piece of survival equipment for aircrew who have to ditch. The years have rolled by, and the last I heard from my outside local source was that difficulties were still being experienced in the supply of the beacon, and that Pye had not fulfilled its repeated commitments to get the equipment to the Royal Air Force so that it could be put into service. I hope that the Minister will have something to say about that.

I should like to press the Minister a little about the training system for pilots and about pilot wastage. By pilot wastage in training I refer, of course, to those who fail to get through the basic flying course, or who go on to advanced flying training and then fail, and so on. The rate of wastage is very high as a percentage in the Royal Air Force. I know that the Minister will be as concerned as I am and as all his predecessors have been about this wastage. Has he, for example, carried out an evaluation of the rate of wastage in other air forces within NATO?

I looked very closely at the United States Air Force experience in pilot wastage and found that its figures were far better than those of the Royal Air Force. I believe that the RAF is the finest air force in the world, but I am bound to say that its training wastage figures do not come up to the high standards achieved by some other air forces. There should be an investigation internationally, or at least within NATO, to find out whether the RAF can learn something in this respect from other air forces.

I do not believe that it is enough to have continual in-service reviews of training and of pilots and of the reason for pilot wastage, because we do not seem to be able to overcome the problem in that way. That was my opinion when in office, and I say it again out of office. It is time for a review to be carried out within NATO on the causes of pilot wastage in training. It is also time that we had an injection of outside expertise into a review within the RAF.

Mr Wilkinson

The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point. As a former—and present—flying instructor, I have great sympathy with him. But he will be aware that it was during his Government's period of office that the Defence Review took place which greatly reduced the number of transport aircraft seats available to aircrew, and that therefore the percentage of the frontline force which is now fast jet is higher. Surely it is better to scrub people cut of the system early than to risk their losing their lives—and precious aeroplanes—later on.

Mr. Wellbeloved

I wish that the problem were as simple as that, but it is not. One could make a wide range of suggestions. We do not spend enough time and effort on the slow learner. People are thrown too quickly out of the training system. If we were to have a special squadron of Hunters or Hawks or whatever might be available, so that the slower learner could get to grips with the learning problems involved, we would have a much better success rate.

There must be a much greater in-depth study within NATO and an injection of expertise into the Royal Air Force from outside, because, with all my affection for the RAF, I still believe that the in-service reviews do not come to grips with the real problems. The Select Committee of the House of Commons, which is at the moment taking an interest in pilot training and wastage, should conduct a review in depth, taking into account the experiences of other air forces. One of the contributory factors to the problems connected with pilots and their availability is their failure during training. I have a mass of detail gleaned from questions over a period that show the devastating effect on manning of pilot wastage.

Will the Minister comment on another training point? In the United States air force in air combat training a highly sophisticated system called air combat manoeuvre and instrumentation is used. It is a first-class system that allows pilots to see their errors on videotape after an exercise. It involves a modest investment. Things were moving on this front during my time, but no decision had been made. I hope that the Minister is aware of ACMI and will try to do something to make it available to the RAF, because it would have a tremendous impact. Certainly many of the American pilots who participated in the "Red Flag" exercise did very well as a result of that sort of training.

I refer next to the AST 403, the new tactical combat aircraft. There has been undue delay in a decision here. I recall from the recesses of my mind that it was considered imperative that a decision should be reached on the matter mid-way through 1979. Here we are with no decision yet. I do not hold the Minister personally responsible, but he should try to "gee up" the Royal Air Force staff to come up with positive answers.

I know what has been happening. The staff did not want the Jaguar-Harrier replacement all at once. It wanted to keep the Harrier. It knew that there could be no collaborative programme on a vertical take-off aircraft because the other potential partners did not want that. The staff won on that. It now has AST 409, and I am in favour of that because we need to retain a vertical take-off capacity, but that means that there should be no further delay on the tactical combat aircraft.

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East said, this aircraft should not be an expensive, highly sophisticated aeroplane. We must look to lower cost and less sophistication so that we can produce the numbers we need. Sometimes, as well as quality we need quantity. If an aircraft costs £10 million a commander is most reluctant to commit such an asset into the firing line for minor targets. However, we need aircraft for that sort of work in the forward edge of the battle area. I therefore implore the Minister to put a squib into the Ministry of Defence to force it to come up without further delay with a positive decision on AST 403.

I am concerned also about the problem of identification of friend or foe. I am appalled at what might happen in operations with aircraft coming back to the United Kingdom base. Unless an answer is found to the IFF problem they will face as great a risk in United Kingdom skies as they will face in the skies of a potential enemy. There are possible solutions. They may be a little expensive, but they would provide a solution to this crucial problem. That is why I said at the outset that if we are to have adequate air defence the budget division must adopt a more favourable attitude towards the RAF in dealing with these sort of problems.

My final point touches on the question of the budget. The Government are currently considering the replacement of our nuclear capability. I fully support my hon. Friends who say that it would be a misuse of our valuable and scarce defence resources to spend several billion pounds on a new generation of strategic nuclear weapons. Our membership of NATO is crucial and fundamental. I repudiate completely any demands that this country should withdraw from NATO. That is not a demand by my party, so that I am happy and confident in making that repudiation. Our part in NATO is to secure the United Kingdom as the base for the reinforcement of Europe. To do that we need adequate air defence. For that we need more fighters and we need them now. That is where the Government should be putting their money. They should not be putting it into a new generation of strategic nuclear weapons.

5.45 pm
Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)

It is with pleasure that I speak after the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved). I hope that he will not think me unduly patronising, and I hope that my hon. Friends will not think me unduly generous, if I say that I thought that he was a good Minister for the Royal Air Force within the constraints within which he had to operate. He did his best during his period of office to ensure that the RAF was properly equipped. Obviously the problems of pay and of the overall allocation of the defence budget were imposed upon him from on high. However, I think and hope that, with pressure the then Opposition and from a minority within his Government, he did his best to ensure that within the constraints then existing the RAF was kept up to a maximum standard.

The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) talk about paradoxes, but I must say that I find a clear paradox in their attitude towards the nuclear deterrent. It seems extraordinary that after his speech, with much of which I agreed, the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford should make the statement that he did about Polaris replacement. The right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot) marched through London at the weekend saying that the dismantling of nuclear weaponry was the principal objective of humanity. No one would think that he and the hon. Member for Erith and Cray-ford were part of a Government who established a secret Cabinet Committee to investigate the exact form of replacement for Polaris. Anyone would think that they had nothing to do with the major strategic decision which my Government—rightly—have now followed up.

Both hon. Members are guilty of double standards, of double statements and of double talk. The country as well as the Conservative Party would be most interested to know the attitude of the official Opposition on this matter. The right hon. Member for Stockton (Mr. Rodgers) and others like him in his party have been courageous in coming out with their point of view and sticking firmly to the need for a nuclear strategic replacement. I admire and support that point of view. But it is not good enough for former RAF Ministers and newly appointed Front Bench Opposition spokesmen to say that there is not enough in the Minister's speech about the nuclear deterrent when they do not give the precise attitude of the official Opposition.

Mr. Snape

The hon. Gentleman referred to what the Labour Government did on this matter. I was lower down the ladder in the Whips' Office at the time, so any information I have is inevitably secondhand. I understand that the Cabinet committee met to discuss the various options for the future. The hon. Gentleman made great play of the secrecy attached to the meeting. All Cabinet sub-committees—in my view, unaccountably—whether talking about sewage disposal or nuclear weapons, are secret. There is nothing unusual about that.

Mr. Nelson

The Cabinet committee was more than a talking shop. I understood that it met a number of times. Professor Sir Ronald Mason and Mr. Duff from the Ministry of Defence were commissioned to draw up extensive reports on the nature of the launching system to be used in any replacement, the cost, and the strategic implications. Considerable effort went into that decision-making process.

The committee was certainly more than a talking shop. I understand that £1,000 million was spent on Chevaline and on improving the missile capability. However, that was not disclosed in any White Paper. Our White Paper has been criticised. The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East said that when he was in America he was ashamed at having to produce a Conservative White Paper. He should have taken copies of the previous Labour Government's White Papers. They were slimmer documents. I am delighted that our White Paper is so comprehensive. It is the bluest White Paper that I have had the pleasure of seeing for many years.

Mr. Dalyell

I do not wish to become involved in any "yah-boo" arguments. However, according to an article in The Times by Mr. Peter Hennessy, the Government—doubtless my own was just as secretive—have left the key decision on Trident to a Cabinet Committee dealing with miscellaneous subjects. I do not know the details, but according to the press, a report by Mr. Michael Quinlan of the Ministry of Defence will not be discussed by the full Cabinet. If such critical decisions are to be made, should they not be made by the entire Cabinet, representing all interests, and not by a small sub-committee that is chosen by the Prime Minister?

Mr. Nelson

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will have heard the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter before. I have some sympathy with his argument. However, I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends will give such issues full and proper consideration. I welcomed an earlier debate on the nuclear strategic deterrent replacement programme. It would be helpful if more information were provided before any final decision was made. However, the Secretary of State for Defence must take into account the fact that confidential and strategic security decisions may be involved.

Before undertaking such a major programme of expenditure, which will cut into the defence budget and imply opportunity costs for other sections in the years to come, those of us who will have to live with the financial consequences of such a decision wish to ensure that it is right? It should be our decision and it should be we who give the final green light.

I re-emphasise the importance of our air defence. I have had the pleasure of speaking in all the debates on the Royal Air Force that have taken place since I became a Member of Parliament. Indeed, I made my maiden speech on this subject. In my own small way I have consistently pressed for a bigger Royal Air Force allocation. I have pressed for a steady improvement in our Royal Air Force and air defence capability. It is no coincidence that year after year the allocation made to the three forces is roughly the same. It is a convenient way of avoiding forcing Chiefs of Staff to bid for available moneys.

In the changed circumstances of modern warfare, air defence must be our first priority. Our contribution to NATO and our national security depend on other forces, but the position and contribution of the Royal Air Force are of paramount importance. The House should recognise that and allocate the necessary moneys. This year there is a defence budget of about £10.7 billion in real terms. Just over 40 per cent. of the budget, or £4.3 billion, will be spent on the re-equipment programme. We must complete that programme. Of the budget, £1.7 billion, or 16 per cent. of the total defence budget, will be spent on air systems. I am in favour of a blinkered approach to our re-equipment programme. In the past we have relied on a national re-equipment programme, including such equipment as the TSR2, to supply our own forces. Such programmes are too vulnerable, because the Chancellor of the Exchequer may cut defence expenditure during hard times. I believe in collaboration and in the completion of this programme.

I hope that my hon. Friend will receive the message that the priorities set out in the excellent White Paper should be adhered to in years to come. There will be no diminution in the important improvements of the Royal Air Force. Whatever other changes may take place, the programme will be maintained. Our past failure to maintain our convential capability has lowered the nuclear threshold. The financial decisions facing us involve higher costs than they would have done if the nettle had been grasped sooner. Transport Command has been cut. That decision involved the loss of a major Royal Air Force station in my constituency. We have been told that the V-bomber force will go. I believe that it is going too early. Strike and air defence aircraft are now being replaced. However, as some of my hon. Friends have said, it is too late. Those aircraft should already be in production, in stream and in squadron. Many of them will not be in full service until the middle of this decade. Some, including the Tornado F2 will not be replaced until the end of the decade. It is a vital air-defence aircraft and the delay in replacement is a source of regret.

It is vital that the Government should complete their re-equipment programme. The timing and financial commitment will need political will and consistent political commitment. Paragraph 806 is the only paragraph in the White Paper that I find upsetting. It states: we shall not feel obliged to adhere slavishly to a particular growth path, nor shall we consider it a failure of policy if we modify our spending plans in either direction from year to year as new information becomes available. The White Paper is generally progressive and determined. However, that is an exit clause that I do not like the smell of. I hope that my hon. Friend will confirm that it is no part of the Government's elected remit and intention to fall back on the basic principle that we must adhere to 3½ per cent. this year and real increases in the defence budget of 3 per cent. until 1984. If circumstances permit, the budget should be further increased after that year.

This commitment is vital, because we should improve our conventional capability, improve and raise the nuclear threshold. In addition, when Polaris's vital replacement is decided, I wish to ensure that its replacement will be undertaken over a period of years and in such a way that it will not bite unduly into our conventional defence capability.

I wrote to the Secretary of State for Defence and expressed concern, because the graph on page 88 of the White Paper shows the extent to which future capital money for re-equipment is already allocated to programmes in the course of development. I pointed out that that pattern of expenditure would leave little opportunity for new equipment programmes or for annual capital expenditure on the replacement for Polaris. My right hon. Friend was kind enough to reply and to reassure me that a 3½ per cent. increase in defence expenditure this year and a 3 per cent. increase over the next three years meant that the compound rate of real growth in our defence budget should allow an annual contribution of 5 per cent., which would depreciate the cost of any new Polaris replacement without unduly affecting any of the existing programmes.

As some of my hon. Friends have said in previous debates, even with such reassurances, and even after looking at the basis of feasibility studies at present and hoping that we shall be able to fit in all the programmes, there must be concern that economic conditions, as we enter a period of severe and dogged recession, and perhaps political considerations of a different type, will force this Government, and any future Governments, to re-assess their priorities, their defence expenditure and their commitment to the replacement of the nuclear deterrent.

My simple message is that I want to see a blinkered approach to those matters. The right decisions have been made in the White Paper. I hope that my hon. Friends will join me in this debate and in future years in ensuring that the Government stick to those decisions.

I have emphasised the importance of air defence. No one can take part in defence debates without recognising that we cannot talk about defence in absolute terms, but only in relative terms. The quantitative amount of defence is of little significance unless it is assessed in comparison with the threat that we face.

Those who believe that we are anywhere near parity with the Soviet Union in air defence should take into account the fact that Soviet air forces employ about 450,000 men. The frontal aviation of the Soviet Air Force has 5,000 combat aircraft, with 3,000 in reserve, and its long-range aviation has about 700 aircraft, including 50 Backfires—a deadly weapon, despite what the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford seemed to indicate—which, flying through our northern approaches, can directly attack such areas as Liverpool, which would be an assembly point for NATO reinforcements from the United States during a period of conflict.

Mr. Wellbeloved

If the hon. Gentleman construed my remarks as downgrading the Backfire and other threats from the Soviet air force, I should make it clear that I am convinced that it has devastating power.

Mr. Nelson

I apologise. I confused the hon. Gentleman with the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East. I meant to say that the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East seemed to be somewhat concerned about those matters.

In a thoughtful contribution, the Opposition spokesman said that in the light of changed combat circumstances and theatre warfare perhaps we should re-think our programme. I see the academic and political attractions of such an approach, but in defence, as in British Steel and so many other areas, I have had enough of re-thinks and investigations of new ways forward. There has been enough talk about the problem. We have made decisions; let us carry out the policies and get the aircraft produced.

Sometimes we do not consider adequately the cost of changing our mind. The cost of changing our mind on TSR2 has been to leave this country vulnerable to air attack for a decade or more. The cost can be assessed in more than financial terms. We have important new aircraft coming on stream—we are told that the first production F2 is on stream—and this is no time to change our minds.

When the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East mentioned the need to switch from interdiction and ground support to air defence, I agreed with his analysis. That is why it is so important that we get the F2 version of Tornado as soon as possible and, if possible, before the end of the decade. It will be a vital and major contribution to our northern and national defences. Its role will be much more frontal fire than will that of the GR1. It is a vital programme, which I hope the Government will ensure is brought into production and service as soon as possible.

The Elder Forest 80 exercise re-emphasised the importance of filling the gaps that undoubtedly exist in our air defences. I see the Tornado programme and some of the other important improvements in ground-based air defence systems as vital elements in meeting the criticisms that may be contained in the report.

Above all, I reiterate that since the war the RAF has received declining attention financially and has not received the allocation of resources, thought and priority that it deserves. Its role in our defence has been underrated, despite the out-standing work of the men and women who comprise the RAF. We in politics have a responsibility to accord it a higher priority in future.

6.5 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

I am prompted and stimulated by the thoughtful speech of the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson), who mentioned Trident and the consequences of accepting a Trident programme, to go back to Thursday's debate on the Royal Navy and to mention that I shall be asking the Prime Minister tomorrow whether she will make a statement on her discussion on Monday 2 June with the United States Defence Secretary, Mr. Harold Brown, about the United States proposal that Britain should acquire Trident missiles.

It might be an obvious supplementary to that question—and here I am in line with the official Opposition and many others—to ask yet again for a Green Paper to be published outlining the con sequences of making a Trident decision. The House makes decisions which, unless they are to be wasteful and involve cancellations, will last well into the political lifetime of, for example, the hon. Member for Chichester. I do not want to embarrass the hon. Gentleman, but I think that he said that such decisions would last until "some of us are in government".

The hon. Gentleman may become a member of the Government when he has grey hair, but if the Trident decision is taken it will still be reverberating after the hon. Gentleman may have been in opposition, in government again, back in opposition and again in government. Such decisions last a long time.

Before we commit ourselves and run the risk of what some of us may think would be an inevitable calculation, I refer the Minister to the exchange that took place in the debate on the Royal Navy last week. I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy), who was on the Opposition Front Bench: Is my hon. Friend prepared to endorse a request that Mr. Quinlan's paper "— My hon. Friend replied: I was about to say that. I said: All right, will my hon. Friend endorse that it will be published? My hon. Friend replied: I will certainly do that."—[Official Report, 19 June 1980; Vol. 986, c. 1902.] It is not just me, but the official Opposition, and, I gather from the tone of the remarks of the hon. Member for Chichester, various Conservative Members, who think that the paper that Mr. Michael Quinlan prepared for the Treasury materials division ought to be published, roughly in toto. We are asking, not for hypersensitive security information, but for information on which serious decisions can be based. Perhaps the usual channels of the Ministry of Defence will warn the Prime Minister when she returns from Venice that a supplementary question to question No. 3 tomorrow may be that she should consider the publication of a Green Paper on Trident.

Before moving on to my main theme, I wish to ask the Minister a question. I am not trying to re-run last week's debate on Ferranti, but many of us who have had much to do with the company's trade union officials, shop stewards and management—I do not represent a Ferranti plant directly, but many of my constituents work in the Ferranti plant in Edinburgh, and I have been deeply involved in the matter—have come away with the impression that Ministers and senior civil servants in the Ministry of Defence have not done as much as they could have done to help their colleagues in the Scottish Office who have, I am sure, tried hard to maintain Ferranti as a separate entity and to ensure that it is not swallowed up.

Because Ferranti has such vital defence consequences for any British aircraft, is it either true or fair to say that the Ministry of Defence has been lukewarm in 1980, whereas in 1974–75, during the Ferranti troubles, it fought like a tiger? Is it true to say that in the various Cabinet battles the Defence Ministers have not been shoulder to shoulder with those Ministers who have tried to protect Ferranti? There are some of us, regardless of our view on defence policy, who believe that Ferranti should remain British. I believe that that is even the view of the Secretary of State for Industry. It is one thing to feel that Ferranti should remain British, and it is quite another to will the means as to how that should be done. In these circumstances, the selling off of shares, particularly in toto, puts that at risk.

We may believe that equipment should not be bought across the exchanges. But am I right in thinking that the Ministry of Defence has not been as helpful to Ferranti as it should have been over the past few weeks? If the Ministry denies that, perhaps it could explain how it sees its relationship with Ferranti and how it thinks it should be helpful in the preservation of the two major plants—at Edinburgh and in Lancashire? I put that in question form and I hope that the Minister understands that many hon. Members will be interested in his reply.

I interrupted the Minister once in his opening speech to ask for clarification about the next generation of missiles. I think that he was referring to the air-to-air missiles or the ground-to-air missiles. The Minister talked in terms of a possible joint project. What size of programme is envisaged, and is it really necessary to have a joint project? If so, with whom? There are many people in British industry who do not think that it would be to our national advantage to have a joint project with the Americans in this kind of development. We want to know rather more about that.

We would also like to know a little more about the JP233 attack weapon programme. What is the scale of it and how much is involved? My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) asked whether 66 F111s were the equivalent of 200 Backfire bombers. I imagine that he was referring to the TU26. Those of us who are interested in these matters would like the Minister to comment on this, because clearly the Soviet Backfire bomber is an aircraft to be reckoned with.

I have always been a supporter—it a qualified one, who is concerned about the costs—of the Tornado. I gather there are to be 146 in three batches of GR1s, and that we are now to have a number of F2 air defence variants. What is the unit cost? I shall not be surprised if it is well over £10 million at 1980 prices. Along with this, could we have a reminder of the cost of training a pilot? Not so long ago I gave the figure of £600,000 and was told by the Minister that this was a significant under-estimation. The cost of training pilots is now not much less than £1 million per pilot. I would welcome discussions on the use of Goose Bay for the Tornado, and I hope that such discussions come to fruition quickly.

Mr. Speaker, you and your predecessors have been good enough to call me in 15 out of the last 17 annual debates on the Air Estimates. I mention this to show my parliamentary colleagues that my central question is perhaps not so naive as its simplicity suggests. My question is this—now that we have a multi-role combat aircraft about to come into service—the Tornado—why do we need other deterrents, be they under the control of the Americans, the RAF or the British Navy? The MRCA was sold to us a decade ago partly on the grounds that any country which attacked another country that was armed with MRCAs would suffer an unacceptable level of damage to its forces, and possibly to its civilian population. These were the grounds on which the project was sold to many sceptical Members of Parliament on both sides of the House. It was partly on those grounds that this House in the early 1970s accepted the aircraft project at the then astronomical price of £2.4 million per unit. It is partly on these grounds that we accept today the cost of more than £900,000 to train one MRCA pilot. What has changed? It now appears that in the Government's thinking the Tornado MRCA is no longer acceptable as a sufficient deterrent.

I have a certain longevity of memory in all this. Eighteen years ago I used to sit at the back as a very young Back Bencher, listening with fascination to George Wigg, the then right hon. Member for Dudley, berating Government Ministers about Blue Streak, Sky Bolt, Fire Bird, Blue Water, the Thor missile and many others. We then came to the saga of the TSR2. Incidentally, my information from the Manchester College of Science and Technology is that the basic reason for rejecting that aircraft was that it was foreseen that it would have many of the aerodynamic problems that later became associated with the F111. In fact, on technical rather than purely financial grounds the aircraft was rejected. Equally, I remember the litany repeated by Defence Ministers—with no less verve by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley). They all said that these or their sucessors were absolutely essential weapons. When anyone queried, any of these weapons, we were mown down and told in the strongest terms and with all the authority of Defence Ministers that they were absolutely essential.

At one stage my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East went on television after being shown riding through the streets of Paris with outriders—I remember the scene well because they had immaculate white gloves and it was quite a spectacle—to tell us about the wonderful Anglo-French variable geometry aircraft. He said that he had signed an agreement with M. Messmer, French Minister of Defence at the time. Close scrutiny of that unlikely project by the House brought it to an end.

Then there was the F111. We know the difficulty of the F111 being bought across the exchanges.

Mr. Wilkinson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dalyell

Certainly, in a moment. The F111 was then presented as the most advanced technology. After the F111 it was suggested that we should have to think about where we called a halt in terms of sophistication.

Mr. Wilkinson

I do not want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's reminiscences, but the AFVG was cancelled unilaterally by the French. He will recall that the TSR2 is totally different, aerodynamically, from the F111. The F111 is a variable geometry aeroplane. The TSR2 is quite different. If the hon. Gentleman is to give us these historical anecdotes, will he please get his facts right?

Mr. Dalyell

I am willing to have my facts put right. We could argue about this matter in terms of metal fatigue. I know that the hon. Gentleman sets himself up as a great expert on these matters. I have talked to others who are as expert as he is. I do not take up the time of the House of Commons simply in reminiscing. If I reminisce, it is merely to ask: now that we have something that apparently works and has sophisticated inertial navigation equipment, can we not call a halt to the need for a European deterrent, as such? When we reach a certain level of sophistication, the old, understandable cry "The British forces must have the best" no longer applies.

I should like to be very clear to the Minister and to my colleagues. If I thought that the lives of skilled Service men were to be put at risk by not having the very best equipment, I should have no part of that. If people are to fly sophisticated aircraft, they must have the very best.

It is a different matter when we have missiles that some of us believe have overkill many times over already. From a military point of view, do we have to go any further with, say, a massive project such as the Trident when it will almost certainly mean cutbacks elsewhere? This matter should be spelt out in a Green Paper, for which my right hon. Friends and others have asked. For example—this is one of the reasons why some of us are not too happy about having three Service debates—it may be a question between Trident—I see my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) nodding—and more artillery in the British Army of the Rhine. I am no great fan of artillery, but I am told by my friend Professor John Erickson that there is less artillery firepower in the British Army of the Rhine than there was at the time of the Goodwood operation in 1944.

When such balances have to be struck, we are entitled to ask whether these highly expensive and ever more sophisticated major projects are necessarily the things to which we should be devoting millions and millions of pounds. In this respect, I do not think that is very different from the ultimate question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Cray-ford (Mr. Wellbeloved).

As far as I know, the Minister did not mention fuel supplies for the RAF. It does not need me or any other Opposition Member to tell him that this is becoming an ever more expensive problem. Only the other day we read that the Belgian Air Force had virtually been grounded for want of fuel. When we get to a finite oil prospective in the world, do not the Armed Forces have to play their part in cutting back on fuel that may in other circumstances have been considered highly desirable for training?

Mr. Douglas Hogg

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that a minimum monthly flying time must be maintained if pilots are to fly with safety and that the best estimate is about 20 hours a month?

Mr. Dalyell

I think that is true. We read in the press—certainly it is my impression from previous discussions in the former indirectly elected European Parliament—that this was a terrible problem for the Belgians, because they were not getting anything like the flying time that was thought to be the minimum necessary.

It is all very easy to talk about beating swords into ploughshares, but, granted that we have this kind of capability already, ought we not to ask whether the real threat comes from a different quarter? I do not want to be too emotional about it, but anyone who in the last week saw the pictures of those kids in Ethiopia, Somalia and Uganda cannot fail to ask which is the greater priority—to go for these ever more ex pensive sophisticated machines for defence purposes or to forgo considerable slices of potential defence expenditure to do something about what is generally symbolised as the problems of the Brandt report?

Although we may face military danger, we are certainly sitting on an economic time-bomb when 60 per cent., if not more, of the West's need in oil supplies comes from the oil-producing countries. If we get 60 per cent., what will happen to that part of the developing world that depends on oil supplies?

The Minister said that we must concern ourselves with the growing challenge of the Warsaw Pact. However, I should like, as I have often done in the past year, to put a different view. I do not think that we should be naive about the Soviets, and I do not admit to being a Soviet apologist, but I should like to quote a letter from my old friend of 25 years, Harry Milne, now retired—a well-known citizen of Edinburgh and pioneer of the teaching of Russian in Scottish schools. Harry Milne, in The Scotsman today, said: Why did the Russians move into Afghanistan? I relate this point to the Minister's opening remarks. I think I know, not because I am gifted with outstanding political understanding, but because I am of the same generation as the present Soviet leadership. No one who did not live through the last war can have a full understanding of the thought processes of the members of the Central Committee who make policy in the Soviet Union. The horror of the Nazi invasion explains everything or nearly everything. I speak Russian. I have been going to the Soviet Union regularly over the last 20 years. I have many friends there, and not one of them but still shows in his or her thinking and reactions the indelible imprint which this invasion has left on their minds. I have a friend in Leningrad who was left at the end of the war without a single living relative. And she is not unique; her experience was commonplace. She is of the same generation as those who make Soviet policy today. And one thing is crystal clear. These leaders will do anything, literally anything, to avert what to them is, mistakenly or not, a threat to their country, the possibility of a repetition of the cataclysm of 1941–45. What do the Olympics matter in the long run to men obsessed with a danger like this? What matters is the good opinion of the West, whose record in any case will not bear close scrutiny? Before we recklessly throw away the fruits of detente, we should try to attain some measure of understanding and direct our energies towards creating real security in the world without which enduring peace will remain a chimera.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I advise the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) that it is unwise to interrupt the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell). Experience should have taught the hon. Gentleman that. I am hoping to call the hon. Member for Grantham a little later.

Mr. Dalyell

I do not know whether you were rebuking me, Mr. Speaker, or the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg). I shall take it as a rebuke of myself.

At the parliamentary Labour Party foreign affairs group about two months ago we met Mr. Ochianikov, one of the senior leader writers of Pravda. He gave a moving description of what it was like to be a child in Leningrad in the 1940s, when it was under seige. Because his mother could not move he had to go down to the Neva to get what fresh water there was. If people were lucky, they could eat rats. Such people are leading Soviet thinking at present. We should try to understand the insecurity that motivates them. We should also try to get back to the strategic arms limitations talks. Unless we do, all the precautions that we take may, through some fatal mistake, be as nothing.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith, North)

At the great risk of incurring your wrath, Mr. Speaker, may I take my hon. Friend further back in the psychology of the Russian leadership, and I emphasise Russian. The Russians, before and after the Bolshevik revolution, have been anxious about invasions from Europe. That may not make sense to us, but it is a deep-rooted fear, apparent in Russian literature and education, from about the turn of the century.

Mr. Dalyell

I heard, sotto voce, from the Government Benches "What does that have to do with it?" It has a great deal to do with it. We must endeavour to understand how the Soviets will react to the stationing of cruise missiles and Pershing missiles. I hope that Chancellor Schmidt learns something when he goes to Moscow on 30 June. Without that understanding, we cannot conceive the policy that we should be following.

I hope that I have proved that I am not an ignoramus about defence, although my opinion may differ from the Government's. Nothing is more important to our defences than getting back around the table for discussions, which I believe those elderly, cautious men in the Kremlin want.

6.33 pm
Mr. Victor Goodhew (St. Albans)

The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) has taken part in many defence and Service debates over the years. He talks of the anxious men in the Kremlin. However, it is not we who have threatened them but they who have threatened us. It is not we who are expanding our power and influence throughout the world through subversion, infiltration and war by proxy.

Mr. J. Concannon (Mansfield)

What about the previous century?

Mr. Goodhew

We may have done so in the previous century, but we are not doing so now. We are not expanding into other territories by force of arms, as the Soviets are. It is somewhat naive to suggest that the Soviet Union is frightened of us. We have every reason to be frightened of the Soviet Union and to protect ourselves. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr) always interrupts. I hope that he will make a speech, if he has a contribution to make. The hon. Gentleman is also very knowledgeable.

The hon. Member for West Lothian was wrong about the TSR2. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Hamilton) reminded us that its cancellation, on cost grounds, was announced in a Budget speech and not in a defence debate. The aircraft was destroyed. The prototypes were used as targets and blown to pieces. The jigs and tools were destroyed. That made certain that no Conservative Government used it, and thus proved that it was a good aircraft and should have been continued by the previous Government. There can be no question but that it would have been successful. It is different from the F111 in configuration and in every other way.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary on his appointment and the way in which he introduced the debate. No one on the Government Benches doubts his ability to look after the Royal Air Force and to see that it is well served. It is difficult to think of what to say, when we know that he will take care of the RAF.

I am sure that, for very good reasons, the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) is not here, but I wish that he had been, so that I could have congratulated him on his appointment as a Shadow Minister. I have spoken often from that position in three Parliaments. Although I believed that I was following my party's line, perhaps I went too far, and that is why I am standing here today.

I suggest that perhaps the hon. Gentleman went too far. At one time he suggested that I was saying something that I had not said. He provoked me into asking for whom he was speaking. I do not believe he heard me when I added "the national executive?" It appeared that he was reversing many of the thoughts that his right hon. and hon. Friends have put before the House in debates and White Papers. I assure him that I would not for one moment suggest that he or any other hon. Member was unpatriotic. We may entirely disagree about what we want for the country and about political systems. I shall fight like mad to prevent certain people from getting their way and changing our political systems. However, I do not regard them as unpatriotic, and the hon. Gentleman is the last person whom I would accuse of being unpatriotic.

I was worried about the hon. Gentleman's approach to the White Paper and its effects on the Royal Air Force. He talked of the threat being exaggerated. He said that the number of aircraft in squadrons on this side of the Iron Curtain was different from the number on the other side. However, this White Paper deals not with squadrons but with numbers of aircraft, as have previous White Papers. It is numbers of aircraft that matter when comparing strengths.

The White Paper also deals with the effectiveness and efficiency of modern weapons. We have always had to deal with the question of the balance of the threat. At least this Government are realistic. They do not say that the Iron Curtain countries have all those modern weapons, but that does not matter. It is the political threat that is important. They do not say that the Soviet Union is being charming and that we have detente, and that there would always be a period of political anxiety and agitation before the risk of an attack. That is not right. The Soviet Union has the capacity to inflict great damage on us and our Allies. The question is not merely the current political climate.

The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East also complained about the shortage of air crews, which complaint is astonishing, coming from a Labour Member. The Royal Air Force was selected for the greatest personnel cuts, and all in one year. If the hon. Gentleman had read the newspapers at that time he would have seen letters from Royal Air Force officers' wives, whose husbands had had either to resign their commissions or to accept a ground job. In a year or two, the Government discovered their mistake and invited people aged 50 to join the Royal Air Force to fly. By that time the other poor chaps were doing ground jobs.

The hon. Gentleman also talked of morale. Had he visited units of the Armed Forces over the years, he would have realised that morale declined with the cancellation of advanced projects like the TSR2 and the continuing delays in various projects. Also, the more that the Armed Forces' pay slipped behind, the more the morale went down. It went down not just because of the pay but because the pay was regarded, as it always will be by people in the Armed Forces, as being an indication of the appreciation by their fellow-countrymen of the job that they—the members of the Armed Forces—were doing. The fact that they were paid abysmally poorly made them feel that they were not being appreciated. Who can blame them for that?

The subject of aircraft procurement has been touched on. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will not take the view that, just because we are going through a time of financial stringency, we do not have to look well ahead. As I have said, one has seen with the TSR2—its replacement is not yet in service after all these years—iust what can happen if one says, at a particular time "Because of the financial situation today we must clamp down, cut back and slow down", and what a disastrous effect that can have on the equipment of our Armed Forces. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is well aware of that. I hope that he will press it on his right hon. and hon. Friends.

I join with others who have spoken about the need for air defence. It must be a big priority, especially concerning the RAF, but it affects the other Services, too, because we are the staging post. It is to this island that all the reinforcements from across the Atlantic will come in the event of a war. If we do not have satisfactory air defence over this land base of ours, we are in a very weak position. It affects all our allies and our Armed Forces, and not just the Royal Air Force. I am sure that my hon. Friend has this matter well abroad and will see that we press on in that direction.

I do not understand those who say that we should not continue with the nuclear deterrent. There is a different situation in the world today from that which applied when a Labour Government first decided to go in for this form of weapon. The free world is getting smaller all the time. The influence of Soviet Russia and its grip over other countries have now spread over new parts of the world, even to southern Africa. It is quite ridiculous to say that we no longer need a nuclear deterrent. We must maintain our nuclear deterrent—even more so today because at this time—a most dangerous time in world affairs—the West is giving the appearance of being irresolute. Initially the United States Government appeared irresolute over the Iranian position and over Afghanistan. In Europe we have looked both irresolute and disunited. We could not be giving a more dangerous appearance to a potential enemy than we have done over the past year.

Therefore, it is not a question of saying today that we can abandon a European nuclear deterrent. We certainly cannot do that. Nor do I think that we can abandon a British nuclear deterrent at this time in world affairs. It is one of the most important things that we should maintain. I am fully behind the Government in their announcement of their intention to see that we have a new generation of nuclear weapons in due course. I hope that we shall not waste time in acquiring them.

I conclude by paying a tribute—I always like to do so in such debates—to those who serve in the Armed Forces; particularly, on this occasion, to the men and women in the Royal Air Force. They serve us all well. We get on with our jobs here and go about our lives, appearing to take for granted all the time the fact that they are there doing their job. We visit them occasionally, and when we do so we are reassured and we come back refreshed by the enthusiasm we have seen. We owe them a great debt of gratitude. I place on record my appreciation, and I am sure that all hon. Members on both sides of the House will join me in so doing.

6.44 pm
Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)

I am pleased to follow the speech of the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew), especially as I also wish to pay tribute to the Royal Air Force.

Unlike the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), who has caught your eye, Mr. Speaker, in 15 out of 17 of these debates, my record prior to this debate was nil out of six. It is now substantially increased by being one out of seven. I am grateful to you for calling me.

I shall not on this occasion talk about staff shortages, cancellations of advanced projects, or Royal Air Force defence. I have the honour to represent a constituency that has in it Royal Air Force Ely, where the morale is high and the appreciation by the civilian populace is enormous. Royal Air Force Ely is a hospital. It is the only hospital in the 400 square miles of the Isle of Ely which is not forced to fight for its existence or threatened with closure. I must thank the Minister for that, because there were rumours that it might have been Royal Air Force Ely, rather than an establishment further north, in Norfolk, which was not to continue. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) wishes to interrupt me, I should like to make it clear that no offence will be taken—as was not the case with the hon. Member for West Lothian, who has left the Chamber.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

The hospital to which the hon. Gentleman is referring is Royal Air Force Nocton Hall, which is in my constituency, and the Minister has to choose between RAF Ely and RAF Nocton Hall. I shall not make a speech on that subject at present, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will get his facts right.

Mr. Freud

It is always interesting when hon. Members interrupt without knowing what they are interrupting about. It so happens that I was not talking about the hospital about which the hon. Member was talking.

By arrangement with the Cambridgeshire area health authority, the RAF hospital at Ely takes civilian casualties. I am sure that the agreement is quantified and specific. I should simply like to say that the hospital is so organised that no one feels that there is anything but a steady, warm and highly professional welcome for anyone who has cause to go there. I know that there is an argument that it is no longer sensible or good policy to have Service hospitals. I hope that the Ministry of Defence will not listen too carefully to such argument.

I believe that an RAF hospital such as mine is one of the best ambassadors that any Service can have. For my constituents, it is marvellous to know that there is a strike-free hospital that will go on whatever happens, and to know that the discipline that is essential in the running of a hospital filters through the professional Service staff and comes out as kindness, tinctured with sweetness and light and a great deal of understanding.

The hospital service at RAF Ely is of the very highest order. The visiting hours, if such hours apply, are properly elastic. The officers who command the hospital, those who work in the hospital and those who work for the hospital, are the most splendid examples of what in-comers to a constituency should be. They participate in local events, and, indeed, in the year in which I became a Member of Parliament it was the presence of RAF Ely that helped Ely to win the international "It's a Knock-out" championship.

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham and Heston)

Let us hope that they have recovered from the shock.

Mr. Freud

It was thought that it was something to do with me. It was only partly to do with me. The good sense that made people vote for me in 1973 also persuaded the RAF to help the people of Ely to put up the best team.

The economic input by the personnel of RAF Ely is substantial. The sports facilities that they have are shared by the community, who appreciate them immensely. They are good neighbours. They are responsible ratepayers, courtesy of the Treasury, who cough up punctually. RAF Ely is a good employer. If I were to have any suggestion to make to the Minister, it would be that, as the shortages in RAF personnel become increasingly apparent, it might well be considered good policy on the part of Service hospitals to give even more employment to the local people.

I know from my children and their friends who are taking up a Service career that life is now different from what it was during the time that I spent in the Services. I began by spending a few days in the RAF before receiving a letter stating that casualties were not running at the rate that had been expected and asking if I would care to volunteer for another Service. I volunteered for the Navy, and was conscripted into the Army, I believe that those joining the RAF today do not wish to become telephonists or Service cooks. I hope that Service hospitals will never have to be abandoned through lack of staff, but careful consideration should be given to the possibility that some of the jobs might be carried out by civilians.

I should like to refer to a problem faced by all East Anglian Members, even the hon. Member for Grantham, who feels that the hospital in his constituency is threatened. It is accepted by everyone that low-flying aircraft are an acute embarrassment and, in some cases, cause great suffering to people and to livestock. I have written many letters, over the years, to successive Ministers with responsibility for the Royal Air Force. I have always been sent the same letter, with, perhaps, the odd word changed. It is right that an air force, in order to be properly prepared, must have experience of low flying. I am not sure, however, whether every incident of low flying is sufficiently examined.

I accept that the RAF has to have so many hours of training. I recognise that my constituency is the best and most convenient approach to a bombing range on the Wash. Many pilots to whom I have complained about the heavy volume of flying over the villages of Coates, Eastrea and Turves on certain days, inform me that this is because the church in Coates is such an easy landmark. I believe that as the RAF becomes more experienced and replete with expertise it will be able to find landmarks that are not so heavily inhabited as even the small villages in my constituency, some of which contain homes for disabled people. Spastics, and autistic children are severely frightened by what could easily be avoided.

Nothing must detract from my praise—and the appreciation of my constituents—of all that the Royal Air Force, in the shape of RAF Ely, has done for the wellbeing and the prosperity of the community.

6.54 pm
Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

I listened to the hon Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) with some sympathy. Although my constituency is not plagued to the same extent as his is by low-flying aircraft—I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for informing me when there are likely to be low-flying exercises—I recognise how aircraft noise causes nuisance, inconvenience and loss of amenity.

The speeches that remain most in my mind are those of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and that of his immediate predecessor, the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Well-beloved). The hon. Member for Erith and Crayford did his best to defend the defence policy of the previous Government. I have some sympathy with his remarks. I felt that he was the most bullish and most defence minded of those in the Ministry. The sad truth is that the previous Government's defence policy, whether it applied to NATO or to the defence of this country, was sadly lacking.

The previous Government took a calculated risk in thinking that they could afford to run down our defence forces although the threat from the East was in no sense minimised by anything that observers could report. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, on the other hand, is part of a team that has recognised the threat and warned about it. His speech was that of a Minister determined to strengthen once again the defence capability of the Royal Air Force, both to meet its NATO commitment and to provide the air defence of our country, which all have a right to expect. I welcome his remarks.

I was particularly interested in my hon. Friend's comments about the European combat aircraft. From his comments, I suppose I can conclude that the AST403 is no longer to be proceeded with. I warn my hon. Friend on two scores. An article in the defence review in The Times today states that British Aerospace, Marcel Dassault of France and MBB of West Germany have agreed a joint programme that could lead to the development of the European fighter aircraft by the 1990s. The report suggests that the aircraft could be flying in experimental form in 1982. It added, however, that no engine had yet been chosen for the aircraft and that the three Governments concerned had problems in accepting the exact definition of the aircraft. The article hinted—I would endorse it—that the haggling is likely to take some time—perhaps a dangerously long time. I hope that my hon. Friend, if faced with taking part in that difficult task, will try to persuade his West European partners of the necessity of getting this aircraft into the air as soon as possible.

I add two further cautions. One has read during the past few days that the Indians have been offered a number of West European aircraft in competition with the Anglo-French Jaguar, which is currently in service with their air force. We are told that the cut-price Mig 23 may get the order. It seems to me inconsistent, if not positively unfriendly, that the French, collaborators with us in the Jaguar project, should try to sell the Mirage in direct competition with that aircraft. In any further collaborative project there should be certain Queensberry rules governing the approach of West European countries to arms sales for export.

I should like my hon. Friend to state whether it is true that the Tornado cannot be offered for sale outside Western Europe because the West German Government have inserted such a stipulation. If we are to believe in collaboration and a West European aerospace industry—perhaps with separate companies, but working in close co-operation—it is vital that the industry, far from competing against itself, should offer its projects on a joint basis.

I have been told that it is still cheaper for Britain to build 300 combat aircraft for the Royal Air Force of British design with British equipment than to enter into a collaborative project to build 700 aircraft. It that is correct, the economics seem puzzling. Intellectually and logically, one is drawn to the concept of West European collaboration. If, however, this cost factor exists, the question arises how to eliminate it and so weld together the industries of Western Europe to make a collaborative project on all fours with anything that Britain can offer.

I wish to turn now to the main burden of my speech. My hon. Friend referred to cruise missiles and the statement last week by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence that these missiles are to be stationed at RAF Greenham Common in my constituency and at RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire. That announcement brought home to all of us the fact that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance and that this nation, along with all the nations of Western Europe, must recognise that that is the price we must pay—the stationing of the new generation of nuclear missiles within our borders.

When the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) was making his apologia for Soviet Russia and what it had done in Afghanistan, he might have reminded himself that that occupation has made the possibility of SALT II much less of a probability, that it is the Russians who have turned their backs on disarmament, the Russians who are prolonging the nuclear arms race, the Russians who are practising naked aggression to the point that they can make the offer made at the time of yesterday's summit in Venice of withdrawing forces from Afghanistan if somehow that will buy off the West and once more make those absurd Olympic Games more of a reality than they are likely to be.

I make that point with all the force at my command, because if SALT II were ratified, perhaps the decision about cruise missiles would not have had to be made on the time scale that it has had to be. If there were SALT II, perhaps there could be SALT III, perhaps the SS20 missiles could be withdrawn from Western Europe and the world would not be poised, as it is, on the brink of none of us knows what. The awful prospect of a third world war has suddenly become a reality which a few months ago did not seem possible. We talk about civil defence, fall-out shelters and all those things now not in the abstract but as realities which may affect all our lives.

I say that with all the feeling that I possess. Those who would seek to apologise for the Soviet Union are like those who sought to apologise for Nazi Germany in the 1930s. There were many of them, and as a result of their apologia Western Europe found itself naked to Nazi aggression. The end of the story was the destruction, sometimes in the most terrible conditions, of at least 20 million innocent human beings.

I want to make some comments now about the decision on Greenham Common. I have a series of questions which the Minister may wish to answer by letter rather than in his speech tonight.

I think that I understand the exact status of Greenham Common, but, I am not certain. Am I right in believing that, although it remains an RAF base, it has been lent to the United States Air Force, not leased to it, and that there still is an overriding responsibility by the Ministry of Defence or the RAF for the station?

If I am right, to what extent will the RAF have any responsibility for the security of the base? We know that 200 British security personnel are to be stationed there when the cruise missiles arrive. Will they be RAF personnel, and is there any requirement for them to be so? This question was touched on by the right hon. Member for Stockton (Mr. Rodgers) in the questioning on my right hon. Friend's statement. My right hon. Friend seemed to suggest in his answer that the Americans had a total responsibility. He said: The protection is a United States capability and the responsibility lies with that country, but we shall contribute to it as we believe to be appropriate and valuable in this context."—[Official Report, 17 June 1980; Vol. 986, c. 1345.] I am not certain what those words mean, and I should be grateful for a specific answer.

Secondly, there obviously is a liability on the part of those who have the base, but will it lie with the RAF in the event of any accident—I am not talking about a nuclear accident—to one of my constituents, or will that liability lie with the United States air force?

How will the defence of the airfield be coped with? Will the point defence be an American matter, or could it be an RAF one?

Lastly, to what extent can one see the defence of Greenham Common by the RAF as a continuation of the old lend-lease concept? Or is it a NATO contribution; and, if so, is the funding for the works at Greenham provided by the United States, by NATO or by the British Government?

We are all aware—all the speeches today have made this point—that defence is expensive. The "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1980" contains this sentence: Defence is and always has been an expensive business, and we would all much rather spend the scarce resources it takes up on more direct benefits like housing, education, health, improving our environment and personal expenditure. But the hard fact is that defence spending is not an alternative to policies of this kind. It is an essential precondition for them …We cannot expect peace and security free of charge. As we all know, far from defence spending being likely to level off, it is more likely to grow. Nowhere is this more likely than in the RAF, where all the equipment and aircraft are becalming progressively more expensive.

We know from the Defence Statement that a new Tornado aircraft costs £10 million. I think that that is without all its support equipment, which, at least according to the West Germans, puts the total much near £16 million. We know that even an aircraft as conventional as the Hawker Siddeley Dominie, which is the military version of the HS125, now costs £2.5 million, as does the HS Hawk, the training aircraft.

Since, to judge from the comments of the hon. Member for Erith and Cray-ford there are between 700 and 900 aircraft in the Royal Air Force, the total value of that fleet must run into billions of pounds. Yet, with all that valuable equipment, apparently the RAF has no insurance to make good its annual losses or to cover damage to those aeroplanes. I found that fact amazing when it was put to me in February by an insurance broker. I have no interest to declare. I am simply passing on something that struck me so forcibly that I have subsequently made some researches.

It is a matter of fact that the RAF has upwards of 700 aeroplanes and loses on average about 23 a year. I have tried to pursue this matter by way of parliamentary question, and on 6 Febru I tabled a question to ask the Secretary of State in which I asked what funds are set aside to cover the cost of the loss of Royal Air Force aircraft; and what third party cover is provided for compensating next-of-kin when airmen are killed or inqured and for civilian casualties and their properties. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary replied: No funds are specifically set aside to procure new aircraft to replace losses as they occur. Aircraft are bought in numbers intended to be sufficient to sustain those required in operational service, and to replace those lost or damaged beyond repair. It is not the practice for the Department to take out insurance in order to provide compensation for the victims of aircraft or other accidents involving the Armed Services. Costs incurred by the Department as a result of any such accidents are met directly from the defence budget. In some cases involving death or injury to members of the Armed Services, the Department of Health and Social Security also has responsibility for the payment of pensions or gratuities."—[Official Report, 6 February 1980; Vol. 978, c. 231–2.] From that answer, I assume that a sum is set aside for this purpose, but it is extremely difficult to discover from the Appropriations (No. 2) Act 1979 what that sum is. Indeed, it is impossible, because there is simply a global figure.

I am told that the guiding philosophy of the Treasury on this matter is that no insurance should be effected against a risk of any loss which, if it arose, would fall wholly or directly on public funds". The Treasury goes further by quoting what it describes as the "Government accounting rule", which adds: Premiums paid to an insurance company over a period of years represent payment not only of the value of the losses arising from the risks insured, but also a contribution to expenses of the company…and to the remuneration of its capital. The risks for which the Government is liable are innumerable and widely distributed. The losses maturing in any one year can never be so large as materially to disturb the financial position of the year so that it benefits the Consolidated Fund to `carry its own insurance' I wonder whether that statement really stands up. Over the last 10 years the RAF has lost, on average, 23 aircraft a year. Its lowest loss was 12 aircraft. In 1971 it lost 38 aircraft, and it lost 26 in 1979. Aircraft are becoming increasingly expensive to buy, and their replacement value has risen accordingly. The Hawker Siddeley Dominie was valued at £1 million in 1978. Today it is valued at £2.5 million, and the Tornado today costs £10 million. No wonder British Aerospace insures each of its Tornados up to the point where it is handed over to the RAF. After that there is no insurance.

Insurance by other air forces is not unknown. The Finnish air force insures all its aircraft, and will no doubt insure its 50 Hawks when it receives them. The Malaysian defence force insures its aircraft, as do the Argentinians and the Saudi Arabians. The Sultanate of Oman insures its aircraft. If other air forces can do that, why cannot the RAF?

Clearly, such an approach would mean that a consortium of insurance companies would have to take the risk. That would seem only reasonable. The risk would be too great for any single company to carry. Equally, insurance would have to be restricted to peacetime, but, with last year's losses of between £100 million and £200 million, plus the cost of replacing the aircraft that have been lost, a payment of less than £1 million to cover that loss is surely something that any taxpayer would welcome. I doubt whether many taxpayers would rejoice at the thought that £200 million of their money had been written off and that there was not one farthing to come back. I am told—I am not an expert, as insurance is not my subject—that to insure the whole RAF fleet of aircraft would cost about £7 million a year.

Mr. Freud

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that in the case of my constituents at Wisbech, when there was loss of life and property as a result of RAF planes crashing, the added misery of having to haggle with a private insurance company rather than receiving the proper bounty of the country that was responsible would make the private insurance company of a national air force an unwanted element in negotiations?

Mr. McNair Wilson

The hon. Gentleman tries to pre-empt my answer by using the word "haggle". I suspect that most hon. Members in this Chamber have insurance policies. Probably many of us have made claims. I have never had much difficulty in persuading an insurance company of the rightness of my claim and getting it to pay accordingly. I do not say that there is no haggling, but to suggest that there is haggling with insurance companies and not with Government Departments is to stretch the point too far.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised the matter of the appalling crash at Wisbech, because I sometimes wonder whether the compensation that was paid was all that it might have been and whether, had an insurance company been covering the loss, it might have been more forthcoming. I do not know. I make no judgment. But I think that it might be wrong to assume that to do what I suggest would mean, necessarily, that people would have greater difficulty in having their claims met or that they would do less well. I suspect that they might do better.

I am not sure that if we added insurance to cover air crew as well they might not find that they did better. Whatever the case, I find it difficult to believe that we should be willing to write off between £100 million and £200 million of taxpayers' money without taking steps to see that that money comes back by way of insurance, particularly in the light of the need to replace lost aircraft at increasing cost.

I put that suggestion to my hon. Friend. I have spoken to him on the subject and I tabled questions about it. Tonight I hope that it will be possible for him to go further than he has been able to go previously and tell me that this idea has not met with a positively negative response from him and those who serve him. I believe that this idea is worth looking at, and I commend it to my hon. Friend.

7.15 pm
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

I apologise to the Minister for not being here for most of his speech. I was attending the official opening of a factory in my constituency. That is an event of increasing rarity in my area and one that I did not wish to miss. I hope that the Minister will accept my apologies. I doubt whether I shall face a similar dilemma too often in the future. Not many events of the kind are taking place in my constituency or anywhere else.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) spoke about his good fortune in catching Mr. Speaker's eye on 15 occasions out of 17. As a more recent contributor to these debates. I am struck by the fact that the same faces keep popping up time and again. There is a slight reshuffling of the pack, but I seem to see the same relatively small number of hon. Members making regular contributions to these debates.

The contributions tend to be vitriolic, but on this occasion they have been less vitriolic than in the past. On rereading earlier debates I was reminded of some of the attitudes often demonstrated by Conservative Members. In a defence debate in April 1978 the then Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill) spoke about the then Secretary of State as having done more damage to the morale of the RAF in three years than the Luftwaffe did in the six years of the Second World War. That is the kind of nonsense that we have to listen to, and those of us in the Labour Party who believe that we should have a viable defence, at an acceptable cost, disagree with such statements, which are made far too readily.

A year later, in the debate on the 1979 defence White Paper, the same kind of speeches were replicated. I quote a neutral observer, namely, Lord Carver. His analysis encapsulates the kind of folly about which I have spoken. Lord Carver, who has considerable authority on defence matters, having been Chief of Defence Staff between 1973 and 1976, said: The Opposition tried to make political capital—inspired by the prospect…of a General Election—out of the effects of the Defence Review, alleging that it had greatly weakened the country's defence effort and its contribution to NATO. They greatly exaggerated their case and in doing so, did us no good in NATO, our contribution to which as the White Paper …have shown, has been maintained in all its essentials and, in terms of quality, even in some cases in quantity, improved. Lord Carver pointed out that the desire to gain political advantage in debates of this kind tended to depress the morale of the Armed Forces.

I would, therefore, like to see an end to the simplistic approach, which has it that, somehow, the Conservative Party is the only party concerned about defence and that no significant number of Opposition Members—in the House or outside—take any interest in our defence. I, and many of my colleagues, do not belong to the "Lie down in front of the Russian tanks" brigade. There are, obviously, those who feel differently, but it does the House no credit for hon. Members to over-simplify the case in defence debates. So often in debates on the RAF we hear it said that the Labour Party runs down the Armed Forces. If one is looking for a scapegoat it is far too simple even to say that.

I date one of the great turning points in the RAF as being the Duncan Sandys White Paper of 1957, which wrote off manned aircraft. That meant that, with the tripwire philosophy, it was felt by his Government to be not worthwhile to have an air defence because there was no way in which Soviet aircraft could be stopped, and that there was not much point in having anything other than rocketry.

Mr. Snape

Is my hon. Friend aware that most Conservative Members have commented on the axing of the TSR2 in the 1960s? Does he accept that his version of the problems of manned aircraft is more likely to be correct? Does he recall that the White Paper was also responsible for scrapping the RAF Reserve and for depriving Britain of a valuable pool of pilots?

Mr. George

I apologise to my hon. Friend for not being able to listen to his speech. He makes a valid point.

The RAF is beginning to recover from the cumulative deficiencies of the past. Both parties must share some of the blame for those deficiencies. The mistakes of the past might be visited on us again. The mistakes over the tripwire philosophy and later over the Sky Bolt/ Polaris controversy might be repeated. If we concentrate our scarce resources on an expensive Polaris replacement it could have the same result as the 1957 White Paper. That had a devastating effect. After 23 years the RAF has still not recovered from the folly of that era.

I make no apology for referring to a Polaris replacement. Last week I spoke not only of the financial costs but of the opportunity costs. What will suffer if the Government commit themselves to an expenditure of £5 billion or £6 billion on a Polaris replacement? We have been told that a White Paper will be published explaining why the decision was taken, instead of the publication of a document as a prelude to a decision.

I fear that the RAF will suffer seriously as a result of an expensive Polaris replacement.

Perhaps the Elder Forest exercise was not necessary to expose the deficiencies in our aid defences. I do not expect the Minister to produce a scorecard on aircraft losses but, I was less than reassured by his phraseology. He said that the RAF gave a good account of itself and that heavy losses were inflicted on the remarks can be compared with the official of the American Army. The Minister's remarks can be compared to the official report after Custer was wiped out at Little Big Horn. I have no doubt that the men gave a good account of themselves. I hope that we will be given more detail. Ministers have said that they will be more forthcoming with details about Elder Forest.

I am worried about what is to go if we have Trident. So much needs to be done. The Minister explained what is about to be done to improve air defences and to improve our capability. I wonder whether it can be done on a diminishing budget. Prior to the 1957 White Paper the RAF deployed as many as 20 fighter squadrons. Will the attempt to revive the RAF be scuppered by the Polaris replacement decision?

In the 1978 NATO long-term defence plan there was a clear recognition of air defence deficiencies. There is an enormous fighter gap, both qualitative and quantitative. There is a pilot gap, and many airfields are not protected by defence missiles. The radar network is described as one of the greatest boobs in technical decision-making in the postwar era.

The first subject that the Defence Committee of which I am a member investigated, in its review of the White Paper, was the air defence of the United Kingdom. We emerged from deliberations anxious and worried about the state of air defences. The report states: Nevertheless, until the major improvements in air defence are introduced the country is not adequately defended against a major attack. We shall have Tornado and improved radar. There might be better point defence of airfields, but until that comes about our defence will be inadequate against what could be seen as a serious Soviet threat.

The responsibility must be placed fairly upon the shoulders of both political parties for allowing our air defences to run down to such a state that we are obliged to bring out of museums planes that were pensioned off some time ago and other planes that were not constructed for combat roles. There are major inadequacies, and I wonder whether they will be improved if we are obliged to spend money on a costly and dubious strategic role for Trident.

There are deficiencies, too, in the provision of transport aircraft. I have been reading an excellent book on British defence written by the Under-Secretary of State a few years ago. He spoke about the British Army of the Rhine, which he referred to as a vestige of Britain's diplomatic past. If a conflict takes place in Western Germany, we shall have to get our troops in Northern Ireland over there pretty sharply. I wonder whether we have the transport capability. I wonder whether we have an airlift capacity to Norway, and whether we have sufficient airlift capacity to take supplies where they are needed. The Defence Committee investigated the distribution of ammunition in the event of conflict. Transport aircraft are of enormous importance. I wonder whether the deficiencies will be remedied.

If cuts are to take place to pay for Trident, will there be a serious reappraisal of our defence role to follow? Is there a serious Ministry investigation of our tasks with a diminished budget? From decision-making in the past I suspect that if there are cuts they will not be the result of a genuine reappraisal; I suspect that bits will be lopped off here and there. Consequently, we shall have an inadequate conventional defence topped up by a strategic defence, which is superfluous, since we belong to NATO. I suspect that there will be cheeseparing, which will have a disastrous effect on defence.

Spare parts represent another problem. In the Navy one talks about the counting of funnels to impress the readers of the International Institute for Strategic Studies publications. Perhaps the provision of spares is not considered to be so important as compared with the number of aircraft. As a result of a congressional investigation, the United States Air Force is known to be short of 4 billion spare parts. Events in Iran show that there is not much point in having highly competent pilots if their planes are not properly maintained and if they have not a proper supply of spares. What percentage of our planes are operational? I understand that the operational readiness of the United States F15 is 44 per cent. and that the average for the Army and Air Force in the United States is way under 40 per cent.

There is not much point in our having expensive aeroplanes if we cannot put them into the air even in peacetime, let alone in times of conflict. Without proper back-up and without a proper spares system, our aircraft do not have any capability. If there are to be cuts, I hope that we shall not skimp on spares. It will be better to fly a smaller force, able to do its job, than to leave on the ground a larger number of non-flying paper tigers.

In the light of the excellent book that the Minister published two or three years ago, I should like to ask the hon. Gentleman whether, having come into the Government, his attitudes now differ. I wonder, for instance, what deliberations he has had with his colleagues on the Trident or cruise missiles. In his book he makes an extremely sophisticated and elegant defence of cruise missiles and gives a lengthy quote about their advantages. He concludes: The case seems beyond argument. Only the political resolve seems lacking. Has the Minister been able to persuade the rest of his colleagues, or does the concept of the defence elite not extend beyond Secretary of State level?

Again in his book the Minister talks in a critical way of the procurement process in the United Kingdom. One wonders whether his tenure of office has seen any significant improvement or whether the procurement process limps on in the way that he described so eloquently in his book: British defence policy since World War II has carried the hallmark of tragedy. At home a generation of British politicians have conspired to achieve an illogical and now ineffectual ragbag of strategy and logistic capability. It will take a decade or more and some very radical thinking to repair the damage. Does the Minister think that the present Government are mounting this radical rethink and repairing the damage that his party played a not insignificant role in creating?

I believe in the importance of the Royal Air Force. A number of the deficiencies that have been identified in the past are on their way to being remedied. But this flight path to an improved Air Force is conditional upon adequate resources. We have a declining budget and a Secretary of State who is having to fight hard to get even the increase that he had in the Cabinet. Apparently, the Treasury, which appears very hawkish on some issues, is rather doveish on defence, whereas some people often classed as "wets" appear to be very hawkish on defence matters. If the Government are unable to spend more than the £10,000 million being allocated to defence, can the Minister say how the RAF will fare? If we have a costly Trident, what in the RAF will suffer?

In my view, we would be far better having an improved conventional force, relying on NATO to provide the strategic deterrent. We cannot have both. If we try to have both, we shall end up with disaster, and I am sure that the Minister would not want to be partly responsible for doing the same kind of damage to the RAF as happened under previous Ministers 23 years ago.

7.34 pm
Mr. Robert Atkins (Preston, North)

It is not my intention to take up a great deal of the time available to me in dealing with the arguments of the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). I come, therefore, directly to what I have to say.

The Royal Air Force suffered a great deal under Labour. I was interested to hear some of the comments of the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape), and I join those of my colleagues who have congratulated him on his maiden appearance at the Dispatch Box as an Opposition defence spokesman. I hope that what he said today does not end up with its being put into practice. If it should be, I suspect that we would be in a worse condition than we were when my party took over government in May last year.

I extracted from a parliamentary answer given by the former Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley), a passage in which he indicated that a fighter pilot at a certain stage in his training earned nearly as much as a bus driver working for London Transport. It is a great tribute to my right hon. and hon. Friends that we were able to put up the pay of those involved in the RAF as we did. Indeed, we did it right across the board in defence, to the extent where recruiting in all three Services has improved greatly.

I was very disturbed to read the article in the Sunday Express yesterday, and I look forward to hearing some reassurance from my hon. Friend about our so-called desperate shortage of pilots which has given rise to the proposal that we go to British Airways to find pilots to fly aeroplanes for us. If that is the case, I hope that the Minister will explain in more detail what is envisaged and why we have got to the state where we have to resort to a solution of that kind.

I want to explore two matters. Mention has been made of my connection with British Aerospace, which is not hidden, since Preston is my constituency and that is where the military aircraft division of British Aerospace is based. Consequently I have a real interest in the Jaguar replacement—the so-called AST403—although I intend also to dwell for a moment on the effects of the Trident and all that is envisaged in its purchase on what might be the next fighter aeroplane.

First, I am convinced that the RAF needs the AST403. Whenever I have had a chance to talk to or to listen to senior RAF officers, they have made it clear to me that this is an aeroplane which they believe to be essential. It is also the case that industry needs it, and this is the constituency connection. In its three locations in Preston, British Aerospace is one of the finest organisations for building fighter aircraft anywhere in the world. It is a fact that the Tornado has now reached the production stage. Although that is nowhere near the end of the line, in design terms it is already beginning to be on the downward curve. In view of that, ever since I first became Conservative candidate for my constituency five years ago, and since becoming a Member of this House, I have pressed strongly for an urgent decision on the AST403, supported by both the RAF and the industry. I have still not received a satisfactory explanation for the delays that have occurred, until very recently when the discussions about the European agreements commenced. However, I emphasise strongly that it means a great deal to the industry generally throughout the country that an urgent decision is taken on the AST403.

I make a brief comment about the requirements of the Royal Air Force. I have heard it said by professionals in the industry that the operational requirements of the RAF are far too detailed. In days of yore, an operational requirement would be spelt out in 20 or 30 pages. Now it is in the form of a great book. The RAF is trying to specify every eventuality in great detail, and this makes it very difficult for manufacturers perhaps to cover all those eventualities.

A comparison might be made with the French air force. Within reason, the French air force gets what it is given. But the success of the French aircraft industry is such that the French air force gets the best aeroplanes going.

In support of what my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) said earlier, perhaps I might touch briefly on the problems associated with the Anglo-French Jaguar deal with India and the reference to France trying to get underneath the deal already made, as well as the threat from the Mig 23s, and also my hon. Friend's extremely apposite comments about the proposals at a West German SPD conference, which in turn went to the West German Government, to restrict sales of the Tornado anywhere outside the NATO countries.

I would appreciate comments on whether the Minister thinks there is any pressure that can be brought to bear. The lesson about the British aircraft industry and the RAF is there to be learnt in relation to the United States and in relation to France.

I move on briefly to the AST409, which is the Harrier replacement. We are led to believe that there is likely to be an early decision. In regard to the United States option, namely, the AV8B, British Aerospace is a sub-contractor to McDonnell Douglas, as many hon. Members will know, and will supply, under the AV8B potential contract, about 30 per cent. of the work. Rolls-Royce will supply about two-thirds of the work content involved in Pegasus engines.

The value of this work to the United Kingdom aerospace industry—which includes a multiplicity of companies, such as Dowty, Plessey, Fairey, Dunlop and so on—is about £600 million, of which one third would be the share of British Aerospace. There would, in addition, be a potential of a further £80 million if a further 60 aircraft were ordered.

It is suggested that if the AV8B were to be chosen it would not enter service until 1985–86, but there are already, on the basis of the 1980 flight evaluations, two notable deficiencies in performance in terms of what the RAF has said it wants. First, the AV8B's maximum speed at low altitude was more than 50 knots slower than the existing RAF Harrier. Secondly, while the manoeuvring performance is better than that of the existing Harrier, the rate of turn will be 20 to 25 per cent. less than the standard laid down two years ago as an RAF requirement for future survival in a North-West Europe battlefield.

The United Kingdom option, which is known as GR5 in the context of our debate, has a new wing of greater span and area. Since I do not understand it, I shall not talk too much about the detailed extra extensions of the wing. But the GR5 carries more fuel and features more weapon stations. The AV8B—the United States option—does not carry some of those things.

It has also been suggested with regard to the United Kingdom option, the GR5, that British Aerospace could not meet the necessary in-service date. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew) referred earlier to the importance of in-service dates. It was suggested that British Aerospace could not meet that in-service date of 1985 because the design is a newer one than that of the AV8B. However, experience has shown that the Harrier delivered to the RAF originally was exactly on schedule, and I do not see any reason why that should not be the case with the GR5.

It is also true that the AV8B is a 1974 or 1975 concept, and it could be argued that it is already beginning to be out of date. In this context, there is a masked superiority of the GR5 over the AV8B in both maximum speed and dash speed at low level, and it also has much superior manouvreability. Above all, in this context, cost comparisons between the GR5 and the AV8B show that for a force of 60 aircraft it would cost the United Kingdom 15 to 20 per cent. more for the AV8B than for the Mk V. I do not have to spell out in words of one syllable the industrial ramifications of purchasing the GR5 as opposed to the AV8B, and I hope that the Minister will touch on this in his reply.

I want next to refer to the effect of the Trident purchase—however many thousands of million pounds may be involved—upon the Services, whichever arm may be affected. In the debate on the Navy that we had last week my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) referred to this on two occasions, and what he said bears repeating in the context of the RAF debate. He said in reference to the Trident purchase: If we do, and if we are prepared to take the Trident missile as the replacement for Polaris, what will be the effect of the Trident programme on our conventional defences? Later, he said: If it is to come from our conventional contribution, from which of the three Services must it come?"—[Official Report, 19 June 1980; Vol. 956, c. 1848–49.] I must put down a marker here and now that, while I have always been, and will continue to be, a great defender and supporter of the independent nuclear deterrent, I have my worries about Trident. I wonder whether it will last as long as Polaris, for example. It has been suggested that within 10 years it will be out of date in the context of the American manufacturers. If purchasing Trident means cancelling the AST403 or AST409, or both, I shall not readily or easily accept such a cancellation. If it is the intention of the Secretary of State for Defence to dump one or the other, or both, I tell the Minister that he should be aware of the great concern of many Conservative Members at the effects on the RAF, on British industry and on the work force in the industry throughout the whole country.

Instead of telling the RAF—and, indeed, any other Services—that in the defence of the country they must always have the best, no matter where they get it from, we could argue—this is an argument that has been advanced before, but it bears repeating—that the Secretary of State could give an extra financial encouragement to buying British. It could be done in such a way that one unit would count for purchases abroad for every one and a half units of purchases in the United Kingdom. That would be a positive incentive and encouragement for the RAF, the Navy and the Army—and indeed any other parts of the Services—to buy British because it is best.

With regard to the RAF and the British aerospace industry which relates to it, whether it be in Preston or any other part of the country, I have no doubt at all that they do not need support because they are deficient in some way or because they are bad; they are, quite simply, the best in the world. I am convinced that with the continued encouragement that comes about from the decisions that will need to be taken on AST403 and AST 409, they can continue to fulfil the defence role and the combat requirements of the RAF, and also outsell the world.

7.46 pm
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith North)

It is precisely one week since we debated the Brandt report, and I cannot help but feel that it is in some way symbolic, in view of our debate tonight on the RAF, our earlier debate on the Royal Navy, and our debate on the Army next week.

In the debate on the Brandt report there were good speeches from each side of the House on the importance of doing something about that time bomb that is ticking away beneath us—something from which neither the Air Force, the Army nor the Navy would be able to defend us, if events turn out in the way that the authors of the report expect. If we hear that in mind and take into account the escalation in arms expenditure, not only in this country but elsewhere, we can see the dangers that face not only this nation but the world.

There has never been a time when an arms race of any significance has not ended in war. To the best of my know ledge—it is very difficult to assess this—it has usually developed into a war shortly after there has been a rapid spurt in arms expenditure; in other words, a time rather like the present. There are other reasons why people should be pessimistic about the future of the world that would not be relevant in a debate about the Royal Air Force. But what is very relevant is that the Government and the Minister today are asking for extra resources for the Royal Air Force and for defence generally. If we are not to fall into the trap of just escalating the arms race even further, that increased expenditure has to be justified.

If someone could prove to me beyond reasonable doubt that by increasing expenditure we could prevent war, I would have some reason for some going along with him. However, the evidence at the moment is the other way round. It suggests that we have to change the policy and tactics that we have been pursuing for the last 20 or 30 years. That is extremely important in the context of the debate.

What is the reason given by the Minister for expanding defence expenditure and for doing something to boost the Royal Air Force? I say nothing about the perfectly legitimate need to look after the personnel in terms of pay and conditions—and, indeed, to provide them with the technological needs to do their job. What we have to question is the technology to do the job, because that raises the whole assumption of what job we are asking them to do.

It is in that way sad that the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) chose to criticise my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) for being, as he implied, an apologist for the Soviet Union. It is a question not of being an apologist, but of trying to understand the motives of one's opponent. By failing to do that one hits upon the right conclusion only by chance and not as a result of sound reasoning. That is what my hon. Friend was trying to point out, and it is an aspect that I wish to develop.

There has been a vast increase in the ability of the Soviet Union to exercise its military power. We have to consider why that increase has taken place and for what purpose. That is infinitely more important and it is that which determines the response. I do not doubt that the Soviet Union has a powerful air force which has become more competent in recent years. Previously it lacked the quality of its Western counterparts, but it has made good that deficiency now.

The point that we constantly seem to brush under the carpet is the reason for the USSR's action in that direction. The Soviet Union learnt primarily from the experience of the United Kingdom and the United States on the exercise of world power. The incident that was perhaps more important than anything else was the Cuban missile crisis which constituted a major and severe defeat for the Soviet Union. Because of that it decided that it would be able to do what the United Kingdom had previously been able to do and what the United States was able to do until recently. That was to intervene anywhere in the world with a military capability that was in its political interests. In other words, the Soviet Union did what all great Powers have done throughout history.

The other reason for the massive increase is that the Soviet Union has seen China as an increasing threat which would involve it in a nuclear strike at a country which was not armed with nuclear weapons to the same level as itself, or which would involve it in a major long-term conventional war against superior ground force numbers. Anyone who knows anything about defence would imply from that a need to increase the size of the air force.

This is a dangerous ratchet game in which the Soviet Union has uprated its army, air force and navy. The West has responded to that, as have a number of other countries. That has had a spin-off into the Third world which has produced additional dangers simply because the balance of power as we knew it no longer applies. That, again, is the other important underlying assumption. I have listened to the debate, at times almost with exasperation, as hon. Members have discussed the capacity of this or that aircraft. Those factors may be relevant and important in a way, but if we make that approach without understanding that we are now part of a ratchet which is pulling the world ever closer to war we shall precipitate the very war that we want to prevent. That is what the argument is and should be about.

It was probably right in the 1950s and 1960s when there was a stable balance of power to say that one could maintain the situation and at the same time do something to support peace. But that is no longer possible. There has been a sea change which has altered the balance of power beyond all recognition in the last five or six years. I date the change from about 1975, but one could quibble about that. If we think in terms of the balance of power that existed in the 1950s and 1960s, responding as though it still existed when it does not, we are increasing the dangers. I am profoundly pessimistic about getting through the next 10 years without a major war.

The two most dangerous areas for a major war—I am talking about one not on the scale of the Vietnam war, but on a much larger scale—are the Sino-Soviet border and Europe. If the balance of power fails in any of the areas immediately surrounding Europe it will be difficult for Europe not to be pulled into the war. Hon. Members have only to consider what happened in Iran and what is happening in another country which is unstable but in NATO—for example, Turkey—to see the increasing dangers.

Talk in terms of the philosophy of the 1950s and 1960s takes place in all political parties. That is one of the reasons why I take courage from the fact that my party is discussing this issue. That is put about as being in some way bad. It is one of the most positive and encouraging of factors. I deeply regret that no similar debate is taking place in the Conservative Party. It is as though the Conservative Party has said throughout its history that there must always be arms because there will always be war. That approach ignores the existence of nuclear weapons or assumes that they are unimportant. If the next war involves nuclear weapons the worst possibility is that the higher forms of life on this planet will cease to exist. At best, there will be major areas of devastation to countries like the United Kingdom.

Nuclear war can span a number of possibilities. It can be total and complete, it can be partial and tactical, or nuclear weapons could be used as gas was used in the First World War, that is, on a relatively sparing basis—if that is the appropriate expression. I therefore urge this House and political parties and groups throughout the country to take a long hard look at what has changed in the international balance of power and at the way in which we respond to changes in the international scene. If we go on behaving as though we are still in the 1950s and 1960s or the early 1970s we shall blunder into a war. There are few "ifs" and "buts" about that.

The Minister tells the House that he must have more money in order to boost the RAF to meet the challenge of the Soviet Union, but I must tell him that the same sentiment is being expressed in the Soviet Union. That is the problem. As long as everyone is doing that, no one gets off the bandwagon. It is rolling and as it rolls it gathers speed and becomes more difficult to control. That is the consideration that we constantly brush under the carpet.

I apologise to the Minister for having missed a little of his speech. I think that I am right in saying, however, that he did not mention what would be the RAF's response to a tactical nuclear war in Europe. One would need to know what plans the RAF has for protection, reaction and survival. I am particularly interested in the area of preparation. One of the most significant dangers is of a tactical nuclear war in Europe which is fought by proxy between the two great Powers while they negotiate a peace. That, again, is the normal history of wars and how they are ended. A negotiation proceeds while the two sides are fighting, usually in someone else's territory.

What would happen in the event of war, which in the first instance would probably be conventional, breaking out in Europe? At that stage the Armed Forces, including the Royal Air Force, would have to make certain decisions about preparation for the nuclear phase. We could rely on some development of the four-minute warning, with a number of aircraft ready to go armed with nuclear weapons. The other option is to have aircraft airborne on a 24-hour basis. The United States air force formerly dealt with the strategic problem in that way. However, I am talking in more practical terms of a European war. Are we thinking of doing that? Is that part of our plan?

Lord Mountbatten and others said that a tactical nuclear war would inevitably escalate. Once aircraft carrying nuclear weapons have been put on a 24-hour airborne alert, the other side is forced to respond. A situation similar to that of mobilisation during the First World War arises. Each step forward forces the other side to take a similar step, because it cannot risk not doing so. If the Royal Air Force is prepared to fight a tactical nuclear war in Europe, it must accept the consequences of that.

If we assume that the Russians will push into Europe we must assume that the Royal Air Force will respond. It will consider the use of nuclear weapons and will get them ready for use. That is a step towards nuclear escalation. I hope that the Minister will consider that. Hon. Members and the public will be interested to hear his views.

8.1 pm

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I shall endeavour to be brief. I wish to make a fundamental observation about the speech of the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape). I hope that everybody who works in the British aircraft industry will read his speech. The Tornado aircraft is at the heart of the re-equipment programme for the Royal Air Force, both for interdictor strike and for air defence. The hon. Gentleman's remarks were sombre and sobering. I hope that the trade unionists and others who make aircraft will read his remarks carefully. He would have done well if he had been less belligerent towards hon. Members. He should have listened more to the counsel and advice of wiser hon. Members, such as that old sea-dog the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved), who made an interesting and significant contribution on air defence.

I wholeheartedly commend my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State on his performance this afternoon and, more importantly, on his performance in office since May last year. From contacts within the Service, I know that he has done a good job and that he has restored morale. Morale now is quite different from that which existed before the Conservative Party came into office. The spate of premature voluntary retirements was an alarming feature of the policies of the previous Labour Administration. PVRs have largely ceased, particularly in the skilled trades and areas of expertise that are traditionally in short supply, such as air crew grades and senior NCOs. That is welcome.

I should like to take up some of my hon. Friend's remarks on procurement. I hope that he will buy British—should I say Scottish?—when considering the communications aircraft replacement. I hope that he will purchase the Jetstream 31 to replace the Devon and the Pembroke. I was glad that my hon. Friend placed such emphasis on V STOL operations. Again, we should buy British and buy the GR5. The two-way street is not meaningful in the context of the AV8B, because the United States Marine Corps requirement and that of the Royal Air Force are different. If the Royal Air Force purchases the GR5, I do not see why it should inhibit the plans of the United States Marine Corps to procure the AV8B for close support operations for its rapid deployment force. There is a further argument. The big wing of the GR5 is retro-fittable to existing Harriers. That should be considered.

The main burden of my remarks is twofold. First, for successful air operations the equipment must be of the very best. Secondly, for successful air operations the training and quality of personnel must be of the very best. I hope that I shall not be thought repetitious if I emphasise something that has already been said about the AST403 by several of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins). The future tactical combat aircraft is an essential element in the front line of the Royal Air Force. I made two speeches on that subject at the Western European Union. I made one on 3 December 1979 and the other on 4 June 1980. I know that it is a sign of political senility to quote one's own speeches, and I shall not inflict them on the House. However, I regard the European tactical combat aircraft as a prize well worth going for, both operationally and industrially.

At next month's ministerial meeting every effort should be made to concert the operational requirements between the air forces of France, Germany and Britain. We should also make every effort to overcome the industrial difficulties. I comprehend the problems of co-operation and understand the difficulties that have been experienced about the powerplant. However, if a joint programme of 700 aircraft for the 1990s could be achieved, it would be a goal that would be worth striving for.

There is no question but that the Royal Air Force should have the best. If offensive support aircraft are to survive in the difficult air environment of Central Europe in the early 1990s they must have exceptional performance and highly sophisticated avionics. The Royal Air Force should not go for anything less. If it is financially possible, we should have one trinational programme, which has always eluded us. The Jaguar was Anglo-French. The Tornado was the result of a German, Italian and British programme. However, the British, French and Germans have never co-operated on a combat aircraft of this calibre.

Secondly, I wish to emphasise the importance of the men. We have heard endlessly about the shortfall of pilots. We all know why that has occurred. It is a direct result of the previous Labour Administration's defence review. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will know the arguments well. However, they bear repetition. It is 40 years since the end of the Battle of France, and 40 years ago the Battle of Britain was about to begin. I am always mindful of that, because whenever I drive to my constituency I pass the Polish war memorial at Northolt. Royal Air Force Northolt is the only No. 11 group, Fighter Command sector station in the London area that is still an operational flying Royal Air Force station. Unlike the long period before the summer of 1940, we have a period, not of phoney war, but of phoney peace. Forty years ago there was a phoney war in which to prepare. We now have a phoney peace during which we should take the necessary measures to prevent war.

Unlike the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley), I believe that we must prepare and arm. Since the Second World War experience has shown that if we do that we can ensure peace. That is what the Royal Air Force exists to do. It has been said in the other place that there is a shortfall of 13 per cent. in the required number of pilots. If that is so, it is serious.

It is serious that we cannot constitute the additional Lightning squadron, which I greatly welcome, until 1982. However, there is action that we can take. First, we could form Royal Auxiliary Air Force flying squadrons. I recommend that they should use Hawk aircraft. I am not dogmatic about that, but the Hawks have proved themselves exceptional in RAF service. So far they have had only one serious accident. One went in off Brighton pier during a flying display, which is untypical of normal circumstances.

I suggest that the Hawks' role be close air support. If we were to constitute one or two close air support wings of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, we would, for a modest cost, be able to augment our anti-armour capability on the central front, contribute more to the allied mobile force and have for ourselves an intervention capability in areas of the globe where we might wish to send aircraft and in which the air environment was relatively permissive.

It may be said that I have denied my own arguments by stressing for AST403 the need for a high-quality, sophisticated aeroplane, while I am now suggesting a lower capability aircraft. I argue that in a fluid battle situation in Central Europe there will be a requirement for both. As the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford argued, we need a spectrum of capability. What sense is there in taking out a relatively modest objective with a £10 million aircraft?

Mr. Snape

I do not know whether I made it clear in my speech, but that is exactly the point that I was trying to make during my criticism, if that is the right term, of the Tornado. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that any commander of 10 Tornados would think twice before committing £100 million to a comparatively small target. That was the only point that I was seeking to make when I was discussing the Tornado. I discussed the matter with my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved), whose expertise I have long respected, and he said that he agreed with every word that I said.

Mr. Wilkinson

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying his remarks, though he was too harsh on the capabilities of the Tornad[...] and the requirement of the RAF for such a sophisticated aeroplane.

My argument is that there will be occasions when an aeroplane of the performance of the Hawk will do the job. The German air force is acquiring 175 Alpha jets, which have comparable performance to, and rather less of a payload range than, the Hawk. The Israeli air force possesses 250 A4 Sky Hawks. There is a requirement for an aeroplane of that class.

We are to engage more short-service officers. I understand from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that there are now to be officer cadetships at university for short-service aircrew. It is wasteful to train such men at £1 million per copy and not to use their skills when they leave the Service after eight or 12 years.

If my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary asked me to form an auxiliary squadron, I would do it within a year and its operational effectiveness would be first class. With the kind permission of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, I went to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) to visit the tactical fighter wing from Iowa, which was on summer camp at Waddington last year. The United States Air National Guard operates Century series fighters, together with a series of supersonic aircraft. It has a total of 800 aircraft and 93,000 manpower. It is over-recruited.

My noble friend the Minister of State said in answer to my noble friend Lord Glenarthur in another place that reservists cannot be trusted to do the job, or words to that effect. It was an extraordinary speech. The Minister said: As to the question of whether RAF reserve pilots can be employed to fly Hawks, we have recently studied the feasibility of creating auxiliary flying squadrons, using trainer aircraft with a wartime role".

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

Order. Can the hon. Gentleman assist me? Is he quoting a Minister's speech, or a Back Bencher's speech?

Mr. Wilkinson

I know that I am getting into dangerous waters and I shall paraphrase if you wish, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was quoting a speech by a Minister in another place.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is in order.

Mr. Wilkinson

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister went on to say: as has been said, we have recently announced plans for arming about 90 Hawks with air-to-air missiles for their war role. In those cases, the Hawks would be flown by instructor pilots. Doing that would denude the tactical weapons unit at Brawdy and shortly at Chivenor of key personnel who would be essential to maintain the output of newly-trained pilots in time of emergency or war. The Minister continued: Of course, those men possess great skill; they have the experience which is essential to wartime operations … I would say there is no real parallel with the United States Air National Guard, since in the event of war there would be no time to give additional intensive training to part-time pilots of the kind which would be essential if they were to fight and survive in a NATO war."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 May 1980; Vol. 408, c. 1887.] The Air National Guard is charged with over half the continental air defence of the United States and half the tactical air support of the United States Air Force. About 70 per cent. of its pilots are ex-regulars, and the experience of Korea and Vietnam was that there is no more valuable commodity in air operations than experience. The people whom I would recruit would have thousands of hours on fast jets and would be delighted to put ther skills at the service of the nation.

Another role, maritime patrol, should be fulfilled by Royal Auxiliary Air Force Coastguarder aircraft for inshore fishery protection and the surveillance of oil rgs. Such tasks are expensive and not cost-effectively fulfilled by the Nimrods.

I have not read the recent report in The Guardian, but I saw in the Sunday Express the headline: RAF wants to sign Dad's Army pilots". I raised the matter on the Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order debate in June last year. I argued that the civil air crews who would be called up with their company aircraft under clause 10 of the Civil Aviation Bill should be subject to the Air Force Act and to RAF discipline and should, therefore, be members of the RAF volunteer reserve. Otherwise, they will be unlikely to wish to fly into a war zone and to risk all the consequences of that.

I hope that, by the time that we debate the discipline Acts continuation order on Thursday and discuss the Civil Aviation Bill next week, that vital question will have been resolved. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) also drew attention to it in last year's debate.

The RAF is in good shape and good heart. It is deficient of pilots, but that could be made good by an augmentation of the reserves, which I hope the Minister will undertake as soon as possible.

8.18 pm
Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

The Under-Secretary has circulated a letter which was intended, I hope, to be in time for the debate—and, if that is the case, it is helpful—about a low-flying exercise that is to take place on 15 and 17 July.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have raised before the question of low flying over Keighley and I still receive complaints from those who live in the higher parts of my constituency. I ask him to try to exclude such urban areas, and Keighley is a largely urban area, from low-flying exercises. There has been a near air miss with a Dan-Air flight, on which the report in detail does not tie up with the eye-witness reports that I have received.

It is a matter of concern that there should be such low level flying in the proximity of a relatively busy middle range airport such as Leeds-Bradford. That is something that I shall pursue with the Minister, because many of my constituents have raised this matter with me. I want the Minister to mark the date and time of the complaints about low flying so that they can be examined in order to ensure that they are not outside the rules laid down for low flying. It is quite clear that low flying experience is necessary from time to time. All I ask is that it should not be over urban areas or close to an airport.

I move to the more general position. I regret the fact that the Government propose more expenditure on new weaponry. I certainly follow my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape)—although I suspect for different reasons—in criticising expenditure on the Tornado. This is an enormously costly aircraft. Perhaps the Minister could outline the flight programme for us. I understand that so far two aircraft have been lost, and that means that at least £20 million has gone missing. I feel that the Government, in their besotted examination of this problem and their determination to increase defence expenditure, have got their priorities for humanity, particularly in this country, terribly wrong. We are spending a total of £10.7 billion. That means that defence is costing the nation about £30 million a day, and that each member of every family in the country is paying £15 a week as a contribution to it.

I know that the RAF, in many aspects of its operations, provides much useful work. I am not criticising that. Its air-sea rescue work, its survey work and similar operations are carried out with great skill and aplomb. Quite clearly the RAF has some sort of role. But the escalation into stratospheric realms of expenditure is totally unnecessary. The sort of comments that we hear from Government Benches about combat plans are incredible. For goodness sake, who are we supposed to be engaged in combat with? At what stage do we stop playing games and start turning the world into a radioactive cinder heap? Some people talk about "a phoney peace" in such a way that I wonder whether they are on the same earth as I am. Do they not realise that war now means an extent of extermination which humanity has never faced before. Everyone will be exterminated—not just the other side—the baddies, all those nasty Russians who do everything so terribly wrong. All the good chaps on our side—the RAF officers and gentlemen and the United States officers and gentlemen who are so awfully, awfully right—will all be exterminated too. So will all the people who do not want any part of these nonsensical positions which are taken by the militarists, the warmongers and the politicians who support their point of view. It is extraordinary to talk in terms of the terrible consequences that will flow from military conflict.

The Minister can correct me if I am wrong, but as I understand it, NATO's flexible strategy is that if the Russians start coming, we shall stop them with tactical nuclear weapons. If that does not work we shall then blow up the world. I raised this with the Secretary of State and he did not contradict me. But at what stage do we stop our conventional military manoeuvres and start using tacti- cal nuclear weapons? Is it in the first day, or the first few hours? Whose judgment will it be? Are we talking about reality when we talk about a nuclear exchange?

Of course some of my hon. Friends and certainly Conservative after Conservative will talk about the Russian threat. I repeat my quotation from "Military Balance", from the Institute of Strategic Studies, which, so far as I know, has not been penetrated by Soviet intelligence. In fact, it is a pro-NATO organisation. On page 117 of the current volume it says: We therefore conclude that something very close to parity now exists between the Theatre Nuclear Forces of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, although it is moving in favour of the Warsaw Pact. To hear the comments from Government Benches one would imagine that the Warsaw Pact countries were overwhelmingly armed and NATO was busily trying its poverty-stricken best to catch up. That is not the position. There is parity of weaponry between the two sections of Europe. "Military Balance" goes on about the introduction of SS20s: If the Soviet Union were to retire the SS-4 and SS-5 missiles, our calculations show that another 140 SS-20s would do the job of the 590 SS-4s and SS-5s.… We are as yet unaware of substantial retirements of the older missiles. As a matter of interest that is precisely the position on the introduction of cruise missiles and the retirement of some of NATO's old missiles. In reply to parliamentary questions that I have tabled it is quite clear that no decision has been made about the retirement of "our" old missiles. I put "our" in quotation marks because they are certainly not my missiles and I want nothing to do with them. No decision has been made about the extent of phasing out, the rapidity of it or otherwise. That is precisely what the Institute of Strategic Studies said about the Russian SS-20s, which, we are told, are the cause of the installation of cruise missiles.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East, said that there were no Conservatives against cruise missiles, but I can tell him that at Lakenheath there was a very large banner at a demonstration that I attended which said "Blues Against Cruise". There may well be a tiny nugget of sense among the Stonehenge Conservatives.

The cruise missile introduction is an escalation in the arms race. It is not an easily verifiable weapon, as the Minister said in a answer to a question that I tabled. He suggested that verification is an important pre-requisite of disarmament. How right he is. In the Minister's own words, therefore, the cruise missile represents an additional and alarming aspect of the arms race because it is not easily verifiable. It gives rise to suspicions by 'the other side". It is difficult to see whether disarmament is being carried out properly and honestly without verification.

The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), in whose constituency Greenford lies, asked some interesting questions, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's answers. I hope that he will not write a confidential letter to his hon. Friend about the RAF in regard to cruise missiles. I am not making a personal comment on the hon. Gentleman, but I do not believe Defence Ministers, particularly because over the years going back to 1945 they have consistently misled Parliament and the people. Therefore, I do not place any great credence on parliamentary answers. Apparently, the Minister is not concerned about the testing of cruise missiles; that is the responsibility of the United States. That is the answer that I have received. If there are any dangers arising from the missiles, we are not to know, because we have handed over the responsibility for operation, maintenance and everything else connected with the Cruise missiles to the United States.

I asked the Secretary of State about the safeguards for cruise missiles when moved from site to site; and whether guards will be provided by the police or the United States Air Force. The answer was: It would not be in the public interest to give details of the precise security or safety arrangements affecting operational deployments but, as I have already made clear, the most stringent safeguards will be taken at all times."—[Official Report, 20 June 1980; Vol. 986, c. 718.] Therefore, people had better shut up if they want to know anything about these missiles moving in their midst. They do not have to worry because the men in Whitehall in the Ministry of Defence know best. That is the total response of the Minister.

A United States senator has claimed—I heard a radio programme which was very alarming—that three-quarters of the United States personnel who handle nuclear weapons are not able competently to read and understand the instruction manuals. I hasten to add that that is the claim of a United States senator; it is not my claim. It is a little alarming, because again the men in the Ministry of Defence, sitting in their comfy offices in Whitehall, have not probed into this matter in depth. They say that the United States will look after all that just as the United States will look after the decision-making over their deployment and use.

The Secretary of State, in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), made it clear that the only way we can get a joint key to these missiles is by buying our way into them—and it will be a very expensive key. Therefore, this country is a gigantic parking lot for United States weaponry which can be operated, possibly with consultation, but not absolutely necessarily, by the United States——an ally which, so we are informed, did not trouble to tell us about a military escapade in Iran of a most dangerous kind. I wish that the Government had exercised the same scrutiny as the Dutch Government and deferred the acceptance of cruise missiles or had even raised a few critical points as did the Belgian Government.

The Labour Party is opposed to cruise missiles. That policy was laid down at the Wembley conference. The policy of the Labour Party is still decided by the annual conference, not by the parliamentary leadership, although I am sure that it is only too anxious to carry it out. The democratically decided policy of the Labour Party, which was repeatedly enunciated at a splendid rally on Sunday in Hyde Park when about 20,000 people turned out to express their opposition to the implementation of cruise missiles, is that there shall no no cruise missiles in this country.

Labour Party policy was also against the replacement of Polaris. Some hon. Members, including one Conservative Back Bencher, were critical of the secrecy surrounding defence matters and pointed out that the Labour Government had spent £1 billion—unknown to us—on Operation Chevaline to update Polaris. I was a member of that Government for a time, and I resent the fact that I was not consulted. There was a backdoor breach of faith. The Government went ahead with the venture without the consent of Parliament and the Labour and trade union movement. I hope that that will not be repeated when the next Local Government come to power.

As international relations deteriorate, more and more people are protesting about nuclear warfare. In The Guardian today Polly Toynbee writes: Where, I wonder, have I, and all those other thousands of CND members been all these years? Why did complacency descend on us like some heavy mushroom cloud? People are alarmed because of the events in Afghanistan and because of the warmongering statements of various international "statesmen". The majority of ordinary people do not want greatly to concern themselves with international strategic decisions and combat. They want to live in peace, and get on with the job of relating to those around them. Even that can sometimes prove difficult, let alone when it is at an international level. People want to concentrate on bringing up their families and living in reasonable harmony. However, they are beginning to realise that, when politicians talk about a phoney peace or the use of combat aircraft, they are discussing the preliminaries of war, and most people recognise that a war will end civilisation as we know it, and that there will be no victors in a nuclear war.

Earl Mountbatten was Chief of the British Defence Staff, and I wish to quote some important comments that he made: It was not long, however, before smaller nuclear weapons of various designs were produced and deployed for use in what was assumed to be a tactical or theatre war. The belief was that were hostilities ever to break out in Western Europe, such weapons could be used in field warfare without triggering an all-out nuclear exchange leading to the final holocaust. I have never found this idea credible. I have never been able to accept the reasons for the belief that any class of nuclear weapons can be categorised in terms of their tactical or strategic purposes. I am not asserting this without having deeply thought about the matter. When I was Chief of the British Defence Staff I made my views known. I have heard the arguments against this view but I have never found them convincing. So I repeat in all sincerity as a military man I can see no use for any nuclear weapons which would not end in escalation, with consequences that no one can conceive. We are not talking of a limited role for the RAF, as I outlined, or its air-sea rescue work, which we all praise. We are talking about the RAF's involvement in the new escalation, which also involves cruise missiles, which the Government have supinely accepted.

The West and the East, the men in the Kremlin, the Pentagon and Whitehall are arrogant when they talk of military expenditure. We pour money into the military machine to the extent of £10.7 billion. We say that it is necessary in order to protect our way of life, because the other side is doing so on an even grander scale. It is the ratchet mechanism, which has been mentioned. So some people—not all—stand in platitudinous array piling cliché upon cliché about standing up to the Russians, without thinking what it really means standing up to them and producing a radioactive cinder heap in which everyone is the loser.

A short time ago many well-meaning Members of Parliament shed tears in this Chamber when they talked about the Brandt report and the poor of the world. Then they go into the Lobby time after time and vote for more defence expenditure.

A constituent of mine is a nurse who is working at a Catholic mission in Sierra Leone. She writes: In Sierra Leone we are already running out of cash to pay the salaries of the two local girls working with us, who are completely overworked as it is. The clinic is serving over 12,000 people. Numbers each day: over 150. The people are willing but we need funds for tools, cement, etc., for life-saving basic things such as wells and latrines. They are not asking for 10-million-quid aircraft. They are asking for money for tools and cement for wells and latrines. Will they get it? Not if our present Government have anything to do with it, because they have just slashed overseas aid by 14 per cent. Perhaps they will get a bit from charity. Some good-natured people will rally round and raise a bit of money, and a patch will be put on that devastation and enslavement by hunger in that part of the world, while the West and the East go on their joint sick way of expenditure, wasting the world's resources as two-thirds of the world's people live without basic necessities.

It is the East and the West that are wasting these resources. This country could take an initiative and reverse those priorities by cutting 14 per cent. off defence expenditure, by getting out a plan to preserve jobs, and by producing goods and services for peace, so that we can send industrial engines and cement mixers to places such as Sierra Leone. That would be the most commendable initiative that the Government could take. Unfortunately, we know that they will not take it, that they are besotted with defence expenditure and militarism, and that we shall have to wait for the next Labour Government committed to a policy of humanity and progress for that sort of priority to be given precedence.

8.42 pm
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)

The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) suggested that the Labour Party was committed to a policy of humanity and peace. That was not entirely clear from the speech made from the Opposition Front Bench by the Labour Party's spokesman, the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape). I listened with considerable interest to what he had to say. I had considerable difficulty in understanding what it was.

The hon. Member for Erith and Cray-ford (Mr. Wellbeloved) described the hon. Gentleman's speech as refreshing. That was not the adjective that I would have applied to the hon. Gentleman's utterances in this debate. What I think this House would like to know is whether what he represented as being Labour policy is in fact Labour policy.

Amongst the tangle of words and verbiage that came out in a rather confused order, two things appeared to be apparent. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East wishes to defend himself, he will have plenty of opportunity. Two things were apparent. The first was that the Labour Party did not think much of the Tornado—although it was a Labour Government who were responsible for commissioning it in the first instance. The second point was that the hon. Gentleman at least is in favour of nuclear disarmament—or, at least, that is what his speech sounded as if it amounted to.

The House is entitled to know what it was the hon. Gentleman meant when he dealt with nuclear disarmament. Was he saying that this country should go ahead with unilateral disarmament, or did he hope to give that impression without committing himself to the substance of such a policy?

Another hon. Member who caught my attention, as he always does, was the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell). My response to him is totally different, because I always listen with respect and interest to what he has to say. I think that he is wrong. In the final stages of his speech he suggested that Soviet policy was to be explained on the basis of fear and that the Soviet policy makers cannot forget the invasion of 1941. There is some truth in that proposition in terms of Soviet policy towards the West, but I do not believe that there is any truth at all in it in terms of Soviet policy towards Afghanistan. The attack on Afghanistan was not a manifestation of fear; it was a manifestation of an imperialist and expansionist nation.

The hon. Member for Erith and Cray-ford, distinguished as his record may be, will not escape some strictures. At the start of his speech I found myself saying "Hear, hear", at inappropriate moments, for, although I agreed with what he was saying at the time, I realised speedily that it was an ill-conceived speech. It can be criticised on two grounds.

The hon. Gentleman launched a scurrilous attack on my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. I understood the hon. Gentleman to be saying that it was unpatriotic for the Minister, when in opposition, to try to ascertain the number of aircraft in front-line squadrons. That is the duty of a Back Bencher. We are entitled to the information. Indeed, we must have it. The hon. Gentleman said that the Minister was now in a position to give that infomation. I hope very much that my hon. Friend does so.

The hon. Member for Erith and Cray-ford also said that the Government had not done enough and were to be rebuked for delay and tardiness. The truth is that the Labour Party has been in power for 11 of the last 17 years. It is curious to find an Opposition Member belly-aching in the House about the lack of preparedness of the RAF.

Lest I be thought guilty of being partial, I shall also criticise the speech made from the Conservative side of the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson). My hon. Friend made the interesting suggestion that we should insure the whole value of the 700 aircraft of the RAF. There are two problems about that interesting suggestion. The first is the cost. We can be sure that the insurance consortium would not undertake the insurance unless it was profitable. If it is profitable to an independent insurance consortium, it is certainly not in the financial interests of the taxpayer.

Another objection to my hon. Friend's plan is that the first basic element of insurance is disclosure. An insurance company will not insure anything unless full disclosure is made. I do not suppose that the RAF is either willing or able to disclose all the particulars of its sorties or operations. In those circumstances, an insurance policy is inappropriate.

Despite the speeches made by some Opposition Members, this is a rather important debate. Its most important aspect—I echo what was said by the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford—is air defence. The one thing of which we can be certain is that if there is an outbreak of hostilities this country will be the subject of heavy and continuous air attack. This basic fact should underlie our policy towards the RAF. We must be sure that the RAF and air defence units are reasonably competent and able to meet the likely effect of an attack. There are two aspects of that attack that should concern hon. Members. The first is that we shall be very dependent on our own resources. If there is a major war in Europe, we can be certain that other countries will be subjected to air attack and that their air forces will be concerned to protect their own factories, cities and populations. So, in air defence we are on our own.

Secondly, we have a substantial number of troops deployed in Europe. They will require air cover and air support, which will consume many of the squadrons that would otherwise be detailed for United Kingdom defence. Against that background, we have to remember the cost of aircraft and the difficulty of replacing pilots.

In the early stages of conflict we shall inevitably suffer substantial losses and it would be very difficult in those few weeks to make those losses good. I welcome what the Minister said in opening the debate and what the defence statement says about the importance of air defence, but I am concerned that we have not done enough. We have only seven front-line squadrons dedicated to United Kingdom defence. I should be very surprised if that were a sufficient response to the foreseeable risk.

I am aware that there are second-line squadrons, and that we have Hunters and Hawks available to be pressed into home defence. How many of those second-line aircraft do we have? Can they be armed in a sufficiently short time? If they were put into the air, could they meet a likely attack? Those are the only second-line squadrons available to us.

The Vulcans are to be phased out by 1983 or therabouts, but my recent visits to airfields in my constituency make it plain that the Vulcan has a considerable penetration power even today, because of its low-flying and all-weather abilities and its general versatility. Is it intended to put the Vulcans on to the scrap heap, or are they to be retained in a second-line role against eventualities? I hope that it is the latter.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) is no longer here. He was here only briefly, and no other member of the Liberal Party is present, although we are discussing the important subject of the fate of the RAF. He made a speech in favour of RAF Ely, which I strongly support, but he did not appear to realise the fate of RAF Nocton in my constituency. It makes an important contribution to health care in my constituency, but the Minister is resolved, for reasons that I understand, to close RAF Nocton. As a result, about 3,000 patients will have to be treated in the NHS.

Will the Minister reconsider that decision? If he cannot rescind it, will he at least postpone it until the new hospital facilities in Lincoln come into operation? There are about six RAF bases in my constituency and we are conscious of the great contribution that the RAF makes to the county in terms of rates, spending and social life. But our local economy is geared to the RAF in a way that applies to few other constituencies.

Whenever the Minister considers the deployment or redeployment of major units, I hope that he will bear in mind the economic effect that that can have on Lincolnshire. I do not ask him to do anything that is not consistent with our national interests, but I do ask him at all times to realise that the replacement of RAF units in my constituency can have serious economic consequences and I feel sure that he will always bear that in mind.

8.55 pm
Mr. Michael Colvin (Bristol, North-West)

I have listened with great interest to the speeches of hon. Members from both sides of the House. Some of them have been very well informed, particularly the speeches of those hon. Members whose knowledge of the RAF is more expert than mine. I endorse the congratulations that have been offered to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary on his introductory speech, and I am sure that the Royal Air Force has, in him, a champion who will look after its interests well.

Several hon. Members have spoken who could well claim to be able to reach for the skies, along with the men and women of the Royal Air Force on whose fight to preserve our national security and the freedom of the West in the face of mounting hostility we so largely depend. Other hon. Members—mainly from the Opposition—have been on rather more ideological trips. I respect what they have said because I appreciate that they feel strongly about disarmament and what they call the arms race.

However, let us not forget that it was John F. Kennedy, a liberal and peaceful-minded man, who said: Let us not fear to negotiate but let us never negotiate out of fear. It is with those words in mind that I support the policy of the Government on defence—particularly in relation to the RAF—which will ensure that our leaders can go to the international conference table and negotiate from a position of strength.

My contribution to the debate will be modest and down to earth. I speak on behalf of the industry that keeps the air force flying. About one-third of the workers in my constituency are engaged in the design, development and manufacture of the aircraft flown by the RAF, the engines which power them, the avionics with which they are equipped, the missiles which they fire and the missiles which guard the airfields from which the aircraft will fly. Bristol, North-West, like 50 or so other constituencies which have aerospace manufacturing interests, has a considerable interest in this debate.

We are discussing our ability to honour our commitment to NATO and thus preserve our freedom through the achievement of air superiority. Yet the air defence capability of the United Kingdom can be secured only if the industrial base on which it is built is, in turn, supported by the Government.

The RAF and its aircraft cannot be considered separately from our ability to research and develop new designs and equipment or our capacity to manufacture, if need be, large numbers of aircraft at short notice. That was recognised by the Government too late in the 1930s, when we watched our enemy achieve enormous air superiority and when we did nothing about it until the eleventh hour. We see the same threat to world peace again with the Warsaw Pact countries having 2.3 times as many fixed-wing tactical aircraft in Europe as NATO has. Our ability to meet such a threat cannot depend solely on our technological supremacy, because Russia is catching up fast. We will stay in the technological lead only if we maintain and build up our industrial base for defence in time of peace.

I am also concerned about another threat to our defence industry, which arises from successive Governments' memoranda of understanding with our allies concerning the construction, procurement and sales of defence equipment. It seems that the so-called one-way street which was meant to operate across the Atlantic after the United States dropped its "buy American" policy in 1976 has become a one-way system which is out of balance in favour of the United States. That is of concern to everyone in Britain, and particularly to those employed in our aerospace industry, whose livelihood depends on the recognition by the Government of the importance of our defence industry base. A pound spent at home is a pound invested in a vital industry, with a valuable continuing dividend to our nation. A pound spent abroad helps our competitors and weakens our home industry.

I was in the United States recently and had the opportunity to see the AV8B development of our Harrier at the McDonnell Douglas world headquarters at St. Louis, Missouri. A decision is to be made soon about whether the RAF is to be equipped with that aircraft or with the Harrier Mark V, known as the GR5. This is big business for the British aerospace industry whichever way the decision goes. It is probably worth about 20 per cent. more if the RAF buys the all-British Harrier.

It can be argued that the purchase of the AV8B could lead to more sales, particularly to third parties. However, I question the wisdom of handing over our V STOL technology to the Americans, especially the Pegasus engine deal with Pratt and Whitney, unless there is an improvement in the two-way street policy of reciprocal defence purchases by the United States of British equipment, such as the Rapier. I am pleased that it will be guarding United States bases in the United Kingdom, since it is made by my constituents. We might even see the day when, having sold our birthright we have to buy back from the United States the technology that we developed, with all that that involves in terms of lost defence capability, lost foreign exchange and lost jobs.

The Harrier AV8B debate is not the only one that worries me. Industrial questions are connected with the Polaris replacement. The Chevaline project could update Polaris and maintain its effectiveness until the 1990s, but what then? I am told that the Trident replacement might be out of date by the time that we get it. It is vital that if that decision is made we look to the day when Trident has to be updated. It follows that the more British industry is involved in the manufacture of Trident the easier it will be for us to update the weapon when the time comes. That underlines the importance of maintaining an industrial base for our defence capability, particularly in aerospace. Otherwise, the position of our leaders at the international conference table will be weakened.

I turn to the question of aircraft design. Sometimes we become locked into an over-specific operational require ment with the air staff and the procurement executive calling too much of the tune. We have debated the AST403 project. I hope that when that project, or one like it, is approved, the resulting aeroplane will be marketable overseas and not so specific that nobody else wants it. I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) said about collaborative projects. I hope that the aircraft will be saleable elsewhere in the world so that we can recoup a return for the British taxpayer.

The role of our embassies is important for defence sales overseas. Some embassies are good, but some could be much better. The British aerospace industry, like its competitors and partners overseas, particularly the United States, rides on the hack of its defence programme. Without a strong defence commitment by the Government, aerospace industries would fold. They cannot exist on civil projects alone. That is why I support so strongly the aerospace industry and its defence commitments.

If Europe ever again sees the storm clouds of war gathering, there will not be time to send a Lord Beaverbrook into action. It could be all over in a flash if our enemies thought that we were weak. That is why we must preserve our own independent defence design, development and manufacturing capability. That is why our defence industry must be in a permanent state of good health and readiness and why the quarter of a million workers in our defence industries must have welcomed the Government's resolve to rebuild our depleted defences.

That is why we now want to see the Government buying British and selling more British defence hardware overseas to complete the recovery and enable our industries to give the Royal Air Force the support that it deserves and needs.

9.5 pm

Mr. Nicholas Lyell (Hemel Hempstead)

I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Colvin) and Grantham (Mr. Hogg) for giving me the opportunity to make a short contribution to the debate. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and to the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) for not being present to listen to their very interesting speeches. However, I took the opportunity, instead, to give some detailed consideration to the subject which I wish to develop quite shortly in my few brief comments.

The subject is home defence. Of course, it goes without saying that the Royal Air Force plays perhaps the earliest and one of the most crucial parts in the defence of this island. I discuss the problem of home defence because, in the end, it is the confidence of our people in the ability of our defence forces as a whole to see off any potential invader which underlies the essential credibility of the deterrent effects, especially the nuclear deterrent effects, of our forces. Without that credibility, we might as well not have them.

I was much encouraged by the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) because a matter which gives me some cause for concern is the ability of the USSR to mount a conventional attack on our country and to make landings, whether by parachute or by landing troops on captured airfields, and thereby quite rapidly to make a conventional attack upon us.

One of the classic errors of strategists when approaching the possibility of any major war—it is very sad to say that that is what we have to consider, although the object of our policy is to prevent it—is to think along rigid lines. We know only too well that an attack tends to come from where it is least expected. I need not quote such examples as the Maginot line to demonstrate how attack comes in a way that has not been thought through carefully. The attack upon Singapore is another classic example drawn from the last war.

The USSR has an air transport capacity of 1,200 transport aircraft, together with a support capacity in the shape of the aircraft currently in service or in reserve in Aeroflot, its civil airline, of 1,300 aircraft. With those figures in mind, one quickly recognises what an enormous ability the Russians have to land troops, should they attain air superiority, in any part of Europe.

We must be on our guard, therefore, to ensure that we are not so fixed to the idea that attack necessarily will come across the German border and not so fixed in the deployment of our forces in support of NATO on the Continent that we have not prepared ourselves with any reserves to meet such an attack. Let us take confidence from the fact that an attack of that nature would come with very long lines of approach and, therefore, very long lines of communication. In that context, our second line fighter aircraft could be of very great help. That is why I was glad to hear the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood dealing with pilots, and of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham, talking about the second line squadrons. I look forward, like him, to hearing how many such aircraft we might be able to muster.

While I wish to return—if I have the opportunity—later this week to the subject of home defence in the debate on the Army, I believe that the RAF has a crucial part to play, and I very much hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends who have responsibility will bear this aspect in mind.

9.10 pm
Mr. Snape

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to say that it has been an interesting debate and, I hope, an informative one for each side of the House. It might be appropriate if I commenced by referring to some of the contributions made during the course of the debate.

The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Hamilton), who followed my speech earlier this afternoon, made an impassioned plea for the future of Boscombe Down. The Minister is, I am sure, better qualified than I am to give a reply, whether sympathetic or otherwise.

I was very sorry to miss the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), although I do not suppose that he will be particularly sorry to miss my reference to it. I understand that he gave his usual serious, informed and well-thought-out contribution, particularly with reference to Afghanistan. We all know the very effective speech that he made on that topic a few weeks ago, and also the sincerity with which he puts forward his views.

The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) raised an extremely interesting point about insurance for both pilots and planes. It is a point on which I am not qualified to comment; indeed, much of what the hon. Member said was entirely new to me and, I am sure, to other hon. Members. But we are grateful to him for raising the matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who regularly participates in defence debates, was right to remind us of the damage that the 1957 White Paper did, and is still doing, to the Royal Air Force. As I pointed out to him in the course of an intervention, in these days that White Paper is very often overlooked by Conservative Members.

The hon. Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins), made a vigorous plea for the future of his constituents in terms of the further development of the AV8B. All credit to him for that. That is the sort of argument that hon. Members are elected to make. But I wish that he would occasionally save his contributions for the time when he is on his feet and make rather less use of the sedentary intervention.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) did the House a great service by the way in which he outlined his view of the thinking behind the actions of the Soviet Union. I thought that his contribution was right, and relevant. I also thought that it was startlingly accurate. I am sure that we look forward to hearing his views again in the future. But I should like to comment on and perhaps correct one point that he made. My hon. Friend said that there was at present no debate in the Conservative Party about defence or about the future of Britain's nuclear deterrent. I cannot see the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) in the Chamber at the moment, but he has been most forthright in expressing his view about the lack of a credible nuclear deterrent in the 1980s. The debate continues in the Conservative Party, but Conservatives are better at concealing things than we are as an Opposition.

The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) originally accused me of a degree of belligerence. I hope that I cleared up that point in my intervention in his speech. At the risk of damaging his career, I can say that I very much agreed with what he said about reservists. In deed, if I have time in my speech I may amplify some of his points. I think that they were entirely accurate and long overdue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) mentioned the problem of low-flying aircraft in urban areas. It is a problem that concerns all of us who represent seats in areas in which low flying takes place. Although it has to take place for reasons of pilot training, it is probably even more damaging in urban areas than it is in rural areas. I recognise, however, that many Conservative Members representing predominantly rural areas bitterly resent the amount of low flying that their constituents have to suffer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley prayed in aid the late Lord Mountbatten as a reminder, perhaps, that Lord Carver is not alone in regarding the concept of the independent British nuclear deterrent as nonsense. I hope that, although Lord Carver has been castigated in this Chamber for his views, the Conservatives will appreciate the sincerity with which the late Lord Mountbatten propounded the same opinions.

The hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) graced our debate with his oratory. He said that he could not understand much of what I had said earlier. Perhaps my best response to that is to say that if he listened more and talked less he might find it a little easier. I cannot claim to have had the benefit of the sort of education that he had, but then my dad did not have as much money as his dad. Perhaps there is something in that. As for defending myself from his strictures, I would have brought a fly swat along had I known. I am sure that that would have done a more than adequate job.

The hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Colvin) made an able and sincere speech. The Conservative Party is supposed to represent business interests, but it could do with a few more Members like the hon. Gentleman, who know something about business and can explain its problems on the Floor of the House. Perhaps it should have more business men and fewer lawyers, which would enable us all more fully to comprehend the problem that we are discussing.

The contribution of the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Lyell) was truncated through lack of time, but it was patently sincere. Next time we have a similar debate he may have more time in which to amplify his views.

Perhaps I may make a few proposals for the way forward for the Royal Air Force. I hope that the Minister will not think that too presumptuous of me. I compliment him on the fact that his book is so widely read. If the Prime Minister ever reads it and fires him for the heresies that appear therein, from what I have heard this afternoon at least he will be able to live fairly well on the royalties. Even so, I am bound to tell him that the copy that I have came from the Library, so he will not make much out of me.

Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde)

The House would like to know whether it was Mr. Bellini or the Under-Secretary who wrote the book. For instance, was it the Under-Secretary who in 1977 said that the defence establishment must share the burdens of budgetary constraints? Was it he who said that the Government must promote and sustain the key technologies, with reference to Ferranti and the National Enterprise Board? If that was the Under-Secretary, does my hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister is turning him from a wet into a warrior?

Mr. Snape

I was not sure whether my hon. Friend said from a wet into a warrior, or a wet to a worrier. Having heard my hon. Friend, I think that the latter might be more appropriate, although I am sure that the Minister will accept responsibility for anything that he wrote. If he takes my tip he will blame it all on Bellini and keep drawing his salary.

There are various points on which I should like the Under-Secretary to reply. I have questions to ask on the future of anti-aircraft guns in our Armed Forces. Since such guns accounted for about 83 per cent. of the aircraft shot down over Vietnam and since the great majority of Israeli aircraft lost in the Yom Kippur War were brought down by the Soviet-designed ZSU23/4 self-propelled gun, will he tell us the ratio of men to guns in Britain, particularly in the central region? I have been unable to learn that from his Department. Because the secrecy that customarily afflicts the Ministry of Defence, I am unable to discover anything from that source.

The Soviet air force has a comparatively poor all-weather capability. I did my inadequate best to illustrate that earlier. Surely it would be more cost-effective to buy a simpler 35mm self-propelled antiaircraft gun than to go ahead with a radar aiming system for low visibility poor weather capability. The cost of an all-weather gun is about £1.5 million. Would it not be better if NATO were to put its money into a clear-weather visually aimed system? That would be cheaper, and it could be deployed in larger numbers.

Experience in Vietnam showed that North Vietnam's 5,000 to 6,000 antiaircraft positions forced the United States air force to use about 50 per cent. of its resources in neutralising those sites. That left the other half of its air force for other operations. Might not quantity be better than quality as regards the central region?

If NATO chose that type of weapon the Soviet Union could breach such defences only by precise guided weapons. I hope that the Minister will agree that the most recent figures show that the Soviets have fallen behind the NATO Alliance in the development of that type of weapon.

The Ministry of Defence has recognised that the present propeller-driven Shackle-ton aircraft is inadequate as an AWAC system. Is the planned Nimrod the most cost-effective option? Admittedly, it is jet propelled, but its radar functions only over water. I understand that the French are experimenting with the Grumman turbo-prop E2C Charlie, which has lookdown capabilities over land. I am told that it is much cheaper than Nimrod. After lengthy deployment on American aircraft carriers, it has proved itself.

Experience in the Middle East has clearly shown that aircraft should, and must, be sheltered. For example, in 1967 Israel destroyed a large percentage of the Egyptian air force, because the aircraft were not sheltered. Conversely, in 1973, few Arab planes were destroyed on the ground. Although NATO has apparently recognised that principle, AWAC systems are not given sheltered priority. For example, shelters are being built in the United Kingdom only for F111s.

It is not just a question of priorities. The United States air force has not proposed any shelter programme for AWACs. The Ministry of Defence gives glowing accounts of the system's capabilities and of the contribution that it can make to air defence. To leave that system unsheltered would seem to provide a glaring gap.

In recent United States Senate committee hearings, the armed services committee concluded that, although NATO's air defences were formidable, there was a severe shortage of amunition stocks. According to the committee, anti-aircraft guns would not be able to operate over a lengthy period. It pointed out that many Hawk missile batteries could not be reloaded. It argued that part of the reason was that NATO liked to buy "political numbers" in order to offset Warsaw Pact comparisons. We are not buying capability, and that could be critical in Kremlin crisis calculations.

Although the reduction of Soviet numerical advantage may be a useful goal for some, it may also give NATO a false picture of its true fighting capabilities. It is surely essential that ammunition stocks should be built up, particularly in relation to SAM missiles. However, NATO strategy continues to play down antiaircraft ammunition shortages by pointing to the introduction of the precisely guided Patriot missile. Again, experience in the Yom Kippur war showed that, while precision is vital, there is still no substitute for mass numbers. According to the Israelis, that is particularly important in the case of near misses. For example, a battery of less precise missiles which scored near misses was often able to down a plane, while a more precise missile which scored a near miss merely damaged the aircraft and failed to bring it down. The survivability of the missile battery is obviously critical. That is why some experts make the case for the self-propulsion of the Rapier. I should like to hear the Minister's view on that.

As for the look-down, shoot-down, radar-guided missiles, although the British Tornado and the United States F15 will reportedly have radars that can pick out low-flying aircraft from a cluster of radar returns from the ground and can guide missiles to destroy them, no missile currently deployed in NATO is sufficiently effective for that look-down, shoot-down role.

The Ministry claims that Sky Flash is effective in that capacity, but I under stand from the Americans that there is widespread scepticism about that claim. Will the Minister either confirm or remove that scepticism? The Congressional Budget Office in the United States has concluded that only the Aim 17 Sparrow, with an advanced mono-pulse seeker, which is expected to be deployed in the mid-1980s, will give credibility to the NATO claim of a look-down, shoot-down capability. Is that an expression of genuine concern on the part of the United States, or yet another example of its desire to sell us as much expensive hardware as possible?

I told the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood that I would attempt to mention reserves and, as I feel so strongly about the matter, I shall do so. One of the muddle-headed decisions of the 1957 defence White Paper was the abolition of the RAF reserve. While accepting that the RAF needs, and must have, top-rate pilots, I have to say that the American experience has shown that the reserve system cuts training requirements and provides a ready reserve of pilots to meet attrition rates. Surely we should also look at Israel, whose air farce is almost exclusively called up.

The most expensive part of pilot training is basics—trainers, basic jet and advanced jet. Most reserve pilots in the United States lack only the skills to fly first-rate aircraft. However, the USAF feels that, with minimum retraining, they can fly the fastest machines. Of course, much depends on what one terms first-rate or top-rate aircraft, but American reservists fly Mach 2 Interceptors and gained an impressive score at the recent Giant Voice exercise. An Air National Guard unit from New Hampshire captured the navigation trophy from regular forces. American reserves also fly F4s, operate air refuelling tankers, operate off United States tankers and even fly Harriers.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) reminded us, it appears that we have a ratio in the RAF of about three and a half pilots to each plane. It is therefore surely nonsensical to say that such reservists could not do the same job as is done by reservists in the United States or Israel. Indeed, given the fact that so many of our pilots receive flying pay yet do not fly aircraft, it could be argued that they can be no better than the reserves that I am asking the Minister to think about.

There has been little mention in the debate of helicopters. I hope that I shall not be accused of being unpatriotic, but is the Minister sure that the decision taken on the ordering and deployment of helicopters, particularly within the NATO central area, is the right one?

The Americans feel that attack helicopters—the gunship concept—will be necessary for the future. Helicopters have the advantage of being vastly cheaper than sophisticated aeroplanes such as the Harrier. Before I am castigated and invited again to appear before the appropriate trade unions, I should make it clear that my remarks are not meant as an attack on the Harrier, which is a marvellous plane. Once again we are in the difficulty in that a commander might find it risky, to say the least, to send out an extremely expensive aeroplane such as the Harrier, whereas he might be more prepared to send out a comparatively cheap helicopter of the gunship type.

Again, the Americans appear to believe that our planned WG32, which I understand is a variant and an improvement of the WG30 with American General Electric engines, is misconceived. The Americans say that as a small helicopter designed to land an anti-tank team it is vulnerable both at the point of dropping the team and at the point of picking it up later. The Minister shakes his head. One of the difficulties that Opposition spokesmen have is that it is virtually impossible to get any information out of Ministers. Of course the Select Committees have been a useful source of information, but we are not allowed to sit on them as Opposition spokesmen, and the information that we get has every figure deleted and asterisks substituted, even down to the number of braces kept in store on behalf of the British Armed Forces. That is a funny sort of secrecy.

One of the regrettable aspects of this debate is the very small amount of attention that is paid to the role of women in the Armed Services. I am well aware that there are one or two Conservative Members who think that the only places for women are the kitchen and the bedroom. Again, the American experience appears to be somewhat different. Women play a vital role in the operation and efficiency of the United States Armed Forces. I wonder whether the Minister has considered the various roles that they could fulfil in the Royal Air Force. Perhaps they could fulfil roles which might release men—I do not wish to sound patronising—for more appropriate tasks. I am thinking of women in areas such as air traffic control, repair and maintenance, supply and transport, catering and various headquarters and depot duties. Perhaps the Minister will comment on the rationale behind not allowing women in the British Armed Services, including the RAF, any sort of advance training.

We have heard a great deal from the Government Benches about the shortages in pilots and equipment as a result of the inaction of the previous Labour Government. That is not true. My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford fought long and hard the many battles on behalf of the RAF. I do not think that even his fiercest critics on the Conservative Benches would deny that. We have also heard a great deal about the importance of the air defence of this country. It appears from the speeches from the Government Benches and also from the most cursory scrutiny of the Defence White Paper that the delusions of grandeur which always afflict the Conservative Party are overcoming reality. Perhaps the Minister should purchase a few more copies of his book and distribute them to his colleagues so that we could have some degree of reality in our debates in the future.

The Minister was also silent earlier about vital matters such as standardisation, rationalisation and interoperability. Perhaps he will give us some details now. It seems to me that the United States talks a great deal about co-operation but, at the same time, drives an extremely tough and hard-headed bargain in promoting and defending its own substantial interests in the defence business. What means, if any, is the Minister using to persuade the United States to accept Rapier as a means of airfield defence? I should be interested to hear about that.

The history of co-operation between Britain, the NATO Alliance and the United States is littered with promises and projects, few of which materialised. If all of us are to go our own way in future, as some hon. Members appear to recommend—"Buy British at any price" seems to be their cry—it is peculiar that they use that cry only for defence expenditure and rarely for any of our other industries. Even the horrendous figures outlined in the White Paper will be vastly exceeded.

We all remember the recent computer failure in the United States which brought the United States to an alert situation, presumably without reference to or consultation with the British Government. Presumably the Secretary of State read about it in his morning newspaper, as did the rest of us. We should appreciate that only the openness of American society enables us to hear about these things. How many false alarms have there been in Moscow about which we have heard nothing?

Detente and disarmament are a two-way process. Some of my hon. Friends who appear to believe that the only evil comes from the Western world are being less than fair when we look at the continuous build-up in the Soviet Union and among its Warsaw Pact allies.

The RAF deserves a future every bit as glorious as its 62-year history. I repeat that I do not believe that a good future for the RAF lies in the defence White Paper, which appears to be a figment of the Secretary of State's extremely fertile imagination. The figures are preposterous. His proposed nuclear deterrent will not come about. I feel that this country will need a Labour Government before the RAF gets the role that it desires, without wasting money on a nuclear deterrent, and the equipment that it deserves. It will not get them from this Government.

9.36 pm
Mr. Pattie

With the permission of the House, I should like to reply to the debate.

It is customary at this stage to say that we have had an interesting debate. It so happens that we really have had an interesting and thoughtful debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) on his maiden appearance as the Opposition spokesman for the Royal Air Force. The fact that he had obviously given a great deal of thought to the subject was clearly revealed in his speech. That can only be to the good.

The hon. Gentleman went back to the book that I wrote in 1977. Indeed, I have been flattered by having attention paid to my previous literary efforts by the hon. Members for Walsall, South (Mr. George) and Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved); and in a brief intervention the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) was kind enough to refer to it. I reassure all hon. Gentlemen who are anxious about it that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister read the book at the time. Despite that, I have made progress. I do not find myself in disagreement with what I wrote then.

I assure the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde that if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence were at the Dispatch Box now he would tell the House that the defence budget has taken its share of cuts. But the challenge that we face is colossal, the need is considerable and the resources that we have to meet it are inadequate. We have had many fights with the Treasury. There is no secret about that.

There is a fundamental need for a defence—industrial policy—a matter also referred to in my book. This policy should take into account the fact that we have key sectors of high technology industry with the ability to supply the needs of British defence forces. In my opinion, we cannot leave the different organs of government to continue with their individual remits in the absence of some form of strategic overview. That was said in the book, and it has been said again. We need a successful defence industrial base, as my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Colvin) and Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) argued in their thoughtful speeches. We also need a more active Government effort in support of our industrialists selling British-designed and built products abroad. I am sure that the House will welcome the news that has come through since the debate began of the successful sale of British Rapier equipment to Switzerland.

The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East asked what on earth I was doing to assist in the procurement of Rapier by the United States Air Force. I could write him a long letter on the subject. I had meetings with congressmen last week on that very subject.

The hon. Member for Walsall, South asked whether I still felt that the procurement process was in need of radical treatment. My answer is in the affirmative. I stand by my previous analysis. The fact that radical measures have not yet emerged does not mean that they are not being worked on. The hon. Gentleman made a customarily thoughtful contribution. I have some sympathy with his desire not to see too rigid or an overtly partisan approach. As the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) reminded us, weapon systems span the lifetime of several Parliaments. It can be sterile to ask which Government started what. Various weapons have been started by various Governments, frequently sustained for quite long periods.

I take issue with the hon. Member for Walsall, South over morale in the Royal Air Force. The difference in morale between 1978 and 1980 is almost tangible. I invite anyone who doubts that to visit RAF stations. We should be delighted to make arrangements for him to do so. There are never enough people visiting stations, particularly in this country. In 1978 the lack of morale and sense of purpose and the uncertainty about Government support was very real. We need not now go into the reasons for that demoralisation which was felt by all the Armed Services.

In his thoughtful opening speech the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East dealt with precision-guided munitions. He has clearly studied the experience obtained from the Vietnam war. We are looking closely at the advantages that PGMs may confer. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the Paveway/Pavespike laser-guided weapon system which has been introduced. However, the issues and trade-off with aircraft sophistication are far less simple than the hon. Gentleman implies. The environment will be very different from that encountered by the pilot whom he spoke to, who had combat experience over Vietnam. In the central region, NATO aircraft will seek to deny the use of airfields, to disrupt communications not all that far back behind the FEBA and to deploy second echelon units to strike at base and support areas. In performing those tasks they will face formidable air defences, deployed in depth, with radar-controlled guns and surface-to-air missiles, all of a sophistication far exceeding anything deployed in Vietnam. Moreover, the hostility of that environment is increasing. As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, one has to aim for future developments and consider what the other side is doing that is likely to make the environment even worse.

Whatever the upshot of our continuing consideration of the potential advantages offered by precision guided missiles, we shall need aircraft with the sophistication necessary to permit them to survive to launch those missiles. The cheap, slow aircraft that may have been relevant in Vietnam are of limited relevance—I would even go so far as to say of no use—in the European environment. There is nothing more attractive than the search for a cheaper weapon platform system. In the hon. Gentleman's equations, that would be in terms of the number of aircraft put against the target, and so on. What tends to be forgotten is that it is essential for those aircraft to be able to carry electronic counter measures and other equipment to enable them to survive. Without them, they would be on suicide missions.

A few minutes ago the hon. Gentleman raised certain detailed points, for example, with regard to anti-aircraft guns. I should like to write to him about those points. The debate has been interesting and wide ranging, but also detailed. If I run out of time, I shall write to hon. Members individually with regard to the points that I have not covered.

The hon. Gentleman made one point that I cannot let escape without comment. He talked about the Nimrod AEW system as being the most cost-effective option. He was carefree enough to talk about the French option and what it revealed. This reveals to the House—I say this without, I hope, being in any way patronising, because that is not my intention—that the hon. Gentleman needs to dig a bit more into the Nimrod AEW question to remind himself that it was the Labour Government who took the decision in 1977. With the rather unusual alliance of the unions, particularly in the Manchester area, marching side by side with the Conservative Opposition, the then Secretary of State was wise enough to see the light. What we had as an up shot of that decision was the maintenance of AEW capability, produced by British Aerospace and Marconi, in a country that has led the world in AEW. The trouble has been that we have not moved on fast enough and kept pace. Now we must catch up.

I say to the hon. Gentleman again, with respect, that hardening is not a very practical proposition for aircraft of that size on a cost basis. If the hon. Gentleman thinks about the hardening programmes he will realise that they are all basically for fighter aircraft of much smaller dimensions. Something as big as a Nimrod would take a huge hardened shelter. We intend to redeploy these air craft in a period of threat and tension to their forward operating bases away from the main operating base.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the point about British Airways pilots and the suggestion that the RAF might borrow some pilots from British Airways, as did one or two of my hon. Friends. As I understand it, what has happened here is that British Airways are in the process of submitting a suggestion to the RAF for the use of certain of their pilots who are at present—I do not know whether the term is "laid up" or "laid off" or whatever, but they are not flying. They are sitting there.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

Resting between engagements.

Mr. Pattie

Yes, as my hon. Friend says. The suggestion is, I think, about to be made. To be fair to British Airways, they had to try to work out whether many people would want to do this, but in the course of finding out whether people wanted to do it, the fact got out and it is now in the newspapers, so probably British Airways are a little embarrassed about it. We are waiting for the approach from them.

The hon. Member for West Lothian made a speech that did not take us a great deal further than the Navy debate last week, although it was none the less interesting for that. It meant that I had the chance of reading what he would be saying. He was taking it further today and asking whether we were not in danger of overestimating what the Soviet Union is about.

I am surprised that the hon. Member made the points that he did, certainly in this debate, because in paragraph 107 of the defence White Paper we make specific reference and comment in order to lay a certain degree of emphasis on the fact that the Soviet Union has had its experience in World War II and knows what total war is about. The White Paper states: Why has the Soviet Union channelled so much of its national wealth into the military field, especially over the last decade when both East and West have been pursuing detente? Several explanations are possible. First, Soviet leaders regard military power as a key element in the pursuit of their national aims, and as the main symbol of their status as a superpower. Second, Russian thinking has historically favoured large military forces. It can be argued that experience in World War II moves the Soviet Union to take out reinforced insurance on defence and that there is a traditional fear of encirclement,"— which is very much the point that the hon. Gentleman is making— heightened by relative isolation, past and present, from the rest of the world. So far, so good.

The next paragraph goes on to say—this was omitted from the hon. Gentleman's speech— There is also an explicitly aggressive motive for the Soviet military build-up. It is a basic, if nowadays seldom stated, tenet of Marxist-Leninist philosophy that Communism will ultimately be extended to every nation and that its spread should be promoted, if necessary, by military means when the circumstances are right. A Government who have openly expressed that kind of philosophy, have made no secret about it and, in addition, have the paranoia of which the hon. Gentleman has quite correctly reminded the House, can then take certain actions, leaving us in the West asking "It this the paranoia syndrome operating, or is this a further step towards the ultimate global supremacy of Marxist-Leninism?". The hon. Gentleman may choose to put the former construction on it. I choose to put the latter. He went on to talk of the Brandt Commission. I refer to paragraph 406 of the White Paper, which states: How should the West respond to the global threat to its interests? The best answer is to try to remove the sources of regional instability which create opportunities for outside intervention. In some circumstances, military measures will not be appropriate at all; in others, they may form only one component of the total response. Diplomacy, development aid and trade policies will usually have a greater contribution to make. The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) will be interested in what the White Paper says. It adds: The Soviet Union and its allies do not match the West in providing economic aid to the Third World, and Soviet, Warsaw Pact and Cuban military assistance has often proved unpopular with its recipients. We know, therefore, that the only aid received from the Soviet Union is a form of military aid with interesting strings and advisers attached.

The hon. Member for West Lothian and other hon. Members made comments about the cost of the Polaris replacement programme. I would ask if they are aware of the cost of the Tornado programme. It has been stated many times that we are talking, in round figures, of £10 million a unit. It is known that we are ordering 385 units. We shall perhaps have to order a few more for wastage, and there is back-up and support also to be reckoned. It is not impossible to support and take in programmes of significant size. People talk of the Polaris replacement programme as though it were the first significant programme of that size to appear in recent years. Hon. Members should think about that point.

The hon. Member raised further interesting points with which I should like to deal, although time is against me. The hon. Gentleman asked what JP233 was. It is an advanced airfield attack weapon. I have told him that development work is being carried out jointly, but most of the work is being done in this country. Technical progress has been good. There is every indication that the project will provide development experience and production work for our industry and add a valuable new advanced weapon to be used by the two countries.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the reference in my opening speech to the next generation of air-to-air missiles that might follow Skyflash Mk 2 and Sidewinder Aim 9L. We are at an exploration stage of discussions with a wide variety of potential collaborative partners. We are into the acronym business if the hon. Gentleman wishes me to talk about AMRAAM and ASRAAM. We are talking about air-to-air missiles, the difference between them being largely a function of range.

The hon. Gentleman also asked several questions about Ferranti. As the interests of Ferranti involve several areas of defence and not merely the Royal Air Force, I would like to give a fuller response than can be done in a couple of phrases, tossed off at this stage of the debate. The hon. Gentleman asked about Tornado not providing a long-range theatre nuclear deterrent, and why, therefore, we needed GLCMs. The Tornado is an excellent aircraft—far more sophisticated than anything the Royal Air Force possesses at present. It is difficult for me to underestimate the situation. The quantum leap that will be obtained when the Tornado is introduced will be considerable, but it lacks the range of the Vulcan to attack the more distant targets.

As a result, the only European-based systems with this capability on the NATO side will be the ageing and increasingly vulnerable F111s. This would leave us in a dangerous position, since we would have no counter to the long-range Soviet weapons such as the SS10, other than resorting to NATO's much more powerful strategic weapons. Cruise missiles would give an appropriate NATO response, which Tornado does not.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about Goose Bay. The general principle of RAF Goose Bay, Canada, being used for Tornado training is welcomed in principle by the Canadians. They would like to see it because there has been a substantial rundown in the use of the base and in the small village that depends entirely on the base and which has the ironic name of Happy Valley. It is anything but happy at the moment and is looking forward to the RAF coming back and doing more than it does now.

I sympathise with the first point of the hon. Member for Keighley but with little else that he said. I am very sympathetic about the problems that his constituents are having with low-flying aircraft. We have RAF teams that make presentations and meet local people and councils. If he wants one of them to explain these matters he has only to write to me and it will be arranged. The incidents that he writes to me about from time to time are closely investigated.

The hon. Member is wrong in describing the deployment by NATO of 464 ground-launched missiles as an escalation. I know that he does not like the idea of responding, but we must face the fact that the Soviet Union now has the SS20 mobile system deployed and is mounting a propaganda campaign throughout Europe to get NATO to avoid making this deployment.

I would say to the hon. Member, and to the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley), who talked about a bandwagon effect, that the offer by NATO of disarmament talks is still on the table but has been spurned by the Soviet Union. We would want nothing better than to get into such a dialogue, but so far there comes nothing but silence.

Mr. Cryer


Mr. Pattie

I will not give way, because I have a lot to get through.

I recognise the valuable contribution made by Boscombe Down and the keen interest taken in it by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Hamilton)—an interest that is greatly appreciated by everyone at the establishment. I should have liked to say more if there had been time, but I shall certainly attempt to visit Boscombe Down before the House rises for the Summer Recess.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) asked four questions about the basing of cruise missiles at Greenham Common. This is something that the hon. Member for Keighley hoped would be said and, thanks to his forbearance just now, I can say it.

On security, as the Secretary of State said last Tuesday, responsibility for the security of the missiles will rest essentially with the United States Air Force under existing arrangements between the two Governments. However, we shall be providing 220 security personnel to assist the USAF with that task. The detailed arrangements over the deployment of those personnel are a matter for further discussion between the Americans and ourselves.

The substantial part of the costs of construction of accommodation and other facilities at Greenham Common will be met from NATO infrastructure funds, of which the United Kingdom's share is about 12 per cent. I will write separately to my hon. Friend on the other two points that he mentioned—the defence of the airfield in war and the liability aspects if an individual had an accident on the base.

My hon. Friend used a splendid phrase about "Marquess of Queensbury rules" in relation to French export activities. I should be rather surprised if any suitable rules were devisable for such activities.

As my hon. Friend said, we have been in correspondence about insurance. I have nothing fresh to add to what I have said in answer to parliamentary questions. The best advice that I can give him is that he should take the question more widely, possibly to the Treasury, because we are simply a part of the whole system of the Crown carrying its own insurance.

My hon. Friend also asked about the Tornado being offered for sale outside Europe. The aircraft has been a serious contender recently for Canadian and Australian orders. The key point is that we can sell it in other countries providing that the other two nations approve. There is no automatic bar, but we have to get the approval of the other nations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) raised the question of the RAF bursary scheme. Again, I fear that on the points that he raised—

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Before we turn to the next business, I remind Front Bench spokesmen that when they speak they are addressing the House and that they should not spend long periods with their backs to whoever is in the Chair.

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