HC Deb 29 January 1985 vol 72 cc141-2
9. Mr. Stan Thorne

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement concerning the proposed European fighter aircraft.

14. Mr. Robert Atkins

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what is the current position of collaborative negotiations on the proposed European fighter aircraft.

Mr. Butler

The feasibility study on the European figher aircraft is continuing and we expect to receive reports on the outcome of the industrial aspects of that study shortly. Discussions are also proceeding at Government level on a range of activities affecting the programme. Defence Ministers will meet in the spring to review the latest position.

Mr. Thorne

May we be assured that, should we go ahead with the production of a European fighter aircraft, a major portion of the production work will take place in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Butler

If we follow precedent in this matter, the work sharing will be according to the number of aircraft that the respective air forces need.

Mr. Robert Atkins

Will my right hon. Friend accept that rumours of a deferment of the meeting of Defence Ministers of the countries likely to be involved in the project, originally scheduled for the spring, respresent yet more success for the French, one of whose objectives seems to be to delay this project at any costs either to the benefit of their industry or to the detriment of ours? Does he appreciate that, in those circumstances, British Aerospace and other potential partners on the United Kingdom side are expecting a firm stand to be taken when the meeting eventually takes place?

Mr. Butler

I said in my main answer that the Defence Ministers intend to meet in the spring to review progress and that the results of the study will be available shortly. That being the case, I hope that we can make progress on this matter. On the other hand, anybody with experience of the project will know that difficulties have arisen in the past, that compromises have been necessary and that there may be considerable argument before we can decide whether to go on to the next stage. It is the intention of the Government as a whole to make this collaborative project work if we can because it will be to the advantage of our Air Force and industry.

Dr. Marek

Will the Minister confirm that the basic weight of this aircraft should be between 10 tonnes and 11 tonnes, because it would then be likely to meet the operational requirements of the RAF?

Mr. Butler

No, Sir. The work is being done around a weight of 9½ tonnes, with some opportunity to investigate a variant on that.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Is my right hon. Friend aware that as up to 800 of these aircraft could eventually be produced for the countries interested in obtaining them, this is a matter of enormous importance for the development of future technology and employment prospect in Britain, especially for companies interested in tendering under the programme?

Mr. Butler

The sales prospects for this aircraft within NATO and to third countries will be greater if it proceeds as a collaborative venture than if, for instance, we are forced back on to a unilateral solution.

Mr. Denzil Davies

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is considerable concern in the aircraft industry lest this project ends in fiasco? Is he further aware of the feeling in the industry that the Secretary of State for Defence is being led by the nose by the French? Is it not a fact that the requirements of the French air force and of the RAF are different, in that the RAF wants a combat fighter while the French want a ground attack fighter? Will he now say whether, if the project is cancelled and does not go ahead, we will build our own aircraft?

Mr. Butler

I shall certainly not answer the last part of that supplementary question directly because, first, it is our intention to try to make the project succeed, and, secondly, if we cannot go ahead with all the partners which are at present involved, it obviously makes sense to see whether it would be sensible to proceed with other partners. My judgment is that industry in Britain is much more realistic and pragmatic about this matter than is the right hon. Gentleman.