HC Deb 17 June 1986 vol 99 cc895-7
3. Mr. Alex Carlile

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what progress has been made towards completion of the Nimrod airborne radar programme.

15. Mr. Gerald Howarth

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will report on progress being made in bringing Nimrod airborne early warning aircraft into service.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. John Lee)

A full statement on the Nimrod airborne early warning project was made to the House by my right hon. Friend the then Minister of State for Defence Procurement during the debate on the Royal Air Force, on 26 February, at columns 962–65 of the Official Report. The present position is that we have received proposals for AEW systems from six contractors, including GEC Avionics and three United States companies — Boeing, Grumman and Lockheed. In addition, we have had proposals from the United States Government to supply either of the systems in current United States military service through foreign military sales arrangements. All contractors have been asked to submit firm price proposals by 7 July.

Mr. Carlile

Why has the tender date for the programme been moved so often—four times, I believe? Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the constant moving of the tender date has caused great uncertainty, especially for one of the companies concerned? Does he agree that the tender date has been moved so often because of a running dispute between the Department of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Defence?

Mr. Lee

We are running a fair competition and we intend to he totally even-handed.

Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend will be aware that a number of the overseas proposals would provide aircraft other than the Nimrod. Will he say whether he foresees that, in the event of one of these contractors being selected, the 11 AEW Nimrods could be redeployed in the ASW role?

Mr. Lee

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his contribution, and his suggestion will be considered, as will any cost-effective solution.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Is not the scandal of Nimrod. made my Marconi Underwater Systems Ltd. surpassed only by the scandal of Marconi's Tigerfish—the torpedo that does not work? Does not Marconi Underwater Systems Ltd. need a major shake-up? Is not the only reason why it purchased the services of the right hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Prior) that it could effectively, perhaps, impress Cabinet members with undue pressure?

Mr. Lee

All I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that in fact we are in the air, not under water, at the present time. I repeat, that this is a project of which historically neither the industry nor the Ministry of Defence can be particularly proud.

Sir Antony Buck

Ignoring the rather intemperate remarks of the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours, is my hon. Friend able to say when he will be able to say something definitive about the programme? Will it be a matter of months, or a year? When will he be able to to tell us something rather more firm and specific about the future of this programme?

Mr. Lee

Obviously we shall carefully evaluate the proposals. At present we have a team of about 50 officials working on the overall project.

Mr. McNamara

Does the Minister accept that the last statement seems to indicate that the Ministry is all at sea over this particular matter? Will he explain why on this occasion, as on previous occasions, the Ministry has decided to move the goal posts in terms of tendering? This has all the unsavoury atmosphere of what attended the tendering for the RAF trainer. Will the Minister tell the House whether the Ministry has given up all belief in a British early warning over the horizon radar system? Will he give an undertaking that the announcement of the decision about which system is to be adopted will be made in this House and will not be either leaked from the Ministry or slipped out while the House is in recess?

Mr. Lee

I am sure that in due course the decision will be announced in this House. although the decision will be for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. I repeat. in reply to the hon. Gentleman's earlier points, that in this competition we intend to be totally even-handed.

Sir Hector Monro

Does my hon. Friend agree that in the Nimrod we have a first-class airframe with a first-class engine and many experienced RAF crews to operate them? Is it really beyond the wit of this country's electronics industry to provide an adequate radar set with which to fulfil the contract?

Mr. Lee

With respect, it would be inappropriate for me to answer that question or to be drawn, apart from repeating once again that we are in full and genuine competition.