§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Neubert.]
§ Mr. Speaker
Before the Minister opens the debate, I wish to inform the House that I shall impose the 10-minute limit on speeches between 7 o'clock and 8.50 pm. I hope that it will be possible to call all right hon. and hon. Members Who wish to speak in the debate.
§ The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Stanley)
I am sure that the House will wish to be aware that today, as we debate the Royal Air Force, the funerals of six members of the RAF Germany band have taken place at Rheindahlen. The House will know that the bodies of the other 12 bandsmen and the RAF policeman killed last week have been flown home, in accordance with their families' wishes, so that their funerals can take place in this country. I know that the thoughts and deep sympathy of the House will be with the families of those who so tragically lost their lives.
The RAF is in the midst of one of the largest re-equipment programmes it has had for very many years—a programme that could not have been accommodated on its present scale if the Government had not achieved a real terms increase in defence expenditure of about one fifth since 1979.
The Tornado programme is the centrepiece of the RAF's equipment programme. Another four squadrons of the Tornado GR1 have formed since last year's RAF debate. We now have eight squadrons in all—three in the United Kingdom and five in RAF Germany. Eventually, 11 squadrons will be equipped with this aircraft, including two in the reconnaissance role.
The Tornado GR1 is capable of the highest levels of performance in the strike/attack and reconnaissance roles. The aircraft can exceed 800 knots at sea level and twice the speed of sound at high level. Depending on its mission, the GR1 can operate at ranges of up to 750 miles, though this can be extended by air-to-air refuelling. The GR1 is capable of operating at night in all weathers. With its ability to penetrate enemy air defence at low level and at high speed, and its highly accurate bombing performance, the GR1 represents a giant leap in capability over the aircraft that it has replaced.
I referred to the accuracy of the Tornado's bombing performance. The House may know that, last October, the RAF entered the Tornado, supported by Victor tanker aircraft, in the prestigious and fiercely contested Strategic Air Command bombing competition in the United States. This is a long-standing competition and it was ambitious to enter the new Tornado in a foreign competition so soon after its entry into service against well established American B52s, and American and Australian F111s.
The results were outstanding. Our teams came first and second out of 42 crews in the Curtis Le May bombing competition for overall high and low level bombing, first and third out of eight crews in the Meyer trophy for operational effectiveness, and second out of 21 teams in the Mathis trophy for performance over all six competition missions. These results reflect the greatest credit on the Tornado crews and their supporting tanker and engineering crews, on the effectiveness of the Tornado aircraft and on the capability of British industry.
1243 Following on behind the Tornado GR1 is the air defence variant, the F2. The first two Tornado F2s have been delivered to RAF Coningsby for ground familiarisation and training, and instructor training with British Aerospace has now commenced. A total of seven squadrons are planned, and the F2, with its excellent range and loiter capability, will be a key element in the defence of the United Kingdom's airspace into the 21st century.
There have been some difficulties with the development of the F2's air defence radar, but these have now largely been overcome. This will somewhat delay the build-up of squadron deployment. Nevertheless the RAF will have received a small number of operational aircraft by the end of this year.
§ Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)
Will the Minister say something about the "identification, friend or foe" system? I understand that there is no standardised NATO version yet.
§ Mr. Stanley
The hon. Gentleman is right. The matter has been under deliberation in NATO circles for some time. There has been a difference of view. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and Ministers have done everything possible to resolve the matter but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we are not able to resolve it on our own. In the meantime, we are seeing what improvements can be made in our own IFF capability. It is an extremely important issue and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting it.
The defence of the United Kingdom's airspace will continue to be the responsibility of the RAF's Phantom squadrons as well. There are currently five Phantom air defence squadrons in the United Kingdom. Two will be run on following the introduction of the Tornado F2. Allowing for the phasing out of the two remaining Lightning squadrons, this will give the United Kingdom an increase in its front line air defence squadrons from seven to nine.
To make good the shortfall in immediately available aircraft for the United Kingdom's air defence caused by the deployment of Phantoms to the Falklands, a squadron of Phantom F4J aircraft has been purchased from the United States. This squadron formed at RAF Wattisham last November.
As the House knows, to provide additional aircraft for the air defence of the United Kingdom, the Hawk trainer is being modified to carry Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. A total of 72 aircraft are being modified. This programme is ahead of schedule and will be completed in 1986.
In considering the long-term future of the Buccaneer force, various numbers of aircraft were put forward. The latest position is that we plan to update 42 Buccaneers—enough to run on two squadrons in the maritime strike/attack role, and the training unit, well into the 1990s. They will be armed with the Sea Eagle anti-ship missile, which will enter service later this year. This sea-skimming missile will considerably enhance the Buccaneer's effectiveness by allowing low level attacks on surface ships at long range.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
Is it intended to modernise the two squadrons of Phantoms that are to be retained as the Buccaneers are being modernised for their continuing role?
§ Mr. Stanley
My hon. Friend is referring to the avionics update on the Buccaneers. We hope to be able to reach a decision on that shortly. I cannot tell him whether there is a similar avionics update on the Phantoms to which I referred. If I may, I shall ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement to deal with that in his winding-up speech.
The modernisation of the RAF's Nimrod maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine aircraft will be completed by the end of this year. The Mark II Nimrod is one of the most potent maritime patrol aircraft in the world. In the anti-submarine role, the Nimrod is equipped with advanced sonobuoys and on-board computers for location and tracking. Surface shipping is identified by the Searchwater radar. The Nimrod can be armed with the Stingray anti-submarine torpedo and the Harpoon standoff missile for use against surface ships. Each Nimrod will be provided with an air-to-air refuelling capability which will enable a single aircraft to maintain continous surveillance over 10,000 square miles of ocean and spend over 10 hours on task.
As to the RAF's support aircraft, the programme to stretch 30 of our 60 Hercules is nearing completion. Twenty-three of these aircraft are being fitted with station-keeping radar equipment, which will allow the aircraft to maintain formation in all weathers and thus give us a greatly improved parachute assault capability.
May I pay a warm tribute to the Hercules crews and the Victor tanker crews for the outstanding way in which they have maintained the Falklands airbridge? Five days each week, Hercules undertake this 13 hour in-flight-refuelled journey with a 90 per cent. on time arrival record. It is a very long flight, a long way from diversion airfields, with weather that is always uncertain and frequently awful, and with plenty that can go wrong. Maintaining that airbridge has required from air crews and ground crews alike skill and stamina of a very high order. The Hercules crews have unfailingly demonstrated both.
During the past year there has been further substantial progress in improving the RAF's air-to-air refuelling capability, which is of much major operational importance. To supplement the two Victor tanker squadrons, six TriStars have been purchased and, with a squadron of VC10s, are being converted to the tanker role. The TriStar will retain a passenger and freight capability which will greatly enhance the armed forces' strategic mobility.
The Victors, which have been in service since the 1960s, will reach the end of their useful lives by the end of the decade. As a first stage in a replacement programme, three more TriStar 500s have been bought from Pan American World Airways during the past few months. Two of these aircraft have been handed over, the remaining one will be delivered in April.
On the improvements to existing aircraft, I shall deal finally with the helicopter force. The RAF has taken delivery of three Chinook helicopters out of the eight ordered after the Falklands conflict. Exercise Lionheart confirmed that these large helicopters have a very important part to play in support of the Army in Germany.
I have given the House details of the expansion and improvement of the RAF's existing aircraft. I shall now consider future aircraft. First, I should like to refer to the Nimrod airborne early warning aircraft project, which was started by the Labour Government in 1977 and has been continued by the Conservatives. There is no doubt that the 1245 requirement to replace the AEW capability of the current Shackleton force was, and remains, very pressing. The Nimrod airframe has been successfully converted for the AEW role. Unhappily, major technical problems have been experienced in the development of the AEW radar and the associated electronics. We are now in a position where approximately £800 million has been spent or committed for the creation of a force of 11 aircraft. The imperative requirement is to devise the quickest and least costly route to secure the required operational capability of the AEW system. Discussions are continuing with the company to that end.
I cannot at the moment say what additional cost will be involved in achieving the required operational capability but, as of now, our best judgment is that an operational AEW capability for the Nimrod should be achieved in 1987. In the meantime, national AEW cover continues to be provided by the Shackletons. In addition, NATO E3A aircraft are available to provide AEW cover, if necessary, anywhere in the Allied Command Europe area, including the United Kingdom air defence region.
§ Mrs. Anne Clwyd (Cynon Valley)
Does the Minister agree that the Nimrod failure is the grossest example of the Government's failure to control defence spending?
§ Mr. Stanley
I agree with the hon. Lady that the project is a very serious example of a major overrun. Major lessons are to be learned from it. This Government have certainly learned such lessons. They are writing contracts now in a very different way from the way in which contracts were written by the previous Administration.
§ Sir Patrick Wall (Beverley)
Would it not have been much wiser if we had joined the NATO AWACS programme, as many hon. Members suggested at the time?
§ Mr. Stanley
My hon. Friend has made a very fair point. With the benefit of hindsight, his point is fairly unarguable.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)
Could my right hon. Friend tell the House whether, when the Nimrod AEW does finally come into service, it will be a very much more sophisticated and capable aeroplane than the system currently in service with the United States Air Force?
§ Mr. Stanley
I hesitate to draw comparisons in a very sophisticated electronic area. The European AWACs programme is a NATO programme. The British Nimrod programme is a national programme. We retain the benefit of national tasking as a result of going down the Nimrod AEW route. However, I hope that for this kind of expenditure we shall have aircraft that ultimately will be at least comparable to the NATO alternative.
§ Mr. Wilkinson
In view of the critical importance to the conduct of the air battle of having an effective airborne early warning system, particularly in today's air environment, could not my right hon. Friend consider the possibility of leasing E3 AWACS aeroplances from the United States until such time as our own Nimrod system becomes operational?
§ Mr. Stanley
I note my hon. Friend's suggestion. As he will be aware, any such leasing arrangement would obviously result in further additional cost, which would 1246 have to be accommodated within the overall defence budget. We should have to consider what expenditure would be involved. That expenditure would not ultimately provide any additional hardware and would have to be considered in the context of the kind of sums involved in finally solving the problems of the AEW radar in the aircraft.
Turning to the European fighter aircraft, as the House will be aware, the Royal Air Force will need to replace its Phantoms and Jaguars in the 1990s. An outline staff target for a possible new European fighter aircraft was agreed by the air forces of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Spain in December 1983: This was subsequently refined into a European staff target. The feasibility studies of the five countries have been completed and are now being evaluated before being reviewed by the Ministers concerned. Along with our partners, we believe that this collaborative venture can succeed. However, there is a long way to go in defining the next stage of the programme, and I think it is unlikely that we shall be in a position to give a further substantive report to the House for some months.
§ Mr. Robert Atkins (South Ribble)
Does my right hon. Friend recognise that there is growing concern within the industry, at management, design and shop floor level, that we are being outmanoeuvred by the French? That is a matter which my right hon. Friend needs to take on board, as does the Secretary of State. I hope that my right hon. Friend will deal with that point.
§ Mr. Stanley
Again I note the concern of my hon. Friend. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has great commercial experience. He is not a person who is likely to be outmanoeuvred.
§ Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)
In 1982 the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) and I, as two former members of the Royal Air Force, argued the case for a fighter, but it seems that it has slipped and slipped and tonight it has slipped again. The last information I was given was that a decision would be made next month. It appears that a decision will not now be made next month. Can I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether that is so?
§ Mr. Stanley
I am not aware of the commitment to which the hon. Gentleman refers. We are still evaluating the feasibility studies of the European fighter aircraft. I now turn to the new basic trainer, because I know that the House will wish to hear the current position on the RAF's basic trainer. The "best and final" offers from the four competing companies have been received and are now being evaluated. We shall reach a decision as soon as we can on the alternatives, which still include the option to retain and refurbish the existing Jet Provost aircraft.
§ Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)
When a decision is made, should not the aeroplane that the RAF most wants be provided if its cost is on the right lines?
§ Mr. Stanley
I assure the hon. Gentleman that all the relevant factors will be taken into account. In two to three years' time we shall be bringing into service the new mark of the Harrier, the Harrier GR5, which is being developed and produced in a collaborative programme with the United States. This aircraft is not a rebuild of the existing Harrier but an entirely new design, which will have a very much greater operational capability than its predecessor, while still retaining the Harrier's unique ability to operate 1247 from hidden sites away from its main base and close to the front line. We are planning to procure 60 Harrier GR5 aircraft to replace GR3 Harrier squadrons in Germany.
As for future helicopters, the United Kingdom has decided to enter collaborative feasibility studies with France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands for a future light support helicopter known as NH90. The NH90 could constitute a replacement for the RAF's Puma and Wessex helicopters, which is the subject of air staff target 404. At this stage, however, neither the United Kingdom nor its partners are committed beyond the feasibility studies.
Other options remain for meeting air staff target 404, and the United Kingdom's participation in the NH90 feasibility studies does not rule them out. In particular, the Westland W-30 remains one of the contenders for air staff target 404. Westlands will also take part in the NH90 feasibility studies.
§ Dr. Keith Hampson (Leeds, North-West)
The United Kingdom is keen to take part in such collaborative projects but they do slip a good bit. It is unlikely that the NH90 will be in service before the late 1990s. Surely the Wessex and Puma helicopters could not remain in service until the 1990s and would therefore need to be replaced.
§ Mr. Stanley
I can assure my hon. Friend that the time scale for the NH90 work is compatible with the need to replace the RAF's Puma and Wessex helicopters. We believe that at this stage it is right to take part in the first stage of an international collaborative project, besides looking at the same time at other options for satisfying air staff target 404.
§ Mr. Keith Best (Ynys Môn)
If, by means of the NH90 project, a boost is to be given to Westlands which, it appears, is producing an aircraft specifically for air staff target 404 and if in due course it is favoured by the Government, is it not right that another aircraft that was produced specifically for air staff target 412, the Hunting Firecracker, should be similarly favoured?
§ Mr. Stanley
I do not think that my hon. Friend should think at the moment in terms of "favouring". The Government's view of the situation is that we should look simultaneously at the international possibilities of satisfying the particular requirement, while at the same time retaining the existing options for satisfying AST 404. It does not mean anything more than that.
§ Mr. Stanley
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman but I suggest to the House that, if I give way much more—which I am very ready to do — a good many hon. Members will not be able to make the speeches that I am sure they wish to make.
§ Mr. Ashdown
I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way, particularly as he knows that I shall probably be touching on these matters in my speech. His statement that the replacement may well be tangled up with the NH90 will come as a great disappointment to many in the RAF and elsewhere. I hope that the Minister will recognise that, if he were to put that policy into operation, he would find that Westlands would be significantly weaker, as a contributor to the NH90, than it would otherwise be if the Westland 30 were now able to be developed to fulfil AST 404.
§ Mr. Stanley
I note what the hon. Gentleman said. In relation to the NH90, I used the word "could", not "should". No doubt the hon. Gentleman will wish to develop that point further in his own remarks.
I have concentrated so far on the RAF's re-equipment programme. The process of improving the RAF's capabilities does, of course, go well beyond improvements to the aircraft themselves, and I should like to refer to a few of those other improvements.
With regard to missiles, I have already mentioned the introduction of the Sea Eagle anti-ship missile this year. Improvements to current air-to-air missiles such as Sidewinder and Skyflash are being considered, while the collaborative development of the new generation of advanced air-to-air missiles, ASRAAM and AMRAAM continues.
The procurement of the ALARM anti-radar missile for Tornado is progressing well. The missile is being procured as a fixed price package covering both development and production form BAe Dynamics, the prime contractor. We believe that this programme will prove to be a good example of the benefits that the Department, and therefore the taxpayer, can gain from the use of competition in the procurement process, which in this case led directly to our being able to secure a fixed price contract. One wishes that more contracts had previously been negotiated on a fixed price basis.
An improved version of the BL755 anti-armour weapon will enter service this year. It will substantially improve the RAF's ability to destroy the latest Warsaw pact tanks. The Harrier GR3 and later the GR5 will be equipped with this weapon. Also this year we shall see the introduction of the JP233— the airfield attack weapon—which will significantly improve the Tornado's ability to put airfields out of action.
It is not just aircraft and weapons that the RAF needs; it also requires sensors, electronic counter-measures, communications, and so on. I should like to highlight the United Kingdom air defence ground environment, which provides warning of air attack. UKADGE, as it is known, gathers information from a chain of radars and other sensors.
In the United Kingdom, the network of ground radars and associated command, control and communication systems is being completely replaced. For example, in each air defence sector operations centre, there will be five computers, each of which has more computing capacity than the whole of the system being replaced.
For the future, secure jamming-resistant links between UKADGE, airborne early warning aircraft and Tornado F2, links known as the joint tactical information distribution system, JTIDS — we are not short of acronyms in the RAF—are planned for the late 1980s.
The House will be aware of advances in technology which can be used to reduce the detection of aircraft by enemy air defence systems. We are continuing to investigate ways in which this technology—commonly referred to as "stealth" technology—can be applied to RAF aircraft and missiles.
The protection of our key air assets on the ground is of vital importance. A largely NATO-funded hardening programme is being implemented at 11 of our key operational airfields in the United Kingdom to provide protection for our tactical aircraft and other essential operating facilities.
1249 The first airfield has been completed and the squadrons are operating permanently from the hardened complexes. Work at four other bases is well under way and the programme should be completed by around the end of the decade. The hardening programme at the four RAF airfields in Germany has, of course, already been completed.
At this point I should like to comment briefly on the RAF's budgetary position. I do not, of course, wish to minimise our concern over the difficulties, which I have described to the House, on the Nimrod AEW project, but it must be seen in perspective against the very substantial increases in expenditure that have already been achieved.
When the Government first took office, the defence budget was some £7,500 million. The budget for 1985–86 is over £18,000 million—an increase in real terms of some 22 per cent. During that time, the proportion of the overall budget spent on equipment has risen from 40 per cent. to 46 per cent. — an outstanding achievement, which means that we spend a higher proportion of the budget on equipment than any other NATO country, including the United States.
Over the same period we have spent some £14 billion on air equipment—most of which goes to the RAF—and in the past year alone over £3 billion. Since the Government took office, expenditure on air equipment has risen by over 40 per cent. in real terms. That gives the lie to those who seek to argue that our conventional forces are being in some way neglected by the Government.
Finally, I turn to the RAF's most valuable asset—the men and women in the service. I shall mention first those who serve in the RAF's reserves.
Last year the Royal Auxiliary Air Force celebrated its 60th anniversary. Next year will see the golden jubilee of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. During recent years those voluntary reserves — the RAuxAF in particular—have expanded considerably.
In the last statement on the Defence Estimates we announced that consideration was being given to further expansion over the rest of the decade. A new Auxiliary RAF Regiment squadron will form in April to operate Skyguard anti-aircraft weapons captured from the Argentine forces during the Falklands campaign.
The new squadron will join the six field squadrons which provide local airfield defence, the three maritime headquarters units which support maritime operations, the movements squadron, and the recently formed aeromedical evacuation squadron. Personnel from the last two units made a valuable contribution to Lionheart last year.
I am pleased to say that recruitment in respect of both the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve is most satisfactory and I am most grateful to those who give their time and energy to this invaluable service.
§ Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)
I am most grateful to the Minister for the praise that he has given to the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and the other reserves. In the defence White Paper, he has given consideration to a flying role for the auxiliaries. Has any progress been made towards that end? They are most efficient and cost-effective.
§ Mr. Stanley
That is something that we would very much wish to do, being sympathetic in principle, but at present we do not have the resources to devote to it.
§ Mr. Wilkinson
How is it that the so-called non-flying services, the Navy and the Army, have flying reserve units, whereas the RAF does not?
§ Mr. Stanley
Each service has to look at the relative priorities that it will give to its assets of manpower and of finance. With regard to the Army, there was the availability of Scout helicopters, as I recall, which made it relatively easy to form a reserve unit for the Army Air Corps. I am afraid that the same is not true in respect of the RAF. The types of helicopters that are likely to be released for a flying role for the Royal Auxiliary Air Force will require a great deal more maintenance from regular people than the aircraft that have been released, for example, to the Army Air Corps. This is something towards which we are very sympathetic but I am afraid that we have a resource problem at the moment.
There are many ways in which I could highlight the personal qualities of those who serve in the RAF as a career. I would suggest that they are personified in the RAF's round-the-clock search and rescue activities. Over the past year the RAF has recorded 949 incidents in the United Kingdom and 121 overseas in which its search and rescue aircraft have been involved. During the past week alone there have been 30 incidents in which Royal Air Force search and rescue forces have reacted; 26 in the United Kingdom and four overseas.
In addition, Royal Air Force mountain rescue teams provide an invaluable service to the community at large, and over the past year there have been well over 200 incidents in which climbers and walkers have been rescued by RAF teams. The House will know the appalling weather conditions and physical hazards which often face the search and rescue teams, who unfailingly respond with skill, determination and personal bravery of the highest order.
I also want to mention the major contribution that the RAF has made to the relief of starvation in Ethiopia. The appalling problems facing that country are compounded by the remoteness of many of the famine areas. Our aircraft have made it possible to deliver vitally needed relief supplies to some of the worse-hit regions.
The RAF has already delivered nearly 8,000 tonnes of food, medical supplies, blankets and other equipment to those in need, and much suffering and many lives must have been saved as a result. I can vouch personally for the consummate skill the RAF has shown in operating in the most demanding conditions — on rough landing strips, with few or no landing aids, and with the ever-present risk of burst tyres and heavy bird strikes. I am glad to say that with the assistance of a number of Army air-despatch personnel our detachment has now started to air-drop food into particularly inaccessible areas where there is a crying need for relief supplies. The speed and efficiency of our operation has deservedly won for the RAF widespread praise from the relief organisations and the Ethiopian Government.
Finally, after the nearly two years now that I have had the great pleasure of working with the Royal Air Force I am left with the abiding impression of a service that is very expert and very dedicated. Its performance in NATO tactical evaluations, in the international bombing competition, in national and international exercises, in search and rescue, in quick reaction alert scrambles, and in maintaining the Falklands airbridge is eloquent and 1251 visible evidence of the depth of skill and the strength of commitment of the men and women of the RAF. The country is very fortunate to have their service.
§ Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)
First, I wish to join the Minister in again expressing the sympathy of the Opposition to the relatives and friends of the RAF bandsmen who died so tragically last week. I have already paid tribute on other occasions to the reputation of that band and to the service which those bandsmen gave to this country. They were great ambassadors.
I wish also to pay tribute to the late Lord Cameron of Balhousie, the former chief of air staff and chief of defence staff, who died last month after a long illness. He was a man who served his country well both in peace and in war and who gave distinguished service to both my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) and Lord Mulley. It would be wrong to suggest that he necessarily approved of their political ideas and aspirations. Nevertheless, he was a devoted servant and in many ways his contribution to the idea that we must depend less and less on the nuclear alternative strikes a chord on this side of the House and, I suspect, on the Conservative Benches as well. He will be sorely missed in the other place.
I join the right hon. Gentleman in the tributes that he paid to the men who serve in the RAF. Like him, I am lost in admiration for the work they have done in Ethiopia. They have undertaken a tremendous mission and they have brought great credit both to their service and to this country. I only regret that it was found necessary to finance part of their operations out of the budget of the Overseas Development Administration. It should, I believe, have come straight from contingency funding. That apart, they have our admiration—as do, indeed, the men who fly the Hercules airbridge. Those of us who have had the privilege of witnessing the servicing and the mid-flight refuelling taking place know the enormous strength, courage and skill that those men have shown.
When a debate on the RAF is slipped into the business of the House at less than 48 hours' notice, one wonders why the Government have chosen to do this, particularly when the debate starts at the end of a great number of very important statements. One wonders about the degree of importance which the Government give to the RAF or the degree of embarrassment which they feel about their treatment of it.
Although we have had a very impressive catalogue from the right hon. Gentleman of the work that is done by the RAF, the projects under way, and the weapons, missiles and aircraft that are coming into service, it is our contention that he has missed and failed to cover the real problems faced by the RAF and the defence needs of this country.
We understand that on the recent budgeting within the RAF there was an estimated overspend of nearly £400 million. That led to such cheeseparing as the 10 per cent. fuel cut, the reduction in pilot training and the reduction in operational flying. The Opposition believe that what we are likely to see over the years is the stretching of programmes, the postponing of programmes and probably the cutting of programmes. This is, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, the most impressive re-equipment of 1252 the RAF—perhaps the best that has taken place since the Korean war. So far the brunt of the cuts in the services in order to meet the Trident commitments has fallen on the Navy. Now, we believe, we are to see the RAF's capital projects also damaged by that programme and by the whole of our nuclear posture.
While the right hon. Gentleman claims credit for the great sums of money which have been spent on the armed forces, next year there will be a very different picture indeed. The NATO supplement will be disappearing; the special forces inflation factor recognised by the Treasury will be disappearing; there will be a cut in terms of the moneys which will be absolutely available for the armed forces.
The Minister of State said, with a degree of uncharacteristic candour, when speaking in the Navy debate earlier this Session:There is one misapprehension under which the right hon. Gentleman is labouring"—he was referring to the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen).
I should like to draw attention to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in a letter to the leader of the Liberal party. He was quite clear about the impact of the Trident programme on the Royal Navy's expenditure. He wrote:'As for the effect on Royal Navy expenditure I would emphasise that individual Service programmes are not considered in isolation from the remainder of the Defence programme.'It is therefore not correct to envisage the burden of Trident falling exclusively on a limited area which is now perceived to be the naval budget. We take a tri-service view of priorities in the defence budget." — [Official Report, 29 November 1984; Vol. 68, c. 1143.]If that view of priorities means maintaining concentration upon Trident and our commitment to Trident, the conventional role of the Air Force, as well as that of the Navy and the Army, will suffer.
The Opposition believe that the Government have a choice of either Trident or a credible conventional Army, Navy and Air Force. We do not believe that with the budget that is available we can have both. Nor indeed would we want both. We want to maintain strong conventional forces and to get rid of the Trident nonsense. But, if we are to have an effective Air Force and an effective defence posture, we need a coherent defence policy and an industrial base capable of rational planning into the foreseeable future. We also need to retain the skilled design teams and production workers.
An examination of various sectors of the RAF shows that the Government will not be able to achieve their aim of a coherent defence policy. The Minister has skated quickly and easily over some of the problems of which we are all aware. There is a severe gap in the United Kingdom's air defence network. Our air defence forces consist of between 80 and 90 interceptors, and some of them are very old. If these aircraft are to be brought to bear effectively in a counter-attack on forces from the east, there must be an adequate early-warning capability. Without that, neither the existing force nor the Tornados, which are to come forward, will be a positive and properly effective force. Our sole airborne early-warning capability against low-level attack in the northern sector is upheld by five 30-year-old Shackletons. They are there to protect the nation by giving warning of the approach of a large number of TU22 Backfires and SU24 Fencers, which are all-weather, long-range aircraft. The Shackleton is long overdue for retirement.
1253 We have the Nimrod programme, but we know that it faces many important problems. The time scale which the Minister presented to the House for bringing the Nimrod into operation was in many ways an over-optimistic one. On 2 February, Jane's said:The problems of the Nimrod AEW are massive, deep and interlinked. While a two or three year time scale has been talked of to solve the development problems, this must only be regarded as a 'best guess'. A sudden cure is unlikely to be found".We believe that we cannot wait for the problems to be solved without some interim measures being taken.
We are aware of the problems. They were highlighted for many in the "Panorama" programme earlier this week and they are well known to those who have been following the Nimrod programme over the past few years. the problems are real and important. For example, we know that the present computer is too small, too slow and overworked. It cannot handle the targets required of it and it cannot distinguish between targets and clutter. Communications are easily jammed and the radar system cannot hold and trap low-flying fast-moving targets, which is the main purpose of the system. In addition, there are serious problems with the airframe. We are told that with the full radar system, crew complement and a full load, the Nimrod undercarriage cannot take the weight and that it might be necessary to refuel in mid-flight. If these facts are correct—
§ Mr. McNamara
The hon. Gentleman says that my information is not correct. He is capable of advancing that argument when he contributes to the debate. However, the comments which I have made have been made repeatedly by others. The Minister who is now responsible for the procurement programme has not felt able, except in the most vague terms, to say that the real problems that are being spoken about will he overcome. He cannot guarantee that the original air staff target will be reached for the Nimrod. That is what we want to hear and that is what we should hear.
§ Sir Patrick Wall
Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that it was the Labour Government who introduced Nimrod III, against the advice of many who formed the then Conservative Opposition, who wanted to go into the NATO AWACS programme.
§ Mr. McNamara
That is an interesting statement. The Minister for Information Technology, who was earlier the Minister responsible for procurement, supported the Nimrod system and said that the AWACS system would be a more expensive alternative. He contended that AWACS was not superior to Nimrod and would not be ready at an early date. That Minister, when in opposition, led the powerful campaign that was mounted by Conservative Members in favour of the Nimrod programme. The official Opposition came down strongly in favour of Nimrod. If anything, it was their power which pushed the then Secretary of State to come to the decision which he eventually took. I am not seeking to make a political point although the hon. Member for Beverley (Sir P. Wall) sought to do so.
We are faced with an important problem in the defence of the United Kingdom. That leads me to the point that the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) raised. If we have the problems that I have described—I am glad that the hon. Gentleman and I are ad idem on this 1254 —we should be considering leasing the AWACS programme from the United States for a period until we solve Nimrod's problems, assuming that we can do so. We may have to decide whether there is an alternative. I understand that it is being suggested by some in the industry that we should put the Nimrod kit into the frame of the European Airbus. They claim that many of Nimrod's problems could thus be overcome. At the same time, the aircraft itself would have a longer lease of life than the existing Nimrod airframes.
The Minister skated over the problems of the European fighter aircraft project. The hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) and I and many others have fought strongly for a sole British Aerospace involvement to meet the RAF's requirement. The Ministry decided in its wisdom that it wanted to go on a European collaborative venture.
We read in today's edition of the Financial Times—Bridget Bloom is a well informed correspondent—that there are two feasibility studies, one from the French and one from the rest. Despite what the Minister has said about the conduct of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, we have been given the impression that the French have been leading us all by the nose. We have been prepared willingly to go along with European collaboration, but the French have been spinning out deliberations on various parts of the project, be it the airframe, the engine or the weight of the aircraft, to try to secure the opportunity to sell and market the Mirage 2000 as much as possible.
That is the real problem, and that is why we are suspicious of the French. I do not blame the French for taking this attitude because they have a good aeroplane and want to sell it. However, we must look after our home base and our other allies.
§ Mr. Robert Atkins
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. He has talked about feasibility studies and two aeroplanes are being considered. Is he aware that the French option is vastly more expensive, especially its engine, than the EFA programme, which is the other option being considered?
§ Mr. McNamara
Yes, I am well aware of that. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has introduced that issue because my speech will now be two minutes shorter. I am able now to discard some of my papers and thus ensure that more right hon. Members are able to participate in the debate.
Rumours are circulating that, if necessary, the British aerospace industry could go it alone and that we could meet the RAF requirement by a project of our own. I would regard that as a dangerous course of action. I believe that when the pressures come on the Ministry and it is forced to make cuts it will find it easier to make them in domestic programmes than to fall foul of our NATO allies. Secondly, the opportunity to go in with our Tornado partners in a European venture, minus the French, will bring economies of scale. The advantage of that will be overwhelming when compared with going it alone. If there is a large market, it is possible to tailor the kit to produce individual aeroplanes, as it were, to meet the needs of individual countries.
We have considerable experience in dealing with our colleagues in the Tornado programme. Collaboration would enable us to have a strong and viable European aircraft industry. There is a danger that there will be moves 1255 by the United States to gobble up the separate European industries if we have too many go-it-alone projects. The argument for maintaining a European collaborative venture minus the French is overwhelming, so we should disregard any other options.
A matter of some importance to us and to the industry generally is what will happen at Warton if the date for the EFA is pushed back and back. We know that the Tornado is scheduled to end in December 1989 and British Aerospace will need follow-on work immediately if it is to maintain its work force and design teams. If they are broken up, I do not say that we will lose our capacity for the development of high performance fighter aircraft, but it will be far more difficult to maintain and improve that capability. Therefore, it is essential that something be done about it.
The Tornado programme has been stretched and the seventh batch of attrition aircraft is in doubt. Will that batch be supplied to Warton where it is very important to maintain the work force, particularly as the mid-life update has already been cancelled to save money?
There was talk of two major export orders, one to Turkey and the other to the Saudis. We withdrew the export credit on the Turkish order and the Turks could not go ahead. That is surprising, because Turkey is an important NATO partner on a sensitive flank. For the Government to have taken that decision, without consulting our NATO partners to try to reach agreement to help finance the Turks, was regrettable.
What is happening about the Saudi order? Has pressure been brought upon the Government by the United States not to go forward with that order because the planes might be stationed near the Israeli border? Is that why we are not getting it? We know that the French are busily peddling the Mirage 2000 to the Saudis. Our plane would be better able to meet Saudi needs. It is wrong that American or other pressure should prevent a legitimate defence sale. I hope that we shall have more of this type of information later from the Under-Secretary than the Minister of State, with his traditional coyness and disinclination to give information to anybody about anything, was prepared to give us.
No doubt the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Ashdown) will be speaking later about helicopters. I am confused by what the Minister said. There is a real need to replace the Puma and the Wessex, which comprise nearly 100 aircraft. The role of the helicopter on the battlefield is becoming increasingly important, as we saw in the Falklands and in Operation Lionheart. In their development of the operational manoeuvre groups the Warsaw pact countries are seeking to develop the use of the helicopter. An early decision must be made in favour of Westland. A collaborative venture has some of the advantages that I spoke about earlier in regard to the European fighter aircraft. Westland cannot afford to wait for a decision. The Under-Secretary should give us more information about the time scale for the feasibility studies. Westland has run out of orders, but before it comes to the EH101 helicopter for the Royal Navy it is likely to face severe cash flow problems if it does not have an order for the RAF.
Then there is the competition from Sikorsky and Aerospatiale. A failure to give an order for the Westland would be as bad as giving an order to foreign competition. If Westland cannot retain its viability in the period leading 1256 up to the naval order, it may lose its independence, go out of existence or be taken over by someone else. More important, Westland is unique in this country. It is the only competent helicopter firm we have, serving both civil and military users. It is essential in our national interest to keep it in operation. The Government should intervene to ensure positive orders for Westland.
§ Mr. McNamara
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall be dealing with that in a few moments because I have a marginal interest in it; 2,000 of the employees live near my constituency.
§ Mr. Stephen Ross
Taking the Westland case, does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that 1,500 of my constituents work for the British Hovercraft Corporation, which is a Westland subsidiary which does helicopter maintenance work amongst other things? If Westland does not get this order their jobs will be in jeopardy. The unemployment rate in the Isle of Wight is 17.1 per cent. and it would be well over 20 per cent. if that happened.
§ Mr. McNamara
I hope that the level of 20 per cent. male unemployment will never be reached in the hon. Gentleman's constituency because it would not be pleasant to live with it.
In relation to the sad and sorry story of our basic trainer, if ever there was an example of the Government messing around with British industry, that is it. I shall not dwell long on the fact that they should have gone for a turbo jet rather than a turbo prop because that is water under the bridge. It was a foolish decision. The history of all this is amazing. On 16 March last year, from the original 20 contenders, the Government went down to four. On 18 June they made invitations to tender to British Aerospace, Shorts, Hunting and Westland, with submissions to be in by 18 September. Suddenly, they changed the submission date to 1 October. We all confidently expected a decision by the end of the year. On 11 December the Minister of State for Defence Procurement—incidentally, although we are pleased to see the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, I am surprised that on this occasion the Minister of State for Defence Procurement is not taking part in the debate because RAF debates are often about procurement and procurement policies—
§ Mr. Stanley
May I point out that my right hon. Friend is on an important overseas ministerial visit to Australia and New Zealand?
§ Mr. McNamara
I hope that he enjoys the one-day tests, and I hope that we win.
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement promised the House on 11 December that a decision would be made on the matter before the next Question Time, which was to be on 29 January. Then, on 18 December, it was said that there was no clear winner, Hunting and Westland were eliminated and best and final offers were to be sought from British Aerospace and Shorts. On 20 December we had verbal inputs about best and final offers, with the completion date to be 21 January, and then 28 January was mentioned. In late December or early January, suddenly Hunting and Westland were brought back. On 4 January a formal letter requested that best and 1257 final offers should be received by 24 January and the bids were to be valid until 31 March. Suddenly on 17 January the Ministry of Defence announced that the completion date would be extended to 31 January, not at the request of British Aerospace. On 24 January, the MoD announced that bids would be valid until 30 April, again not at the request of British Aerospace.
We are entitled to ask why we must have that strange time scale, that opening and closing and extension of dates. What contender felt it necessary to go back time and again to the RAF to have the time scale opened up for it? We know that in terms of its handling, stalling, spinning, aerobatics and flying qualities, the PC9 was entirely suitable for the RAF training role. It was highly regarded. Any modifications that might have been needed could have been carried out within the bid price without any problem. However, we know that the other main contender had to go back on three if not four occasions to Boscombe Down for further reappraisal and training. It has had not one but four engine changes. Therefore, we must ask why decisions were made to try to make particular allowance for that aircraft, the Tucano. We must ask why it is still in the field.
The Tucano does not offer as many jobs as the PC9. In terms of foreign sales, it offers nothing compared with the PC9, particularly when Embraer has made arrangements for sales in South America and Egypt. The planes for the middle east market would be built in Egypt.
Why has the Tucano remained in the field? Jobs are very important for the Northern Ireland Office. That is understandable. I appreciate what it is seeking to do. However, where the plane is to be built in Belfast, unemployment is no worse than it is in Humberside and parts of Scotland. In this bid, we have not heard Shorts making any of the promises that it made to the United States about building the Sherpa in parts of Belfast, which it had to do to achieve that order. I should like the Minister to say whether Shorts—
§ Mr. McNamara
I shall give way in a moment, but the hon. Gentleman is taking up other people's time as well as mine.
I should like the Minister to say whether Shorts has given any undertaking about building the aircraft in the old De Lorean factory in west Belfast, if the company got the order.
§ Mr. McNamara
I accept that the company said that. We are waiting for the evidence that that will be carried through.
There is also the Foreign Office interest in the matter because of its interest in Brazil. It wants to repay part of the debt that we owe Brazil for its benevolent neutrality during the Falklands war. We understand that. But I suspect that the real reason why Shorts is so interesting to the Government has nothing to do with jobs in Northern Ireland or debts being repaid to the Brazilians. It is purely and simply the ideological reason that the Government 1258 want to privatise Shorts in the same way as they have already privatised British Aerospace. I say that not only because of my natural suspicion of the Department of Trade and Industry with its present head and its record on privatisation, but because of what was said by the managing director of Shorts, reported in the Prufrock column in the Sunday Times on 10 February, which stated:Then, music to the ears of Norman Tebbit at Industry: 'The Tucano will get us into military aircraft work, which we haven't got at the moment. Having some military work will make us a better prospect for privatisation.'—said the managing director.
That is what it is all about. That is what Tucano is all about. That is why the RAF might be given an aeroplane with problems with its stalling characteristics, landing characteristics, low-level ride and marginal speed and flying performance. All those things are being sacrificed; and the RAF's interests are being sacrificed to the Government's ideological attitude and the Secretary of State's desire for privatisation. We should not accept that for the RAF. We want the best plane, capable of filling the air staff target in the best way. The only plane that has never had to go back to Boscombe Down for a second, third or fourth re-run, and that has been able to carry through all its training, is the PC9. That is why we expect to have it in the United Kingdom. We want to have it in Brough and Prestwick, and we want the 2,000 jobs over 10 years and the 2,500 other jobs in the industry.
The Minister of State opened the debate in a characteristic manner, glossing over all the difficulties, barely mentioning the problems and suggesting that somehow, with a wave of the magic wand, they will disappear. They will not disappear. They will accumulate. The Government will have to postpone, cut and cancel programmes, not only because the budget for the forces has been overcommitted already, because the Ministry felt that it could spend freely, with the great increases in the budget over the past five years, but, more important, because, as Trident goes ahead, as dollar costs increase and as the pressures increase, the pressures on the RAF and our ability to defend ourselves conventionally will increase. The Government will be condemned by the nation for that.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)
Before I call the next hon. Member, I should like to remind the House that the 10-minute limit on speeches is now in operation. To assist hon. Members, I shall use a little sign language when they are beginning to run out of time.
§ 7.7 pm
§ Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)
It is a rare occasion when I can agree with at least two points made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). The first was his comment about the Tornado order to Turkey, with which I heartily agree. I understand that the Turkish defence authorities have never reneged on any arms purchase. It is an extremely important front-line country and a NATO ally, which we should supply with our products.
The other comment that the hon. Gentleman made was that the debate is likely to be substantially about procurement. He may not know that in my constituency Westland Helicopters has its second largest installation, employing about 1,600 people. It is the largest employer 1259 in my constituency, which has an unemployment rate of about 2 per cent. above the national average, and the highest in the county of Avon.
I should like to refer to the A20, which fills air staff requirement 412. The big criticism that is thrown at that aircraft is that it has never flown. However, I must say to the critics who see that as some sort of a bull point that the Royal Air Force is now capable of making an assessment of an aeroplane that has not flown. In most cases, it has purchased aeroplanes that have not even been beyond the drawing board, let alone tested. With the latest computer technology, that should not be a barrier.
As a result of the retendering process, there has been a substantial change in the status of the A20, the most important point being the offer of the installation of the Garrett engine. I recall being told some horrendous figures about spare parts stocking for the RAF because of the many different types that we still have in operation. One of the advantages of the Garrett engine is that it is already in service in the Jetstream, so, we hope, there will not be a duplicate requirement for many of the spare parts. It is now the fastest and best performing aircraft because of the installation of this high-powered engine. On those two grounds alone, I should have thought that the A20 was very much back in contention.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
My hon. Friend will acknowledge that the Royal Air Force Jetstreams are not Jetstream 31s; they are the ordinary Astazon-powered variety.
§ Mr. Wiggin
I am informed that there is quite a commonality of parts in these Garrett engines. That will be a plus point in relation to the new offer.
The Australians, who are in partnership on this project, have taken this opportunity to reduce substantially their prices. I understand that the price of the A20 is now much more competitive. It may well be, of course, that the competitors have taken the opportunity to cut their prices. I sincerely hope that those factors will weigh with the Government.
British Aerospace and the Shorts contender will be competing for worldwide sales with their partners' less sophisticated aircraft. The A20 will be wholly made within the partnership, and there will be no competition with less sophisticated versions worldwide.
The A20 has the Hawk cockpit and is designed specially to fulfil completely the air staff requirement as written and is not a modified aeroplane. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be bored sick with hearing the various merits of the competitors in this contest. A noble Lord in the other place said that this was the first competitive tender for an RAF aeroplane for 70 years. That seems to be a strange statement, but I cannot think of an example in recent years. This has done the colour brochure printing industry much good, to say nothing of the expensive meals that aircraft manufacturers have found it necessary to give hon. Members. Westland, because of its natural diffidence, has not until now been accustomed, because of its position as a sole supplier, to flying its flag as high as we would wish. I shall send my right hon. Friend the Minister particulars on the A20.
It would be disastrous to believe everything we read in the Sunday newspapers and to assume that Westland is anything other than an extremely prosperous company. It 1260 is true that the company did not make a profit last year, but neither did many other helicopter companies worldwide. There is a huge surplus of helicopters on the world market — the French are virtually giving them away and the Americans cannot sell theirs. This naturally means that Westland is facing a temporary recession.
I cannot believe that there is a thought going through Ministers' minds that they should not keep Westland Helicopters in business. It is vital that we have our own domestic helicopter producer, not just for employment and technology reasons but for strategic reasons. I was privileged to be in the Ministry of Defence during the Falklands war, and I know the work that was put in at short notice to ensure that the various modifications necessary for operating in that specific circumstance were fulfilled in a way that I do not believe any foreign supplier could have done. I hope that the Department of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Defence will ensure that there is sufficient work to keep Westland in business.
If the Government are to have a helicopter system between the time when the Wessex and Puma helicopters are phased out and the time when the NH90 comes into operation, they must act. I believe, from my limited observation of the Concorde and the helicopter co-operative programmes, that the concept of four countries co-operating to make a new type of helicopter before the end of this century is unrealistic. The order for the 85 or so W30s that are required will be a huge shot in the arm for Westland. They will be an extremely important acquisition for our services. I cannot believe, when the cost of the W30 is 30 per cent. less than the cost of the American contender and 45 per cent. less than the cost of the French contender, that any Conservative Government could decide other than to go for the W30. I shall not spell out the huge number of jobs that would be involved. Those jobs would be important to my constituency, to the constituency of the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and to the whole of the aviation industry. I hope that my right hon. Friend will soon say that the W30 will move from being an air staff target to being an air staff requirement. I hope that this spring the Government will be firm in what they propose.
I am conscious of the time limit. I should like to go into the arguments about spending on helicopters within the whole of the Ministry of Defence. I believe that the helicopter is a much underrated asset on the modern battlefield and that the Americans have begun to understand that. In the United States there are 14 helicopters for every 1,000 soldiers while in the United Kingdom the figure is 2.7 per thousand. If we had had more helicopters during the Falklands war, the war could have been conducted more efficiently and could have been concluded faster. I well remember the cost of losing the Atlantic Conveyor when the Chinooks went down with her.
My right hon. Friend the Minister includes the Meteorological Office in his responsibilities. I suggest that he should spend a good deal of time seeing what happens in that organisation. Between 1979 and 1985 the cost to the civil aviation industry of meteorological information increased by 225 per cent. It costs £100 to provide the meteorological information necessary for the shuttle to fly between London and Glasgow. For every major aircraft on the United Kingdom register, the airlines have to pay £40,000 a year in meteorological charges. I do not think that I have to persuade the public about the Meteorological 1261 Office, because when I was responsible for answering for its activities, my assurances that the office was doing a good job were guaranteed to make hon. Members shriek with laughter. It is time something was done about the Meteorological Office. If necessary, we should privatise it, but we should not go on spending £50 million or more a year on it, at vast cost to the British taxpayer who does not trust the stuff that comes out of it.
§ Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)
The Minister of State said that the RAF is in the middle of a large re-equipment programme. The RAF is undergoing the most extensive modernisation programme for 20 years, involving the expenditure of £14 billion on major projects in the coming decade. I shall examine some of those projects and then, in the light of the emerging technology which some of those projects reflect, assess the possibility of our armed forces, including the Royal Air Force, placing less reliance on nuclear arms.
According to paragraph 4.10 of the 1984 defence statement,Later this year, the Tornado F2 will join the RAF and crew training for the operational conversion unit at RAF Coningsby will begin.In opening the debate a year ago, the former Minister of State for Defence Procurement said that the Tornado F2 would be introduced into service in 1985. I should have liked the Minister of State for the Armed Forces in his opening references to that programme to have been a little more specific. The right hon. Gentleman was more specific on UKADGE, the United Kingdom air defence ground environment. The right hon. Gentleman went on to say that it was being completely replaced, but, along with JTIDS, completion is not expected before the late 1980s. That is disturbing news for hon. Members on both sides of the House.
Three squadrons of Tornado GR1—the strike-attack variant—have now been formed in the United Kingdom, and their introduction into RAF Germany in place of the Buccaneer and Jaguar has begun. Is there any foundation for the suggestion that problems attend the introduction of the GR1 in RAF Germany? The Comptroller and Auditor-General stated in a report in November 1984 that the Tornado collaborative project haddeveloped a substantial work-sharing imbalance that was losing Britain defence work worth as much as £250 million.I should like the Minister to comment on that.
The Minister mentioned the AV8B — GR5, a development of the original Harrier. Its avionics will include equipment, principally a forward-looking infra red, known as FLIR, which will give the aircraft a night attack capability. I understand that the United States and the United Kingdom night attack requirements are similar and that the possibility of a collaborative FLIR programme is under consideration. I think that the House would have liked the Minister to say a word about progress on that.
I understand that two firms—the dynamics group of British Aerospace and GEC Avionics—are competing to supply a FUR system to meet the United Kingdom requirements and that the successful contractor will be selected in 1985. The House is looking to the Minister for comment on that also.
On the survivability of priority one airfields in the United Kingdom and RAF Germany, we are looking for a progress report—preferably tonight. That leads us to 1262 the Rapier air defence missile system which, as we know from Falklands experience, is indispensable to the survivability of our airfields. Until the tracked Rapier is fully deployed, will not air defence be inadequate?
In the debate a year ago, I questioned whether the ASRAAM programme was safe. The Tornado 2 will enter service with its Skyflash and Sidewinder missiles. In the early 1990s, we plan to replace them with a new generation AMRAAM and ASRAAM, on which we are working with our American and German allies. The Minister will be aware of my fear that the United States will compete for ASRAAM and that it is, in fact, preparing to take over both programmes.
The Minister will recall my concern that the Government should move beyond the stage of studies into air-launched systems or stand-off weapons for Tornado. With the look-down, shoot-down capability of the Soviet air force and its airborne early warning, and given the dramatic modernisation of the Soviet air force—which the Minister a year ago described as Warsaw pact air superiority—Tornado may not be able to get over the target by the late 1980s, but will have to engage it from a distance.
The defence statement of 1983, paragraph 4, claimed that studies were in hand to assess the conventional armed long-range stand-off missile or complementary systems to manned aircraft. Of course, Tornado was in mind. However, there is no mention of that in the 1984 defence statement. I believe that a memorandum of understanding with the United States on two new programmes—the long-range stand-off missile and the short-range anti-radiation missile— are in hand. Again, I look to the Minister to comment on progress.
I understand that on a visit to RAF Finningley in 1979, the Prime Minister pledged that service men's pay would match that of their civilian counterparts. We all endorse the Minister's closing remarks when he paid tribute to the men of the RAF. Therefore, I am bound to ask whether the pay review body is being guided by that principle of parity with civilian counterparts.
There is general consensus in most west European countries that it is desirable to lessen NATO's reliance on nuclear weapons. To assess more adequately how much is enough to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, it is first necessary to arrive at a consensus on what is meant by the nuclear threshold and what level of nuclear dependence political authorities and publics within the Alliance are prepared to accept.
Of all the various measures for raising the nuclear threshold—that is, for improving conventional defence —one merits special attention because it has received more attention within the Alliance during the past year than any other, and that is sustainability. Lack of adequate sustainability within the NATO forces is, according to Saceur General Rogers, the most serious military deficiency facing the Alliance. NATO guidelines call for 30 days of war stocks — for example, ammunition, petrol and spare parts—all of which apply to the RAF. Yet most countries' war stocks fall well below that level. Therefore, how can any of them claim that they are keeping in touch with public opinion and its increasing sensitivity about the present reliance on nuclear weapons? They are not putting in hand the improvement of conventional forces which would have the effect of raising the nuclear threshold.
1263 Even conventional improvements would not achieve enhanced security in Europe. Negotiated reductions of conventional forces and the implementation of militarily significant confidence-building measures represent an alternative and complementary method of pursuing enhanced security and conventional stability in Europe.
Arms control considerations are often overlooked in the debate on conventional force improvement, but two forums offer enhanced European security through confidence building and reduction of conventional forces — the conference on disarmament in Europe and the mutual and balanced force reduction negotiations. Reconciling the various and sometimes divergent economic, military and political considerations in the current Alliance discussions on improving conventional deterrence is of paramount importance if the conventional force debate of the 1980s is to be positive rather than divisive—that is, if we are to achieve some success in reducing NATO's reliance on nuclear arms.
§ Sir Patrick Wall (Beverley)
I join with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) in his complaint about the timing of the debate. It is quite disgraceful to debate each service on one day only per year and then start after three statements and business questions. I want to make a few points about NATO and finish with a constituency point.
The House will know that the Soviet army attacks on a narrow front but in great depth—the first echelon about 50 km behind and the second echelon about 100 to 150 km behind. Currently, the second echelon would have to be attacked by the Tornado, which I believe would mean a high rate of attrition. I believe that the aircraft could be shot down easily.
The most important thing for the RAF is to have a long-range stand-off missile. The Navy has the Sea Eagle, but the RAF has no long-range stand-off missile. As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) said, I understand that a memorandum of understanding has been signed between the United States, the United Kingdom and the Federal Republic of Germany. May we be told the approximate production date? It is most urgent.
In the near future, that task will be undertaken by the multiple launch rocket system phase III, with its terminally guided sub-munitions and its much longer range, by the Copperhead laser-guided shell and by the Assault Breaker that will release the Tornado for its proper job, which is to counter the enemy air forces.
The second most important issue is to destroy the enemy airfields after the first strike has left. That can be done by the JP233, but again that is not stand-off. I do not believe that the three Tornado aircraft coming in and dropping JP233 could survive. In future the cruise missile and possibly a conventional ballistic missile such as the Pershing I, which has been withdrawn, might be used for that purpose. Aircraft are in short supply and should be used for countering the enemy aircraft threat. They must be safeguarded as much as possible when on the ground. The Nunn-Roth amendment led to an increased expenditure on NATO infrastructure—$7.8 billion was allocated recently, among other things, to strengthen 1264 shelters for the RAF and allied air forces. Since 1951, NATO infrastructure has provided 229 runways in Europe, which is a very good record.
We have already discussed Nimrod III compared with AWACS. I admit that many Conservative Members wanted Nimrod III, although many others advocated the NATO AWACS. This is a lesson for us. These international projects are sometimes much more expensive, but they are brought to fruition at a reasonable cost, are difficult to cancel, and do not give rise to the cost escalation that is bound to arise with Nimrod III.
Another means of detecting enemy aircraft is NIS-NATO identification system — which in my day was known as IFF. For years different air forces have had different identification systems. It has been said time and again that RAF aircraft could be shot down by our allies unless we had a common standard. I understand that the United Kingdom, France and Germany have agreed on a common system, but that the Americans are advocating another. I hope that these systems will be standardised, because it is not much good having two systems in the Alliance.
As to the European fighter, I merely remind the House that the Americans are at the same time developing their own advanced tactical fighter. It is a different type and has a longer range, and I do not believe that the European fighter will have much chance of success unless there is some arrangement with the Americans on comparability, common sales and so on. ASRAAM and AMRAAM have also been mentioned. Both are currently in difficulty. The European contribution, ASRAAM, has been held up twice by Germany's failure to produce the cash on time, although I now gather that it is again on line. This time the American AMRAAM has gone wrong and it is being examined by the Secretary of State.
I remind the Government that Ford aircraft in America are going ahead with the AIM9M, which it hopes will take the place of both ASRAAM and AMRAAM if they go wrong. Therefore, we had better look to our laurels.
SDI is purely a research project, but it will cost $26 billion. It is non-nuclear defence. If it succeeds, it is expected to bring down all ballistic missiles, including the SS20, SS21, SS22 and SS24 — the shorter-range battlefield weapons. SDI intercepts at the boost stage before the decoys are deployed and when it can home in on the heat. It also intercepts at the mid phase and at the terminal phase. I stress again that it is non-nuclear—
§ Sir Patrick Wall
I would rather not give way as I am short of time.
SDI depends largely on laser particle beams and kinetic energy, some of the lasers being reflected by mirrors. It also depends on very high speed integrated circuits—the most modern computer technology.
Are we keeping up to date with this research? The Prime Minister mentioned this in Washington only yesterday, but I should like to know whether we are keeping up to date with the computer technology which is an essential part, not only of SDI but of all advanced technology affecting the RAF.
The PC-9 will be built largely in my constituency. It is favoured by the RAF—at least that is what we are given to understand. I also understand that 85 per cent. of the aeroplane will be built in this country as well as 75 per 1265 cent. of the equipment—the most valuable part of any aircraft. There are joint marketing arrangements with the Swiss and, most important, this is a package with the Hawk. If countries buy the PC-9, they will buy the Hawk. I am pretty certain that the Swiss will buy the Hawk if we choose the PC-9.
§ Mr. Richard Hickmet (Glanford and Scunthorpe)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the decision to purchase the new trainer should be based on what the RAF believes best meets its purposes, not on employment considerations or the desirability or otherwise of floating a company on the market?
§ Sir Patrick Wall
I agree with my hon. Friend. I remind the House that Shorts has just won a lucrative aircraft contract which will keep it pretty well occupied for some time, and that Humberside and the Prestwick area of Scotland could benefit by about 2,000 jobs if we were to order the PC-9. I commend to the Government early-day motion 217 which has been signed by more than 100 hon. Members. I very much hope that our choice will be the best aircraft, the one which the RAF wants.
I do not expect the Minister to answer any of my latter points, but I should like him to reply to my comments on NATO, IFF, and long-range stand-off missiles, which will be vital in any battlefield of the future.
§ Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)
The hon. Member for Beverley (Sir P. Wall) tempts me to discuss the SDI and the broader questions that are now before us. However, I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if, in view of the time, I concentrate on one issue—Westland, which is of special interest to my constituency.
I should declare an interest, apart from my constituency interest, in that my only shareholding in British industry is in Westland. It is a modest sum of £20 which enables me to attend the annual general meeting. It is certainly no speculative, profit-making deal.
I wish to concentrate my remarks on the AST404, the replacement for the Wessex and Puma helicopters. The AST404 was originally due in 1987–88, but the in-service date has now been extended to 1991. Recently, it may even have been put on the back burner—the so-called regulator—with no funds yet identified. That causes concern.
The RAF's need for a replacement for the Wessex fleet is unquestionable and urgent. About that there can be no doubt. The Wessex fleet now supports our troops in Northern Ireland, but in time of war would be used to support our forces on the central front. These aircraft are 26 years old, and were designed in the 1950s. I was disturbed when the Minister said that perhaps this aircraft would be run on to the NH90, because the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) rightly identified the fact that these collaborative projects almost never meet their targeted in-service delivery date. The Minister may talk about 1994 or 1995, but he knows as well as I do that the NH90 will probably not become available until the year 2000. Are the Government really asking the RAF to use aircraft — the main element of its fleet — whose design is 50 years old? We have good reason to wonder how long an essential component of our defence can depend on these clapped-out machines. They are good machines for their age, which have done sterling service 1266 in their time. I have had good reason to know that, having flown to and from active service in them in Borneo, Aden and Belfast. However, these machines need replacing soon —indeed, now.
As other hon. Members have said, the helocopter's role in the battlefield is that of a force multiplier. It should be used to make better use of our forces. That is vital and is well recognised elsewhere. If there is an imbalance with the disposition of Soviet forces in central Europe, which I accept, we can overcome that through the use of helicopters.
As the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare also said, other nations seem to be much more aware of this than the Ministry of Defence. A typical American corps in central Europe will have 800 helicopters at its disposal, whereas a typical United Kingdom corps will have 180. All defence experts now recognise the increased and growing role of the helicopter in the battlefield. To meet that requirement, the Government have set up air staff target 404. There are three contenders, but only one is British—the Westland W-30. The W-30 meets in full, admittedly with no frills or fur trimming, the precise requirements laid down by the RAF. Unlike other competitors, the W-30 is designed to meet the need fully but not excessively. That is why it seems that the costs will be about 30 per cent. lower than those of foreign opposition. Running costs will also be lower.
We have made a considerable investment in the W-30, which is the derivative from which Westland will build its aircraft. The Department of Trade and Industry has invested £40 million in it, and Westland has done an almost pound-for-pound matching investment of about £35 million. There have been further investments in the blades and gearboxes. My community and that of the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare have also invested their ingenuity and skill in that aircraft. That stands at stake on the Government's decision.
Considerable opportunities also stand at stake. Exports may be more than double our sales to the RAF. If the RAF's imprimatur is on the aircraft and we can say to other countries that the British Government have bought the aircraft, we may be able to sell twice as many as we would supply to the RAF. That would give us a prime position in the European collaborative deal, the NH90.
Westland is a committed collaborator, as the EH101 shows. The W-30 would provide 6,800 man years work, which is about 1,000 jobs in production, 400 in support, and a further 2,000 in the other British industries that supply Westland. A typical helicopter today is only 50 per cent. in house, and the other 50 per cent. is bought in from other industries all over Britain. Therefore, there would be about 4,000 jobs overall. We would maintain a major British defence industry in a strong condition. We would maintain a stand-alone capacity to make our own helicopters. We would also maintain in the best condition a firm which is about to produce a key new helicopter, the EH101. There is a necessity to build a bridge from the present position to the EH101 in the early 1990s.
I recognise the Secretary of State's problems, as all hon. Members must do. They may be generated by Trident. We recognise that he now faces a matrix of difficult decisions. I remember calling Trident "that cuckoo in the nest", and he is now undoubtedly finding good reasons to elbow other projects out of its way. I do not wish to make a political point about this, but Trident 1267 creates difficulties for him. We recognise how he will be tempted to delay decisions to a future date when he will have more room for manoeuvre.
However, I caution the Minister, in case he considers delay a mechanism for solving his problems, that the consequences are severe. The RAF needs will remain unmet in the key area of our defence. That will inevitably push the replacement helicopter into a position where it clashes with other capital programmes. Delay will weaken our capacity for export from Westland and other British industries. Westland will not have the bridge to secure itself a future position. It will be tied into the NH90 collaborative helicopter in a weaker position than would otherwise be the case.
If the Secretary of State cannot commit himself to a date, we shall be disappointed, although we shall understand why. If only he would commit the Government to choosing the W-30 on principle, we can, perhaps, live with uncertainty about the date, because we shall at least have one foot on the ground and something that we can use to encourage exports. With that, Westland's hand will be strengthened for exports.
The Secretary of State realises that he is dealing, not with a weak company, but with one whose work force and management have shown themselves capable of taking courageous and tough decisions to enable them to survive in an increasingly competitive market place. The Secretary of State is dealing not with an ailing industrial sector, but with a world sector with an assured growth for the future. He is not dealing with a company that has no future orders. On the contrary, the company has an assured future in the EH101, which is the greatest single helicopter project in which the company has taken part. He is dealing not with a company that cannot supply the essential needs of the RAF less expensively than others, but with a company which can supply a British buy from a proven record. We know from the experience in the Falklands that it can supply the goods—and, in this case, supply them at a cost 30 per cent. less than its competitors.
In asking the Minister for a decision now or soon, Westland is not seeking charity. It has no need of that. It does not want gifts or handouts. It wants the Government to make a decision so that it can plan its future, get on with the job, and do the thing that it knows best—building the best helicopters in the world for the RAF's needs.
§ Mr. Robert Atkins (South Ribble)
There is a lot that I want to get through and in view of the time limit, I hope that I do not gabble too much. I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) about the sale of Tornados to Turkey. We are talking about £1 billion of export orders. I thought that Farnborough existed to deal with our defence sales among other matters. I can do no better than to quote from a letter I sent to the Prime Minister. I said:As you have indicated on many occasions, the British aerospace industry is a shining example to the rest of the country in its design, production, marketing, delivery, profits, workforce and general management. Is it to suffer at the hands of the Governments of France, U.S.A., and others, in that they bend over backwards to support their aerospace industry in competitive foreign sales, or can they be assured of the necessary financial assistance equivalent to the predatory financing being 1268 offered elsewhere? Is it to lose out to the Mirage 2000 taking up sales which should be Tornados or E.F. A.'s or even a national version of a new fighter, breaking up design teams and the backs of many sub-contractors, or can the situation be retrieved as a matter of urgency?Hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that I want to talk largely about the European fighter aircraft. It has been the subject of a continuing saga under various mnemonics and titles since I was elected in 1979. There will soon be a meeting — it causes me and my constituents some anxiety — to discuss the feasibility plan, development and production of the EFA for 1985 onwards. I was sufficiently worried about it to raise the matter with the Secretary of State in the House. He recently wrote me a letter and confirmed that there may have beena slippage of perhaps 4 weeks on the timescale we had in mind last summer. We realise however that a further period will be needed for officials to assess the results of the studies, for the Air Staffs to consider the capability offered, for National Armaments Directors to prepare the ground for a Ministerial Meeting and for us to take a view on the military, financial and industrial aspects.As I predicted, and said earlier in an intervention, France is at the nub of the argument. A French industry spokesman said:It is important to join forces with the UK, not because of the physics but because of the money required for development." However, Emile Blanc, the national French armaments director said:"We are taking steps to ensure that France controls technology in areas where we lead other nations." I have a document from the company, for whom I seek to speak because of my constituency interest. It states:British aerospace industries would prefer a national solution to the new fighter requirement.The company believes that it will be at no extra cost to the percentage of the United Kingdom collaboration, which is proposed within EFA because of the great cost of the French aviation industry, to which I also referred in an intervention. The document states:British aerospace industries would prefer a national solution to the new fighter requirement for the RAF in view of the greater opportunity to utilise the industries resources and technology, as developed by the EAP with the substantial industrial involvement in that programme.However, they recognise the value of a major collaborative programme with the enlarged overall programme and long term stability which would ensue, and consequently have co-operated fully in the five nation feasibility study for the EFA which has just been submitted to the five Governments.In any programme which hopefully will follow on from these studies they would expect the following aspects to be respected by HMG to safeguard the UK national position and the continuing viability of the aerospace industry.
Anything that does not meet those criteria will be wholly unacceptable to the company, management and work force, to the British aerospace industry and to those 1269 of my constituents who work in it. It will also be wholly unacceptable to me. I make my position quite clear. I can do no better than to quote from some of the recent remarks made about this project in various trade journals. For example, the national aerospace organiser for TASS says:
- 1. The weapon system resulting from the programme must meet the minimum operational target of the RAF.
- 2. There must be equality of worksharing with GE and FR during the development phase, recognising that subsequent adjustments can be made in production to reflect the numbers of aircraft bought by each nation.
- 3. Workshare arrangements should apply separately to airframe, engine, and equipments.
- 4. There should be equality of management authority and responsibility between the five nations with no overt leadership by one nation for either airframe or engine.
- 5. A central NATO agency should be established with authority to place contract on the industries.
- 6. To ensure maximum penetration of the export market it is necessary to get aircraft into service as soon as possible and no later than January 1995."We don't seem to know what we are doing or where we are going; that's bad for Britain's defence. Tass is concerned that the UK will come out 'the worst' from any negotiations because there appears to be an absence of policy as to what we want". The editorial in Flight International, the United Kingdom magazine on aviation, says:Neither German nor British governments have shown a willingness to put even their own nation's interest first, and departmental pride is allowed to inhibit possible spending… France has also taken an export-led stance, and geared the development of new aircraft to the potential export market, without allowing that consideration to govern France's own military requirements.Dornier and Northrop are continuing to work on the ND-102 project as a fall-back position, because, as the vice-president and chief designer of Northrop said:We think there is enough chance [that the EFA program will fail] that we want to continue to be prepared for the opportunity if it comes.Aviation Week and Space Technology, the leading American magazine, says:U.S. government officials contemplating the difficulties are convinced the entire program will never get off the ground. The skeptics at this point have a reasonable bet.That shows the concern that has been expressed about the EFA project. The importance of the project cannot be underestimated. I know what the former Minister of State for Defence Procurement did, what my hon. Friend the Minister is doing—as he has a constituency interest—and, above all, what the Secretary of State is doing. but the industry's perception is that the French are outmanoeuvring us. They have indicated that Dassault wants 46 per cent. of the airframe. People at all levels of industry tell me that the French are getting away with murder. I am not prepared to tolerate it any longer. I am fed up with urging the project and with apparently not getting very far. The Government and the industry together must get a grip to ensure that that plane gets off the ground. If we cannot get a collaborative project, which is what we all want, we must have a national project.
The situation in relation to jobs, technical expertise, the world leadership on offer within the British aerospace industries, and in relation to the strategic and industrial requirements demands that that project goes ahead now. It must not be delayed any longer. I, the Royal Air Force, hon. Members generally and, above all, the British aerospace industry, including my constituents, demand that it should happen now. I hope that the Government and the House will recognise the urgency of the project.
§ Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)
I shall return later to the challenging points made by the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins), as I agreed with everything that he said. I do not always agree with him, but on this occasion I agreed with him in toto.
The Minister made some very unfortunate remarks in his opening statement. He referred to Phantoms bought from the United States, modified Hawks, updated Buccaneers, stretched aircraft., reborne Shackletons and reincarnated Jet Provosts. In many ways he reminded me of Ron Moody when he appeared in the film musical of "Oliver Twist". Even though I am a Welshman, I shall not sing, but the phrase that I have in mind is: 1270We are reviewing the situation".That is about all that the Government do. If reviews were aircraft, the RAF would be well off. But, in effect, the Department sits back and fails to make any decisions. If the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) had been in the Chamber I think that he would have agreed with my next point. After all, I wonder what would have happened if Mitchell had not built the Spitfire or its prototype for the Schneider trophy, possibly even before the Minister was born. We did not have enough Spitfires in 1939, but at least we had them. In 1995 will there be any aircraft, or will there be just another review?
I should be delighted to see the Secretary of State in a flak jacket standing by an advanced fighter ready for 1995. But I believe that we are standing in the shadow of Trident. It is influencing events and preventing decisions from being made. I need not rehearse the points made by the hon. Member for South Ribble, because he spoke well on behalf of his constituents and the industry. I commend him on that and I agree with everything that he said. It is about time that the Department made a decision.
There was an interesting development this week. Some hon. Members will know that I have been fighting a battle to get the Super 748 over to the Caribbean. But I believe that that decision was bedevilled by a Frenchman, who was a Commissioner. I had a fascinating reply from the Prime Minister this week, indicating that she intends to find out exactly what went wrong with that deal. The 10 nations wanted it, the airline wanted it, the bank wanted it but the French said no.
As the hon. Member for South Ribble has said, it is about time the French were told that they should either be a partner, and an equal partner at that, or should let us go alone. This is no time for being mealy-mouthed, and there is no point in dressing up and being photographed. This is the time for action. The French must be told that if they want the European fighter, they must collaborate on a fair basis, with the Brits being allowed to maintain their technology and work force as well.
Let us consider this renovated Jet Provost, Pilatus or Tucano. Why do we not return to the simple concept of letting the RAF choose its own aircraft? It is the RAF that flies them, and not the Minister or the Secretary of State. The RAF knows its requirements. When I was in the RAF, I was given a very good aircraft. I was very grateful to the manufacturers. I had a Mosquito, the best 'plane of its day. The Secretary of State has a duty to ensure that the skilled members of the RAF have the best aircraft available for training as well as operational purposes. That is his prime duty. There should be no more reviews, dilly-dallying or finger trouble. I am reminded of old Pilot Officer Prune who was given an award for failing to do things on time. He was awarded the Highly Derogatory Order of the Irremovable Finger. The Minister must ensure that he is not given that order. I shall certainly present him with it, if he does not make the right decision. I am sure that hon. Members will associate themselves with my comments.
I turn to Woodford and to the importance of maintaining a skilled work force. It is the last place in the United Kingdom where a large-scale military aircraft can be built. There is no point in the Secretary of State using one of his favourite terms—"It's front loading." That is rubbish. If we are to sustain a large aircraft building capability, Woodford must be supported.
I shall obtain favour all round tonight, because I now turn to the subject of helicopters. It must be the W-30. We 1271 must maintain the helicopter capability in this country. It is sometimes assumed that the west country is an area of full employment, but is not. The work force can build the aircraft or helicopter that is desired, and that will at the same time provide employment, and sustain and maintain the technology that we need in this country.
The Minister spoke about the search and rescue scheme, but there is something else that the RAF could do with its helicopters. It could involve itself more and more in perinatal care and in the new-born baby. The RAF could help to take babies to special units quickly. That is humane work and requires skilled training.
I have been speaking of conventional defence. Some of the delays have been occasioned by the awesome burden of Trident. I believe that implicitly.
The Minister must ensure that the RAF gets its preferred aircraft. The overwhelming need is to sustain British technology in the aircraft industry. The Minister must preserve the skills and initiatives of the work force. No more reviews. Action, please.
§ 8.1 pm
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
In many ways the debate has been untypical. Usually in debates on the Royal Air Force we discuss the depth of pile in the carpets at RAF Germany and whether English programmes are shown on television there. Constituency preoccupations have not dominated this debate. That is to the good.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of State set the right tone when he concentrated on the operational capabilities of the 'service and its equipment. I want to take the debate into the future—into the next century and beyond. This is the appropriate time to do so.
This month two leading representatives of our European Alliance have spoken about the significance of President Reagan's strategic defence initiative, launched in his famous speech on 23 March 1983. Chancellor Kohl in his Wehrkunde speech at Munich and our Prime Minister in her speech yesterday to both Houses of Congress welcomed the idea of European industry participating in the research programme.
I should like to examine how the strategic defence initiative and the new technologies for the military utilisation of space will affect RAF strategies, its order of battle, procurement policy and manpower planning. The most important element concerns the men and women of the RAF.
Lord Trenchard was one of the greatest men of our century in terms of the work that he did towards the creation of an independent Royal Air Force and for building a structure which would endure. That structure endured through the second world war and proved itself in that conflict. Basically it endured until the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the 1950s the flying squadrons of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force were disbanded and in the 1960s changes were made in the training of officers. They were profound alterations from the old Trenchardian mould.
For the next century we must attract people who will be capable of servicing and manning the space-based systems that will ensure our deterrents, and our defence. For that we need a new tri-service cadet college to train people in the appropriate military sciences. I have always 1272 said that the place to do so should be at Greenwich and that when cadets have completed their training there they should go on to their respective academies and that for the Air Force it should be Cranwell. At present Cranwell courses are short and not appropriate to the future scientific and professional training required. The United States Air Force academy has a course lasting four years and is of the highest calibre.
I do not wish to decry the role of graduates from our universities and colleges. They will continue to be essential, but we need a new, highly professional, properly trained stream of permanent commissioned entrants.
In mid-career we must enhance the role of the college of air warfare at Cranwell. It already provides an astronautics course. We should carry it further so that the course ultimately involves space experience. We should approach the task in co-operation with our European allies.
We and our European allies must co-ordinate our whole approach to the strategic defence initiative. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has shown the way forward in his industrial approach. We must resolve our military role. First, we shall have to deploy in Europe point defence systems against ballistic missile attack. There is nothing new in the concept of protecting from pre-emptive or first strike our own deterrent forces and our centres of population. We did it in the 1950s and 1960s when Fighter Command protected the bomber bases of the V force. The point defence systems will be the easiest component of the SDI to evolve and I believe that they will be the first to be deployed.
More futuristic elements are involved also. I refer to the means of intercepting ballistic missiles in their boost, post-boost and mid-course elements of flight. Those aspects of SDI will require space-based systems. Some could be manned, but certainly they will have to be serviced and maintained. The shuttle has shown that this is possible. It is already possible to retrieve, maintain and repair satellites in space. The Royal Air Force and its personnel will have a role in that.
We must examine too how we are to deny to a potential enemy the eyes and the ears that control military operations. Increasingly those eyes and ears are satellites. The Soviets have already deployed a rudimentary first generation anti-satellite system. They are keen that the United States should not fully develop and deploy their own anti-satellite system. I have no doubt that the Americans will pursue its development—and they will be right to do so. I hope that the system will be operational shortly with the F-15.
The ability to intercept and destroy satellites will not be unique to the American component of our Alliance. We Europeans will have a similar requirement. I hope that the air staffs of our respective countries are addressing themselves to the problem already. I believe that the Tornado F-2 and, ultimately, the European fighter aircraft will be the appropriate launch vehicles for such a system. Command and control operations will also be required. That will be costly and is another matter which must be addressed.
We have dealt with today's problems, the problems of the 1980s and we have looked to the 1990s. There is no doubt that in the next century the RAF will have a spatial role. I hope that is so. The motto of the service is not "per ardua ad caelum" but "per ardua ad astra". In that spirit I hope that the Secretary of State and his colleagues will 1273 encourage the Service and Civil Service to examine the changes required within the RAF to meet the challenges of the space age.
I hope that the strategic defence initiative, which has undoubtedly brought the Soviets to the negotiating table again and which offers some hope that the pattern of mutually assured destruction will be broken, will mean that there will be greater security for our peoples. I trust that we shall play our full part in this process and that the RAF will play a leading role.
§ 8.9 pm
§ Mr. William McKelvey (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)
As the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) said, this is a strange debate in some ways as hon. Members with such diverse views as the hon. Member for Beverley (Sir P. Wall) and my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) apparently agree and almost feel mutual admiration. I hope that the Minister is aware of the pressures that might be being applied.
I shall confine my speech to the urgent need to provide the RAF with a new trainer. I trust that the Minister was not being serious when he suggested the refurbishment of the present trainer as a credible alternative. I hope that the laughter that went around the Chamber when he said that was not nervous laughter, but a sign that the House has discounted such an alternative.
I speak on behalf of all hon. Members from Ayrshire, except the Secretary of State for Scotland, when I say that there is only one aircraft that should be the replacement for the trainer—the British Aerospace PC9. In a debate such as this, there is a danger of overstating the case, so I shall not go into detail about its technical qualities. I do not wish to denigrate other aircraft as, in their way, they are all first-rate, but the PC9 shines out like a throughbred.
An important feature of the PC9 is that it meets all of the RAF's requirements. The Minister and others have paid respect to the skill of the RAF. They should seriously consider giving the RAF the airplane aeroplane that it wants. The PC9 can meet the required specifications with minimal changes whereas its competitors are apparently having some difficulty. Why are there delays? Some of us suspect that the PC9's competitors are being given extra time to reach the specifications required.
Moreover, the PC9 is the best industrial solution. Several hon. Members have spoken of the influence on their constituency if the PC9 were chosen. I have a constituency interest in it. Although Prestwick is not in my constituency—it is 11 miles away in the constituency of the Secretary of State for Scotland — engineers and aircraft fitters based at Prestwick live throughout Ayrshire. In the initial stages, the PC9 can provide 150 jobs where the average rate of male unemployment is about 22 per cent. That number could be extended to 250. That is important to an area that has just lost a British Steel Corporation foundry with the loss of 280 jobs.
Despite the claims of its competitors, the PC9's airframe is 85 per cent. British and I understand that about 90 per cent. of the technical equipment is British. The Minister must consider all of the factors which make up the equation, but the RAF has said that it wants the PC9, it will provide about 2,400 jobs for British industry, it is almost wholly British-built and it would provide jobs throughout the United Kingdom. The best craftsmen in the world will be employed in building it. I would be astonished if the PC9 was not chosen.
§ Lord James Douglas-Hamilton (Edinburgh, West)
I agree with everything that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. McKelvey) said about the PC9. It might surprise him that my constituents have an interest in it as Ferranti is involved.
It would be churlish if I did not say that I spoke in the House last year arguing that Ferranti should get a contract for the GR5 Harrier. In the past few days, my right hon. Friend the Minister has awarded that contract. The significance of it is the relationship with the European fighter — because Ferranti will now be in a much stronger position to compete for the avionics of that fighter. Recognition of the work of Ferranti as a world leader has been enormously strengthened by my right hon. Friend's decision, for which I thank him very much.
My right hon. Friend the Minister said that he hoped that collaboration will succeed, but there are serious potential difficulties with France. I understand that the British aerospace industries want a partnership that involves equality of work-sharing and of management authority. During discussions, France might prove to be less genuinely interested in that policy than us. I appreciate that Minister Hernu might do his best to deliver, but the power of the French industrial and trade union lobbies, especially in regard to the Dassault company, are so powerful that the French will be unlikely to accept a genuine partnership.
I hope that my right hon. Friend is right to think that collaboration will succeed but, in the event of it being difficult to get a genuine partnership, I hope that he will have readily available an alternative policy and plan for a national solution to preserve the structure and capability of the British aerospace industry. "Jane's All the World's Aircraft 1984–85" said recently of the European fighter:With the first flight scheduled for the far future of 1990–91, there are many people, notably in the USA, who expect it to be abandoned long before then, in the case of five-nation failure to compromise.I applaud my right hon. Friend's will to make it succeed but I hope that he will be prepared if the worst comes to the worst.
On the PC9, the argument advanced earlier that the view of the Royal Air Force should prevail carries weight. The employment arguments are relatively evenly balanced, although we look forward to hearing the arguments to be put forward by hon. Members from Northern Ireland. Obviously it would lead to more employment in Northern Ireland but by the same token it would probably lead, over the years, to less employment in British Aerospace.
I believe that what the RAF want is the argument which should carry most weight, but I do not wish to conceal from the House that I have an interest in the matter. In the past I have, as an author, written about Prestwick. Moreover, when my father was a Member of Parliament for a Scottish constituency he helped to found Prestwick and the Scottish aviation industry. It began as a very modest project. However, after a series of mergers it became the Scottish division of British Aerospace.
As it nears its 40th anniversary I hope the House will forgive me if I say that there could be no stronger recognition of and encouragement to the work force at Prestwick than if Prestwick obtained this order. It would reinforce the belief of the work force that it has a continuing and permanent contribution to make to the 1275 industry as the headquarters of the Scottish aviation industry, and that is no more than the RAF deserves and desires.
Finally, I wish to refer to the restoration of the flying role of the auxiliary air force. It could have either a search and rescue role, or a training capacity or be used as reinforcement. It would be very good for morale if those who have served for many years in the Royal Air Force, who have developed considerable expertise and who wish to retain a connection with the RAF could play such a role in the auxiliary air force. As and when economic circumstances permit, I hope that the Minister will accede to that request.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Owing to the splendid co-operation of hon. Members, there is no longer any need for me to enforce the 10-minute limit upon speeches. Nevertheless, I still appeal for brief contributions.
§ Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)
May I place on record the admiration and appreciation of the Ulster Unionists for the excellent service given by the men and women of the Royal Air Force, both nationally and internationally. The Ulster Unionists believe that the RAF should be provided with the best basic trainer that is available for training its pilots. The Government are aware of the importance of job creation and we would be pleased if such a project were to come to Northern Ireland. I recognise that a very fine balance has to be drawn and that there is an equal need for jobs to be created at the Shorts factory in Belfast and on the mainland. However, such a decision must not be made simply on social grounds. If that were the case, I believe that Northern Ireland would outstrip all contenders. Unemployment in Northern Ireland stands at 21 per cent., with 50 per cent. male unemployment in some areas.
My duty as the Ulster Unionist spokesman on trade and industry is to draw to the attention of the House what I believe to be a scandalous attempt by British Aerospace to force the so-called merits of its aircraft upon all and sundry, not only by means of an expensive and continuous campaign in the national press but also by means of an organised invasion of this House through The House Magazine.
§ Mr. Stephen Ross
I cannot allow that remark to pass unnoticed. I wrote to the chairman of Shorts congratulating him upon his campaign. I even received a Christmas card from him with a Tucano on it. I think that the Shorts campaign has been magnificent.
§ Mr. Beggs
I thank the hon. Gentleman for such a tribute. However, those hon. Members who have listened to the whole debate will probably have come to the conclusion that I am the lone ranger in this exercise. The strength of the case presented by Shorts has contributed to the recognition paid to it by English, Scottish and Welsh hon. Members who support the Shorts motion. I question whether it is right that a company which is 48 per cent. funded by the public should spend such vast sums of money upon advertisements in the national press.
Those who live in Northern Ireland know only too well the true value of money. We should prefer to pitch performance and price against publicity and pressure. We do not believe that ideological considerations should 1276 prevail when a decision is finally made. However, on performance and price we are prepared to accept the outcome. I believe that the methods used by British Aerospace in its efforts to win this contract are quite obnoxious. An attempt has been made to misrepresent the qualities of other aircraft. Unfortunately some, though not all, hon. Members have swallowed some of the information that has been peddled. However, I am confident that such unworthy tactics will not influence right hon. and hon. Members and that they will not be fooled.
§ Mr. McKelvey
The hon. Gentleman's remarks about British Aerospace are not true. If I had to condemn the management of British Aerospace I should say that it has lagged sadly behind Shorts, vis-à-vis Shorts' Tucano. There has been consistent and persistent lobbying from the trade union movement.
§ Mr. Beggs
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is quite right and proper that on behalf of their members in British Aerospace factories the trade unions should make representations to those hon. Members who represent constituency interests. However, I am in a unique position. I do not have a constituency interest to put forward. When we apply the rather scarce commodity, truth, to the debate we find out why the advertising campaign by British Aerospace is necessary. In the best and final offer stage, Short Brothers produced a package which shines through the smokescreen thrown up by British Aerospace.
§ Mr. A. Cecil Walker (Belfast, North)
My hon. Friend has referred to a smokescreen. Could that be due in part to the fact that the new Garrett engine that is expected to be fitted to the Tucano is equal, if not better in terms of speed and rate of climb, to the PC9?
§ Mr. Beggs
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, but since we are discussing truth I do not intend to exaggerate. All I would say is that the Shorts Tucano has always met the requirements of the Royal Air Force, even when it appeared that the specifications had been increased. Indeed, the Garrett engine performs in every sense up to the level of the PC9. I said that I would not boast but the facts are there for all those who are responsible for examining the details to see. However, when the running costs are considered, the Shorts Tucano has cheaper running costs than its main rival. The life cycle costs of the Tucano are substantially lower than those of the PC9. There is a further bonus in the fact that spares for the Tucano are much cheaper than those for its main rival.
Claims that only one aircraft fully meets the RAF performance requirements for its new basic trainer are simply not true; nor is the suggestion that employment created by the PC9 will be greater than that created by its competitors. As for the claims for a perfect marriage between the Hawk and the PC9, I believe that hon. Members and the British taxpayer will be more influenced by and interested in the facts than in such speculative romance.
Almost everyone is agreed about the need for a new basic trainer, and the decision will be taken by the Ministry of Defence on the basis of the facts as they are known by the Ministry, without any element of favour.
1277 The reaching of a decision is not assisted by the spectacle of mass national press advertising, especially when the claims made by British Aerospace for its aircraft and its uniqueness cannot be factually supported.
Shorts has based its campaign on the well-proven principle of offering a better product at a more competitive price overall. The decision will be made by the Ministry of Defence on the basis of the facts. It is regrettable that the issue has been confused by claims made by British Aerospace which have no foundation in fact.
The most important matter of all is that the RAF should be supplied as soon as possible with a modern basic trainer which meets all aspects of technical requirements and specifications which it has put forward. Shorts' Tucano meets all performance requirements. There is clear evidence of long fatigue life. Short Brothers has the industrial capability to deliver a first-class product on schedule. Shorts' Tucano has competitive first-cost and low life-cycle costs. It combines maximum United Kingdom content with the greatest United Kingdom job creation potential. It is right for the RAF, it is right for the United Kingdom, and the time is right for a decision by Government in favour of the Shorts Tucano as a basic trainer for the RAF.
§ Mr. Keith Best (Ynys Môn)
My speech this evening must begin on a note of great sadness, because my constituent, Junior Technician Colin Wilson, just shortly after his 22nd birthday, was one of the young RAF bandsmen who so tragically were killed recently in Germany. I pay tribute to the courage, camaraderie and expertise of our RAF bandsmen. We hold them in the highest regard, and I know that the whole House will wish to share my expression of sympathy to his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson of Holyhead.
My constituency is the home of RAF Valley, where all our fast jet pilots are trained. The station makes a valuable contribution to our island's economy, and none can be busier than the station's search and rescue and mountain rescue teams, which are kept fully occupied by accidents on Snowdonia. My right hon. Friend paid tribute to them in his speech.
The young pilots at RAF Valley have a great interest in which aircraft will be the next RAF basic trainer. The speeches by hon. Members on behalf of their constituents are commendable. British Aerospace has a strong lobby. I propose for a few moments to indulge in some special pleading, but I do not have a constituency interest, so I hope that hon. Members will accept that in my comments I can be regarded as being disinterested.
I might say, perhaps with a note of detached amusement, that the speeches for the Pilatus PC9 and for the Tucano would probably have cancelled each other out if one were conducting the debate on the basis of some sort of competition, but during a period in which there has been the most intensive lobbying for any new military project it appears that there has been a change of emphasis in the Government's interpretation of the specification.
Originally, the clear impression was conveyed that there was no point in or advantage to be gained by any contender for the project seeking to produce an aircraft much better than AST412. Now, however, the goalposts seem to have been moved., and it appears that encouragement is being given to those who have exceeded the requirements of AST412. I hope that my hon. Friend 1278 the Under-Secretary, when he replies, will make clear what is the order of the day. In any event, can my hon. Friend deny that the Hunting Firecracker's performance is well in excess of AST412 and can be equated with Swiss Pilatus? It is extraordinary that there is a debate as to which aircraft is best for Britain. Only the Hunting Firecracker is of total British design and can offer jobs in the long term on the back of export orders.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth
Can my hon. Friend tell me what proportion of the components of the Firecracker are British?
§ Mr. Best
A very large proportion indeed. I do not wish to go down that route or to argue whether there is one percentage point more British components in one aircraft than in another, but I can tell my hon. Friend that it is a very large percentage. It does not derogate, in any event, from my statement that the Hunting Firecracker is of British design. If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I shall seek to persuade him of my point of view. Being the reasonable man that he is, no doubt he will be persuaded by the force of the argument.
It is only the Hunting Firecracker that can offer jobs in the long term on the back of export orders. I have never understood the argument that buying a foreign product is better for Britain when there is a British alternative. If there were to be a decision in favour of the Swiss Pilatus, backed by British Aerospace, we may smell the sweet breath of the Treasury down the back of my right hon. Friend, perhaps more with the thought of boosting the quotation of British Aerospace shares in a few months' time than with the thought of what is the best aircraft for Britain. I hope I am wrong, but that is a thought.
Is there any connection between the Government's interest in the Brazilian Tucano, built by Shorts, as it would be, and privatisation of the company? That is another question that it is perhaps proper to ask.
§ Mr. Wilkinson
I hesitate to say so, but I have flown all three aeroplanes, and on the basis of that experience I would not presume to make any suggestion; it is for the air staff to decide. Should not we say that the air staff should be allowed to have the aeroplane that they want and select?
While my hon. Friend is talking about other aeroplanes than the Firecracker being foreign, does he not remember that one of the best RAF trainers ever was the North American Texan or Harvard?
§ Mr. Best
My hon. Friend has a great deal of expertise and knowledge in these matters and the advantage over practically every hon. Member of having flown the aircraft concerned, and many other aircraft as well. I would not seek to cross swords with him as to his view of the aircraft. Although it is important that due weight should be given to the air staff's desire for an aircraft, I know that my hon. Friend, having been in the RAF himself, will no doubt be the first to agree that the air staff will go for the aircraft which they think is the best. It may be the most expensive, because the two are very often synonymous. That may not necessarily be in the best interests of this country. I know that my hon. Friend would not pursue that argument to its logical conclusion — that every piece of procurement should be done on the basis of precisely what the particular service demands at the time. But I accept the important point that he makes, that due weight should be given to the air staff's desire and expression of preference.
1279 Is it the Ministry of Defence or the Treasury that will make the decision on procurement for our armed forces? If it is the latter, perhaps we do not need the former and can make substantial departmental staff savings — I speak in jest and do not propose that seriously. The House should have regard to whether some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) in his intervention about the preferences of the air staff, the question of employment and what is best for this country will be uppermost in the Government's consideration when making the decision, or whether the decision will be based entirely on finance. Although I appreciate the need for economy, I should certainly be very unhappy if the defence of the realm were to be based entirely on what was the cheapest product going at the time.
Are we to be led by the nose by foreign competitors subsidised by foreign Governments, in one case with money borrowed on the international market which is unlikely ever to be paid? Can it be right to see the extra marketing in the world of a foreign aircraft which has been given the boost of endorsement by the Royal Air Force?
Hunting Firecracker would make no profit whatsoever on this project, but would seek to make its profit on future export sales, on which, of course, the Government would get a royalty, which they would certainly not receive on a foreign aircraft. There is no guarantee whatever that we would sell Hawk on the back of a Swiss deal, and even Pilatus is convinced that any such thing is at least five years in the future.
Hunting Firecracker is competing with aircraft subsidised by foreign Governments to be produced by Government-funded industries. It does not sound like the actions of this Conservative Government. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on what has been achieved so far by the Government for the Royal Air Force. I believe that it is a verifiable manifestation of our commitment to the first duty of Government—the defence of the realm. I can only ask my right hon. Friend to fight for his Department and for his Department's right to make the decision on the RAF trainer, not that of the Treasury, and to fight for the best interests of Britain and the RAF, which is in the forefront of the defence system.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
There is an obligation on all of us to be succinct.
Refuelling crews—and I agree with the Minister on this—do a fantastic job on the airbridge. These guys work at the margin of safety and it is a tribute to their skill that a Hercules has not yet gone into the drink. The skill of the air-to-air refuelling pilots and personnel is so great and the job is so hairy that a tribute must be paid to those who carry it out.
I wish to concentrate on the airbridge and on Mount Pleasant and ask a number of precise questions which are probably best answered by letter rather than in the debate.
My first question is this. I understand that the Argentine air force has taken delivery of the Durandel anti-runway bomb which is made by Matra in France—and which is purchased in some quantity, incidentally, by the United States air force. Unfortunately, it can be delivered by small aeroplanes like the Skyhawk, which can take up to 1280 10 Durandels. It can be dropped at low altitude and we cannot be certain that every plane would be engaged by Rapier.
I understand that when the Durandel is released a parachute opens to slow the bomb, creating a safe distance of some 600 m between the detonation and the aircraft. A second parachute is then deployed to swing the bomb round to an impact angle of between 30 deg and 40 deg to the horizontal, minimising the risk of a ricochet. The rocket motor then ignites to produce 90 kN of thrust lasting about 0.45 seconds. Durandel strikes the concrete at around 260 m a second. After a one second delay the 15 kg of warhead explodes. Against reinforced concrete 40 cm thick, the weapon will produce a 5 m diameter crater at least 2 m deep and will break up a surface area exceeding 250 sq m. According to Matra, it takes more than a day to repair the damaged area and to resume operations.
This information comes from several sources. I ask, first, is it accurate and what is the Government's assessment of the Durandel weapon in relation to the Mount Pleasant airport?
Secondly, what is the Government's assessment of the Argentines' having acquired the Durandel, and have there been discussions with France about it? It seems very unsatisfactory that French industry should continue to supply the most sophisticated weaponry, given the situation in the south Atlantic.
Mount Pleasant has problems because there is no alternative to the Stanley airstrip. I ask, thirdly, could the Stanley airstrip take the TriStar on an emergency landing, because the whole policy, in the view of many of us, is vulnerable? Here we have a big runway, which therefore presents a big target.
I ask about the size of the repair squads. This may be classified information, on which I would not press the Government, but it would take only one Durandel to create havoc. What are the support facilities, and are the Government prepared to give possible targets and any indication of the sheer cost of the repair squads in Royal Engineer terms? That is my fourth question.
Fifthly, on the whole airbridge operation, what about the escorts? Whether conflict starts again is irrelevant to the Air Force debate, but I do not think that Alfonsin is going to start a war. However, the Argentine military have not gone away. Macho men humiliated are dangerous and it could well be, heaven help us, that the Falklands is used as an excuse for what many of them want to do anyway —destabilise the infant civilian regime. Therefore, we have to talk about the hypothetical situation of hostilities and I have to ask about escorts and how many are needed, because presumably everything in the airbridge, particularly the TriStars, has to be escorted.
This leads me to question no. 6, the whole question of interception. They do have Skyhawk. Is it the Government's assessment that they have Sidewinder? If they have, what representations have we made to the American Government about the supply of Sidewinder?
The whole interdiction situation really puts pressure on the entire line of flight. It is a very long chain of access to the Falklands, given also that there are heat-seeking missiles and the possible possession by the Argentines of Condors with German rockets and Italian guidance systems, approaching the Mount Pleasant airport at 4,000 miles an hour from a distance of under 500 miles; this really is a problem for Rapier.
1281 I ask question 7: What is the assessment of that?
If a runway is lost the brutal question 8 that has to be faced is, can our Phantoms operate, because then we would have no long-range interceptors? Once it was put out of action, presumably, without the Phantom cover it could be kept closed day after day. Once closed, the long-range interceptors —this is a curate's egg situation—cannot operate. It may be that there are many emergency arrangements for quick repairs. I do not know whether it is proper to ask question 9, but what are the contingency plans? In the eventuality of any fighting, these are highly relevant questions.
My next question, no. 10, concerns air-to-air refuelling and the resulting effect on our tanker squadrons, which are certainly needed in Europe. Can we have extra tankers? What is the standby force in the South Atlantic? Our tanker resources are somewhat scarce. I do not know whether the Government are prepared to comment on that.
I come to question 11. We know that Argentina has developed relations with Israel. Is it the Government's assessment that they have anti-radiation missiles from the Israelis? I put this in terms of pure speculation as I do not know whether such missiles have been supplied by the Israelis, but I know that Argentina has received advice from the Israelis, who are extremely good at tearing up runways. It is clear that there is a heavy logistic requirement in keeping an airport such as Mount Pleasant in operation. Money is important but to what extent are the resources that we are making available in the south Atlantic at the expense of air defence in Europe? Even if there is no fighting—heaven forbid that it should take place—considerable pressure can be imposed and one can be extremely nasty without killing anyone. The vulnerability of land-based planes in the south Atlantic is considerable. We are adopting a policy there that is rather different from our policy in Europe.
My 12th question concerns the cost of the Mount Pleasant airfield, which I understand is at least £350 million. The Minister may say that this is a matter for the Department of the Environment. If he does, I shall accept that response. He will be aware that there are questions on this topic on the Order Paper. However, I should like to know rather more about the crime that we read about. I understand that if people are couped up in temporary accommodation on building projects there is the possibility of an awkward situation. Against the background of press reports and the stories that some of us have been hearing — to which I have not given publicity — about crime in the construction of the airfield, there should be a Government statement.
My next question, no. 13, is directed to the cost of our presence on Ascension Island. We have a full-scale base developing on Ascension Island and I understand that the cost will be more than £40 million. When we think of the cuts at home, the £40 million that will be spent on Ascension Island highlights the incredible cost of the Government's policy in the South Atlantic.
My 14th question is about the cost of the extra TriStars, to which the Minister referred in opening the debate. I understand that there are to be three extra TriStars. Is it intended that they should be on standby?
My 15th question is on a different subject but one that is related to the previous issue. It is directed to Wintex '85 and the rules of engagement. In the light of the subject of 1982, which, rightly, I am forbidden to go into tonight, it seems that the change in the rules of engagement was 1282 extremely muddled, which is alarming in itself. Alternatively, orders on a particular occasion were given to the war cabinet. Who alters rules of engagement? I am not asking how alterations in rules of engagement are translated into fleet tactics or into Air Force tactics because I understand that the translation can be secret and sacrosanct. That is the proper domain of secrecy. However, it is right that Parliament should ask for what reasons rules of engagement are changed, to what they are changed and on what basis they are altered.
Wintex '85—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong but I think that he should refer to this issue when he replies — is about command and control and the lessons that should be learned from them. Before April 1983, Argentina had 130 aircraft. After the war it had 70. I understand that it now has 160. Included among them are some extremely sophisticated aircraft from France. For example, there are Mirage IIIs which are Nesher-Israeli adapted. Heaven help us, Argentina has some Mirage Vs. What are we to say — question 16 — to our French colleagues about this supply of arms?
Finally, I turn to a subject on which I am rather sensitive and which I think reflects on all forces. It is said that by constantly asking questions about what has happened in the past one revives painful memories. Therefore, with permission I shall read a letter I have received from Mrs. Iris Hall of 109 Barnes road, Cowley, Oxford. She wrote:I have wanted to write to you for many months but with my husband so desperately ill, thought it might be unwise if it got back to him and could upset him further. However, he died today, having been very ill for more than two years, since he never got over our only son Ian's death on HMS Coventry. I want to say please keep up your fight for what you believe should be.She who was personally affected wants the truth of what happened, as does Mrs. Patricia Potter of Oriel cottage, Stafford road, Fordhorses, Wolverhampton, whom I saw last week. Her nephew, Lieutenant Adrian Anslow, was killed on the Atlantic Conveyor. I shall read a letter from an ex-service man, Squadron Leader Peter Nettleton, DFC, who wrote:It seems clear to me that the tireless persistency and integrity which you have shown on the Belgrano affair were reflected in today's Ponting verdict at the Central Criminal Court. You will doubtless agree that the verdict itself amounts to a massive vindication of the much criticised jury system. My thanks, congratulations and best wishes, Peter Nettleton.I have read these letters because I know that there are some service men who have been upset by my recent activities. However, there are others who think that the truth should come out.
Finally, I want to make it clear that as a junior and new Member I used to visit a man who was married to my father's favourite cousin, and a distant relative of mine, who was a marshal of the Royal Air Force, Arthur Tedder. He used to impress upon me—this was at a time when he was physically ill, though mentally alert — that politicians had considerable obligations to the services. In my view, one of those obligations at present is to be concerned about the defence of our country and to make it clear in Parliament that questions should be asked about policies involving the services when it is not quite proper that the services should be asked to carry them out. I believe that even in military terms it is important that questions be asked about the role of the RAF—however skilled, courageous and dedicated to their profession its personnel might be—that the House is giving it in the south Atlantic.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)
I had not thought that it would be my privilege to follow the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). Having heard what he said, I will forgo taking a similar approach to that of the hon. Gentleman. His actions, whether well motivated and well meant, have done a disservice to the nation. We are fortunate in having a Government who have the guts to take right and tough decisions, particularly at a time of crisis. I have had not one letter or telephone call of complaint from my constituents. I had a message from a constituent of a neighbouring Member of Parliament who said that the Government were right in their decision on the General Belgrano. Many of my constituents asked why that decision had not been taken earlier.
It is a great pleasure for me to take part in this debate, the first on the Royal Air Force in which I have had the opportunity to participate. I come to it without a special constituency interest. Sadly I have no aircraft factory or Royal Air Force station in my constituency; we would welcome either in Cannock if we could persuade them to come. I have some modest credentials in so far as I have served for three years in my university air squadron at Southampton and was commissioned in the Royal Air Force volunteer reserve, whose tie I proudly wear today.
There are three issues of major concern, two of which have already been referred to. In regard to air staff target 412, I was alarmed at the remarks by my right hon. Friend at the outset that the Minister of Defence is still persisting with the idea that the option of resparring the Jet Provost remains open. That is wrong for several reasons. The Minister should put that ball firmly out of court now.
The Jet Provost is 25 years old. Even if it were resparred, we would still have a thirsty turbo jet whose equipment is many years old. Originally about 19 companies tendered for the new aircraft and we are now down to a shortlist of four. Those companies have gone to considerable expense in order to be able to tender for the contract. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement will be able to reassure us tonight that resparring the Jet Provost is out.
Originally there was anxiety amongst the professionals in the Royal Air Force that we were even contemplating a turbo prop solution rather than a turbo fan aircraft which everyone knows was on the British Aerospace drawing board. I understand that many of the sceptics have been won over to the idea of a turbo prop as a result of their experience with aeroplanes which are currently flying.
The competition has done a useful service in that it has resulted in the Royal Air Force definitely being provided with an aeroplane which will be superior to the one it would originally have been offered. All the companies have gone out of their way to ensure that they have fine-tuned their offers to produce the best option.
I speak with a personal interest because it was possible for me last summer to spend three days at the central flying school, flying a variety of aeroplanes, including the Jet Provost mark 3 and the Jet Provost mark 5. In the mark 5 I was undertaking a typical low-level sortie that a student would undertake, with the objective of flying over the Pennines at 250 ft to locate a target and fly back. The importance of speed in the equation was impressed upon me.
1284 Unless a student pilot is pushed to fly at high speeds of around 300 knots, there will be a substantial leap between the speed of the basic trainer and the aeroplane which the student will next fly, the Hawk. This low-level exercise is central to the role of training in the Royal Air Force today. Today's modern aircraft fly at a low level. Therefore, it is important that a student gets such experience from the outset.
Speed is also important because it enables the aircraft to climb quickly through our invariably muggy weather where there is low cloud, very often extending up to 10,000 or 15,000 feet. Therefore, we want an aircraft which can get up to a working height as quickly as possible. I am pleased that the Minister is considering a speed of a usable 240 knots instead of a desirable 240 knots. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Best); I am sorry that he is not in the Chamber at the moment. He had a point when he said that the goalposts have been shifted. Air staff target 412 was not drawn up correctly.
All four companies which have tendered have met the specification but they have a valid criticism. Some of them, principally the company tendering for the Firecracker, say that they were told that the speed should be 210 knots, with 240 knots at the maximum, and now the Ministry is saying that the usable speed should be 240 knots. Therefore, I have that sympathy with them.
I agree—I think that this is the mood of the House today — that we do not want a political aeroplane. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has got that message — I am sure that he has — and that he will convey it to the Secretary of State and his colleague, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement. It would be wrong to favour one area of the country with jobs as against another. As has been said, if jobs were created in one area, they could be lost in another. It would also be wrong to allow foreign policy considerations to enter into the argument. It would be wrong to buy an aeroplane simply to boost the balance sheet of a company that the Government have high hopes of bringing into the private sector — that is, Short Brothers, which is an excellent, first-class company. I agree with privatisation, but it would be wrong if we were to make the major objective privatisation rather than finding the right aeroplane for the RAF.
All the contenders, in their way, are excellent aeroplanes. They would not have been on the final list if they were not. I have flown two of them—the Tucano and the PC9—so I speak with some experience of them. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), I have not flown the Firecracker. The Westland A20 is not even off the drawing board.
The campaign has often been vitriolic. I should like to deal with each of the contenders in turn. I strongly commend the initiative that has been taken on the Firecracker. I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends do as well. The people in the company have put their money where their mouth is. They have done what the Government have asked the industry to do and what they have asked our talent in the design teams to do, which is to produce a British product that can be a world-beater. However, I believe that they have not been entirely straight in the way in which they have conducted their campaign on Firecracker because it is not an all-British aeroplane. For a start, the engine is Canadian and other 1285 parts, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn was not willing to divulge to us, are not of British manufacture. For example, I understand that the escape system is a United States Stencil system, although I believe that the company is considering putting in a Martin Baker seat.
Westland is an excellent company, and we have heard from the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) about it, as well as from my hon. Friend the Member for Westonsuper-Mare (Mr. Wiggin), who eloquently put the case for it. It is important that we look carefully at the predicament in which Westland finds itself over its helicopter production schedule. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take careful note of that. That aeroplane is not off the drawing board yet, so the RAF is entitled to look at something that is flying.
§ Mr. Wiggin
Will my hon. Friend consider the history of aircraft acquisition by the RAF? Every major aeroplane bought since the last war and., indeed, some during and before it, has been bought off the drawing board. Therefore, that criticism is not valid.
§ Mr. Howarth
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that remark. What he says is true. However, we are faced with real as well as drawing board options. There are some good real options, so we should look more carefully at them.
I have already saluted Short Brothers. It has done a magnificent job. Its recent order in China was the latest in a series of highly successful deals that it has pulled off under its highly dynamic and excellent chairman, Sir Philip Foreman. However, there are one or two problems with the Tucano in terms of export prospects. There is already the Embraer 312, on which that aeroplane is based, and there is the aeroplane that is being produced under licence in Egypt, both of which will be competing for that export market. Although Shorts' Tucano will be a more sophisticated aeroplane than its competitors, it faces a ready-made competitive market.
It is not true to say that British Aerospace does not need this contract. It needs this contract just as much as the other companies. We should not put British Aerospace out of court simply because it is the major defence and aeroplane manufacturer in this country.
The Hawk and PC9 package is a sensible support package. Although it is true that the Swiss are not committed to buying the Hawk, it is true also that, if the PC9 is not bought, there is no chance whatsoever that the Swiss will buy the Hawk. We should bear that important point in mind.
It is not my job to evaluate the technical merits of these aeroplanes, because that has already been done at Boscombe Down. I do not deny that, in a sense, I speak for the Royal Air Force, although I am in no way authorised to do so. I believe, as do most other hon. Members who have spoken in this debate, that the aeroplane that is chosen must be the one that the RAF wants. I have drawn on my experience as a pilot — admittedly, of limited hours—and I believe that speed is the vital factor. One aeroplane is faster than the rest. It is important to note that, if the AST412 was wrong in the first place, it is not my job as an hon. Member to go along with a mistake. Speed is important and the PC9 is marginally ahead of the rest. I believe that that is the position as the RAF sees it.
§ Mr. Robert Atkins
As my hon. Friend knows, I do not hold a particular brief because I was not a pilot—
§ Mr. Atkins
That is not true. I do not hold a brief for any particular organisation. The Garrett engine has now been made available to the Tucano, and, in terms of speed, the Garrett engine will exceed the RAF's requirements. That puts a whole new complexion on the Tucano.
§ Mr. Howarth
My hon. Friend is correct. I was discussing this matter the other night with Short Brothers. The fact is that that engine has not yet been mated with the aircraft frame. There must be further developments. It is not for me to judge whether that is good or bad; it is for the Royal Air Force to judge. I am trying merely to bring to the debate some of my experience as a trainee pilot sitting in the front seat having my head beaten by an instructor and being told not to make mistakes.
There are pros and cons to be considered when proposing collaboration. Although collaboration may be a splendid objective, complex decision-making procedures —often involving changes of Government—must take place. Those procedures can result in lengthy discussions on whether to proceed with a decision taken by a previous Government, on the work share allocation and on differences of objective. I believe that differences of objective are the most important factor to consider in contemplating collaboration. I heartily endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) said about collaboration. I believe that the project is already slipping. British Aerospace needs to develop a new aeroplane in order to keep its design team together. The RAF needs a new aircraft to ensure that it is capable of meeting threats. If we do not take action swiftly, export markets that are currently open to us will be lost for good.
For those reasons, I urge my right hon. Friend to make a swift decision one way or the other. Some Conservative Members are outraged at the fact that the French are trying to delay this project to advantage the Mirage 2000 and to ensure that they get what they want at our expense. There is no doubt that the home solution could be remarkably cheap, and probably as cheap as a collaborative programme, especially bearing in mind that collaboration itself has costs.
I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will take an early decision and that he will not close the door to the possibility of a United Kingdom solution.
§ Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)
I have not had the flying experience of the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth), although I did fly Tiger Moths in the early to mid-1950s. We had leather helmets and gloves in those days. However, I have had a little experience of procurement. As I know that other hon. Members want to speak, I shall be brief and address myself to one issue—the jet trainer replacement.
I was interested to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) describe the programme of procurement of a new aeroplane to replace the Jet Provost. I will not go into the details, but it is a remarkable process. We are now going through a rebidding operation, which is of great concern to me. I hope that the Minister will comment on that.
I understand that initially there were 20 contenders for the contract, of which four were short listed. After some 1287 considerable time, there was a further shortlisting — a short shortlist—of two, the manufacturers of the PC9 and the Tucano. They were then — and this is quite remarkable—asked to submit another bid, the effect of which was to open up the whole position. The manufacturers which were knocked out in the short short-listing procedure asked their parliamentary representatives to lobby the MoD and all and sundry to be put back on the list. The consequence is that there are now at least four contenders. From what the Minister said in his opening remarks, I understand that a refurbished Jet Provost is back on the list, but I am not sure whether that is an additional contender, making five in all. The asking for subsequent bids is inept because of the pressure to get companies that were knocked out back on the list. That has shown that there is uncertainty and confusion.
An article in Flight International on 2 February entitled "Modus Operandi" is worth reading. It describes in detail some of the disadvantages of that approach. Once we go back to having four companies submitting additional bids, that means additional development work for them and the expenditure of extra money, which is a waste of the nation's resources. It is not the way to go about these matters.
The problem has emerged mainly from the fact that none of the turbo trainers was really suitable apart from the PC9, although that has had to have larger power units and, because of the specification produced by the RAF, the company is trying to re-engine the plane. This waste of resources could have been avoided had another process taken place. As a result, we are putting in larger engines, and the relationship between airframe life, range, fuel consumption, capacity, weight and so on will be upset. If the PC9 is not selected, it could result in a risky project —and we have already heard about Nimrod.
If we attempt to doctor these things, will we end up with another delayed project and perhaps even with an aeroplane with which the RAF would be dissatisfied? A more straightforward process could be achieved if we first selected the type of aircraft which is best for the job. We could then have a competitive tender on that, followed by a second stage when there would be further competitive bids from the manufacturers and the various consortia which were prepared to provide the aircraft that best fitted the bill.
The advantage would be that the RAF would end up with the aeroplane that it wants, and the Treasury would be able to get the plane that it wants at the price that it wishes to pay. Consequently, everyone would win. In addition, this more logical approach to procurement would create more jobs and a stronger industry. We would be able to buy more aircraft and would have a better defence for Britain.
This venture into competitive tendering is a worthwhile approach, but I wonder whether there is a lack of direction in carrying out the procurement process. My strong opinion is that jobs should be taken into account. There is no doubt in my mind that we must have the best aircraft for the RAF, but we should create as many jobs as possible.
Many of my constituents work at Brough. It has been suggested that, with the PC9, 85 per cent. of the airframe 1288 work for the RAF planes would in man hours be carried out in Britain, and that 15 per cent. would be carried out by the Swiss Pilatus company.
The hon. Member for Beverley (Sir P. Wall) referred to further orders. British Aerospace is optimistic about further sales if we choose the PC9. I understand that about 24 planes are required in Switzerland and that the 160 Swiss Hunters require replacement. There is optimism that these could be replaced by the single-seat Hawk 200.
Humberside is a region of high unemployment, and in my constituency male unemployment is now 20.5 per cent. This project would be important, given that there is a lack of high technology industry in the area. Much of our industry is primary. As well as fishing, there is steel making on the south bank. Consequently, the PC9 project, which I hope the RAF will be supplied with, would stimulate technology and the economy in the area. Trade unions have contributed magnificently in the campaign, and we should recognise that men have spent hour upon hour on it. Some people may say that that is not what they should be doing. Nevertheless, we must recognise that they have made every effort to ensure that the PC9 gets work.
The PC9 is the best aircraft. If we opt for one of the botched-up versions of it, several hon. Members will be interested to monitor the project to see whether we have another potential Nimrod on our hands.
§ Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel)
I declare an interest as a parliamentary adviser to British Aerospace, Space and Communications Division. My specialist interest in space allows me to withhold any comment about the RAF trainer, and I am sure that the Minister will be glad to have one less voice lobbying him tonight. The matter has been well aired.
In the short time available to me I shall concentrate on a matter raised by my hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins), for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), and for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) and that is the fallback position if we cannot get a collaborative venture on the European fighter aircraft. I agree with my right hon. Friends and Opposition Members who said that there must be worries about the slippage in the project.
Anyone who looks at the history of other collaborative projects must recognise that the French national interest has always fought extremely hard. I am worried that the enthusiasm of the French for the Mirage 2000 and their ideas about a new engine for it do not sit happily with our interests. Indeed, their current interest for a light aircraft goes against our perceived views, and adds to the problem. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement will assure us that the Government are already considering the fallback position.
If one takes a dispassionate view, the fallback position could relate to the option of buying American. I hope that my hon. Friend will take the opportunity tonight to make it plain that the Government would think long and hard before they decimated the defence airframe industry in the United Kingdom and removed the avionics capacity, which has been a key element in successful developments, such as Tornado and Jaguar. When he deals with the alternatives, I hope that he will say something about the experimental aircraft programme. Substantial resources have been committed to it. I applaud the Government's 1289 willingness to do that and to act quickly. I look forward, as many hon. Members do, to seeing that aircraft fly at Farnborough next year. I hope that by then we shall have in our minds and in the planning of Government a better feel for what the British national solution may be.
From the briefings I have had, I understand that there is a possibility of a British national programme that would not be out of line financially compared with the likely cost of a collaborative programme. That is especially true if one takes out, as one should, the question of the development of a new aircraft engine because that raises wider issues, other possibilities in the export market and so on.
The interest in the EAP can lead to a realistic view of the threat. I am a member of the Select Committee on Defence and think that we should constantly remind ourselves that we are dealing with the threat in the 1990s and, to be more specific, the MIG 90. If we are not careful, in the long-drawn-out processes of Government —this has been one of our failings in the past, as has been getting industrial collaboration moving quickly—we could have slippage, both in time and in meeting that genuine threat.
Before concluding my speech, I cannot help but say a word or two about the Falklands. I went down there about two years ago and, like the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), I should like to pay tribute to the remarkable efforts of the air crews. They manage to get not only people like me but far more essential traffic to and from the Falklands. But, unlike the hon. Gentleman, I look forward to the day when the airfield is completed, as that will make life that much more bearable and will enable us to look at the whole question of the Falklands in a better and more productive way.
My text on the Falklands was given to me by a very senior retired RAF officer, a constituent of mine, who said to me when the task force sailed, "Right. You have all joined hands and the will of Parliament is to support this great venture. All I ask is that you make sure that the politicians do not seek to interfere with operational matters thereafter and when the battle is over, I pray you don't spend the next few years trying to suggest where we went wrong." The hon. Member for Linlithgow has done nothing but that. It grieves me to say to a colleague for whom I have had respect for many years in other matters that he is totally out of touch with the country on this issue, as was his contribution in this debate tonight.
§ Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) for having given me a few minutes in which to make my speech. I represent a constituency that designs and builds aeroplanes, but which does not seem to benefit from them. The PC9 was, I believe, mostly designed at Bembridge. I am a former non-executive director, of Pilatus Brittan Norman. I had to resign two years ago, and I miss the £2,000 a year that I used to earn. But Firecracker was originally put together by Desmond Norman in an outbuilding at Whitwell on the Isle of Wight and was finally completed at Sandown. There is also Westlands, with its subsidiary the British Hovercraft Corporation, which has the A20 with the Australians, and Shorts, which subcontracts much of its work to Cowes. For example, the wings of the 330 and the 360 are built there.
1290 I was told today by Westlands that if it failed with the A20 it would benefit most with the Tucano. Our Northern Ireland colleagues are not in the Chamber now, but they rightly want most of the work involved. At Christmas I wrote to Sir Phillip Forman congratulating him on his publicity, and pleaded with him that, should he be successful, he should subcontract some of the work to the Isle of Wight.
But the real reason for my intervention is that I am scared stiff of what will happen to the British Hovercraft Corporation. Some very able people down there designed and built the hovercraft. The 188 was very successful, but unfortunately the Navy does not seem to want hovercraft. Nevertheless, I am sure that its role in mine countermeasures operations is outstanding and that is an area of defence that we ignore at our peril. That is the sort of role that that hovercraft should be playing. However, that does not seem to be on, and I believe that the old BH7 is now to be sold. The whole future of the British Hovercraft Corporation is tied up with Westlands, so serious consideration should be given to Westlands' plea, which has been echoed in several parts of the House, that the ST404, and particularly the W30, should be brought forward. That would obviously help enormously.
There are 1,500 skilled people working on the Isle of Wight with the British Hovercraft Corporation. That company is our biggest employer. It used to employ more than 2,000 people, but there have been substantial redundancies. The Isle of Wight's unemployment rate is now 17.1 per cent., which, with 300 or more redundancies, would quickly go above 20 per cent. We would then, surely, qualify for assisted area status, but that is not a situation we seek.
The Isle of Wight would be helped if the Castor programme was brought forward. It is a very cheap programme, which uses the Islander aircraft. It does not use a Nimrod, so the Government should ignore any pleas from the RAF to use Nimrod in that role. I believe that the PC9 is the aircraft that the RAF wants. If that is agreed, it will encourage Dr. Buhle—who owns 70 per cent. of Oerlikon Buhle with his sister—to continue investing in the Isle of Wight. It will also help to bring back to Bembridge production of the Islander aircraft. That aircraft is at present produced in Romania. That would create more jobs.
That is my plea, and I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North for allowing me to make it.
§ Mr. McNamara
With the leave of the House, I shall reply to the debate.
We have had a very interesting and full debate, despite the shortage of time. Due to the arrangements that usually exist between the Under-Secretary and myself, I think that all those who wanted to speak in the debate have managed to do so. That is good, because every hon. Member should have the opportunity to air his constituency interests and, more importantly, to look at the issue in the round, together with all the problems facing the RAF and our defence industries.
I should like to make a point that I believe has the full support of every hon. Member. We regard it as absolute nonsense to go for the refurbishment of the Jet Provost. That is a relatively uncontroversial statement. It is penny 1291 wise and pound foolish of the Government still to put forward that idea. Many millions of pounds would be spent on an aircraft with a very short life.
There has been a remarkable agreement on both sides of the House—between Haltemprice and Hull, west and between Scunthorpe and Hull, north—about what plane the RAF should have. When the time comes for a decision, I hope that it will be made on the basis of what the RAF needs—not upon what Humberside, Belfast or Westland need. We have a duty to ensure that we provide the people whom we expect to fly the aircraft and protect the nation with the best training aircraft available. We all have our own ideas of what that is, but the consensus is that we should provide the plane that the RAF wants.
Hon. Members have expressed their concern about what will happen to the European project for the new fighter plane. All hon. Members have mirrored the fear, almost to the point of becoming paranoid, about the role of the French and their attitude to the Mirage 2000. Perhaps behind the scenes the Secretary of State is flexing his muscles rather than swinging the Mace and working hard and long. However, we have the impression that the French are making the running. It seems that the Secretary of State, in his desire to appear to be a good European and to escape from the idea that we are not really part of Europe, is submerging some of our basic national interests. The message from the House should be that we want firm assurances. The defence of our country and the maintenance of a firm industrial base upon which we can defend our country requires early decisions.
That argument from both sides of the House is that, despite what has been said today and despite what the Government are doing about collaborative projects, Westland should have an early decision on the helicopter to relace the Puma and the Wessex. That is important in industrial terms and in national strategic terms.
Sometimes we tend to be a little parochial in that we concentrate on our own industries and interests. My hon. Friend the Member for Shieffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) and the hon. Member for Beverley (Sir P. Wall) reminded us of the importance of the RAF plane in its NATO role and some of the problems involved in the need for a stand-off ability in our airfield destruction weapons. That is important.
Repeatedly our attention is drawn to the United Kingdom's vulnerability and the problem posed by the disaster, for which we all share responsibility, of the Nimrod early warning system. We are right to be concerned about that. We must consider the importance of an early warning system. If the Shackleton cannot provide it, we must wait a long time for Nimrod. We should consider whether we can afford to gamble for another three or four years. As the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) said, the possibility of leasing AWACS until we reach decisions would not meet some of the proper anxieties of the House.
Different people have different attitudes about the campaign that my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has waged concerning the Falklands. I have not always agreed with him, but it is right and proper that he should have raised his anxieties in his role as a Member of Parliament. The Opposition supported the Falklands campaign as we have no time for invasion and the resolution of international differences by unprovoked 1292 aggression. However, the Government and the Conservative party are out of touch with the country in that, having successfully conducted that campaign, they do not realise that we should turn our attention to resolving the fortress Falklands issue to get away from the great drain that the Falklands will be on our defence capability.
A great responsibility lies on the Government in initiating such procedures. It is a case of being magnanimous in victory. There should also be a note of caution as we know what has been supplied to and obtained by the Argentine Government since their defeat in the Malvinas. Our international relations and Britain's primary defensive role are not helped by our having a festering sore in the South Atlantic. It is also no help to us for a large part of our Air Force effort to be concentrated there. The Opposition's policy has been to try to find some proper accommodation with Argentina. We must not drop our guard or be prepared to be rolled on again, but we must be prepared to talk.
There has been a sense of unreality about the debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) said, it is taking place under the shadow of Trident. We do not know what it will cost. With the pound going up and down against the dollar like a yo-yo, expenditure on what we regard as a superfluous system will be increased. The Trident expenditure will impinge ever more on our ability to pay for the defence of our country by proper conventional methods.
We want a proper conventional defence — a strong Air Force and a strong industrial base. All that is being put at risk. The Government said that they will not introduce another White Paper. They will have to introduce another White Paper and another defence review or they will introduce no programmes but try to pretend that everything is fine. If that happens, the Secretary of State will build up problem after problem for his successors. That is not the proper role of the Secretary of State. He must meet the new challenges within the limitations that his budget puts on him. If he does not do that, we shall end up with structural disarmament, That would be a tragedy for Britain and the free world.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. John Lee)
It gives me great pleasure to close this year's Royal Air Force debate. This Government can be justifiably proud of their record of spending and support for the RAF. Since we came to power, expenditure on air systems, most of which goes to the RAF, has risen over 40 per cent. in real terms, as was mentioned earlier by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. Expenditure on RAF equipment for 1985–86 is estimated to be £3,506 million and a total RAF complement of around 93,000 represents expenditure approaching £38,000 per person.
As an article in the Financial Times said on Tuesday of this week:The RAF is in the throes of its biggest re-equipment programme since the Korean war.This continuing programme is reaching its peak and will mean that by 1989 over half of our aircraft will have been recently replaced. This compares with five years ago when half our front line was over 20 years old. With the greatest respect to the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones), I do not see the picture that he painted of the RAF. Inevitably, though, with 1985–86 bringing an end to the 1293 3 per cent. expenditure increases, our budget is increasingly tight, given the costs and sophistication of modern aircraft, weaponry and software. That is why we are striving for greater efficiency, competition and international collaboration on defence spending, with emphasis upon improving the teeth-to-tail ratio and upon increasingly involving the private sector in support tasks and by putting schemes out to contract.
§ Mr. Carter-Jones
If the hon. Gentleman is so convinced that we are on target, will he tell us what aircraft we shall have in 1995 to defend us in a fighting capacity, given that more than 10 years are needed to develop such an aircraft?
§ Mr. Lee
No, I cannot do so now because I have very many points to deal with.
I was not surprised to hear mention of the competition to provide a new trainer for the RAF to replace the aging Jet Provost. There were speeches from hon. Members which supported each of the individual contenders. On the PC9, there was the speech of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). His broad approach is that what is good for Brough is good for Britain. While one understands his constituency interests, I believe that the hon. Gentleman was unfair in being so disparaging about a number of the other contenders when he does not have all the facts and figures in front of him, in particular the financial aspects. Support for the PC9 was also given by my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley (Sir P. Wall), the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. McKelvey) and for my hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) and for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth). Support for the A20 came from my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin). The case for the Shorts Tucano was made by the hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) and the Hunting Firecracker was supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Mon (Mr. Best), who also had an Adjournment debate on that topic.
We currently have about 160 Jet Provosts in service but they have outdated avionics, high fuel consumption, side by side seating and a poor ratio of support man hours to flying hours. They would need major refurbishments to meet the pilot training need beyond the end of the decade, but I have to say that we have not yet ruled out the refurbishment option. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh"] Despite the obvious groans, my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) pointed out earlier that if that refurbishment option did go ahead it would give him and his constituency some work and that that was his reserve option.
Quite naturally, attention has focussed on the requirements of ASR 412 and the evaluation of a new trainer aircraft. We are looking at an order for some 130 aircraft with an option for a further 15. It would be a turbo prop with jet-like handling, tandem seating, good climbing power and full aerobatic performance. Obviously we also want it to be reliable and economical to operate.
1294 My experience of the past 16 months or so is that competitions of this sort generate a good deal of powerful lobbying and this certainly has been no exception, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare. The competition has provided excellent business for the restaurants and hostelries around Westminster. It has benefited considerably the stationery industry. The post office has also done extremely well.
No-one will be surprised if I say that we listen very carefully to all the points that are made to us and that we take into account in coming to a decision a very wide range of relevant factors.
It will be even more unsurprising if I say that our evaluations are impartial, and that the relevant factors include broader industrial and economic issues. That is the background against which most of the lobbying takes place. For our part, however, we must restate that the main consideration is to provide the Royal Air Force with a suitable aircraft to fulfil its training requirements.
We asked for best and final offers from two manufacturers — from Shorts, with their Tucano, and from British Aerospace, with the PC9. In the event, we also received best and final offers on the Hunting Firecracker and the Westlands A20.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement earlier indicated to Hunting and to Westlands that they really were not in the competition at that stage but that nevertheless, if they wanted to submit ultimately, at their expense, best and final offers, they would be considered. They were told at that stage that they were not likely to be considered, in order to save them further money. I suggest that the competition has been handled extremely fairly by the Ministry and that ultimately the RAF will get a very good buy, assuming that it goes ahead with a new trainer.
§ Mr. Lee
The decision will be taken in the spring. [HON. MEMBERS: "Which spring?"] Spring 1985.
Several hon. Members have mentioned the European fighter aircraft, commonly known as EFA — perhaps some day I shall be able to say "affectionately known as EFA". We are still at a complex and difficult stage of studies and negotiations.
The hon. Member for Kingston Upon Hull, North dealt with the whole matter of EFA, as did the hon. Member for Eccles, and my hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh, West, for Cannock and Burntwood and for Arundel (Mr. Marshall).
A particularly strong plea that I shall not forget was made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble, who spoke most passionately and most eloquently, as he always does in matters affecting British Aerospace and his constituents who work at Warton in the South Ribble constituency. I fully understand his sentiments. As a Lancashire MP, I know the importance of Warton and have a number of sub-contracting companies to British Aerospace in my constituency.
In the mid-1990s we shall need to replace our current force of Jaguars and Phantoms. So far, we and four other countries—France, Germany, Italy and Spain—have agreed on a European staff target that specifies a single seat, twin-engined, agile, short-take-off-and-landing fighter. This will be primarily an air defence aircraft but with good ground-attack capability. We shall need about 250 such aircraft.
1295 Feasibility studies are in hand and the industrial element of those, including participation by British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce, has recently been completed. Those industrial reports were delivered to officials last week and are now being studied in detail in each capital. It would be wrong of me to anticipate the outcome of the national and international assessments but we are proceeding with all speed, and it is intended that the five Defence Ministers should meet in the spring to take stock of the position and decide how best to proceed.
The House will be aware that our starting point is our concern to maximise co-operation and collaboration in Europe while seeking to meet the equipment requirements of the RAF. EFA should become a positive manifestation of that goal. Our work over the coming weeks will be to establish whether that claim can be met while simultaneously ensuring that the legitimate aspirations of the five nations' taxpayers, air forces and industries are properly safeguarded. There is a strong political will in Europe that an EFA programme should be launched and that it should proceed. We shall continue to play our full part in the process of striving for a cost-effective collaboration programme based on fair and equitable terms for all partners.
If we succeed, we shall be launching more than a procurement programme. Therefore, we shall be setting the seal on a new and exciting phase of European co-operation, the political, economic, industrial and defence implications of which could be profound.
While I fully understand some of the anti-French sentiment that has been expressed in the Chamber this evening, it has not, in my view, been over-helpful. Surely we should be trying to bring our nations together in terms of collaboration.
§ Mr. Robert Atkins
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks about me, and I know his understanding of the subject, but will he please recognise that, with the pressure on MPs with constituents working in British Aerospace, they need to have more that fine words; they positively want something to happen.
§ Mr. Lee
I fully understand the comments of my hon. Friend and he does not need to over-egg the pudding; I get the message.
I turn now to Westlands, of particular interest to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross), and to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare. Westlands is and will remain a vitally important defence contractor. The services depend on Westlands for support of in-service helicopters and the production of new aircraft. Ministers of a number of Departments are closely in touch with Westlands. We are fully cognisant of their problems and are working closely with the company.
None the less, the Ministry of Defence supports the company's efforts, encouraged by Government launch aid, to diversify into civil markets. Civil prospects with EH101 and W30 look most encouraging from 1990 onwards. The company will nevertheless continue to need military orders from both the United Kingdom and export markets. We recognise that the company is currently short of orders for production aircraft in the late 1980s. We are therefore considering with them what help the Government 1296 can give in generating additional orders in the medium term. I note all that has been said in the debate by a number of hon. Members on the W30.
§ Mr. Ashdown
The Minister has said that he would like to help the company. Does he realise that the greatest help that he can give to the company is a decision one way or the other, in principle and not necessarily tied to a time, on the AST 404? Can he give any indication of the time when such a decision might be forthcoming?
§ Mr. Lee
I could not give a comment on the precise timing, but I repeat that we are fully aware of the situation at Westlands. I note the hon. Gentleman's constituency interest and his own interest as a small shareholder. On a personal note, when we privatise the Royal Ordnance I hope that he will indicate his support. We will send him a pink form in the hope that he will buy £20 worth of shares in that.
On the question of Nimrod AEW, several hon. Members expressed concern about the delay and cost overruns in this project. Let me say immediately that I share their concern. It is not a procurement exercise of which either the Ministry or industry can be particularly proud.
In the interest of saving time, I will move fairly fast to cover a number of other topics.
The hon. Member for Eccles mentioned British Aerospace, Woodford. We fully appreciate the loading problems faced by British Aerospace in Manchester. We have been considering a number of possible programmes which could be undertaken in the industry and the transfer of Nimrod major servicings is one of these. It is hoped to make an announcement shortly. The future of Woodford must, of course, be primarily a matter for the British Aerospace management to determine but we are aware of the situation there.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West mentioned the subject of reintroducing a flying role for the Royal Auxiliary Air Force when resources permit. I share his wish to improve the role of the Auxiliary Air Force and would draw his attention to our decision to set up a new auxiliary RAF Regiment squadron to provide anti-aircraft defence at RAF Waddington.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) asked whether we were planning to update the Phantom F2 avionics in the same way as we are updating the Buccaneer. In fact, the avionics in the Phantom were fitted much more recently than those in the Buccaneer. This, together with the fact that the Phantom will be largely replaced by the Tornado F2, means that such an update is neither necessary nor cost-effective.
We are also very conscious of the need to update our IFF capability. This was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and others. We are developing with our NATO partners a NATO identification system. This system will incorporate new technology to meet the threat in the electronic environment in the 1990s and beyond.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley both raised the subject of the long-range stand-off missile. In partnership with the United States and West Germany we have agreed to undertake a feasibility study into options for introducing such a weapon in the 1990s. This study should be completed in November 1986.
1297 The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) asked a whole range of questions on his particular topic. I will discuss those questions with my ministerial colleagues and we certainly will take note of them.
On the question of Tornado, which was mentioned by a number of hon. Members and is of specific interest to my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble, we are currently considering with the RAF whether we should buy a quantity of Attrition aircraft, but as yet no decision has been taken.
On the whole question of defence sales, there are prospects in a number of countries. I cannot comment on them in detail but in fact — a number of my hon. Friends will bear me out—British Aerospace and British industry have given the Ministry of Defence and its sales team considerable credit for the efforts we have put into the sales effort.
1298 My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare asked about the Meteorological Office and the cost of the service. I visited the office recently and I can testify that it provides a valuable service in many areas. It was the subject of a resource control review and in implementing the recommendations that flowed from that review the office is actively seeking new ways of exploiting its services in the commercial sector.
Mr. John Mc William (Blaydon)
rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.
§ Question, That the Question be now put, put and negatived.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.