§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lightbown.]4.52 pm
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Archie Hamilton)
This is the first Royal Air Force debate that I have had the privilege to open. It is an especial privilege in this the 75th anniversary year of the founding of the RAF's precursor, the Royal Flying Corps. From those early days the RAF has played a crucial role in the defence of the nation. Today the RAF is one of the best equipped and most professional air forces in the world. It can project awesome air power in all its forms, wherever and however it may be ordered to do. The House well knows the importance of air power. The German blitzkrieg campaigns of 1940 and 1941, the Battle of Britain, Pearl Harbour, and, more recently, the Arab-Israeli wars and the Falklands conflict have all demonstrated the essential prerequisite of air superiority if other battles are to be fought and won.
§ Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)
The Minister mentioned the Falklands conflict. On several occasions some of my colleagues and I have asked the Ministry of Defence to tell us about the deployment of naval and air forces, as well as personnel, in the south Atlantic. We are always told that we cannot be informed of that because it is a matter of national security. Does the Minister believe that the deployment of our forces is unknown to Argentina and to the Soviets, or to whoever else wants to find that out? Why is it that the only people who are not told how much deployment there is in the south Atlantic and what we are getting for the huge sums that are being spent there—the only people who are left totally in the dark—are the British Parliament and the British taxpayers, who must foot the Bill? Why can we not be told what we must clearly expect our enemies to have information about? Why can we not be told what the deployment is in the south Atlantic?
§ Mr. Hamilton
I cannot speculate on how good the Argentine intelligence services are, but it must be right to keep secret exactly what our deployments are, because we are trying to deter any future adventurism in that area. Therefore, the less specific we are about our troops and deployment there, the better.
Land and sea forces are naked without air cover and can rarely complete their tasks without air superiority. That point is not lost on the Soviet Union, whose defence expenditure, huge as it is, has been focussed in this direction, with the introduction in the past decade of the Foxbat, Fencer, Flogger, Fulcrum and Flanker fighters, The Backfire and Blackjack heavy bombers and its own AWACS, the Mainstay airborne early warning aircraft.
During our debate on the Army last week the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies), accused my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces of fearing to look forward. The accusation was quite unjustified. We do not pretend that maintaining an effective, credible and balanced defence within reasonable resources is easy, but it is much easier for us than it would ever be for the Labour party, bearing in mind the increasing influence of the hard Left.
I look back gladly on the substantial increase in expenditure in real terms which we have achieved in the 1050 last eight years and which has given the RAF its biggest re-equipment programme for 30 years, with the build-up of the Tornado GR1 force nearing completion, the Tornado F3 entering service and the Harrier GR5 to follow shortly.
Those and other systems, which I shall describe, will provide the backbone of our air power as it enters the next decade. Range of operations, mobility and speed of response define the key characteristics in each of the major roles which the RAF undertakes. Modern attack aircraft, such as the Tornado, can carry a wide range of weapons by day or by night and in all weathers, and can even perform two or more different roles in the course of a single mission. Their range of action can be extended by in-flight refuelling and they can be re-targeted in the air. Air transport is vital for reinforcement both within the tactical environment and strategically. For example, Mount Pleasant airport now gives us the ability to reinforce the Falklands by air in a matter of hours.
Now I shall address some aspects of Britain's air power in greater detail. I shall deal first with air defence, which is air power in its own right, and our protection against the air power of any potential aggressor. Air defence of the United Kingdom not only secures the protection of our national territory, but plays a vital role in NATO'S ability to defend western Europe from any attack by Warsaw pact countries. The United Kingdom provides a forward base for maritime operations in the north-east Atlantic and north Norwegian sea, a rear base for operations on and over continental Europe, and a main operating base for maritime operations in the Channel and eastern Atlantic. The United Kingdom would play a crucial role in any conflict as a staging post for reinforcements from North America. The RAF's air defence capability will greatly increase in key areas during the next few years.
One hundred and sixty-two of the air defence variant of the Tornado have now been ordered. In 1985 the operational conversion unit was formed to train pilots on the new F3, and the first squadron will become fully operational later this year. Thereafter, squadrons will form every six months until 1990. The F3's excellent range and loiter capability—which can be extended by air-to-air refuelling—is ideally suited to the role of air defence of the United Kingdom because it allows us to fly long combat air patrols far out of the North and Norwegian seas and the Atlantic to intercept enemy aircraft before they can launch long-range missiles.
I have to acknowledge that some difficulties have been experienced with the development of the F3's sophisticated airintervention radar, Foxhunter, which does not yet meet the requirements of the RAF in full. However, I am glad to say that we are defining a programme of work with the contractor to pursue a resolution of the problems and the achievement of an acceptable standard for the radar.
There is no dispute that airborne early warning is an essential component of air defence. In the jargon beloved of the Ministry of Defence it is a "force multiplier", which allows the best use of the resources at our disposal. It can evaluate threats over a wide area and direct fighters to where they are most needed. As the Warsaw pact develops its capability for operations at low level, including its deployment of cruise missiles, so the ability of the AEW aircraft to look down on and detect potential targets becomes more and more important. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said to the House last month, the need to have absolute confidence in the system adopted 1051 to fulfil this crucial role was central to the Government's difficult decision to select the Boeing E3A rather than the Nimrod system.
The third key improvement is in the area of radar systems and command and control of the air defence battle on the ground. The House will not be surprised to know that the Ministry of Defence has yet another acronym for this, but it is the ugliest of them all: the United Kingdom air defence ground environment—known as UKADGE. It gathers information primarily from a chain of ground radars and from AEW aircraft and enables RAF controllers to direct out interceptors towards enemy aircraft or cruise missiles. Installation of the improved UKADGE is continuing well. Six new transportable radars have now been delivered and preparation of new command and control systems is under way. This represents the most radical improvement to UKADGE since the early 1960s, and will provide the United Kingdom with a sophisticated automated system in which the computing capability of a single new radar control console will exceed the entire capability of the old system.
For some time now the RAF has been a leading exponent of air-to-air refuelling techniques. The Falklands conflict underscored the value of air-to-air refuelling both to extend the range of an aircraft and to increase its loiter time. It is another important force multiplier.
Since 1982 we have introduced a squadron of VC10s and purchased six ex-British Airways TriStars, of which the first three are in service. As a result we were able to disband one of the two remaining squadrons of Victor tankers in June last year. We plan to replace the remaining Victor squadron with a further five VC10s and three converted TriStars in the 1990s. The TriStar is particularly effective because it offers a vastly increased fuel capacity and long range, and can carry fuel, passengers or freight. This new fleet will enable the RAF to support its refuelling requirement well into the next century.
In NATO's central region the fundamental requirement is for mobility, both in the air and on the ground, in order to concentrate firepower quickly and to counter-attack in depth so that the momentum of a Soviet attack can be broken.
This is the key to the new concept of operations for Northern Army Group, of which BAOR is part. It is described in page 33 of last year's "Statement on the Defence Estimates", which the right hon. Member for Llanelli seems to have missed when he accused us last week of having forcespinned down in a linear forward defence."—[Official Report, 13 January 1987; Vol. 108, c. 183.]The right hon. Gentleman confuses NATO's strategy of forward defence with the tactical conduct of the battle.
§ Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)
The Minister will recognise that the role of the helicopter is vital in this context and I wish to press him on two matters relating to that. First, he has said that a decision is pending on future helicopter policy. Can he be more specific about that, bearing in mind how eagerly the decision is awaited in Yeovil by Westland? Secondly, does he recognise that if he gives in to a temptation to drip feed orders for helicopters he will not meet the needs of our armed forces in the central plain of Europe and he could do enormous potential damage to the integrity of the Westland work force and the technologies required to support that?
§ Mr. Hamilton
I recognise the interest of the House in the future of helicopters. I shall come to that, but I cannot give any of the hard undertakings which the hon. Gentleman seeks.
The Royal Air Force in Germany has the task of providing aircraft for strike-attack, offensive support and reconnaissance roles in the central region.
The Tornado GR1 strike-attack aircraft is a superb system. Its terrain-following radar enables the GR1 to penetrate enemy air defences at low level and high speed, and to deliver weapons accurately at long ranges. When the RAF last took part in the United States air force strategic air command bombing competition in 1985, Tornados won two of the three major trophies for which we competed and came second in the third. This was the second year in succession that our crews achieved outstanding results against the best crews and aircraft in the USAF. We can be proud of the professionalism and skill demonstrated by the RAF.
The formation of nine squadrons of GR1 was completed towards the end of last year. This build-up, with one squadron declared to NATO every four months since the end of 1983, went according to plan and reflected the highly successful introduction into service of this aircraft. Already we are looking forward to a planned mid-life improvements package to enable the Tornado to continue to meet the evolving threat into the next century and to remain the backbone of our long-range attack force.
§ Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)
My hon. Friend will know that the Tornado pilots originally trained at RAF Cottesmore in my constituency and that there has been considerable concern, on which I have regularly corresponded with him, about the length of time that it is taking the Government to conclude their survey on noise compensation. Will my hon. Friend tell the House when the results of the survey will be announced?
§ Mr. Hamilton
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I shall leave that to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces. I am sure that he will refer to that when he replies this evening.
Offensive air support is provided by the RAF's Harrier aircraft. The Harrier GR3 currently in service will be replaced by the GR5, beginning next year. The Harrier GR5 has been developed jointly with the United States, and although similar in appearance to the GR3, is a wholly new aircraft with a greatly superior capability. It is equipped with highly sophisticated electronic counter-measures, which make it much more likely to survive over the battlefield. It has a much more advanced set of avionics, and double the payload or radius of action with a greater variety of weapons. Finally, the GR5 will be capable of operating at night and in poor weather.
RAF (Germany) also operates Chinook and Puma helicopters, so I cannot pass by without referring to the Department's study on the future military requirement for support helicopters which is nearing completion. We recognise the need to resolve this issue as quickly as possible and we hope to be in position to take decisions during the next month or so.
I have no doubt that many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), will want answers to questions such as "When will we know?" and "Why have the Government not already decided?" It is because we understand the importance of the issue so well 1053 that we are addressing it with care. We would much rather take the time to come to the right decision than rush into the wrong one.
§ Mr. Ashdown
The Minister will be aware that Sir John Cuckney has told the Government of the extreme importance to Westland, in order to maintain the integrity of the work force and its ability to meet the future needs of the EH101 productions, of making the decision before March. Will the Minister at least assure the House that the Government have registered that request and intend to provide a decision at last by that date?
§ Mr. Hamilton
We recognise the urgency of the position for Westland and I hope that a decision will be made by March.
§ Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)
These decisions normally impact on more than one service at a time. Can my hon. Friend tell the House what the Government's current assessment is of the viability and effectiveness of the helicopter in a tank-busting role? We hear a great deal about investment in tanks. I wonder how much we shall invest in tanks in future, and how much in helicopters.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I am well aware of my hon. Friend's interest in the balance between helicopters and tanks, and this is being considered and reviewed continually. I do not believe that we are seriously entertaining a proposal that the balance should be much changed. It is unlikely that we shall see a great disbandment of tank regiments. We must bear in mind that the Soviet Union has a vast number of tanks in the Warsaw pact.
I now turn to maritime operations, in which air power is essential to the efforts of the Royal Navy and our NATO allies in the Atlantic battles to defend vital sea lines of communications and in the forward battles in the Norwegian sea. Shore-based aircraft with rapid reaction times, a long range air-to-air refuelling and the ability to locate, track and attack both surface ships and submarines all contribute.
The name Nimrod is now firmly linked in the public mind with the AEW project, but we must remember that the original Nimrod is the long-range maritime patrol version, which is one of the world's best anti-submarine aircraft. In 1986 the modification of the RAF's force of four squadrons to mark 2 standard was completed, giving them an effective capability through to the mid-1990s.
I am pleased to report that it is not only tornado crews who win prizes, as a Nimrod from 120 squadron won this year's Fincastle trophy, held in southern Australia. The competition, between maritime patrol aircraft of the RAF and Canadian, Australian and New Zealand air forces, consists of day and night sorties against a target submarine. The Nimrod crew were clear winners and were the only competitors to carry out successful attacks in both missions.
Turning now from the theory of air power to the practice, one of the high points in RAF training this year was Exercise Saif Sareea—Swift Sword.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
Before my hon. Friend embarks on that interesting adventure, will he say whether studies have been undertaken by the Ministry to convert the old air frames of Nimrod mark 3—presumably they will now he surplus—into badly needed additional mark 2s for maritime patrol aircraft?
§ Mr. Hamilton
The existing surplus Nimrods will almost certainly be used as a back-up for the maritime, reconnaissance role, but there are 11 of them, and I do not think they will all be used for that purpose.
Exercise Saif Sareea was an out-of-area joint force field training exercise held in Oman, in conjunction with the Sultan of Oman's armed forces, during the period 16 November to 8 December 1986. It was the first major venture of its kind mounted since the Falklands operation and was designed to demonstrate the United Kingdom's capability for rapid deployment overseas and joint operations with the host nation. The Royal Air Force contributed Tornados, tankers and air transport aircraft. Royal Air Force history was made when a fully loaded VC-10 passenger transport aircraft refuelled in mid-air from a VC-10 tanker en route to Oman, which it reached after a non-stop flight.
The exercise also illustrated the dual transport-tanker capability of the RAF's new TriStar aircraft. Supported by TriStars and VC-10 aircraft in the tanker role, four Tornado GR1 and two Tornado F3 aircraft deployed from the United Kingdom to Masirah in a non-stop flight of over 10 hours and were airborne again on a combat mission within 35 minutes of landing there—a striking testament to Britain's ability to project its airpower. During the exercise, Tornados flew 40 representative sorties in Oman, including a demonstration airfield attack, and Hercules aircraft completed 80 sorties in support of 5 Airborne Brigade, including a formation air drop of 443 paratroops from seven aircraft, including an Omani Hercules.
Visitors to the exercise included my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, the Chief of Defence Staff, the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Strike Command and hon. Members from the Select Committee on Defence. This exercise exceeded expectations in all areas, not least in the degree of combined and joint co-operation that had been achieved. The exercise also demonstrated convincingly the speed and efficiency with which, given a secure airfield and host nation support, the United Kingdom is able to put a sizeable force into a remote theatre through airpower. I am sure that those hon. Members who were able to observe parts of this exercise will wish to join me in recognising its success and to congratulate all concerned.
§ Mr. John Ward (Poole)
Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to pay tribute to the dedication, skill and indeed co-operation of the Omani forces which took part in this exercise?
§ Mr. Hamilton
Yes, indeed. I pay great tribute to the Omani forces. I know that the exercise could not have been a success without their co-operation.
§ Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)
I was interested to hear my hon. Friend's comments, and the success of that operation is beyond doubt. Is the Ministry aware of the need for futher exercises in that part of the world, where there is so much tension, and where British troops would always be welcome?
§ Mr. Hamilton
We are aware that many of our friends in that region were very impressed by this exercise, and I am sure that they would like other exercises to take place there in the future.
To be effective, the Royal Air Force has to fly and fight on the leading edge of technology. Looking forward then, 1055 the next major aircraft requirement is for a replacement for Phantoms and some Jaguars, which we intend to fill with the European fighter aircraft, or EFA. Warsaw pact aircraft coming into service from now and through the 1990s are expected to be much more manoeuvrable than existing types. EFA is intended to be a highly agile combat aircraft, optimised for gaining local air superiority against enemy fighters, but also possessing a good air-to-ground attack capability, where its agility will help it to avoid enemy defences.
Project definition for EFA was completed in September and we and our partners signed the general memorandum of understanding. We are all currently evaluating the outcome of the definition phase and have agreed a short period of further work to refine the design and prepare the ground for full development that is planned to be launched later this year, subject to national approval procedures.
Weapons as well as aircraft must keep pace with new threats. The next generation of air-to-air missile must also be capable of locking on to and destroying highly manoeuvrable targets at greater ranges than today. The United Kingdom, Germany and France have signed a memorandum of understanding with the United States whereby the European signatories, together with Norway, are to develop an advanced short range air-to-air missile ASRAAM, while the United States is developing an advanced medium range air-to-air missile AMRAAM.
Both missiles will be "fire and forget", and aircraft carrying them will be able to engage several targets at the same time. The military advantages are obvious. The ASRAAM-AMRAAM "family of weapons" agreement is another example of the way in which members of the Alliance are striving to obtain maximum value from their defence resources by avoiding the duplication of expensive development work.
In the year since the House last debated the Royal Air Force, the importance and flexibility of air power has continued to be demonstrated in practical operations. Only last week the RAF provided desperately needed helicopter flights to move the sick and the injured through the worst weather this country has seen in recent years.
The United Kingdom is not the only place where such help has been rendered. The House will, of course, recall the magnificent efforts of the RAF in Ethiopia, where it won the admiration of the world. Less publicly but no less important, the RAF ferried equipment, medical supplies and medical teams in E1 Salvador following the disastrous earthquake there. In June, Puma helicopters from Belize, together with a Hercules, carrying relief supplies arrived in Jamaica to help in the mopping-up operation after the serious flooding which followed two weeks of rain.
Nearer home again, the RAF search and rescue force continued to provide invaluable safety cover. I will mention just two examples showing the ability to project this capability at considerable distance from base. In November, RAF Sea Kings rescued the 28-man crew of the Kowloon Bridge, which eventually sank off the coast of south-west Ireland, hundreds of miles from their base in Wales. Despite the fact that the call for help was made at midnight, and in a force 11 gale, the rescue was made within two hours. On Christmas day a Nimrod found the survivors of the Icelandic freighter Sudurland in a water-logged lifeboat and dropped them a survival kit which included a new lifeboat and almost certainly saved their 1056 lives. Again this was done hundreds of miles from the home base with a very short response time. I am sure that all hon. and right hon. Members will join me in a tribute to the bravery and skill of all those in the RAF's rescue services.
I have spoken so far about the varying roles that the RAF is required to perform and about the equipment available, or under development, for meeting those roles. None of this would be possible, of course, without dedicated and professional personnel.
As for reserve forces, both the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve are expanding at present. The role of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force was widened by the formation, in 1985, of an air defence squadron, and the strength of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, which last year celebrated its golden jubilee, has recently been increased through the creation of a second intelligence flight.
Three trials are under way on possible further expansion, covering the viability of a support force, similar to the Territorial Army's home service force, and the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of using the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve reservists in two flying roles. In one trial, reservists will fly in Nimrod marine reconnaisance and VC10 aircraft; in the other, part-time instructors will train students in university air squadrons. If the latter scheme is a success, regular qualified flying instructors could be released to the front line.
There is nothing new in the quality of those who serve in the RAF. I sit in the room which previously belonged to the old Secretaries of State for Air, and I have on the wall a framed letter from the late King George VI, written in 1943 on the 25th anniversary of the RAF's formation. The RAF was then at war, and the King attributed its successes primarily tothe spirit which inspires each and every member of the Force—the spirit which attains the stars, however hard the way may be".There are many examples today of this spirit, and I should like to look back on one as a tribute to the personnel of the RAF.
In Belize in August, an RAF helicopter pilot was sent deep into the jungle to evacuate a soldier with a broken back. When the helicopter arrived at the scene, it was dusk. Despite low fuel and treacherous surroundings, the pilot manoeuvred his aircraft over the casualty. It took several attempts to winch him safely on board, and by the time it was done, darkness had fallen and the pilot then had to return to base. Throughout the operation the pilot demonstrated anticipation, courage and flying skill of the highest order, and the injured soldier almost certainly owes his life to him. The pilot has been awarded the Queen's Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air.
Another operation demonstrated the RAF's flying skills in a very different way last year. Many hon. Members will have seen for themselves the extraordinary skills, daring and sheer bravura of the Red Arrows. For five weeks last summer they toured the middle and far east. It was the biggest project ever mounted by the team and resulted in a 19,000-mile round trip, with displays in 17 countries. The tour culminated at the inaugural Indonesian air show in hot and humid conditions, where a lesser aircraft might have encountered problems of serviceability so far away from home. That did not prove the case with the Hawk.
1057 The tour was an unqualified success and strengthened the RAF's relations abroad through the superb flying displays, which we have come to expect from the Red Arrows, and the professionalism of the team members and their support crew. The tour also enhanced the prestige of our aerospace industry and improved the prospects of further sales of the Hawk.
There can be no doubt that, like the Red Arrows, Britain's aerospace industry is one of our great success stories. The Rapier missile system operated by both the RAF and the Army has won over £2 billion-worth of overseas orders. The RAF's Hawk trainer is already in service with, or ordered by, many air forces across the world. As recently as last week hon. Members will have seen press reports that the Swiss Defence Ministry has selected the Hawk for its advanced jet trainer requirement, after a direct competition with the Franco-German Alpha jet.
The Swiss were impressed by the technical and operational advantages of the Hawk and the competitive terms which British industry were able to offer. This is a classic example of how to succeed abroad—the right equipment, coupled with the right marketing, and the strong support of the Government. Hawk also cracked the hardest market of all when it was selected by the United States Navy. Given the strength of the indigenous defence industry in the United States, this is a highly significant achievement.
§ Sir Anthony Buck (Colchester, North)
Can my hon. Friend tell us about the prospects for sales of Hawk to Venezuela? They were lined up, but there was a period of desuetude during the Falklands crisis. I understand that there is a substantial chance of sales being revamped. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces can give a reply in his winding-up speech.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I shall refer that question to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces.
The outstanding success of recent years has undoubtedly been the sale of Tornado. The House will recall that Tornado forms part of our biggest-ever export deal. On current estimates, the sale to Saudi Arabia is worth at least £5 billion. The Ministry of Defence, the RAF and a number of members of the Government, not least my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister herself, have worked hard to secure that deal. It will bring 9,000 extra jobs directly to workers at British Aerospace at Warton, Brough, Kengston and Dunsfold, and indirectly to sub-contractors over the country, and, of course, there will be substantial benefits to the balance of payments.
§ Mr. Robert Atkins (South Ribble)
Will my hon. Friend confirm that, even if one excludes that magnificent deal involving the sale of aircraft to Saudi Arabia, defence sales in the aerospace industry last year were as high as they have ever been?
§ Mr. Hamilton
Yes. Sales in the aerospace industry are running high, as are sales of other defence equipment. Such sales are an important part of British industry and our export performance.
I would have hoped that all hon. Members would welcome the Saudi deal as good news for Britain, but it seems that some in the Labour party are not enthusiastic. 1058 The document, "Statements by the National Executive Committee" produced for Labour's last party conference, seemed to take a jaundiced view of the sale. It said:Even the massive £5,000 million deal to export military aircraft to Saudi Arabia, apparently agreed earlier this year, now appears to be in jeopardy.I hope that the Opposition will now give unqualified support to the Saudi deal and welcome the fact that it is not in jeopardy.
As for future sales of Tornado, the exceptional performance of the aircraft has attracted the interest of a number of other countries, which can expect their inquiries to be met by enthusiasm and co-operation from a Conservative Government.
Regrettably, I have to tell the House that such sales might fall foul of a Socialist Government. The 1986 statement by the National Executive Committee makes it clear that the Labour party expectsinevitably a major reduction in Britain's current arms sales".Labour also expects to diversify the jobs of those in the industries involved intoproducts vitally needed in Third world countries".How somebody involved in the manufacture of guided missiles can start to make ploughshares I do not know, but that is the proposal.
In addition, there is a proposal to abolish the Defence Export Services Organisation, which has done much to promote Britain's defence industry abroad and help our defence manufacturers to clinch orders in the face of ruthless foreign competition. Such a policy would certainly increase the prices which our own armed forces would have to pay for equipment, by shortening production runs and discouraging private venture development. More important than that, I hope that the Labour party will not shirk its responsibilities and will make it clear to the electorate that its proposals for defence export sales will undermine the job security of many of the 120,000 British workers who depend on the export of defence equipment for their livelihood.
The House will need no reminding of that extraordinary moment in our history when our very survival depended on the men and machines of the RAF in the battle of Britain. I am confident that if we called upon them today, the men of the RAF would display the same courage and dedication as their predecessors. However, 1940 was also characterised by an overwhelming political will—a will to survive and a will to win. By its unilateralist defence policies and its inevitable commitment to a neutralist Britain—in every way—the Labour party of today demonstrates that it does not have the will to fight to defend Britain whereas, by contrast, this Government have demonstrated that they have. Not only that, but—as I hope I have shown today—they have given, and will continue to give, the RAF the hacking it needs to do its job today and tomorrow. The Opposition have chosen to ignore what the Government have actually achieved through the years of real growth of resources since 1979. That expenditure has not vanished; the benefits which it has brought are there to be seen today in improved equipment and improved morale in all the services.
§ Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)
The hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) and I fought a long battle in the House to get the EFA off the ground by 1991. We both said that although we had the Spitfire and the Hurricane, we did not have enough of them when they were needed. 1059 That was the problem at that time. If the EFA programme is allowed to slip any more, our good pilots will not have the aircraft at the appropriate time, which is 1995. Will the Minister address himself to that? Secondly, will he kindly deal with an omission? We applaud the airframe, but he has left out the RB199, which will play a significant role in future.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I fully accept the value of the RB199 and also the need for the RAF to have the EFA. I paid great tribute to that earlier.
The Labour party offers instead a declared intention to abandon our strategic guarantee and to rip out of NATO the theatre nuclear weapons which are essential if we are to have available the full range of weaponry to deter potential aggressors. Labour has made it clear that it wishes to cut our defence expenditure as a proportion of GDP by about a third. It is incredible that the Labour party does not plan on the basis of what Britain and NATO need to meet the threat. Instead, Labour plucks an arbitrary figure out of the air—the average of our major European allies spending as a proportion of national income. We know what that will mean—real defence cuts year after year.
§ Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)
As the Minister has made the point about the nuclear deterrent in the British area, will he tell the House which nuclear weapons are in the possession and control of British first call? Which can be used simply under the direction of British first call or by the Royal Air Force on the central front? Can he tell us whether, in fact, we have control of those weapons?
§ Mr. Hamilton
The hon. Gentleman knows well that we do not release that sort of information.
Even the most impressive capability in the world has little value without the will to use it. The Labour party does not have that will; nor does it have any likelihood of delivering the resources that our armed forces need; nor does it even show any understanding of what defence in the nuclear age really demands.
The electorate knows that the Labour party of today cannot be trusted with the defence of the realm. The Government have demonstrated by their actions that when it comes to resources, political will and maintaining the morale of our armed forces, there is no contest.
§ Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)
After that withering attack upon the Labour party's defence policies, I almost get the whiff of electoral grapeshot in the air, but coming from the Under-Secretary, it was more like a grapefruit.
I should like to join the Minister in paying tribute to the work of the Royal Air Force and in particular in recent weeks to the work of the helicopter crews. Those of us who represent coastal constituencies have become used to, and almost take for granted, the fact that, whenever there is an accident or incident at sea, the RAF will be on the scene to rescue holidaymakers or ships' crews from danger. Over the past few weeks we have seen examples of the courage and skill of helicopter crews flying in hazardous, arctic conditions. We should recognise and pay tribute to them, and I join the hon. Gentleman in doing so.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)
I trust that the hon. Gentleman will remember the rescue squadrons near mountainous areas who every winter have to fly in the appalling conditions that were commonplace for the rest of the United Kingdom recently. Every winter we expect to get help from the rescue squadrons, and they never fail us.
§ Mr. McNamara
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. As I said, sometimes we almost take them for granted. The Under-Secretary drew attention to particular acts of heroism. We echo his support and admiration of those involved.
If we are to pay tribute to the RAF in its anniversary year, and if we accept its training and dedication, we believe that any Government, whether this Government or a Labour Government, have to keep their side of the bargain. They have to make sure that the men get the necessary training and equipment so that they have the ability to do an increasingly difficult job.
I am afraid that the Government have not always kept their side of the bargain. That is reflected in the number of people who have left the service since 1980. I very much regret that the Minister did not pay some attention to the important problem of pilot training and of pilots leaving the RAF—something that has been referred to by Service chiefs as the RAF's black hole. The position seems to be getting worse. The latest figures show that the number of officers and men voluntarily leaving the three services early rose by one fifth, to 6,365, between April and December 1985 compared with the corresponding period in 1984.
Service men are not happy. They are showing their disapproval in the only way they can in an organisation without trade unions; they are voting with their feet and leaving the services. We cannot afford to allow this expensive trained manpower to go. It costs nearly £3 million to train a fast jet pilot and £1 million to train a navigator. Aircrew are almost literally worth their weight in platinum. Yet we are losing them faster than we can train them and faster than they can properly be replaced.
In 1985, up to 5 December, 147 pilots left the RAF, 58 before completing their engagement. During the same period 89 pilots indicated a wish to leave early. Yet only 171 pilots graduated from the training school. In 1986, 175 pilots left the RAF, 114 without completing their engagement. Another 213 have said that they want to leave, of whom 184 have not yet completed their engagement.
§ Mr. Bill Walker
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would care to examine carefully how those figures reflect the position within the civil aircraft operating industry. It has ever been thus. In all the years that the Royal Air Force has had a problem, it has always occurred when the civil airlines have themselves been short of pilots. They always poach from the Royal Air Force, and have done so successfully. The real answer is to retain these gentleman in a volunteer or auxiliary capacity so that the RAF does not lose them.
§ Mr. McNamara
I take on board what the hon. Gentleman has said; I was just coming to that point.
Many of the pilots who are leaving are going to Saudi Arabia or joining airline companies. It will be interesting to see how many will take early retirement in response to the generous offer just made by British Airways. I agree 1061 with the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) that we must have some way of keeping these people in an auxiliary or reserve air force. I am sure that could be done. It happens frequently. For example, in the United States most of the airline pilots are members of the national guard. We could have a similar system. We know that at the moment British Airways alone wants 100 qualified pilots.
If the RAF wants to keep its pilots and navigators, the Ministry of Defence will have to do something to make it more attractive for them to stay. The local overseas allowance for forces stationed in Germany will have to be re-examined. The Ministry might consider offering its aircrew a retention bonus, which is what the Australians are doing to solve their shortage of pilots. It might do something about the RAF married quarters, 70 per cent. of which are in a lamentable state.
We know that the Ministry has at last started to look at the problem. Air Vice Marshal Bobby Robson has been given this task. I hope that he is successful, but I understand that his last duties were as a public relations man. Public relations are not what is needed. What is needed is a positive reassessment of the role of the pilots, their value and the need to retain them within the service. Not enough urgency is being attached to this problem, which we have been raising over the years in question, of the rundown of experienced personnel and flyers in the RAF.
§ Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)
As it is the policy of the hon. Gentleman's party to spend money not on nuclear weapons but on conventional forces, and as I understand that 200 extra Tornado aircraft are one of its options, where will it get the money for the pilots, or even the pilots to fly the aircraft? What sum of money is it setting aside to cover that extra cost?
§ Mr. McNamara
I cannot answer that question in the precise financial terms in which I would like to answer it, because the Government do not produce line-by-line budgets for the House to examine where expenditure has gone. The hon. Gentleman's question cannot validly be asked of me until Ministers are prepared to give us the detailed breakdown of the defence budget that will enable us to do so. All they will give us are rounded sums by which we can calculate what one could do by savings from Trident on the basis of the figures given by the Department for the training, running, purchase, capital and spares costs over 20 years. If the Minister would give us the complete defence budget so that we could see exactly what is going on, I would be in a position, and would be delighted, to give the hon. Gentleman precise details of every item of expenditure. He knows that he has bowled a no-ball—and if he had sent it down to the Minister, it would have yorked his middle stump, because the Minister could not have given him the information either.
§ Mr. Carter-Jones
The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) would love to have intervened at this point because he has always advocated the supply of auxiliary Air Force members, and he has fought his corner well, while the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) has not taken this point. In 1939, the Air Force was kept going not just by the regulars but by substantial numbers of people who had a little "A" on the side of their arms, meaning that they were auxiliaries and a substantial number who had "VR", who 1062 were from the volunteer reserve. My hon. Friend must bear in mind that the Government, despite the pleas of several Conservative Members, have never pursued this point.
§ Mr. McNamara
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He takes me back five paragraphs to when I drew attention to the national guard in the United States as a way in which people who go into the civil airlines can be maintained in military personnel. One of the interesting points about some of the recent NATO exercises have been that the United States army and air force have had squadrons staffed by national guard officers. We should take that on board.
Our pilots are now training in a basic trainer aircraft that is often 10 years older than the student pilots. Our air defences are dependent on aircraft that could have been placed in Hendon museum long ago.
§ Mr. McNamara
Yes, I shall give way. However, I have now given way at least five times and I should perhaps get on with my speech. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to interrupt me, that will only delay matters and I always try to ensure that hon. Members who wish to speak have the opportunity to do so.
§ Mr. Marlow
I am extremely grateful, for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman has given, that he has had the courtesy of giving way. The hon. Gentleman is talking about problems of morale, and he is talking about the problems of losing personnel. The hon. Gentleman's right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies), sadly, was indisposed yesterday. Can I ask the hon. Gentleman, if the Secretary of State for Defence had been indisposed yesterday when he had been expected to be at the Dispatch Box, is it not the case that the hon. Gentleman would quite rightly and quite persistently ask, in view of the nature of his awesome responsibilities, what that indisposition was, in case it should interfere with his carrying out his duties? I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is in a position to tell us what is the matter with his right hon. Friend and when he will be better.
§ Mr. McNamara
I regret that my usual attempt to be courteous to hon. Gentlemen resulted in that interruption.
I was speaking about the rather old machines that some of our Air Force personnel are required to fly. The problem will get worse. In March last year, Grieveson Grant and Co., one of London's leading stockbrokers, forecast that, up to 1989, the RAF budget is to be squeezed by 5 to 6 per cent. each year. A consensus has grown up among economists and defence experts on both sides of the political spectrum that further cuts will be made, and the expenditure survey published last week or the week before shows that for roughly two years, about £1 billion will come off the defence budget. That will put a further squeeze on what we can achieve.
As the Minister spoke about the number of aircraft, I shall ask him for some information about some of them, and perhaps we can have some answers from the Under-Secretary later. I refer first to the continuing saga of the Tucano. The Minister has told us that the RAF has officially just received its first production of the Short Tucano aircraft after four months of slippage and extreme modification. We know, however, that it has not gone to a flying school to start to train our pilots. Instead, it has 1063 gone to the Empire test pilot school at Boscombe Down for evaluation and certification trials. In other words, it has not yet been given the release for service. If Boscombe Down is not happy with it, further changes will have to be made, which will mean more money being spent and further delays.
The Provost jet is over 30 years old and is one of the most expensive aircraft to fly. However, our trainee pilots are having to use this jet, which entered the RAF service in 1956 and in many cases is a decade older than its student pilots. Furthermore, it continually has to be patched up and maintained, which is expensive. We also know that the training manual for the Tucano has not yet been written and cannot be because the Boscombe Down trials have not yet been completed.
We know about the pilots being trained in the Royal Saudi air force. It is receiving its PC9s at the rate of two a month. Most of them are put together in Brough, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Beverley (Sir P. Wall), where a good job is being done. We know that the PC9s do not need changes, modifications or further trials by test pilots. If the Ministry of Defence had opted for the PC9s, it would have had two aircraft in service by the end of 1986 and 12 in service by mid-1987. The Saudis will have 14 in service by mid-year and 28 in service by the end of the year.
How many Tucano aircraft will be in RAF service by the middle of this year and by the end of this year? I do not mean undergoing trials but actually in the service of the RAF, training our pilots. I suspect that the answer will be less than half a dozen, if that, because our aircraft are continuing to experience problems.
It was interesting to hear what the Minister had to say about Hawk and the fact that it had gone to the Swiss. The way in which the Ministry of Defence tried to sabotage the PC9 to claim credit for the Swiss taking the Hawk takes a lot of beating. Credit for that goes to British Aerospace and must be recognised as such. The ability of British Aerospace to work with Swiss companies has enabled it to be successful. It is a sad reflection that the Saudis, with their important budget and their important order with us, took the PC9, the one that the Government were not prepared to take for the RAF.
I welcome also the fact that, eventually and finally, the Hawks have been fitted with side pylons that will enable them to carry their Sidewinder missiles for emergency point defence in the event of war. The fact that this has been demonstrated will show many countries the effectiveness of the Hawk as a defence aircraft. We should welcome that fact.
Over the past years, there has been much controversy in the House about AWACS and Nimrod. I do not wish to reopen that controversy. I am concerned about the situation that still exists. The Shackleton still has a 1941-designed radar—updated, refitted and so on, but basically 1941 technology. Very brave, dedicated men fly Shackletons. They are old aircraft. As one expert recently told me, for all the good that Shackleton radar will be against modern Soviet aircraft such as the long-range fighter, the Fencer, the Backfire nuclear bomber or the latest Blackjack, the crew of the Shackleton might just as well stand in the astrodome with a pair of binoculars.
Our interceptors, including the new Tornado F3, will be of little use against a low-flying Soviet aircraft unless 1064 they can be guided to their targets by adequate airborne early warning which the RAF would have had, perhaps much more quickly and much more satisfactorily, had it gone for Nimrod. The decision has been made to go for AWACS. We know that it cannot he replaced until 1991 at the earliest. The system that replaces will not be capable of meeting all the specifications set out in ASR400. Air Chief Marshal Sir David Craig has made it clear that such aircraft will not be enough to meet the patrol specification of four aircraft on station and that even if another two are ordered, there still may not be enough to provide adequate coverage of Britain's north-east flank. This means that perhaps 2,000 jobs have been sacrificed and nearly £1 billion has been wasted, and still we will not have the full adequate early warning capability that we need.
What will happen to the Nimrod frames? The Under-Secretary of State said that some may be used for maritime reconnaissance—we welcome that—and some might be used for electronic intelligence. There are many frames. Presumably, over the years, some could be cannibalised, but it would be a terrible waste of what has proved to be an effective reconnaissance aircraft. Does the RAF have more precise plans than perhaps the hon. Gentleman was prepared to state earlier?
The Tornado F3 is important. It will be the mainstay of our air defences in the 1990s. However, I understand that the aircraft is known to RAF crews as a Blue C ircle fighter because it must fly with a concrete weight in the nose while it awaits the Foxhunter fire control radar. Despite the Minister's reassurances last year and the year before, he has said, "We are still redefining the programme." Have the Government set a time scale—a limit? Can they give us a firm date when this important piece of radar will be installed in the aircraft? Basically, until they have that radar, they will be at least 50 per cent. below their capability, if not more. Although it is right to praise the aircraft, as the Minister did, if they do not have the Foxhunter fire control radar, defence capability will be limited indeed.
The Minister said that the Opposition was jaundiced about the Saudi contract. I was not jaundiced, I was delighted, as the Ministry was, but for different reasons. The Ministry was delighted because it meant that it did not have to pay for them for the RAF, and that it could postpone the payment. I was delighted because it showed the prowess of the design and expertise of the countries and the men involved. If the Ministry had wished to show its belief in the worth of the RAF, it would have opened another line to make sure that the RAF got its aircraft at the same time as the Saudis.
§ Mr. McNamara
With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I promise that, if Mr. Deputy Speaker allows me to catch his eye when the debate is wound up and the hon. Gentleman still wants to make his point, I shall give way. [Interruption.] I have not even started.
The Minister said that we shall have the Harrier GR5 at the beginning of next year. I presume that that is the first batch of the 62 aircraft that will come into operation then. What will happen—the hon. Gentleman did not mention this—to the second batch? We recall the debate on the Defence Estimates. The Secretary of State gave signs that, whilst some matters were being ordered for long lead items, there was some concern. Will we go ahead with 1065 the second batch of GR5, and when? If we are to do so, what is to become of the present group of GR3s in Germany?
I refer to the European fighter aircraft to be certain that it is safe and will not be cut because of Trident. EFA is essential to our ability to provide adequate air cover for our forces on the central front, and our ability to produce a combat aircraft well into the future depends upon EFA going ahead. By the time EFA is meant to enter RAF services in 1995, Soviet Fulcrum and Flanker aircraft will be well into their mid-life update. At the moment, they are more advanced than any British aircraft of a comparable role. We must be certain not only that we are to get EFA but that there will be no slippage in the time scale for getting it into operation with our Air Force. Therefore, we welcome the fact that the Nato European Fighter Management Agency, NEFMA—not quite as ugly an acronym as UKADGE—has been set up. We welcome the fact that the agency has put out for tender the two most crucial items, the interim engine and the radar. But the pressure must be maintained. We cannot afford slippages with an aircraft as important as this.
Last week, we heard that after only three months, the experimental aircraft programme has been grounded due to lack of funds. EAP is the technology test bed for EFA, or for the British components within EFA. Unless funds are made available by the Ministry of Defence, British chances of winning a share of contracts in EFA could be jeopardised, particularly Rolls-Royce for the RB199 interim engine. Therefore, I urge the Minister to look carefully at financing EAP and to see whether it can be used more continuously.
The tragic loss of the space shuttle Challenger has resulted in our Skynet satellite remaining earthbound. If the HOTOL system goes ahead, Britain will never again be plagued with such a problem. HOTOL is one of the most exciting projects in United Kingdom aviation. It seems to be years ahead of any alternative system and will be much safer. It combines the technology of British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce and, as far as one can find—this information is classified—the revolutionary concepts involved. It is something of which we must be proud and something that we must also keep inside the country. Therefore, we hope that the Government will continue to support it, as they have done until recently.
The space shuttle disaster was due to a leak in the external fuel tank of one of the external booster rockets. Engineers have explained to me that HOTOL would have internal engines and tanks. To a degree, therefore, they would be safer. I understand that that cannot be said of the French and German alternatives. If HOTOL is realised, it will put Europe years ahead of the Americans, whereas Hermes and Saenger will be the poor man's version of the shuttle and will become obsolete. Therefore it is imperative that we should get together with our European colleagues, if the price proves too much for us to sustain by ourselves, to demonstrate the advantages of our system and obtain European collaboration on it. All sides of the House agree about the need to build up a strong European technology pillar for both defence and civil purposes. If this system could be used, we should try to develop it.
Is there more precise information about the Skynet I, II and III satellites? When are they likely to go into orbit? I have seen the film that caused controversy earlier this 1066 afternoon. I saw it long before there was any mention of an injunction. As the injunction has been granted, I do not intend to pursue the matter further.
§ Mr. McNamara
I mention it because some people know that I have seen the film. Therefore, I thought it essential to explain the circumstances in which I had seen it—long before there was any mention of an injunction.
§ Mr. McNamara
The hon. Gentleman must realise that I do not show off. He knows how naturally modest I am. He may say that I have a great deal to be modest about, and I agree with him, but perhaps I do not have quite so much to be modest about as he.
Helicopters featured largely in our debate last week. The Opposition specifically asked for an undertaking from the Government about the future of the supply helicopter. Today the Minister said that there will be a decision by March.
§ Mr. McNamara
I hope so, too. There is probably more chance of a decision by March than there is of a decision by next December. In March we shall be approaching the witching season. There are many marginal seats in the south-west. Nothing concentrates the mind of any Secretary of State more than marginal seats, when some of his hon. Friends might be at risk. Because of the pressure that has been exerted over the future of the helicopter industry and the Government's role in it, the Government will want to make a specific and early decision.
Since the capital reconstruction of Westland, a £95 million loss have been converted into a £26 million profit. However, two thirds of that profit came from the non-helicopter side of the company, whereas two thirds of the company's expenses related to helicopters. That poses problems for the management. During the past 25 years the helicopter industry has been mainly built up and sustained by the Ministry of Defence, and we look to it to find a way to fill the gap between mid-1988 and 1991 so that the company can sustain and maintain its expertise and technology instead of it being dissipated and drained away, as might happen if there were to be three years of uncertainty. I hope that the Minister will be able to announce that the EH101 utility version will go ahead. It would meet some of BAOR's present requirements. However, I hope that it will be forthcoming not on a drip-feed basis but on a basis that will sustain the company and lead to exports.
One of the problems over helicopters is that for the Royal Air Force they are an afterthought. According to the RAF, helicopters provide a support role for the Army. Last year, the Royal Australian air force decided to hand over its support role to the Australian army. Only the British Army and the Greeks now maintain helicopters in a supply support role for the land forces. It would make sense to consider transferring the RAF's supply support role for the land forces to the Army Air Corps. That would lead to a proper balance in the Army Air Corps.
1067 Then the fast fighter pilots, the air commodores and those who make the decisions in the RAF would not treat helicopters as a Cinderella service. I am sure that they try not to do so—that they try to be objective—but when it comes to the allocation of resources within the RAF, I am sure that they are somewhat loth to put the same amount of money into helicopters as they put into other services. Therefore, I urge the Minister to consider that point. It would not be a great loss to the RAF if it lost its helicopter service, but it would provide an enormous boost for the Army Air Corps and the Army generally. It would also make much more sense.
Having consigned the RAF's helicopter service to the Army, the RAF might think that I am being a little ungracious. I merely remind the RAF of the compliments that have been paid to it by all hon. Members for the service that it has provided this winter and in previous years. We wish the RAF well. Whether the service is wearing khaki or RAF blue, we know that we shall be well served. Hon. Members in all parts of the House are proud of the RAF. Whatever the outcome of the general election and the strange meanderings of the Minister, who spent more time on the Labour party's defence policy than upon his Government's defence policy, we must have a Royal Air Force.
The country that puts the Alliance at risk is the country that is unable to carry out the basic conventional role of the Alliance. We have already heard that the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposes to cut the defence budget. Secretaries of State for Defence, whether it be the previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), or the present Secretary of State, are afraid to come before the House and deal with our defence strategy in terms of the financial constraints that will be imposed upon them. It does not matter by how much they may have increased the amount of money that is spent upon defence, important though that may be in terms of the Services. Unless we are able to maintain men in the Services and the conventional role of the Services, we are as nothing. The Minister is afraid even to say whether or not the RAF controls the actual use of nuclear weapons. He knows that it does not.
§ Mr. Archie Hamilton
Will the hon. Gentleman please explain to the House how even the finest conventional forces can face up to an enemy that has nuclear weapons when we do not?
§ Mr. McNamara
The enemy would not use nuclear weapons against us because he knows that that would kill his own forces. Chernobyl showed us that. Not even the Russians can control the elements, or prevent a backflow of nuclear waste over their own territories.
§ 6.9 pm
§ Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)
My hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) rightly paid tribute to the personnel of the Royal Air Force. It is worth observing that of our three Services the Royal Air Force has the fewest front line fighting men and the largest number of Service men and Service women in support. Out of approximately 93,000 service men and women in the Air Force, by the very nature of things only a handful can be flying crew.
1068 I am privileged to have in my constituency the No. 1 radio school of Royal Air Force, Locking. I know that I speak on behalf of many of my constituents when I say how proud we are to know many of the serving personnel, who enjoy a close relationship with the town. We welcome the great honour paid to RAF Locking in the summer when Her Majesty the Queen paid a whole day visit to inspect the forces there.
Inevitably, I should like to speak about the thorny subject of helicopters. I hope that the Government will come to an early conclusion about them so that I can make speeches about something else. For once, I agree with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North in his comments about the operational direction of support helicopters. I have been convinced for many years and have spoken in the House on several occasions of the clear view of those who are supported by the Royal Air Force, the soldiers in the field and to some extent other Service personnel, that in practice it is not operationally efficient to have a different service operating such a vital supply route.
My hon. Friend the Minister spoke about the whole philosophy of helicopters. The first step that the central staff should take is to make certain that those forces which need helicopters for whatever purpose have control over them from the very start. The Royal Navy, which has such control, stands out internationally as the finest operator of helicopters at sea. It has in many respects led the world and much of its success is due to its complete operational control over the training of pilots and the acquisition of aircraft right through to their manning in the ships.
There is a lesson to be learned there and it is extraordinary that, year after year, we dodge this decision. I know exactly why that happens. It is because the short-term, one-year cost of transition will no doubt be expensive. In addition, there will be pressure from air marshals who do not want to see the numbers of their forces reduced because that would mean fewer officers, fewer promotions and other problems of that sort. Now that we have the central staff, surely that is the sort of barrier that can and must be broken down.
There is a further argument that some pilots who train for fast jets and cannot make the grade are transferred to helicopter training in the RAF. I see no difficulty in cross-Service transfers with RAF pilots going to the Army Air Corps. Some pilots already do cross-Service training and it should be encouraged. I repeat my personal view based on my own experience and on the experience of listening to other hon. Members and talking to many Service men, that this is crucial for our armed forces.
As for the future of helicopters, there are two reasons why we are short of helicopters and short on decisions about them. First, there is the tactical reason. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) has left the Chamber. The Minister said that he saw no immediate prospect of a change in the ratio between expenditure on armoured vehicles—I assume that he meant armoured personnel carriers as well as tanks and on helicopters. That is sad because it means that we are miles behind in our thinking. The tank is increasingly becoming a priority target on the battlefield and it is increasingly vulnerable to attack by sophisticated weaponry held by the infantry and the armour of our potential enemies. Experience shows that although the 1069 helicopter cannot withstand much fire, its mobility and flexibility more than counter this. For this reason, a better balance must be achieved.
§ Mr. Marlow
My hon. Friend says that the helicopter cannot withstand much fire. A tank, if it is hit by a modern missile, will not withstand much fire either. Has my hon. Friend heard the expression that a battalion in time is worth a division too late? With a support helicopter, one can get a battalion there very quickly but with obstacles and bridges down tanks would take forever in today's circumstances to get to where they are needed.
§ Mr. Wiggin
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and I have argued that case in as much detail as time permits. I urge Ministers to harass their Service advisers until they get a better answer. I say this deliberately because it is not a decision that the military seem inclined to take at the moment. For reasons of their own, neither the air marshals nor the generals will take it. The Americans, the Russians and the armed forces of many other countries have made the decision and they are right.
The second reason why the Government's dilatoriness on helicopters is important is, inevitably, industrial. I make no bones about the fact that Westland has its products support factory in my constituency and is the largest employer there. I should like to read a short extract from the statement by the chairman of Westland plc. It is worth mentioning that from near-bankruptcy some 12 months ago, Westland has, as a result of a capital restructuring—the House knows what took place—become a prosperous company making reasonable profits, but it is left with this one question hanging over the helicopter division.
I think that there is unanimity in the House that it is unacceptable for Britain to be without a helicopter manufacturer. Indeed, the Secretary of State has said that he would abhor such a prospect. The chairman of Westland is clearly a responsible and most competent business man. He has led the company through difficult times and is improving its efficiency by the hour. I am sad to say that there is still some way to go, and I shall say the same to the trade union representatives who are to see me on Friday night. An improvement has already been effected but the chairman of the company says:Although studies and development programmes often lead to production orders eventually, they do little to sustain current order books. We have always made it clear that although our production lines are currently very busy in the Helicopter Division at Yeovil, we do face an order book gap some two years hence. The dominant position of the Ministry of Defence as a customer makes its long term helicopter policy of critical importance in planning the future shape and size of this division and we eagerly await the outcome of the last MoD studies.These studies should be concluded this month and the Secretary of State for Defence said in the House of Commons in October 1986 that a decision would be taken in the new year. It may help to put this long time scale into perspective if I say that the Staff Target, which was generated first in 1978 for the replacement of the RAF Wessex and Puma fleet, is in abeyance and the Secretary of State has now, some eight years later, stated that the fleet will approach the end of its cost effective life 'within the next ten years'. Coherent planning against such widely moving target dates is frankly impossible.Early in the Minister's speech, the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) intervened and rightly reiterated the problems that will face the management at Westland unless a decision is forthcoming very shortly.
1070 It is worth pointing out that the current problem was first revealed in July 1985 or perhaps even earlier. The company put its case to those of us interested in aviation. That was when the campaign started and, when air staff target 404 became a subject of attention in the House, but more than a year and a half later we are still awaiting a decision. We all know that the Secretary of State is sympathetic and is awaiting a solution from his advisers. I say this to Ministers—let us have a proper solution. We do not want half orders or a dribble of orders, but a proper order. What about 35 or 40 Black Hawks? What about showing the world that we can manufacture that helicopter in Somerset?
Once the RAF has that helicopter other countries will be interested, but we need that lead. The great benefit of the Sikorsky tie-up, the ability to sell Black Hawk in large areas of the world, will be negated if we do not manufacture and buy the aircraft ourselves. It is a fine helicopter and there are plenty of uses for it within our armed forces. It would be a good example and good value and, so long as Westland can deliver—I do not ask for any concessions—I believe that the money will be available from other programmes within the Department.
The concept that Westland should go out of helicopter production is totally unacceptable to me and to many of my hon. Friends. I am reluctant to raise the matter again, but we insist that the dates that have been mentioned this afternoon should be adhered to. If there were any question of there being no decision before Easter it would be catastrophic.
§ Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)
Although Woolwich is traditionally an Army town, Woolwich arsenal, the future of which is dear to my heart, provides a home for three RAF establishments. On that tenuous basis, I should like to add my tribute to those already given to RAF personnel to whom we owe so much for their contribution to the essential defence of Britain.
I was one of those in the 1970s who strongly supported the AEW Nimrod early warning system. It is right to say that hon. Members from both sides of the House would have been much happier if the contract could have gone to a British firm and to British technology, provided that the British solution could have fulfilled the job that was being asked of it. Sadly, on the basis of the evidence we have seen, it would have been too much of a gamble to go on hoping that the problems with the AEW Nimrod system could have been put right in time to enable it to provide what was required. It would have been wrong to undertake any such gamble with something as vital as an early warning system. Therefore, on the basis of the evidence available to us, I have to say that I believe that the Government made the right decision by choosing the Boeing AWACS.
§ Mr. Archie Hamilton
If that is so, will the hon. Gentleman explain to the House why, when it came to a critical vote on that matter, the alliance was able only to abstain?
§ Mr. Cartwright
The position was made clear by our spokesman at the time. We were critical of the Government's handling of the operation. We thought that they had reached the correct decision at the end, but their handling of the matter before it came to that final decision 1071 left a great deal to be desired. That view was taken by more than just the alliance. As the Minister knows, some of the Government's own supporters took a similar position.
I shall now move onto something a little safer. The Minister did not mention recruitment and retention in the RAF, but I assume that the Minister who is to reply will deal with those matters. It is worth recalling that in February last year the then Minister of State accepted that there were problems with the recruitment of officers and aircrew. The levels of recruitment were lower than had been hoped for and only 87 per cent. of target was expected to be achieved. The Minister accepted that there was increasing competition from civilian employers, especially in areas where there was a national shortage of specialised skills. It is clear that those are the areas in which the RAF can least afford to lose key personel.
The Minister also said that the rate of premature voluntary retirement among aircrew officers was on the increase. He suggested that applications were then running at a rate of 3 per cent. of trained officer strength. However, he did not tell us how many of those seeking premature voluntary retirement were fast jet pilots and navigators. As the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) has reminded us, it costs over £2.8 million to train a fast jet pilot and £1 million to train a navigator. Therefore, in those areas, the RAF cannot stand much wastage.
I noticed that Jane's Defence Weekly on 17 January contained an interesting article by Air Vice Marshal Mason. It dealt with the general problem of personnel retention in the RAF. It was a balanced article and he reached the conclusion that there was not the crisis of retention that was being suggested in some quarters. However, he went on to say:Nevertheless there has been a noticeable increase in PVR applications over the two years which, although now apparently levelling off, cannot be regarded with complacency.We are aware of the increased competition from civil airlines, which are apparently facing a pilot shortage because of their failure to train pilots over a 10-year period in the 1970s. As we have seen in the press, British Airways has said that it will be advertising for over 100 qualified pilots in the autumn, and other airlines are expected to follow suit.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)
I cannot let the hon. Gentleman's last comment pass. Does he agree that it would have been inappropriate and wrong for British Airways to recruit people when there simply were not jobs available for them? It was one of those unfortunate questions of supply and demand and the demand for pilots was not there. It would have been wrong to recruit pilots simply to have them waiting around.
§ Mr. Cartwright
I did not intend to be critical of the civil airlines. I was merely pointing out the facts. I was not criticising the airlines for not having trained. The hon. Gentleman is right—the demand was not there. As a result, there was a 10-year dead period. However, there obviously comes a time when one has to try to attract trained pilots in order to meet what has become a growing demand. The obvious way of doing that is to obtain some of those already trained at substantial public expense by the RAF.
1072 Retention is not a simple issue, and many factors are involved. However, like the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North, I have seen suggestions that the condition of married quarters leaves a great deal to be desired. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us whether the figure of 70 per cent. of RAF married quarters not coming up to a reasonable standard is a generally accepted figure; whether reports that the cost of bringing the married quarters up to a satisfactory standard, put at some £400 million, is an accurate assessment; and whether there are, as some people suggest, difficulties in guaranteeing that sort of investment.
I should like to concentrate the rest of my remarks on air defence, especially defence against tactical ballistic missiles. That subject has raised substantial debate in the United States and Europe but it has not yet really surfaced in Britain. The argument took off as a result of the celebrated article by Manfred Worner, the German Defence Minister, which appeared in the Strategic Review in February 1986.
The scenario set out in that article was chilling. He argues that the latest generation of Soviet short-range ballistic missiles has a much greater accuracy than its predecessors, has improved target acquisition and can carry the so-called smart submunitions. He went on to argue that these missiles would give the Soviet Union the capacity to launch a conventional attack against hundreds of key NATO targets across western Europe. Among the vital facilities that he suggested would be at risk were airfields, aircraft, ammunition stockpiles, radar installations, command and control centres and vital NATO reinforcement facilities such as ports and bridges.
Hans Ruhle, the head of the German Defence Ministry's planning staff, has estimated that between 200 and 300 key NATO targets destroyed by a Soviet short-range missile attack would prevent NATO building up a cohesive forward defence, prevent NATO from mobilising reserves and prevent NATO from landing reinforcements. He suggested that the use of Soviet short-range missiles in that role would free thousands of Warsaw pact aircraft that are now assigned for use against these vital NATO targets. Those aircraft would then be available for deployment against ground forces in combat along the frontier.
Thus, the use of tactical ballistic missiles would give the Soviets an ability to impair or destroy NATO's central front defences without having to cross the nuclear threshold. NATO commanders would then have to face the appalling choice of using nuclear weapons or accepting defeat.
As a result of that scenario, the Germans are understandably active in promoting the case for what they call extended air defence. They want defensive systems capable of destroying short-range missiles as well as aircraft deployed at the earliest possible opportunity. A lot of work is proceeding in that direction; the upgrading of the Patriot system to enable it to engage missiles as well as aircraft has been proceeding for some time.
There are also a number of more advanced projects in the United States with exotic titles—the flexible agile guided experiment and the homing overlay experiment are both directed to providing short-range missile defence. In Isreal the Rafael vertical launch missile is in existence and undergoing trial. In France the Aster system is being studied.
1073 More fundamental research on defence is taking place in Europe against short-range and tactical ballistic missiles. The European defence initiative is aimed at producing a European ATBM system capable of defending hardened military targets. A number of studies under that umbrella are being carried out under the aegis of the NATO Air Defence Committee. The argument for the Europan defence initiative offers the chance to develop the European pillar of NATO to provide opportunities for the European defence industrial base and to encourage European technology in the field.
There is also growing interest in the United States in the idea of extending the strategic defence initiative to provide missile defence in Europe. Congress has allocated $50 million to the co-operative development of an ATBM system. The Ministry of Defence has been awarded a contract to conduct an architecture study in that area. The Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Rogers, has regularly given his support to the concept of a defensive system against a Soviet short-range missile threat. After Reykjavik, we have serious propositions on the table to remove all intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe, and possibly to phase out strategic ballistic missiles over ten years. It is therefore inevitable that more attention will centre on the question of short-range ballistic missiles.
Four issues arise from the ATBM debate which are worth consideration. First, how seriously do we take the Soviet threat? Can short-range missiles be given the sort of accuracy that will threaten specific individual targets? Some experts argue that they cannot, that the main danger to Europe will continue to come from Warsaw pact aircraft, and that it would be unwise to switch resources away from traditional air defence to missile defence.
What sort of anti-tactical ballistic missile system do we look for? Destroying any missile in flight is a complex and expensive business. Also, we know that tactical ballistic missiles have shorter flight times—between six and 12 minutes, as compared with 30 minutes for a strategic system. Mobile missiles have more complex and less easily identifiable trajectories than the longer-range strategic systems. We are therefore in a difficult and extremely expensive area.
Before we rush down the road of exotic technologies, it is sensible to examine the role of passive measures. Target hardening, dispersal, improved runway repair facilities and other unexciting but effective systems might offer a more cost-effective method of defending against the short-range missile threat.
How would the Soviets respond if Europe was to deploy an ATBM system? They might simply increase the number of missiles and warheads they throw against the defensive system to overwhelm it. They might depress the trajectories of the missiles to make tracking and destruction more difficult. They might add electronic countermeasures to protect the missiles. There will certainly be some Soviet response. We must never lose sight of the fact that it will always be cheaper and easier for the attacker to improve the effectiveness of a ballistic missile attack than it will be for the defender to cope with that improved onslaught.
Lastly, and perhaps most worrying, there is the question of a link which a European anti-ballistic missile system would have to the American SDI and its impact on the ABM treaty. There is considerable United States interest in the whole area of European ballistic missile 1074 defence. Some people suggest that that is because it would be used as a stalking horse for SDI. The exotic technologies could be tried out in Europe to see whether they worked and they could then be deployed in the United States after the ABM treaty has collapsed.
This view is reinforced by the fact that Europe is not constrained by the ABM treaty, which applies only to the two super-powers. The ABM treaty deals only with defences against strategic missiles, and therefore does not appear to rule out defence against shorter-range systems. However, systems designed to defend against shorter-range tactical missiles could be used against longer-range systems. The trajectory of a submarine-launched ballistic missile is similar to that of a short or intermediate-range missile. Therefore, a system deployed and designed to tackle short-range systems may have an inherent capability to deal with strategic systems as well. There are also clauses in the ARM treaty that ban the export of United States ABM technology.
These issues are important, because the Government have committed themselves to the ABM treaty. They have also rightly supported the original, narrow interpretation of that treaty, which severely limits what is permissible beyond the stage of pure research.
Ministers in this Government have said little or nothing about the Government's attitude to the threat of tactical ballistic missiles, and we are entitled to ask whether the Government share the growing enthusiasm for the whole ATBM system that is now apparent in the United States and West Germany. It is important that the Government make their position clear, because there is a risk that an understandable anxiety to obtain as many SDI contracts as possible may result in Britain being sucked into the world of exotic technology, which is of doubtful military utility and will involve massive expenditure.
The alliance takes the view that, where resources are scarce, priority must go to essential and long overdue improvements in our bread and butter defences, not chasing a costly dream of a European star wars system.
§ Mr. Robert Atkins (South Ribble)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright), who speaks for the alliance on these matters. It is a pleasure also to welcome him back to an official responsibility. These debates are always interesting and the hon. Gentleman dignifies them by his participation, but, I must tell him that the Liberals in Lancashire do not look upon his attitude to defence in the same way as I do. However, despite their incipient hostility to the hon. Gentleman's views on defence, he is welcome to come to Lancashire and talk about defence matters.
I usually like to speak about procurement and equipment matters, because of my constituency interest, but I want to touch briefly on what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), and, indeed, the hon. Member for Woolwich said about problems with premature voluntary retirement. I read the same article in Jane's Defence Weekly and was particularly concerned to see that PRV has risen substantially in the past two years. That is not something to be extremely exercised about, but it causes some concern. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North suggested that turbulence, the problems of the increasing desire of service wives to have their own careers and a widespread dissatisfaction with service accommodation were matters 1075 to which the Minister should address himself when he replies. If he does not do so then, perhaps he will talk to us about it subsequently.
I want to deal with two particular success stories in my constituency. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) is not present. He is an old sparring partner of mine in debates on the RAF. I wanted to tell him of a particular success story in my constituency. In British Aerospace, Samlesbury, over the past few years 100 apprentices, in batches of between eight and 10, have completely restored a mark 19 photo-reconnaissance Spitfire which used to be the gate guardian at RAF Brawdy and is to be delivered to the RAF Memorial Flight. This is an astonishing achievement, because they maintain that it is now better than it ever was. It flew between 1945 and 1957. I believe that it is to be handed over either today or tomorrow. It is a great tribute to those apprentices that that aeroplane looks so fine and will continue to fly for many years because of their work.
It is the same apprentices, perhaps a little older, together with the more adult work force at British Aerospace, who have devoted so much of their time and energy to the experimental aircraft programme—EAP. This is the first British fighter for many years, and many hon. Members will have seen or heard of it flying at Farnborough this year. It is of brilliant design, with excellent production, support, and, above all, display, which again emphasises the excellence of the work force.
I join the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North in his question about funding for the EAP. It is now grounded and there is some talk that it will not fly at Paris against the equivalent French aeroplane, or rather the less than equivalent French aeroplane. I want to add to the weight of the hon. Gentleman's questions about funding because of its importance to the European fighter in the future.
In the Federal Republic of Germany there is some concern. Negotiations are going on between Ministers here and other partners. I understand that the equipment and avionics companies in Germany are keen for the EAP to be used within Eurofighter, but that the airframe and engine manufacturers are not. Therefore, will my hon. Friend consider the matter and come back to us as soon as he can with some information about the Ministry of Defence's commitment to the EAP.
I am a little concerned about meeting the August deadline on the Eurofighter. As I understand it, theree is to be a formal launch in about August, with a development and production programme following therefrom. The German elections—I believe that they are this Sunday—have caused some delays and may cause further delays if there should be a change of Ministers. That is entirely a matter for the winners of the German elections, but, none the less, it is important that, if there were to be a delay, Ministers in Britain should do all that they can to ensure that the learning curve is speeded up so that we do not have further delays.
I support the bidding rules that have been talked about by the Eurofighter consortium in relation to the United States. I know that the United States is getting a little upset because of its belief that it is being excluded from some of the equipment programmes because of our concern within the consortium as a result of the experience on Panavia, and presumably other programmes, over restrictions by 1076 the United States Government on potential sales abroad, particularly to Warsaw pact countries, and, to a lesser extent, but important here, to non-aligned countries. I know that American companies have expressed their concern and we should tell them that they have done the same to us in the past. We must not be prepared to give way without firm guarantees.
By the same token, I support the demand of Eurofighter to ensure that if American companies wish to participate they do so through equipment companies within the four participating nations. That is important to emphasise and to support, and I hope that Ministers will take it on board.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) and others may want to speak about matters relating to the Eurofighter engine. Rather than delay the House, I invite my hon. Friend to develop that point if he catches your eye. Suffice it to say that if it is to be a Eurofighter it should have a European rather than an American engine. That is worth emphasising. I am also concerned about the radar, because there are delays on that. I emphasise strongly that for it to be a European fighter we should have European involvement.
I make yet another plea. Please, can we find a name for this aeroplane? The French have found a name for their experimental aeroplane. It is, for those who are not experts in French, Rafale, which means a gust of wind. Many of us here could draw scatological conclusions from that suggestion. We need a name for the aerople to give it some style and romance. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) suggests Typhoon, but perhaps this is not the time to go into that. We need to give the aircraft a name, to get it off the ground in every sense of the word, and for the sake of people in my part of the world who are likely to be building the aeroplane, the RAF and those interested in it. It needs a name, some syle, and some romance, and as soon as possible.
I have one or two questions on Tornado. First, I join those hon. Members who have already spoken to say that I am extremely worried about the delays on Foxhunter radar, and I know that many in the RAF are also worried on this score. The House should continue to press my hon. Friends, with the greatest possible deference, perhaps, but none the less, to press them hard, to get this sorted out. It is no earthly good having Nimrods, AWACS, Shackletons, or whatever, if the Foxhunter radar in the F3 does not work properly. We must have that sorted out quickly.
I want to ask about the attrition orders. So far, we have had only small attrition orders for Tornado. We shall not be content with eight, nine, 10 or whatever it is. It would help if those orders were forthcoming. By the same token, I want an unequivocal assurance that these aircraft taken out of the Saudi Arabian deal will, quite rightly, be replaced at the end of the contract, so that we do not just conveniently lose them and forget them. The RAF will still need them and we shall still need them within the order.
I am delighted, as many hon. Members will be, at the success of Hawk. As a result of the rather sad potential closure of British Aerospace, Weybridge, much of that work will be transferred to the Warton division. Therefore, I am taking an increasing interest in Hawk. I am delighted that the Swiss preference should yet again have outdone the French in that context. Anyone who knew anything about the aeroplane would know that it ought to, and it has done so. I hope that we shall follow that through. 1077 Ministers will know that the contract has not yet been signed, and we want to ensure that the French will not come back in and try to undercut in the way that they always do. Let us not miss this one.
By the same token, we need to ask some questions about what is being done by the procurement executive over the potential order for Hawks for the United States air force. There is a big order there which is being worked upon and we need to pursue that.
Let me deal now with a perennial problem which exercises many hon. Members—what is known as NIS, NATO identification friend or foe system, or IFF, as it used to be called. I want to know where we are on this. It is a scandal that it has taken so long to resolve the issue. It needs resolving. I know that there has been much discussion about this and all the various radar bands, and so on. I want to know whether we are on stream and when there will be a final solution to the difficulties.
The hon. Member for Woolwich talked about radar generally and airborne early warning. I have been particularly fascinated by some work in the United States, particularly by the United States air force, on what it calls OTH radar—over-the-horizon radar. This is fascinating work. Can my hon. Friend give me any information about that, if not now, in writing later? What work are we doing? Have we developed any areas, and are we working with the United States air force?
The other matter of great interest is SEAD—these dreadful acronyms, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement is so right—supression of enemy air defence. There is some interest in this because of the potential contract that could arise for Tornadoes. Hon. Members will be aware that the F4Es and F4Gs are being used together with the F16Cs and F16Ds, but that, with the German demand for development of the ECR Tornado, using either the HARM missile or ALARM missile, this potential contract for more Tornadoes has to be worked on. I hope that Ministers are putting their minds to this, and perhaps they will be able to give me some information about the project.
While on the question of the ALARM missile, I do not want to say any more than to ask: what has happened to it? It is becoming a matter of concern, especially in the context of British Aerospace perhaps being involved in negotiations with Royal Ordnance and the product liability problems that might arise.
We have heard that the Phantoms are to be re-winged at though. How many are to be re-winged? Is it the lot? If so, will this affect the F4Gs that we purchased recently?
I share hon. Members' concern about the Tucano. Although I am entirely happy that Short, being the magnificient company that it is, will meet the contract deadlines, I should like to know how it will do so. What is the delay on wing redesign? Is there a delay on the engine? When will delivery come back on stream?
I turn now to the general context of procurement. I am concerned about the Foxhunter radar. We have all been concerned about the Nimrods. Questions need to be asked on a continuing basis. I hope that the Select Committee on Defence will turn its attention in general terms to procurement, if only to update the excellent report that was produced under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) when he was in charge of that activity. That investigation exercised the minds of many hon. Members and was, if I may say so in the context of a RAF debate, a much cooler and calmer 1078 inquiry into procurement than when other matters, such as Westland and AWACS, featured in the broad political arena rather than in the specific RAF arena. We need to look at some of these areas, and the Foxhunter and Alarm give an ideal hook on which to hang questions.
I am delighted that at long last my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, together with, I presume, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces, has devoted some attention to small firms in competitive procurement. His initiative on the small firms advice division and the research initiative is to be warmly welcomed, particularly the possibility of representation at Ministry of Defence research establishments, which has been offered to many small firms. I know that the Defence Manufacturers Association, so ably represented by Brigadier Dick Purvis in all its activities, would welcome this move. I am sure that the association would want more to happen. I extend congratulations on where we have got so far, but say, please keep it up.
Procurement is the subject of the future. What is going on with advanced STOVL, short take-off and vertical landing? We had a lead in short take-off with the Harrier, and so on. I recognise that we needed to go to America because of the major deals that were offered by the United States marines. I do not take kindly to anyone in the industry suggesting that we should retain this initiative entirely. We needed to go abroad, but having done so we should not lose the initiative in terms of advanced short take-off and vertical landing.
There is much to be done. A lot of work in being done in the United Kingdom on the type of engine that should be used in the future. Hon. Members who are specialists in these matters may wish to talk about the many variants. I am concerned that Rolls-Royce is quoted as saying that it is receiving official interest from the Ministry of Defence and is wondering what is to happen. Is this true? If it is true, why are we not showing official interest? I do not pose that question in any pejorative sense, but I should like to know what has happened and what is happening. There is a probability of a five-year delay before advanced STOVL can be expected to be active. We need some measure of commitment, even if it is only a nod and a wink.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth
Last summer I was in California and visited the Aimes research laboratory, a NASA establishment. Is my hon. Friend aware that scientists at Aimes are undertaking work into advanced STOVL and are very concerned at the lukewarm attitude of the United Kingdom? They told me that it would be most unfortunate if the United States were to go ahead with this alone without the United Kingdom. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a severe risk that unless we show a commitment from the United Kingdom Government the initiative could be wholly seized by the United States?
§ Mr. Atkins
My hon. Friend, who is a specialist in these matters, reinforces the plea that I make to Ministers that we make a commitment. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be able to say something about this.
I dare to raise the chemical weapons problem in the absence of the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies), who always cocks an eye when I talk about chemical weapons. This matter concerns me and is 1079 relevant to this debate, just as it is to a debate on the Army, Navy or defence generally. We know that the Warsaw pact has chemical shells. I guess that there is a possibility that it also has chemical missiles or chemical warheads within missiles. If it can use them with shells, it can use them from aircraft. I pose this question again, not believing necessarily that we need a defensive capability, but believing that we do need some understanding and some capability to recognise that this is a very real threat.
There are some who argue within the military mile—my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State may well hear them more often than I do—that there will not be a nuclear war because the Soviet Union needs only to flip across a few shells or missiles, which will cause dificulties in terms of nuclear, biological and chemical warfare, the equipment that our soldiers, sailors and airmen would have to wear, and all the rest of that argument. I pose that question again, because it needs posing and it needs some sort of answer.
I am concerned that the United States Navy, admittedly with its economies of scale, is looking very hard at another British initiative, the airship. Does the Ministry of Defence have an interest in the airship? Does it have any connection with it now? Does the Ministry have a role for it, or will it go abroad and be lost because we cannot produce a requirement for it?
The Ministry of Defence has a large usage of helicopters which have an impact on civilian activities. With the closure of the Trigg Lane site, the usage and conjestion of the Battersea heliport, which is used greatly by the Ministry of Defence, is causing concern. I know that the Ministry of Defence and the Minister of Transport are keen to do something about that. Is my hon. Friend the Minister able to say anything about any delays that there may be in the Department of the Environment or anywhere else, and what pressure he is exerting to resolve the problem?
I have been asked by the Society of British Aerospace Companies to ask what is happening at Farnborough. Have the problems over the enclave been resolved? Has the society been able to see plans on the division in Farnborough? What is the future of this great air show, the window that we provide as the best possible demonstration of the virtues of the British aerospace industry, of those who participate in and produce goods for it and of those who sell for it? It is crucial that Farnborough develops and that any difficulties between the MOD and the SBAC on the future of Farnborough are resolved to everyone's satisfaction.
I have spoken for too long as usual, but my plea is that I only ever speak in this debate and therefore try to concentrate on it. There is an enormous amount of good news in the aerospace and aviation industries, and the RAF is often the beneficiary of it. A remarkable amount has been done with defence sales, as I said in an intervention, with the exports that the aerospace industry has provided and the quality of work done by RAF pilots and aircrew the length and breadth of the world in a variety of environments. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister and ask him to pass those congratulations on to the RAF for the work that it does, coupled with the enormous regard and respect that we have for the aerospace industry, its engines, airframes and equipment. We have done pretty well so far. Keep it up.
§ Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins). He asked about 25 questions and if the Minister sought to answer half of them we should need an extension of the debate until midnight. The hon. Gentleman kindly suggested how the Defence Committee should organise its itinerary for some time into the future. The Committee already has so many subjects that require consideration, so many films to watch and so many procurement foul-ups to analyse that the hon. Gentleman should perhaps advise us on how long we should take on those studies. Parliament might need to be extended until at least 1992 before the Committee could consider half the subjects that it wished to investigate. It is a shame that the hon. Gentleman is not a member of the Committee and that he cannot indulge his enthusiasm among hon. Members with similar interests.
I shall ask not so many questions as the hon. Member for South Ribble, but I wish to consider three problem areas. The first concerns the vexing, continuing, but not fatal, problems affecting NATO. The second, which relates to the first, is the growing divergence not only between the American element of the Alliance and the European element but between those who see themselves as democratic Socialists and those who see themselves as Liberals or Conservatives. Unless both sets of problems are resolved, there will not be a real compromise and the aspirations of those who view NATO in apocalyptic terms may be realised. It is in the interests of all hon. Members that those differences are resolved.
Transatlantic frictions have been with us since NATO's origins. It is often forgotten that the impetus for setting up NATO came from Socialist parties in Europe, led by such people are Ernest Bevin and Spaak. For many years, the Socialist parties in NATO countries have helped to sustain the Alliance. It is therefore imperative that the differences which have emerged in recent years should somehow be sorted out.
Discussions on the current validity, future directions and strategy of NATO are taking place at a time when there are signs that the transatlantic differences over a range of security and foreign policy issues are becoming wider. Those criticisms do not emanate simply from the Left. Many people in the United States and in the Rightwing and centre parties in NATO are expressing some reservations about NATO's directions.
I shall mention only a few of the transatlantic differences. There are differences over economics, trade, arms control, nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy, chemical weapons and neutron bombs, about foreign policy, for instance, on central America about the response to terrorism—for instance, the American bombing of Libya—and about out-of-area activity, burden sharing and decision making. One could spend a long time enumerating the many other differences besetting our Alliance. One author recently epitomised these differences when he said:In recent years, an air of crisis has hung heavy across the Atlantic. Americans have accused Europeans of harbouring anti-American thoughts and of risking self-Finlandization. Europeans have countered with charges that the US has turned into an irrational ally with a fascination for military power whose follies could drive Europe into an unnecessary and devastating war.1081 The differences are expressed by many sources and many political parties. If they are not addressed and contained, the Alliance will face fragmentation.
I belong to that group of people—as, I hope, do the majority in the Labour party—who believe that the future security of this nation, Europe and America is bound up in a continuation and strengthening of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. It has served this country and many democratic nations well and I hope that it will continue to do so for many years.
In recent years, Socialist parties have emerged which were in the van of setting up NATO and which helped to sustain it. Nevertheless, perceptions have diverged. New policies have not burst forth or come from a vacuum. Indeed, for a number of years, Socialist parties have been questioning NATO strategy in many different forums that have emerged. Their policies can almost be seen as alternative or Social Democratic security policies. These emerging parties include Socialist International, Scandilux and Eurosud. It is important to point out that, although all these parties—that of the Danes, the SPD in Germany and the British Labour party—are critical of NATO, they begin their policy documents by reiterating their parties' support for the continuation of a north Atlantic Alliance.
The people who advocate those policies—I view them from an objective, even dispassionate, perspective—are only one side in the argument. One can look at the other and see those who believe that NATO's current security policies exacerbates the threat to the Alliance. They propose policies which some people view with considerable anxiety. American initiatives such as SDI, opposition to nuclear-free and chemical-free zones and concepts such as deep strike are encountering criticism. Unless there is some compromise in NATO and other forums, the future of the Alliance is a worrying issue.
An acid test of the efficacy of the alternative policies might be the West German elections in the near future. The SPD, which is similar to the Labour party, is pursuing policies similar to those of the Labour party, although it appears to be less unilateralist than the Labour party. The German electorate's verdict on a range of SPD policies, including security, will be interesting. It might give some pointers to the British Labour party on the future direction of electoral opinion in this country.
My third point has had some publicity this week. Rumours have been circulating for some time that Britain is reviewing its commitment to NATO in Denmark and Schleswig-Holstein in the form of the United Kingdom mobile force. Some people might say that Denmark is a faraway country in which we have little interest. Some might ask, "Why should we worry about stationing troops in Denmark?" One must obviously add that, in terms of the military balance, Denmark occupies a strategic position of critical importance to NATO's future. We spend a great deal of time looking at the central region and perhaps less time than we should looking at the northern and southern flanks. In view of Soviet military strategy, the flanks are in many ways indistinguishable. British forces in the central region could be outflanked via Denmark and the Baltic, so the northern and central regions must be seen as inextricably entangled.
Denmark may be a minor military power but it is of overwhelming geo-strategic importance. British forces committed to that country in time of tension or war are 1082 vital to our security. What are our commitments to Denmark? Paragraph 432 of the statement on the 1986 Defence Estimate states:The United Kingdom Mobile Force (1 Infantry Brigade and logistic support) is earmarked for deployment in tension or war to the Allied Forces Baltic Approaches, where it would reinforce either Denmark or Schleswig-Holstein. The RAF's recently strengthened Air Transport Force could be available to assist with the deployment of reinforcement forces.Obviously, in any crisis the Royal Air Force would have a major role operating above and around the Baltic approaches. Therefore, as a previous Secretary of State for Defence said when he admonished the Danes a couple of years ago, some 20,000 young British men may be putting their lives at risk for the security of Denmark. Therefore, we have a great interest in what that country does, just as it has in what we do.
If there is any truth in the strong rumours circulating that the Government, to match commitments and resources, seek to curtail, withdraw and cut the United Kingdom mobile force, hon. Members on both sides of the House should resist that strongly because it is not subordinate or superflous to our interests. What happens to our security in the Baltic approaches is as important to our defence as what happens on mainland Britain. I have put a number of formal parliamentary questions to the Minister for written answer. I should like a reassurance, following the words of the Under-Secretary of State last week, that there are no plans to revise that policy. I hope that that statement will prove to be correct.
Many people, not least in Denmark, are obviously worried about this and it is important that that reassurance is given. If it is not given, the Government must be prepared to accept a great deal of criticism, and rightly so. This is not a debate on the Danish White Paper, but if one looks at the vulnerability of NATO in that area and the volume of Soviet and Warsaw pact forces that may be directed against Denmark, the timely arrival of 20,000 British forces would be absolutely essential. Denmark is a small country. Despite its home guard and small forces it could not sustain a defence effort for any time without the timely arrival—indeed, the arrival before a conflict starts—of the British and the Americans. Unless we arrived in time, that country would be lost and Britain's strategic vulnerability would be adversely affected.
We should consider what the Soviet armed forces have. The Baltic fleet consists of 24 amphibious warfare vessels and 100 amphibious assault craft. It also has 135 tactical strike aircraft such as Backfire, Badger, Blinder, Fitter and Forger. These could be joined by a possible 200 aircraft from the Soviet air force. Many other forces are available to Warsaw pact countries. Indeed, from reading literature emanating from the Soviet Union it is obvious that it appreciates the importance of Denmark for British forces and for NATO. The Soviet Union fully realises that, if it could acquire Denmark in time of conflict, it would win game, set and match.
What is Denmark's alternative defence view? Seeking some aid and comfort, I have read the bible—the alternative defence prospective, or defence without the bomb. That is the report of the alternative defence commission. On page 124 it states:The Soviet Union could either adopt two approaches to a full-scale attack on western Europe. The first is one which does not figure largely in present NATO planning but which appears in principle plausible. The Soviet forces would attack the relatively vulnerable Norway and Denmark first, go on to Britain and only then concentrate on central Europe. In that 1083 case Britain could mount a military resistance in the hope of eventual victory and, even if overrun by Soviet forces, could still harry them by partisan tactics and sabotage.Although many people may question the concept of deterrence, I should like to see an alternative concept to deterrence put rather more formidably that it has been in recent years before I am prepared to abandon the concept of deterrence as the only means of protecting this country and the rest of the Alliance.
§ Mr. D. E. Thomas (Meironnydd Nant Conwy)
The hon. Gentleman referred to a report of which I was one of the signatories. Will he explain the political context in which he envisages the Soviet Union invading Denmark?
§ Mr. George
The hon. Gentleman may look at a whole variety of scenarios. I am not saying that a conventional conflict is imminent, because if NATO is strong there will be no conflict. When one considers the vulnerability of NATO, the growing sophistication and numbers of Soviet and Warsaw pact forces, and some allies who are decidedly vulnerable on their own, if the hon. Gentleman thinks that a defence policy can be devised simply on the basis of hoping that the Soviet Union will never have any aspirations to expand, he is naive beyond words. I do not belong to the gang or group who would argue that somehow we must challenge the Soviet Union, but I should want our defences to be viable and reasonable, so that if there were a likelihood of conflict, any adversary would be neutralised.
§ Mr. George
There are several scenarios. If the hon. Gentleman cares to discuss this in more detail, I shall be only too willing to do so.
§ Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)
Will my hon. Friend cast his mind back to the point that he made about a possible Soviet strike across the Norwegian border? If we needed to resist that possibility, would it not be better for the Norwegians to take the electricity that lights that frontier from their own sources rather than from the Soviet Union, or is the Soviet Union such a great threat in those circumstances?
§ Mr. George
I do not think that denying the Soviets electricity will slow them down especially. If we are to devise a defence strategy, some aspects of the alternative defence approach should be considered carefully. Increasing the lines on reserve is important, but several of the strategies that one reads about—not just in Britain but elsewhere—must be ancillary to a conventional strategy of deterrence and not a substitute for them.
From the literature, one gains the impression that guerrilla warfare and fighting in the streets is seen as a substitute. There is certainly a history of resistance to aggressors in the part of the country from which the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Thomas) comes, but in other parts of Britain there is certainly no Yugoslav partisan tradition. As someone once said, "All that would slow down the Soviets if they reached England would be the contraflow system on the motorway."
Defence policy must be proper, balanced and conventional. The majority of Labour Members would argue that we do not need to shelter behind the American nuclear umbrella. Nevertheless, until it is proved to me that Britain would be safe without NATO, I shall rest on 1084 the past attitude of the Labour party since 1949, which has been a balance between NATO and its array of weapons and a major contribution to NATO's conventional defence.
In conclusion, we are entering upon a period in which the defence debate will enter the minds of politicians and the public. In some ways an electoral atmosphere distorts things and causes more problems. Undoubtedly, all parties are in difficulties with their defence policies: the Government simply cannot match their commitments and their resources; the Labour party, according to opinion poll data, does not have the overwhelming support of the electorate for many of its proposals; and as for the alliance, I am not quite sure what its policies are. Whatever happens in the election, it is important to reaffirm our commitment to NATO until such time as the Alliance can be disbanded. I repeat, as chairman of the political committee of the North Atlantic assembly and as one whose commitment to NATO is high, that I have no sense of shame whatever in wanting to see NATO survive until such time as Britain's security is at such a level that alliances could perhaps fade away, but that will not be in the near future.
§ Mr. McNamara
I congratulate my hon. Friend on explaining so emphatically to the House the basic principles of the Labour party's defence policy.
§ Mr. George
I am delighted that my hon. Friend finds my views so akin to his own.
I hope that the distortion of an electoral campaign will not blind the public and the parties to the essential problems besetting the United Kingdom and its allies. Unless it is possible to reconcile those differences, and unless concessions are made both by those on the Socialist wing and by the United States and those who share its perception of security, the Alliance will face a crisis far deeper and more dangerous than it has experienced at any time since 1949.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) on the courage, interest and honesty that he has shown in defence matters.
§ Mr. George
In the light of the last speech that I made and the consequences of receiving the plaudits after it, will the hon. Gentleman be so kind as to straighten the record and say how much he disagrees with much of what I have said?
§ Mr. Walker
I was touching on the hon. Gentleman's honesty and integrity, which does not necessarily mean that I was agreeing with him. One must never think that simply because I say that someone has integrity and is honest that I necessarily agree with him. Obviously, there will be disagreements in matters as complex as these. Indeed, I do not always agree with my hon. Friends. We have a responsibility and duty to the nation to be honest in these matters and if we cannot be honest in defence debates, when can be honest?
I wish to remind the House that I have an interest to declare. A few days ago the RAF advised me that it was extending my commission to my 60th birthday, so perhaps I shall continue to make that declaration for some time.
I congratulate the Government on selecting an airborne early warning system which works. More than anything, 1085 the RAF wanted a system which worked. The system will provide the eyes for our air defence. However, I cannot say that I am 100 per cent. satisfied with it, because I am not. None of the systems would do the job as we hoped, but of the systems available now, we have undoubtedly chosen the best.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) touched on the problem of the NATO identification of friend or foe system. It is important that that is dealt with soon. It is interesting to talk about the difficulties that are being faced in all our high technology areas as we seek to reach parameters of the achievable in an attempt to operate equipment and systems—for example the difficulties with the Foxhunter radar. The Tornado is a fine aircraft, but if we cannot get the radar to function, it will not be the fine aircraft that the crew require.
Hon. Members with any knowledge of aircraft know that most of the unserviceability that occurs in operational fighting conditions is not with the aeroplane or the engine, but with the gubbins—the stuff that is put in. Inevitably, we have found the radar, radio and electronics to be faulty at some time. One can live with some faults, but not with others.
I am worried that we hear so much today, especially from the Labour Front Bench, about how conventional forces will provide a deterrent to the Soviets. I remind them that there is not a single area of modern high technology where we have not had some difficulties. We seem to be growing ever more dependent on complicated radar and communications equipment and the more we depend on them, the more vulnerable we shall be if the equipment is in any way suspect. As yet, there is no known viable alternative to the nuclear deterrent capability. I have yet to meet an air marshal who is opposed to Britain having a nuclear deterrent capability and who says, "We should not have Trident." The RAF recognises that Trident is an essential part of our deterrent capability.
We must look carefully at the next generation of aircraft. I was delighted to see an experimental aircraft flying at Farnborough. I am sorry that there appear to be short-term difficulties and that the aircraft is not being used as extensively as we would wish. I remind my hon. Friends on the Front Bench that it is not only the Harrier GR5 which must survive over the battlefield day and night, but, more important, the European fighter aircraft, which is to be the air superiority aircraft—the first since the Hunter—which must fly and survive in battlefield conditions. It is important that we get the right aircraft and equipment on time. I also remind my hon. Friends that the F16, the world's most formidable air superiority aircraft, began life as a demonstrator. Therefore, I hope that that is sufficient incentive to get our demonstrator aircraft back into the air.
At the beginning of the debate, mention was made of the role of helicopters in rescue squadrons. I add my congratulations to those rescue squadrons to whom we also owe a great debt. They regularly fly in the hills in my constituency to remove unfortunate people who have got into difficulties on the mountains, especially in ski areas. They do a splendid job and we must never take it for granted.
Although it is important to have a viable, working relationship on the battlefield with helicopters it is not easy to marry the needs of Army helicopter pilots with the needs of RAF helicopter pilots. RAF helicopter pilots 1086 must do more than fly into a battlefield. That is why their training is longer and more expensive. Therefore, in considering the use of helicopters, we must not forget that the most important ingredient in the helicopter is the chap who flies it. We must make certain that we do not undervalue him and I am sure that the RAF will not do so. If there were a merger, someone might think that an RAF pilot would get by with the Army's less expensive training programme, but I would caution against that.
I agree with what was said earlier about the problem of replacement helicopters. I should like to see a decision soon on the future of replacement battlefield helicopters. I should also like soon to see the auxiliary helicopter squadrons that I was promised some time ago. I am still waiting for them and hope that they are not far away.
Most hon. Members who live in rural constituencies will from time to time receive complaints about low-flying aircraft. I should like to place on record my views which I regularly give to constituents who complain. Indeed, my wife is convinced that the RAF uses our house as a turning point. It is essential that we continue to train our pilots to the high standards necessary to survive in modern conditions. We cannot do that without training them continually in low flying. If they are to avoid detection and being shot down, they must be able to fly fast and low.
I remind the House that people selected for this kind of task must have ability and what is called an aptitude to fly, but the most important single ingredient is motivation—a love to fly. There is no way in which one can have a fast-jet pilot constantly on duty who does not love flying because, quite frankly, he would be totally unsuitable and, for a variety of reasons, a danger to himself and everyone else. We must try, as early as we can, to instil in young people a love of flying. I shall give my further suggestions on how to do that later on.
I am pleased that the auxiliary missile squadrons, which do a splendid job, have expanded recruitment and that that is going well. Those of us who remember the days of RAF Transport Command are pleased to note that, at long last, we have developed this capability and ability to deploy overseas. I congratulate all those who were involved in the recent exercise in the Arabian gulf. Having served in that region as a young man, I know that it is not a part of the world that I would recommend for a vaacation. However, it is an important area for the defence of the United Kingdom's oil interests and we have to make sure that we can get a force out there to do a job in a short time. The deployment exercise made those who are interested in this aspect of operations very happy. We were delighted at the use of the TriStar tankers and how well they operated.
I have been interested in some of the observations by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) with regard to a non-nuclear capability. I have one question. How do the Nimrod aircraft, acting in their anti-submarine role, sink a deep-running Soviet submarine, once located, in the absence of nuclear depth charges? I want to know how those submarines will be sunk if we are relying on a non-nuclear capability. If the Opposition can answer they will be on the way to convincing me that somehow they can look after our maritime interests effectively. As yet, I have not had an answer from the Opposition—I do not believe that they know the answer.
I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Minister advise the House of the use of reserve officers on the 1087 VC10s and the use of reserve QFIs at the university air squadrons. Those units should be encouraged and I have pleaded for that for years.
Perhaps Ministers will be able to give some details of aircrew and pilot training and how the Tucano, which was rolled out last week, has progressed. Are the Government satisfied that they can maintain the Jet Provost fleet at an operational level and an acceptable cost? If there are any exceptional costs, will these be charged to Shorts? The requirement, as I remember, is that they should deliver on time.
How is the programme going for the Chipmunk refurbishing? If we are to consider a replacement aircraft for the Chipmunk, it must be an aircraft that can excite, and be enjoyed by, not only the cadets who must fly it but also the volunteer pilots. The Chipmunk is unique. It has a tail down. It was designed in 1948 and it is reminiscent of the aeroplanes that I knew in my younger days. The people who fly the Chipmunk love it. If another aeroplane is put in its place, please let it have the attractions of the Chipmunk.
An important area to consider, and one of importance to me, is that of air cadet studies. I am very pleased at the interest that the Front Bench has shown in this and I would also like to include in my thanks previous Ministers at the Ministry of Defence for their interest. May I also take this opportunity to place on record the thanks of the Air Cadet Organisation to Air Marshal Sir John Sutton, C-in-C of Support Command and the support of Air Vice Marshal Don Spottiswood of Support Command. They have taken a keen day-to-day interest in the affairs of the cadets. It is marvellous that senior officers are interested in the young men who are the future Royal Air Force. Thanks should also be given the staff at the headquarters of Air Cadets RAF Newtown and thanks for the continuing interest of the staff of the Central Gliding School at RAF Syerstom and also the volunteer officers of the air experience flights, the volunteer officers of the volunteer gliding schools and the volunteer officers of the squadrons.
In the debate on 1 July last year I raised some specific questions. Although I do not expect the Minister to answer those questions this evening—I understand, in the time available, that would be unlikely—but I should be grateful if the Department could give me some information soon.
I wonder if the Minister has been advised of the situation at 661 Volunteer Gliding School which is based at Kirknewton? The United States air force plans to take over that base. We welcome the United States forces and it is my experience that when a volunteer gliding school has operated from a United States air base, the United States has always been a good host. At that base there is a need for Falklands-type hangars to house the gliders. At present, portakabins are having to be used and it is difficult to maintain morale when gliders have to be kept in trailers. There is also no accommodation for the staff; they are doing their best in what might be called a "current category" situation but it is extremely difficult.
I also wish to know what is happening with 641 Volunteer Gliding School—I raised this matter in our last debate in the House—concerning the possible use of a former RAF base at Anston, which is now an Army base. The aircraft flying from that base could use the radio to 1088 satisfy Newcastle airport for air control purposes. Modern sailplanes are well equipped and can be controlled just like any other aircraft. That would be a viable way of activating that unit. There is some doubt about the security of tenure at the Volunteer Gliding School at West Mailing. Perhaps the Minister will encourage the local authority to give the Air Force a lease longer than twelve months.
What is the situation with regard to Land Rover replacements and winches? There is no doubt that the present winches are not good enough for launching modern sailplanes which are too heavy for the winch. This is a particular problem when there is a light wind. What has happened about my previous plea for a few more self-launching gliders? Unlike conventional gliders, the self-launching glider can operate off the runway. I suggest the Grobb 109, which is a less expensive aircraft but could do the job.
What has happened about the advanced gliding site, on which a decision was reached some time ago, and what should happen about the second gliding centre, a decision which was also agreed? We should make use of air experienced pilots who have previously qualified on different aircraft such as the Hercules, the VC10 and other transport and communication aircraft. It would be a viable proposition that those who fly the Chipmunks—some senior ex-RAF officers—should be encouraged to do two or three-week courses so as to renew their flying knowledge of those aircraft for which they previously held a licence.
I said that I would return to the Volunteer Reserve officers who man the air experience flight, the volunteer gliding schools and the squadrons. I remind the House that these gentlemen get no pay. The only time that they are paid is when they attend full-time courses. They give all their time voluntarily and unpaid. Many have given 20 or 30 years' service. Indeed, some are now up to 40 years' service. They attend units, often for every weekend of the year. How many hon. Members know people who give almost every weekend of their life to something other than golf?
I ask the House to give this matter deep consideration because 20 or 40 years of attending volunteer weekend gliding schools and air experience flights, and possibly three evenings a week for the squadrons, is a great deal of work. Is it not time that we reviewed the way in which we award honours to this unique group of people?
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces will find that less than a handful of honours are awarded to this group of people each year. Somebody can serve 30 years voluntarily, giving up every flyable weekend, and receive no more recognition than a "thank you" letter. Ought we not seriously to consider rewarding these people in the honours system? Many people receive honours or awards for their everyday job. That is true of the Services. Should we not give more to volunteers? I am not suggesting that we take anything away from anybody, but that volunteers should get a bit more.
I hope that I have not kept the House too long, but these are important matters. I am the only hon. Member who speaks up for this group of people in the House and I hope that the House will bear with me when I make their case. I should like to thank my hon. Friends on the Front Bench—the way in which they look after our cadets is appreciated.
§ Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)
This may be a sad occasion for me, as it might be the last time that I take part in a debate on the Royal Air Force—it all depends on when the Prime Minister decides to call the general election.
I have always enjoyed these debates. It is fascinating to reflect on the fact that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I are the only Members in the Chamber who served in the 1939–45 war. In the 22 years that I have been here, there have frequently been substantial numbers of hon. Members facing me who also served in that war.
I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that the hon. Members for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins), for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) and for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) made speeches from which he will draw little comfort, because they told him what is not available in the RAF. I sometimes think that if Back Benchers who are involved in aviation and RAF matters were heeded, we would have a better equipped Air Force.
This also happens to be the anniversary of the Save-the-Baby campaign, in which I have been involved. In the recent extremely bad weather, great rescue services have been provided by the Armed Forces using helicopters. Today, I tabled a massive number of questions in connection with that campaign concerning perinatal death and disability. Could the RAF help one stage further by providing facilities for pregnant women who are at risk? The RAF might get them into appropriate units early. The job would be well worth while—it would prevent handicap and form a useful training exercise for the RAF. [Interruption.]
§ Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am having great difficulty hearing my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) because of the conversation that is going on on the Front Bench below the Gangway.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)
I hope that if hon. Members wish to conduct a conversation, they will do so outside the Chamber.
§ Mr. Carter-Jones
I assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that they were not troubling me. They would not have stopped me speaking.
§ Mr. Carter-Jones
The Minister took great credit for the new European fighter aircraft, but the battle for the aircraft was fought on the Back Benches on both sides of the House. The Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces ought to be told of the services rendered by Back Benchers who persuaded the Government that the aircraft was essential. The right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) and the right hon. and learned Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan), who were Secretary of State for Defence and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry respectively at the time, will bear that out.
While we were bringing pressure to bear on the Ministry, we were worried about slippage in time, as we were about late ordering. If we wanted to have an agile fighter for, say, 1993, that opportunity has gone. The right hon. Member for Henley eventually decided to go it alone with the Germans and the Italians. The Spanish joined us later. That was as much a Back-Bench effort as one made 1090 by the Secretary of State for Defence. There has been tremendous collaboration across the Chamber on RAF matters.
§ Mr. Carter-Jones
We are anxious that the hon. Member for South Ribble can express anxieties about the EFA slipping further away. My little homily has changed a little from my early days in the RAF, but there are three parts of an aircraft nowadays—the power plant, the airframe and the avionics. If we supported our aircraft industry strongly enough, our technology base would be that much stronger. Unfortunately, that is not always understood by the procurement department of the Ministry of Defence. It causes me more worries than our potential enemies. I sometimes wonder whether it is our friend.
We have experienced anxieties about the on-costs of Nimrod. I support the idea of fixed-price contracts, but we should not be too rigid, as technology in this area tends to progress rapidly. If we stick too rigidly to a fixed-price contract, we will miss opportunities to enhance the quality of the aircraft being built.
Perhaps the Minister will take a message back to the Ministry. It is that Mr. Levene may be doing a good job in terms of achieving competition, and he may be trying to eliminate the cost-plus principle, but he ought not to be too rigid or we might find that good developments, which ought to be incorporated, are left out. We have to guard strongly against that.
We have several worries about the EFA. People are hedging their bets. The Germans are not quite so keen and do not have the correct sense of urgency. If we have 1995 in mind as the date when the EFA will be brought into service, we are in danger of losing that target. It is then suggested that we can refurbish Phantom. That seems to be the solution which the Germans have in mind. There is grave danger in that, but it is the sort of thing that happens here. Certain decisions are influenced by things called general elections. It is a funny old world, but that happens all over the place.
As I have said before—this may be the last time I say it in an RAF debate—the Department is heavy on reviews. We have had more than enough of reviews but we have not had the aircraft. We have not had the engines, because decisions are deferred again and again. A distinct slippage is appearing in the European fighter programme. British Aerospace is doing a good job and I am convinced that it is ready and willing to continue. We also have a proven engine for the aircraft, the one that powers the Tornado, the RB199. Initially that would be a very good engine for the launch of the EFA. Coming up in the background we have the EJ200, which will be the European jet engine for the EFA.
I must give a warning. I hope that I am not too pro-British about all this, but I am getting worried about people pushing forward American engines, American airframes and American concepts. Unless we are careful, we will find that other nations say that they want a General Electric engine in the EFA.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth
The hon. Gentleman knows that I share entirely his patriotic view of the importance of buying British. However, does he not agree that we have a substantial two-way street between ourselves and the United States, and that even a former Labour Secretary of 1091 State for Defence, Fred Mulley, said that it was not always possible to buy British. Whilst we must be patriotic about these matters, does not the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a valuable two-way street and that a vast amount of British equipment—for example, the Hawk, the Harrier and other weaponry—goes to the other side of the Atlantic?
§ Mr. Carter-Jones
The hon. Member is wise to remind me of that. He is right, of course. All I am saying is that where we have the appropriate supplies available for manufacture in this country, they should be bought in this country. I have not gone for any alternatives. I have stuck with the view that there is available a superb British engine and its derivative. I accept that this is also the case with the airframe. We talk ourselves down far too much. I reiterate the request of the hon. Member for South Ribble that this project is not allowed to slip. I understand that tomorrow there has to be a submission for the new engine.
I have mentioned the ordering policy. I ask the Minister to bring to the notice of his Department the concern expressed by several of his hon. Friends about the way in which procurement proceeds. It is always tomorrow, never today. Lots of things are not ordered for reasons not always of defence. Perhaps the hand of the Treasury comes in. But the Secretary of State, not the Treasury, is responsible for defence.
On the Tucano, people say over and over again that the Royal Air Force must have the choice to buy what it wants. People say that when it is convenient. It was said, for example, when it applied to Nimrod. But it did not apply to Tucano. I am not saying that the Tucano decision was incorrect but it was not the choice of the Royal Air Force. There has been massive slippage. If the Minister were prepared to say, "We have a problem in Northern Ireland and there is a regional need to supply some economic support," I would accept that argument. I think he will find that on cost and on delivery time the Tucano will come late and more expensive than the Pilatus.
The Minister will have a chance to give us details. I ask him not to hide behind security. There are some questions I want to ask. What is the continuing operating cost of the Jet Provost? That question was raised first in the debate on the Conservative side. The Minister should tell the House about the recent subsidy of £36 million to Shorts. Was that for the Tucano? Quite a few replies should be given before the Minister shakes his head. Many people would like to know the answers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) developed the theme of Pilatus. If it is a case of regional help, the Department should bear in mind the fact that Hull and Humberside are as much in need of regional help as other places.
On the controversial issue, if low-level fast aircraft coming into this country constitute a danger, they are a danger now. The Government decided to buy AWACS. The first one will be delivered in 1991 and the others will come in succeeding years.
§ Mr. Carter-Jones
As my hon. Friend says, maybe. In any case, there are doubts about whether sufficient have been ordered. Again I come back to procurement. I believe 1092 that the Nimrod debate was the least informed debate that I have ever attended in the House. The open contract with GEC was a mistake.
I accept that GEC did not perform all that well, but the trouble with the Department responsible for defence procurement is that it does not know when it has won. The Department made up its mind earlier and, as with the fixed-wing aircraft, it could not change. It stuck with its previous decision. However, the improvements which took place in the avionics of Nimrod within the last six months were dramatic. At that rate of progress, it would have been an extremely successful aircraft. If we have no defence at present by way of an early warning system, I am sure that two or three Nimrods, fitted with early warning systems, could provide at least some defence.
The disadvantage of clutter was referred to in that debate, but the clutter was in the arguments that were put forward in the House. People's minds were cluttered and they believed that the procurement section of the Ministry of Defence knew best. Some quite insulting observations were made. I find it strange that people should say that highly skilled Royal Air Force radar navigators are unable to distinguish between a moving target and a lorry. I have never heard so much balderdash in my life. They were comparing something moving at 60 mph with something at mach 2. Any skilled operator could detect the difference. Even I, at 66, with bifocals and glaucoma in my right eye, could spot the difference. GEC is owed an explanation. Just in case somebody feels that because I am throwing around names, I point out that I have no commercial interest in any company in this country.
§ Mr. Carter-Jones
It may be a shame, but I am proud of it. It allows me to say what I want.
The Royal Air Force was not well served on this occasion. I am proud of some of our technical achievements in this sector. It would have been a good launch pad for our new technology in the wider civilian world. We tend to be making false decisions.
The helicopter story is even more disastrous than the Nimrod story. Years ago, Back Benchers on both sides of the House went to see the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement warning him of Westland's cash flow problems. We thought we were warning him. At least we cleared our consciences and told him. I am convinced that he knew already. That company was cruelly deceived. I repeat what I have said before. There was a tremendous row. No. 10 was seething and when the dust had died, two Secretaries of State had departed. However, there are fewer helicopters now than when the row had first started, but the demand and need for helicopters is always there.
How do I end what will probably be my last debate on the Royal Air Force? We should have faith in it. If we spend money training the aircrew, we should give them the best. Do not let some pen pusher in the Treasury make the decision. Do not start having further assessments of the situation. We know the needs. They are loud and clear.
§ Mr. Bill Walker
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in every instance where the Royal Air Force has been required to purchase a political aeroplane, it has always turned out to be a flop and has had to be replaced expensively later on?
§ Mr. Carter-Jones
I shall not be tempted down that path because my knowledge is not good enough, but I have 1093 a suspicion that the hon. Gentleman may be right. The Ministry of Defence is the trustee of the nation's security. If it trains the staff, it should make sure that they have the appropriate equipment at the appropriate time.
§ 8.2 pm
§ Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) in these debates, not least because he usually manages to cover at least half the points that I intended to cover and enables me to speak more briefly. Like my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) I shall concentrate largely on procurement issues. Therefore, I apologise to the House for the fact that I shall be adding to the library of acronyms that have been used so far.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement rightly referred to the Harrier GR5 as one of the more exciting technological prospects open to us as a nation. However, it is not just the aircraft that is in the forefront of technology. A number of aspects of the development of the aircraft and the equipment that will go on it are themselves keeping British technology at the sharp end of where aerospace technology is going.
In particular, I am thinking of the Pegasus 11–16 engine, which was successfully tested last year and is expected to be available in a production prototype in 1990, which has been proposed to the United States Secretary of Defence and on which a reply is expected shortly. I should be grateful for any pressure that the Government can bring to bear to ensure that this latest state of the art engine will be used, not just in the GR5, but for further developments in the Harrier.
In equipment terms, and again looking both at the Harrier GR5 and the Tornado, I should like to draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister to the development of TERPROM, the British Aerospace terrain reference navigation system, which has been successfully demonstrated on both the F16 and the Tornado. It has huge export potential, especially in the United States of America and other NATO nations. It would be suitable for the Tornado and GR5, and again is British technology at its best. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will look closely at this project, particularly as I understand that it could be ready for demonstration on the Tornado in the current year.
My hon. Friend the Minister was warned that the flavour of the night in the speeches of some of my hon. Friends is advanced short take-off or vertical landing aircraft. I do not wish to repeat the comments already made by my hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble and for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth). However, many Conservative Members are anxious at what appear to be developing—delays and possible lack of interest. We look forward to the most positive reassurance that my hon. Friend can give.
The project that has occupied much of the debate is the European fighter aircraft and its engine. My hon. Friend the Minister will not be surprised to learn that I wish to push him fairly hard tonight on the engine for the European fighter aircraft, both in its preliminary version and in its eventual version, because I hope that both engines will largely be built at Rolls-Royce in my constituency. Few people in this country believe that the logical choice for the initial engine for the EFA can be 1094 anything but the RB199. It is a proven engine with 500,000 flying hours. By the time of the first flight of the EFA prototype it will have notched up 1.5 million flying hours.
When the experimental aircraft project was flying, the RB199 was performing to specification within that project. I thought when I visited Farnborough last year that the sympathies of the audience went out to the manufacturers of the French plane, the Rafale, which, unfortunately, on the day that it was being shown against the experimental aircraft programme did not perform to specification. These things happen, and I am sure that we do not wish to make too much of it. In its existing version, the RB199 is European high technology which represents European employment and competitiveness. Its likely development into the EJ200 will continue to keep us at the forefront of technology.
Work has already started at Rolls-Royce on the development of the EJ200 and I know from speaking to the work force there that they have the highest hopes for this engine. They believe that this engine, with Rolls-Royce's reputation and the technical specification that has been agreed, promises to be a world beater. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will apply all the pressure that he can to ensure that the RB199 is given a fair crack of the whip, subject to satisfactory quotes for the initial engine—I understand that the quote from Turbo-Union is highly competitive—and that we can proceed as soon as possible with the EJ200 engine.
So far, this debate has been relatively friendly. Therefore, I apologise for now wishing to introduce a note of controversy. I am particularly sorry that, having been in his place for most of the debate, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) is no longer in his place, not least because I wrote to him at the end of last week and advised him that I intended to raise the subject of a speech that he made in my constituency and attack him about it. I am sorry that he is not here to take the opportunity to respond.
On 10 December last the hon. Gentleman made a speech in Bristol—I am not quite sure where because, unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman did not let me know that he was going to Bristol or to what part of Bristol he was going. From a newspaper report, I understand that he visited Rolls-Royce in my constituency. The newspaper report states:The European fighter aircraft, on which thousands of Rolls-Royce jobs may depend, will almost certainly be cancelled by the Conservatives to help pay for Trident".This subject was raised in a debate in the House on 12 December. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North was repeatedly challenged to state the basis for his wild statement to people whose jobs depended on the subject about which he was speaking. The only basis that the hon. Gentleman could find was that no contract had yet been placed for EFA, hut, as my hon. Friend the Minister pointed out to him in the same debate:We are committed to playing our full part in the…project…It is self-evident that we cannot order the European fighter now because there is no aircraft to order".—[Official Report, 12 December 1986; Vol. 107, c. 725.]That was the last that we heard on the subject. I accept that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North may have made a genuine mistake or may have been desperate for something to say about Labour's defence policy that would not put him under attack, and chose to instil totally unnecessary fear and panic in my constituents and those of other hon. Members in surrounding constituencies. 1095 They believe that the RB199, the EJ200 and EFA together represent their future employment and security. They were told by a Front Bench spokesman for the Labour party that that security was under threat. It may simply have been desperation on the part of the hon. Gentleman, but I suspect that it was more than that. That was not the first time that EFA had been attacked by the Labour party in Bristol.
About a year and a half ago, when the EFA negotiations were at their height, Avon county council, which was then controlled by the Labour party, passed a resolution and insisted that copies of it be sent to all Members of Parliament for immediate action. I am delighted to see that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North has returned to his place. In its resolution, Avon county council suggested that, because of potential expenditure on Trident, the British Government were about to withdraw from the EFA negotiations and that as a result a substantial number of jobs at Rolls-Royce would be lost.
The Avon county council's resolution reached me on the same day as the Government announced that the negotiations had been concluded. Had the Labour party in Avon listened to what was said to it by the company, and by the work force, and had it listened to the sound political advice that it received, it would have realised that the resolution was complete nonsense. However, clearly, the Labour party considered it to be more important to poor-mouth EFA, to create confusion and distress among the employees of Rolls-Royce and to do as much damage as it could. I accept that, in the absence of a positive policy, if the Labour party chooses to attack a flying project, that is up to it, but my suspicions go deeper than that.
I should like, with your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to draw a parallel from slightly outside the subject of the debate. About two years ago, rumours started to be spread—we know not from where—that in his next Budget the Chancellor was about to announce major changes in the pension taxation policy and, in particular, that he was about to announce that pension lump sums would be taxed and that tax relief on pension contributions would be reduced. The Chancellor was not in a position to deny that charge in the period before the Budget. Many other hon. Members and I received one of the largest post bags ever purely because of the rumours that were spread from we know not where. In due course the Chancellor announced that he would never have done such a thing without a Green Paper,and never would have considered it anyway.
It is significant that, about a year later, quietly in a speech to the National Association of Pension Funds, a Labour Front Bench spokesman announced that it was official Labour party policy to tax pension lump sums and to reduce the tax relief on pension contributions. That remains the Labour party's policy. My constituents and I fear that this is a pattern: Front-Bench Labour party spokesmen and important Labour party officials announced that the Conservatives will do something extremely damaging. I invite the hon. Gentleman to reply, now that he has returned to his place.
Is this anything more than a smokescreen to get defence spending down to the targets that Labour Members will set if they come to power? Is this a smokescreen that demonstrates that they intend to cancel EFA? After the 1096 hon. Gentleman's speech, my constituents are entitled to an answer to that question, and I invite him to intervene. The hon. Gentleman does not wish to intervene on this subject.
§ Mr. Stern
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He has created considerable fear among my constituents. In common humanity, he owes them slightly more of an explanation of his unjustifiable comments than he has given so far. I hope that if he suceeds in catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will offer that greater explanation.
§ Mr. D. E. Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) does not require me to defend him from the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern), and I shall not try to do that. I shall not break my self-denying ordnance of not speaking publicly about the internal issues of the Labour party. I do not wish to take up procurement issues. I had not intended to speak about strategic issues, either, which are relevant to debates concerning the RAF, but I have been provoked by the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) and the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker).
On the strategic issue, there is a tendency for our defence and services debates to be weapons led, to concentrate on military hardware and tactical deployment and not to be related to the broad political and military realities that are part of any rational debate of our defence policy. The speech of the hon. Member for Walsall, South was a particularly fine example of the way in which a whole scenario can be constructed on the basis of complete political unreality. I hope that the hon. Gentleman's speech will not result in a massive evacuation of Copenhagen this evening. The people of Denmark will be able, I believe, to sleep soundly in their beds, in the certain knowledge that there will not be a Soviet invasion. That kind of scenario leads only to more cold warrior approaches. It encourages the cold war attitude, and it leads to a mutual failure to understand and to mutual hostility.
Our debates on defence issues have to relate not just to procurement but also to arms control. In Royal Air Force debates we recognise that the complexity of modern weapons systems leads to dual capability. The Tornado GR1 and the Buccaneer squadrons that are located in the United Kingdom and Germany are capable of both conventional and nuclear operations. As we look to the ordering of further Tornado squadrons, we see that the immediate air defence of the United Kingdom will inevitably become interconnected with NATO's strategic role. It is very difficult to distinguish between strictly air defence roles and offensive roles.
In that context, I turn to the environmental impact of our defence policies. My remarks follow on from the speech of the hon. Member for Tayside, North, who unreservedly supports the present low flying military training policy. The Minister will not be surprised to hear that I shall return again to this subject. It is the one about which I receive most complaints, not only from visitors to my constituency but also from residents. I make these 1097 complaints not as a criticism of the military options that the training exercises imply. I make them on the basis of the increase in training and also on the basis that other NATO countries, particularly West Germany, apply much tighter rules than we do to low level training. It is ironic that when RAF pilots carry out exercises in Germany they have to operate under much tighter rules than when they are operating over the air space of England, Wales or Scotland.
Since 1977, there has been a significant increase in the number of low-level flights over the United Kingdom. According to parliamentary answers that I have been given, there were 76,000 movements in 1977, whereas there are now over 130,000 a year. The last full year figures that I have are those for 1983, when there were 128,000 low level flights over the United Kingdom. The increase does not take into account the environmental damage that British pilots cause to the residents of North America. The people at Goose Bay in Canada are affected by military training. The residents of Nevada also suffer from the training exercises of the USAF, which are augmented by British training.
In 1979, the Labour Government's Minister with responsibility for the Royal Air Force, James Wellbeloved, changed that policy. Instead of there being a number of designated low-flying areas, with link routes mapped out, the whole of the country's land area was made available. We were told that this would ensure that the disturbance was spread more evenly. However, James Wellbeloved also said that the low flying system wastoo small to meet the demands made upon it.We know now that the reason for the change in 1979 was not to spread the load more evenly. It was to ensure that the far greater number of training requirement movements that were necessary could be accommodated.
We are told that heights and speeds have changed. Before 1977, there was no low flying below 250 ft and at more than 450 knots. New areas were created then, some in central Wales and others in the north-west of Scotland. There was no consultation; the RAF does not require planning permission for these exercises. The legal basis of low flying is being examined; there is no clear definition in law of the Ministry of Defence's responsibility.
Apart from the designation of those new areas, and also additional areas in Cumbria and Northumberland, there is now low flying at 100 ft and 480 knots. Since 1977 there has been a substantial increase in night low flying, which causes serious concern to many people. It is 10 years now since a tragic crash just over the boundary of my constituency, when USAF airmen were tragically killed and a farmhouse was nearly the subject of a direct hit. That tragic accident occurred during night flying. As these night flying exercises increase, so public concern increases. Tornados and F111s are now permitted to fly automatically as low as 200 ft at night in bad weather.
I have to emphasise the contrast with West Germany. That is an environmentally conscious and "greener" country than the United Kingdom. That may be the reason for the controls in West Germany. Germany, a NATO country, is committed to the NATO strategy, but it is able to minimise the environmental impact of low-flying. The general height limit there is 500 ft. There are seven specific low-flying areas where low-flying is permitted down to 250 ft only. There is a general ban on low-flying at weekends. For some years the number of low-level flights has been constant at 110,000 a year. 1098 Further restrictions are being introduced. Skyguard mobile radars detect and deter infringements. A new ban was introduced in 1986 on low-flying in the middle of the day. A new system has been introduced this year, which will create 49 new low-flying areas, each of which will be used for a few weeks and then closed for several months to give the residents some peace. Speaking on behalf of the residents of the Snowdonia national park, most of whose area falls within my constituency, they would love to feel that they could have peace, not just on an occasional Sunday in summer.
There is a free-for-all low-flying training policy in the United Kingdom, and increasingly it is becoming environmentally unacceptable. The issue is being addressed not just by the peace movement. It concerns the environmental movement in general. The Council for the National Parks is very concerned about it, as are individual national parks. It is being pronounced upon by the farmers' unions. It is not an issue that the Ministry of Defence can fob off, as though it has been raised merely by the peace lobby.
The United Kingdom now has an opportunity to review low-level flights. I have asked the Department on previous occasions for reviews, but I have been unsuccessful in obtaining a review. However, the important NATO committee on the challenges to a modern society is studying aircraft noise. I have asked both the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Defence questions on this issue. I was surprised to find that apparently the Department of the Environment is not represented on this committee. Presumably Defence is the lead Department, and no doubt part of its function is to keep a check on the environment.
The committee was initiated by the West Germans. It is also staffed by the United States and was set up because of anxiety about the impact of low-flying. I hope that the study is looking at the issue in terms of solutions and in terms of minimising environmental impact, and that it is not merely some sort of PR exercise. Does not the United Kingdom look rather bad when measured against the efforts and initiatives taken in West Germany to lessen environmental impact? I hope that there will be a clear United Kingdom commitment to the work of this committee, that we will not try to prevent or frustrate any positive recommendations by the committee about inspection and control, complaints procedures and environmental monitoring.
I hope that the study group is investigating the United Kingdom's system and our controls and comparing them with other countries. I also hope that the RAF and the Department will take seriously the need to minimise environmental impact as more emphasis is placed on faster and lower flying and on more night flying. Perhaps the Minister will reply to me in this debate or in detail in writing. I draw his attention to recent information from Germany about the public perception of low-flying.
The December issue of the West German Tribune published a poll in which half the people questioned said that they did not believe national security depended on military aircraft practising low-flying. More significant is that, of the people questioned in the Rhineland Palatinate area of West Germany, 30 per cent. felt that their health was affected by low-flying, one in six had insomnia and 3 per cent. had been to a doctor because of aircraft noise. Some 29 per cent. saw the aircraft as hazards to safety and, as I say, nearly 50 per cent. said that there was no direct 1099 connection between their national security and low-flying training. In the poll 28 per cent. said that they had been shocked by the noise at a particular time and eight out of 10 people said that low-flying aircraft were disturbing them.
There are no surveys of that kind conducted in the United Kingdom. I suggest that the Department should conduct such surveys by commissioning a reputable independent polling organisation, of which we probably have too many these days, to conduct that kind of survey so that we can assess public feeling and can move towards greater environmental controls. We need to review not just training and the environmental impact but also the complaints procedure. I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which he replies in detail to complaints made by my constituents.
A complaint was made to me by a former RAF person about the alleged use of after burners by F111s flying over my constituency. When the Minister does reply in detail I shall be grateful to him. An independent complaints system which did not necessarily involve Ministry of Defence personnel would engender more public confidence and would be like the more independent systems that we have in other areas of public life. I hope that the Minister will take my complaints seriously because they are not coming just from a minority party in one area of Britain but are complaints which can be made by many hon. Members who represent rural constituencies.
§ Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Thomas). As he rightly said, defence must be placed in its political context. The political context about which most people are aware is the overwhelming conventional and nuclear predominance of the Soviet Union. The hon. Gentleman is a member of a minority party and is privileged because he is able to ignore national political opinion, but his colleagues in the other opposition parties will have more difficulty about that.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about low-flying aircraft. Like him, I represent a rural area and I assiduously represent my constituents' views and complaints about low flying to the Minister, who always replies most courteously, promptly and in great detail.
§ Mr. Leigh
Not ineffectively, because as a result of representations it is clear that the RAF is made to sit up. I made representations about low flying over a certain primary school, and I hope that they have done some good. In general, while most of my constituents may have complaints about low flying and aircraft noise, they recognise that those things are the price of freedom and they are prepared generally to put up with them.
I want to deal with just one aspect of this debate—the air defence of the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, he has had to leave the Chamber, but it was a privilege to listen to the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones). My generation owes his generation and yours, Mr. Deputy Speaker, a great debt and I do not need to repeat the obvious lessons of history about the role of the RAF in the 1100 defence of the United Kingdom. There are disturbing parallels between the situation that faces us today and that which existed in the 1930s.
First, Britain's air defence area is vast. It covers an area of about 4 million square miles and is 1,000 miles from north to south. I picked up an interesting article containing the views of Air Marshall Sir Peter Harding. He speaks with considerable authority and he said:If the enemy is going to attack, he will have to attack in sufficient numbers to swamp our defences.He also said that more than 500 aircraft would be involved at the peak of the battle.
The hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) and other hon. Members said that we face a quite frightening conventional threat. I am not talking about nuclear weapons. [Interruption.] I cannot hear the hon. Gentleman because he is mumbling.
§ Mr. Leigh
Not necessarily. It is a great mistake to assume that there would immediately be an escalation into nuclear weapons. That is why an essential part of our deterrent is our ability conventionally to deter. The maintenance of our fighter squadrons is very much a part of that.
It has already been said that the assets of the Soviet air armies include no fewer than 180 Bear and Bison bombers, 145 Backfire bombers, 397 medium-range Blinder and Badger bombers and 450 shorter range Fencer strike aircraft. That is a quite frightening resource and one must ask why the Soviet Union thinks it needs such a large offensive capability. Against that capability we have just nine fighter squadrons, and two of those are based in my constituency at RAF Binbrook. They are the Lightning squadrons. The Lightning first came into service in 1960, so it is an old aircraft.
I shall say something about RAF Binbrook later in my speech because it is of special local concern. Before I deal with that perhaps I could put a number of points to the Minister. He could reply to them later in the debate or by letter. In September 1985 there was what I hope was a successful exercise, Exercise Brave Defender. It was the largest exercise on home defence since the second world war. I was made aware of this exercise, if I had not already known about it through the press and by being informed by the Minister, because a heavily armed platoon of soldiers tramped through my back garden in Lincolnshire without any advance warning. As with aircraft noise, I accept that that is the price of freedom.
I am especially interested in the Soviet Spetnatz fifth columnist threat. We read of disturbing rumours about the number of Soviet troops being trained in this capability, and in an area like Lincolnshire, with a number of airfields, we take this threat seriously. Perhaps later in the debate, or in a letter to me, the Minister can give me an update on how the relatively new concept of a ground defence area around our Royal Air Force airfields is being developed. Perhaps he can tell us how he thinks the Territorials can cope with the almost insurmountable logistic problems that are posed and how we can possibly hope to seal about 3,000 miles of coastline. I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to comment on police primacy. I understand that it is envisaged that ordinary police would play a major role, and I wonder whether progress has been made.
1101 I want to ask about pilot shortage, which was dealt with by the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright). As the Minister will know, I am a member of the Select Committee on Defence. On 21 May 1986 I asked a question of Air Chief Marshal Sir David Craig. I said:I am told that the pressure on aircrew numbers is such that no less than 208 ground jobs are empty at the moment in order to ensure that sufficient pilots are kept in their cockpits. Is that right?At first he was not prepared to answer me. However, he then said:I can give you an order of figure. It would be about half that.That is serious. In a written answer we were told that 58 officers had joined the premature voluntary retirement scheme. It has been written elsewhere that the RAF may be short of 200 pilots. Clearly, that is serious. There was an interesting article in Jane's Defence Weekly, to which reference has already been made. It suggested various reforms in recruitment policy. The House would be grateful for any comments that the Minister can make on that.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stafford)
I do not know whether a tribute of any sort has been paid to Sir Humphrey Edwardes Jones. He was a flight lieutenant in 1936 and was responsible for vetting and giving the go-ahead to the Spitfire. He died only two or three days ago. His obituary is in The Times today, and in the context of what my hon. Friend has said this might be an appropriate moment to pay a tribute to him as a great man at a time when we really needed people of that calibre.
§ Mr. Frank Cook
On the issue of aircrew and their availability, would the hon. Gentleman care to comment on the opinions that I heard from our RAF aircrew in western Germany about the great attraction for them to follow the export of British produced airframes to the middle east to train Arab aircrew and to serve in Arab air forces? Is that not a drain in addition to the shortage that has already been mentioned?
§ Mr. Leigh
There have always been some RAF pilots who have helped middle east air forces. I was in Oman as a member of the Select Committee looking at operation Swift Sword and I was very impressed by the quality of the Omani troops and pilots and by the dedication and hard work of our own RAF personnel in the middle east. They are a credit to this nation.
§ Mr. Bill Walker
Is my hon. Friend aware that between the wars the Royal Air Force policed the middle east and developed a relationship with the Arab countries, and that post-war the RAF has been involved in the middle east and has lent people on a regular basis to middle eastern countries?
§ Mr. Leigh
That is a good point. It is a matter of regret tha our influence in the middle east is not wider than it is, and we all know the reasons why.
The main pilot drain will be not to the middle east, but to the United States. Recently I read that the United States would be recruiting about 6,000 pilots for its commercial airline operations in the next couple of years. That is an extraordinarily high figure.
1102 I now want to deal with the Tornado. I was aware of the problems with the radar before they became public knowledge, because several Tornado pilots are my constituents in Lincolnshire. Without going into great detail, which would embarrass them and the Government, I must say that it is a serious issue. It has been mentioned several times, notably by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins). We do not want another Nimrod fiasco. The sums of money involved are large and the Tornado is vital to our defence. It is in the interest of the Government to come clean at an early stage.
I want to mention briefly United Kingdom air defence ground environment. It is an important project. I believe that about £1 billion of public money is involved. The House would welcome further details of that. I can only speak from having read newspaper reports, but I understand that, unlike the radar on the Tornado, the scheme is a success story. It would be no bad thing to be told more about it.
The people of Lincolnshire have long been associated with the RAF. They are proud of their traditions with the RAF and are determined that the associations should continue. Therefore, I must deal with the future of RAF Binbrook, which is a historic and famous RAF base. It was founded as long ago as July 1940, 10 years before I was born. It has been the home in recent years of RAF Lightnings. Everybody in Lincolnshire knows that these planes are rapidly becoming obsolete, in spite of the fact that they are excellent and have given superb service. We all know that they have to be replaced.
The problem is similar to the difficulty that we face with Tornado radar. It is incumbent on Ministers to take local people into their confidence as early as possible on the possible closure of RAF Binbrook. Local people know that the Tornados are to be based at RAF Coningsby. They know that RAF Binbrook is rather too close to RAF Coningsby for operational efficiency. They know that there are difficulties with the so-called Humber gap, which has to be filled. They know, because I have taken pains to tell them, that the Ministry has been seeking earnestly for two years to find an alternative role for RAF Bin brook. I understand that the decisions are to be made soon, perhaps in February. At an early stage I hope that Ministers will take the Member representing RAF Binbrook and the local people—105 local people work at the base—into their confidence so that the future of the base can be explained. At the very least, local people would want to know that the base will be kept in some form, perhaps as a war reserve airfield.
The people in Lincolnshire are proud of their associations with the RAF and want them to continue. I shall end on a controversial note, by saying that I have no doubt that when the general election comes, whenever it may be, the people of "Bomber County" will not elect a Government who seem determined to throw away defences and freedoms that have been built up painstakingly over so many years.
§ Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)
I feel honour-bound to begin by paying a tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones). His contribution to the debate was offered in his usual pointed and pertinent style and with his customary reasoned and logical presentation. I commend that contribution to the House.
1103 There are many aspects of this subject to which one could refer. I want to confine my remarks to an area of examination around conventional weapons vis-a-vis nuclear weapons. The House may recall that during the debate last week on the Army I took the opportunity to contrast the need for adequate conventional equipment, which is sorely lacking in our Army units generally and in the central European sector especially, with the total inadequacy of nuclear preparation in terms of armament for conflict on that front. I took issue with the foolishness of claiming that the possession of nuclear weapons was a deterrent, when it is obvious that we cannot use them without condemning our own personnel to a premature death and condemning the countryside to a long-standing sickness of radiation. On that occasion, the Government spokesman failed to counter that thesis, so I offer it for comment later tonight.
I posed another question at that time: if we were making reference to deterrence, what were we trying to deter? Were we seeking to maintain a deterrence against Soviet invasion, or were we trying to maintain a deterrent against American withdrawal, as suggestions by certain American spokesmen might lead us to believe? I reminded the House that, regardless of the stated need from leaders of our forces in West Germany for conventional weapons, nuclear deterrence remains the order of the day, and that has not changed in the last week. Tonight, I ask the House to ponder the thesis that nuclear weapons are not only inadequate as a deterrent; they are also unnecessary. That thesis can be summed up as: "Who needs nuclear weapons when your adversary has a nuclear installation?" That is not a new thesis, but it might bear closer examination tonight.
A graphic reference to the type of scenario to which I refer was made as early as 1976 in the sixth report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which was chaired by Sir Brian Flowers. On page 123, paragraph 314, it is stated:We have given some thought to the possible effects of war so far as nuclear installations are concerned; these installations, providing vital energy supplies, would be prime targets. In a nuclear war the effects of attack on nuclear installations would be one part of a general catastrophe, but an attack with conventional weapons leading to the release of radioactivity would produce some of the effects of nuclear weapons. The quantities of fission products that could be released are vast and they would not be carried up into the stratosphere.I pose the question again: "Who needs nuclear weapons when your adversary has nuclear installations?"
The Royal Commission report continued:The effects of war, even of 'conventional' war, are inevitably horrifying, but if these effects could be magnified by attack on nuclear installations, then this is a major factor to consider when deciding whether, or to what extent, to use nuclear power.That is very wise counsel.The unique aspect of nuclear installations is that the effects of the radioactive contamination that could be caused are so long lasting. If nuclear power could have been developed earlier, and had it been in widespread use at the time of the last war, it is likely that some areas of central Europe would still be uninhabitable because of ground contamination by caesium.That is the considered view of the Royal Commission. As a result of reading that, certain questions were posed to the Government as early as October 1985. I want the 1104 House to know of these inquiries and to know of their response. The questions were phrased in the following form:Would there be a catastrophic release of radioactivity from a nuclear power station if: (a) it suffered a direct hit from one or more conventional bombs; (b) it suffered a near miss from a conventional weapon; (c) it suffered a direct hit from a weapon such as a bazooka style rocket launcher; (d) an aircraft crashed onto the station?That was the nature of the inquiry. The reply, dated 14 November 1985, from the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave), at that time a junior Environment Minister, was:I think I can do no better than to let you have the attached copy of his letter, which explains that nuclear power stations are built to withstand the sort of accident or attack you envisage.Two days before that, I received a letter dated 12 November 1985 from the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad), at that time an Under-Secretary of State for Energy, who stated:In particular they aim to prevent release of radioactivity in the worst credible accident;…nuclear power stations are built in such a way that they would withstand a large range of aircraft crashes and direct hits from conventional rockets, without any release of radioactivity at all.Those letters may be reassuring to my grandchildren or children a little older than that, but can we believe that the Royal Air Force—that had the skill, tenacity and courage to fly down the main streets of occupied countries and lob bombs through the doors of Gestapo headquarters; that had the piloting expertise to drop its bombs on German prisons so as to breach the walls to liberate prisoners of war incarcerated there; that dropped bombs on the Möhne and Oder dams to such devastating effect—or other air forces cannot penetrate the integrity of nuclear installations? Am I to accept, without question, two ministerial responses that are so clearly fatuous?
So many of the existing 120 nuclear installations in western Europe are clearly unhardened targets. So many of them, we already know, do not even have a form of secondary containment to guard against bluebottles, let alone bazookas. Is not such blind disregard simply a facile and somewhat irresponsible diversion from a real area of weakness within our own resource? Is not the validity of my further arguments in the Army debate even more obvious?
If we need nuclear deterrence at all, does not our potential enemy, whichever nation that enemy turns out to be, already have our nuclear deterrence in its possession? Is not our commitment to the nuclear weapons programme, as I said on that occasion, simply a means of ensuring the consignment of even more billions of the British taxpayers' earnings to the bottomless bunkers of the American armsmongers so that they can gleefully assure us, as they do, more bang for a buck?
Is it not true that the only sensible policy in economic, moral, employment and tactical terms, and, in fact, in terms of the balance of payments, is the adoption of the policy enunciated by the Labour party?
§ Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)
I want to say a few words about helicopters. I may tend to stray from the narrow confines of the debate, but I think that you know well, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that there is within the Ministry of Defence a group of people who don something 1105 which they call purple. That means that they represent the all-arms view of defence strategy. My speech will be something of a purple speech.
During the first world war, the balance of advantage initially, and almost to the end, was with the forces of defence. Mobility was impossible until the development of the tank. The tank, which had protection and mobility with it, changed the course of the end of that war. The reign of the machine gun was replaced with the reign of armour. That sea change happened then, as it has happened many times in history before, where one type of weapon system has predominated for a long time until it has been replaced with another. Other examples, as well as tanks and machine guns, are the English archer and gunpowder.
What I shall say now is intended to be provocative; thought-provoking rather than didactic. I do not want to dictate to anybody. It is a thesis, not a programme. I believe that we have reached another of those turning points. The age of the tank in many circumstances is virtually over. In today's warfare, the tank is the most expensive and the heaviest high-tech coffin that has ever been invented. We are now reaching the age of the battlefield helicopter with its two main roles. It has a role in attack, in anti-tank attack, and as a helicopter gunship. It also has an assault role as a means of moving quickly, to wherever the threat is greatest, reinforcements of men and supplies, and, in particular, anti-tank missiles.
The classical use of armour was in the role of the blitzkrieg—the punch: knock a hole through the enemy lines. In the previous war, particularly on the Russian front, the tank, in blitzkrieg attack, with its strength, protection and mobility, was a powerful instrument indeed. But now that protection, size and power are its signature and that signature gives its position away on modern radar and surveillance techniques.
The relative mobility of the tank has been replaced, now that we have more air mobility, with relative immobility. If an enemy were intent upon a major tank attack—a blitzkrieg—and got all its tanks together to try to force a punch through, concentrated, those tanks would be seen from a great distance by surveillance. They would be seen and could be engaged by armed helicopters from a distance well beyond the range of the tank. The tank would not know that the helicopters were there. As the tanks concentrated—and that would take time—all that movement would be "visible". The helicopters could concentrate much more quickly. A helicopter, with its missile, could take out tank after tank after tank without the tanks being able to do anything about the helicopter whatever.
Of course, there is the other role of the tank—the role of the tank in defence—holding ground. If a tank is dug in, it is a very good defence against armour. The infantry dug in in the past was never such a good defence against armour. The Energa grenades were pretty well suicidal. The Wombat and the Mobat, with their telltale back blast, were almost as dangerous to the user as to the tank they were taking on. But new infantry missiles score every time. As techniques develop, they will, with even more certainty, be able to take out enemy tank as effectively as with direct tank fire. But, as I have said before, the helicopter standing further back will be an even more formidable weapon than the tank.
That is a defence against tank attack. Times and circumstances change, with the likelihood in the future of 1106 many more airborne attacks. A tank has to be in the right defensive position. If it is not in the right position, how is it going to get there? The relative mobility of the tank in previous military circumstances has been lost. The battlefield is covered by obstacles. The tank cannot move because of those obstacles. It cannot move across rivers or through thick woods. It moves relatively slowly. A helicopter flies across woods and rivers and is much more mobile, faster and more effective.
It is useful when considering such changes to ask what other forces have done. The Americans in Germany, in their corps, have four times as many support helicopters as we have. The Russians have as many if not more helicopters than the Americans and are developing a formidable array of attack helicopters. In 1982, there was a confrontation in the Beka'a valley between the Syrians and the Israelis. Looking at the relative rate of attrition between helicopter and tank in that confrontation, the Israelis took out 30 tanks for every helicopter lost, and when the Syrians had the helicopters they took out 15 tanks for every helicopter lost. They are overwhelming figures.
When the age of the tank commenced, the premier strategist was an Englishman, Liddell Hart. Yet the technique for using tanks was developed first not by the British but by the Germans. The reason for that was the institutional nature of the German armed forces, being totally different from ours. The Germans had a general staff that was not bogged down with factional lobbies but was able to take an overall view and develop a grand strategy where that strategy was needed. In the United Kingdom there was reluctance to pursue the necessary changes because of the bastard marriage between had tradition and vested interest lobbies. I believe—and if my informants are right, it is so—that the same problems are appearing today. There is inflexibility of inter-Service budgets, loyalty to arm, the vested interest, including the promotion structure of brother officers in similar regiments.
§ Mr. Marlow
I will not, because there is a shortage of time and my hon. Friend wants to follow me.
Those problems block progress of tactical development and equipment ordering programmes. Cavalry generals promote cavalry generals. Cavaliers love their tanks as they used to love their horses. It is time that we did away with the "cavalry" and all its paraphernalia.
War was conducted by a combination of amateur villeins and yeoman on foot and gentlemen on horseback. It may then have been proper to lend a bit of tone to what might have been otherwise a vulgar brawl. We now live in an age of professionals. Equestrianism is no longer useful as a military skill. Sums spent on military equipment are scarce, and necessarily so. It is vital and essential that we spend it on the right equipment. We need more helicopters and fewer tanks. We always make the mistake of preparing for the last war. This time we must prepare for the next.
We learned lessons in the Falklands about our vessels and the way they were equipped. Elementary mistakes had been made, which we realised as soon as the hot war was upon us, but it was the peacetime structure—vested interests, the lobby, the nature of the Ministry of Defence—which provided those vessels in that conformation. Let us not make the same mistake in ordering military 1107 equipment in the future. We should have more helicopters. Where are we going to get them? We have, in Westland, our helicopter industry. We all know that Westland is faced with an order gap. Not only do we need Westland to build our helicopters for the future, we need it to maintain the helicopters we have at the moment. We need Westland to keep together its technicians and design team.
I ask the Minister to give some good news soon about providing a work load for this very important task of our defence industry. When we have the helicopters I am sure the Minister will put in the right order for the necessary equipment. The helicopters are deployed. Who is going to control them? At the moment, the heavier helicopters in Germany are run, maintained, with training programmes and everything else, by the Air Force. We have had eloquent arguments from this side of the House that they should be run by the Army. Conservative Members have argued eloquently for this and given the example of the Royal Navy, which controls its own helicopters. Use of helicopters by the Royal Navy has no peer in the world.
Similarly, a formation commander in the Army wants to have helicopters under his command and not need to borrow them. He wants to have his helicopters to develop his strategies, take his risks and integrate his forces in his formation and to make the necessary decisions to develop future strategy.
I add to my hon. Friend's plea that the military helicopters in the armed services used in BAOR-type formations should come under the command and control and have the uniform of the Army rather than of the Royal Air Force. Of course there will be co-operation, and men from one Service will go on another Service's courses, but the time has come to introduce this change.
§ Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel)
I know that hon. Members want to hear the concluding speeches shortly, so, in the brief time available, I shall concentrate on one major subject. Before doing so, I should like to express my appreciation, as have other hon. Members, of the tremendous performance of the Royal Air Force in the Oman exercises. It was a remarkable example of the skills used in operating the Tornados. In that out-of-area exercise we saw five to seven mid-air refuelling operations with Tornados flying all over Oman. The turnaround time was amazingly fast. The operation reflected well on not only the pilots and their training but the aircraft, which demonstrated that they were high in the world league table.
The subject that I wish to raise follows a question asked by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). I should like to persuade my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to respond to my comments on satellites. I do not intend to talk about the so-called "spy" satellites, partly out of deference to the ruling which Mr. Speaker made earlier, and partly because the relationship between the article in the New Statesman and the current state of play with my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General is not entirely known to me. I hope that my remarks will help to keep in perspective what some of us see as some of the more glaring errors in the reports that we have read so far.
We are all aware that there was a major hole in our defence capability when we did not have a Skynet 1108 capability. During the Falklands campaign, we were fortunate that the Americans took the view they took and that we had co-operation. Had such co-operation not been available, we would have been without a crucial capability. That is why the questions that have been posed about the launching of Skynet are so important.
I should declare my interest as a parliamentary adviser to the space and communications division of British Aerospace. I welcome the splendid news that British Aerospace and Marconi are to extend their line of Skynet to NATO satellites. This development is evidence of the high technological capability in this country. It is an especially important illustration of our defence safeguards in that forward programme.
There are three satellites in Skynet—4A, 4B and 4C. I understand that the first was to be launched on the shuttle. Obviously, that programme has been put back because of the problems with shuttle launch capacity. The satellite's design was not compatible with Ariane and the shuttle. There is a lesson to be learnt from that experience—it is unwise to put all our eggs into one basket. Those of us who argued in favour of modifications to ensure that either launch capability would have been appropriate have been proved, regrettably, to be correct. We have no satisfaction in pointing that out.
The first of Skynet is due to be launched by shuttle. That will inevitably mean that the second satellite, 4B, will look to Ariane for its launch. That would probably apply also to the third satellite.
Those three satellites are part of a whole development. They are designed to provide communication links for military purposes. It is clear to anyone who looks at the three satellites that their basis is interrelated. The third one, especially, is now significant because of the question mark relating to the shuttle launch that would have applied to the first. In that context arguments about the existence of a third Skynet can most clearly be understood.
What has now been announced on the NATO satellites is a major breakthrough for British industry, in which my constituents take particular pleasure. Also, those in Portsmouth will see some direct work in Marconi. Those at Stevenage will see an extension of the line there and a £170 million contract which will provide a great deal of value added work for sub-contractors throughout the country. That is all good news. It is part of a United Kingdom defence satellite capability which bodes well for the future. I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister replies he will give us a little more information on the latest indications of likely dates of the shuttle launch.
I shall touch briefly on the so-called British astronaut. Suggestions have been made that, because of the shuttle delay, the possibility of a British astronaut being part of our launch activity has in some way been ruled out. I would be sorry if that were the case. I hope that the Minister can confirm tonight that such is not the case, that that matter is still under consideration, and that as and when we see—as we hope we shall$the shuttle launch confirmed once again, there will be an opportunity for the resumption of the original training programme which was to be exercised for Squadron Leader Nigel Wood. Anything that the Minister will say on that would be welcome.
At present we envisage some difficulties on the question of a British astronaut for the NATO satellite until we are clearer about launch capability. But I am a little anxious that, again, we should not be ruled out on the basis that 1109 because we see largely British built satellites within NATO by definition the astronaut must come from some other country. I do not wish to make too much of what was perhaps meant in a lighthearted way by the distinguished air vice-marshal, who suggested that "even a Turk" might be applicable, but NATO must keep a broad and open view. If, by that time, British astronauts have direct payload experience—as is made possible through Skynet—let us try to ensure that they are available and the most obviously qualified candidates for the NATO satellite.
Within those requests to the Minister I have tried to encompass briefly what seemed to be some facets of a most important development for British industry in the widest context. Many hon. Members believe that the spin-off from military to commercial satellite construction has great value. It is part of a development that I hope will continue over the months that lie ahead. It is in that regard that many of the reports which are now being bandied about on spy satellites should be viewed. Those are the matters that really concern us tonight. They put into perhaps the widest possible context some of the more sensationalist and, I believe, schoolboy howler sort of reports that we have seen before us today.
§ Mr. McNamara
Hon. Members have addressed several questions to me, so I shall start by dealing with them and go on to the philosophical matters behind the debate.
The hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) asked how our non-nuclear policy would enable our forces to sink deep-running Soviet submarines. We have had this out in the past and I shall give an answer from Noel Gaylor, a United States admiral. He said:The most concrete objection is that any initial use of nuclear weapons at sea would be very much to the disadvantage of the Allies, because we are the outfit with the big ships and we are the outfit largely dependent on service ships to keep the seas open. The differential advantage we might get from going after a submarine with a nuclear depth bomb is just not worth it. In addition it has the interesting characteristic that if you blow one beneath the surface of the sea, you will ring the ocean acoustically for several hours and lose the capability to track anybody. As a tactic that is soft-headed, deeply obnoxious—and militarily futile.
§ Mr. McNamara
With great respect, I have little time. In other words, the American admiral is saying that faced with a shoal of nuclear submarines, if we hit the first one, the others would come through because the sensors would not be working.
§ Mr. McNamara
Why, then, are we wasting so much money on Spearfish and Sting Ray which are specifically designed for that purpose? That is what we have been told by both Marconi and the Government.
The hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) raised several questions. Because the Trident project is spread over 20 years, the Government argue that the average proportion of defence resources that it takes is limited, and that between 1980–81 and 1999–2000 it will take only 2.9 per cent. of the total defence budget. However, that statement is misleading, because Trident spending will not be spread evenly over the 20 year procurement period. Seventy-eight per cent. of the total 1110 spending, or £7.3 billion, is due in the decade from 1986. In that period Trident will account for 4.5 per cent. of total defence spending, 10.4 per cent. of total equipment spending and 17.2 per cent. of new equipment spending.
Therefore, using Ministry of Defence figures, we can calculate that total defence spending, excluding Trident, will fall by about 11 per cent. in real terms between 1984–85 and 1989–1990, which will return conventional defence spending to its 1982–83 level. Thus total equipment spending, again excluding Trident, will fall by about 23 per cent. in real terms in the five years from 1984–85 to 1989–90, which means that conventional equipment spending will return to about its 1980–81 level. The new equipment spending, again excluding Trident, will fall by about 30 per cent. in real terms between 1984–85 and 1989–90 and by that year the level of real spending on conventional new equipment will be lower than in any year since 1979–80.
With the unit costs of all new weapons rising, many difficult decisions must be made. In recent years, by keeping its head firmly below the parapet, the RAF has been able to maintain, and indeed secure greater increases in, equipment growth. As a result it could he argued that to avoid cuts in the surface fleet or BAOR the RAF should be cut. That immediately brings into question the future of the European fighter aircraft programme, on which the Government have said that they have no firm contractual commitment and that the total cost could be £9 billion. If that programme were delayed or cancelled or the size of the British order, estimated at 250 planes, reduced, it would enable large savings to be made in the RAF's budget in the early 1990s.
There is no firm budget commitment or undertaking on the EFA. Therefore, we are entitled to say, knowing how the Government will write in White Papers after the general election—whatever the Government—that some crucial decisions must be taken and the EFA programme could well be at risk. I say to the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces, if the Conservatives win the general election and keep Trident, there is a real chance of losing the EFA programme. I must remind the hon. Gentleman's constituents who work in the defence industry that their jobs are not sacrosanct. The royal ordnance factories, the royal dockyards and British Aerospace and its factories thought that they were safe. There is no reason why Bristol workers nor any person employed in conventional industry should feel that their jobs are safe under this Government.
There have been some strange statements about Labour party policy and the Government's attitude to it. On the suggestion that we would leave 1st Corps unprotected, I shall ask the questions that we sought to ask in last week's debate; they are fundamental to that attitude and we have not yet received answers to them.
What nuclear weapons or facilities are under the control of 1st Corps, British Army of the Rhine and can be used unilaterally? The answer is none. Not one weapon can be used without the say-so of the United States. The Russian hordes can come over and run across all our men, seize everything, and threaten to come up Whitehall, and we will not be able to use those weapons without American consent. It is not us, but our American allies, who are reducing the strength of BAOR. If Conservative Members had the courage, they would admit that. Instead, they go on the myth that we have a nuclear capability which 1111 BAOR can use without the say-so of the Americans. We cannot therefore go along with the Government's thinking.
Although we have some fine new weapons for the RAF such as Tornado—the Government talk a great deal about what they are doing—we should consider the cost of spending so much on nuclear weaponry. We have 1951 Shackletons, 1956 Jet Provosts, 1958 Buccaneers, 1955 Victors, 1963 Wessexes, 1971 Pumas, 1967 Harrier GR3s, 1967 Phantoms, 1959 Lightnings, 1968 Nimrods and 1951 Canberras. That is a collection for the air museum and it is the cost of spending so much on nuclear weapons.
It is disgraceful to suggest that the Labour party's policy is neutralist. It is not. I welcome the Secretary of State, who is laughing, to the debate. With the resolution in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament which the Labour party conference accepted by a two thirds majority on a card vote, which means that it becomes party policy, was a resolution in favour of continued membership of NATO.
§ Mr. McNamara
With the greatest respect to the hon. and learned Gentleman, I shall not give way. I have given up 10 minutes and have promised not to take too much time so that the Minister can get in a lot more information.
There seems to be an idea that the Labour party's suggestion that we should look again at the concepts and strategies of NATO is strange. Do the British people have a choice? We are saying that they do. They can go along with nuclear policy, which will weaken our conventional forces and lower the nuclear threshold, or they can strengthen our conventional forces so that we can play our proper role in NATO, as we are best able to do.
The idea is not peculiar to the Labour party—it has occurred to Caspar Weinberger who said at the National Press Club:Most of the concepts that shape our thinking about what forces we need and how they would be used were formulated in the 1950s and early 1960s… The world has changed so profoundly since the 1950s and 1960s when most strategic ideas were formulated that many of these concepts are now obsolete.I do not claim Caspar Weinberger as a sudden convert to unilateralism, but I do claim that he sees the intellectual choice and military problems which face NATO in the 1990s and the 21st century.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) was at the core of the creation of many of these policies in the early 1960s when he was Secretary of State for Defence. He said:There is now a growing feeling among military experts that NATO must look in a different direction—towards a non-provocative strategy of conventional deterrence which could protect NATO territory without using nuclear weapons if deterrence should fail. We in the Labour Party share this feeling.Are we wrong to say to our allies, "Stop. How far do you expect us to go along this road?" How can we afford the money, the forces, the treasure and the expertise to go along that road? It would be far better to draw back and to try to consider the consequences of that decision. It would be far better to stop, and at least to think about it. That is the Labour party policy. We are asking our NATO allies to sit down and consider whether this policy is the proper one.
1112 After Reykjavik, George Shultz said:We may be on the verge of important changes in our approach to the role of nuclear weapons in our defence.In November 1986 he went on to say:It may be that we have arrived at a true turning point. The nuclear age cannot be undone or abolished; it is a permanent reality but we can glimpse now, for the first time, a world freed from the incessant and pervasive fear of nuclear devastation…a nuclear defence strategy that rests on the threat of escalation to the strategic nuclear conflict is, at best, an unwelcome solution to ensuring our national security.George Shultz was discussing the United States national security. That decision is based on that national security rather than our own or European national security, but it is in Europe that the first line of the battle will be fought.
Conservative Members may criticise us, and no doubt they will continue to do so—but they should try not to behave as military dinosaurs. They should try to consider the possibilities and the principles upon which they base their policies. I can understand if Conservative Members come to a different conclusion from ours—if it is arrived at after honest and rigorous intellectual examination—but they should not doubt the rigour and honesty of our interpretation. The moment they do that they are saying that half the population of Britain, who do not want Trident, are dishonest. Are they prepared to go to the country and say to half of the people, "We think half of you are too thick and too dishonest to know what it is all about"? That patronising attitude to the British electorate is absolutely disgusting.
The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Lee), who has Binbrook in his constituency, said that the Russians have an overwhelming preponderance of conventional and nuclear forces. That is not true. If it was I do not believe that any of us would be here today. What did the International Institute of Strategic Studies say concerning the military balance in 1986–87:The overall conventional balance continues to be such to make military aggression a highly risky undertaking.With regard to conventional capability Casper Weinberger said:As this report illustrates, contrary to some claims, NATO does not suffer an unmanageable initial weakness in aggregate conventional combat power.So much for the assessment that the Russians have so many tanks that they could come over in one moment and wipe us all out. We in turn have our anti-tank forces. The bean count does not work.
General Bernard Rogers said:The advantage is with the defender and they (the Warsaw pact) will give us credit for being stronger than we give ourselves credit for.Conservative Members who attack our policies say that the Americans will go home if we follow them through. The Americans will go home only if they consider it is no longer in their national interest to be here. Whether the Americans have bases here or not they will go home once they have reached that conclusion. If they no longer considered such bases to be in their national interest as a Government, they would be wrong not to reach that decision. Caspar Weinberger said:US forces are maintained in Europe directly in support of US political and military interests—not as an act of charity towards our allies.The Minister who opened the debate should try to understand what Labour party policy is. When the Minster spreads what, in other circumstances, might be termed a big lie, that we are neutralists, it is not true. The Labour party is committed to the defence of this country 1113 by land sea and air. That commitment is greater than the commitment of the Government who are willing to risk everything on the nuclear gamble. They are prepared to allow our conventional forces to be run down to such an extent that in the end the only way we can defend ourselves will be to use a very low nuclear threshold. That will be the consequence of the hon. Gentleman's policy.
Let no Conservative Member doubt Labour's commitment to the defence of Europe and the positive role it will seek to play within NATO. Let no one doubt Labour's determination to maintain a proper contribution towards the collective and nuclear defence of the country. Far from being a contradiction, our policy of a determined and strong membership of NATO, unilateral nuclear disarmament and no nuclear bases in the United Kingdom, is the direction in which we think that NATO will move. That is the direction in which we will seek with increasing acceleration to draw our NATO allies on both sides of the continent.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) has made perhaps his last speech in an RAF debate. He was proud to defend his country. If he were fighting the next election, he would be equally proud to go to the hustings on such a policy.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Roger Freeman)
This has been a wide-ranging and serious debate and I shall try to answer as many as possible of the questions that have been raised. My officials advise me that well over 100 questions have been asked. My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) has probably accounted for 25 per cent. of them. In regard to those questions that I cannot answer because of shortage of time, I shall read the debate carefully, as will my colleagues and we will write to all Members, on both sides of the House, who have raised questions and try to answer them as fully as possible.
Before attempting to answer some of the questions, may I devote a short time to answering one point referred to by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) in his opening and closing speeches about the resources available to the Royal Air Force. When he was opening the debate, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement described the range of roles and activities undertaken by the Royal Air Force. They are essential to the effective defence of the United Kingdom and to this country making a worthwhile contribution to the NATO Alliance. This Government have, over their period in office, substantially increased the resources devoted to this end.
The defence budget is substantially larger in real terms than when we entered office, and the proportion of that budget spent on equipment has grown from 39 to 45 per cent. since 1979. The RAF's share of that budget is some 30 per cent. in the current year. In real terms the RAF has benefited greatly from this Government's policies. Excluding Falklands costs, expenditure on the RAF in 1986–87 will amount to £5.4 billion, which represents an increase in real terms, using Ministry of Defence cost deflators and not the retail price index deflator, of 21 per cent. since 1978–79 The Government need no lectures from the Opposition about strengthening conventional forces.
1114 My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham) asked about noise compensation. It might be helpful if I remind the House briefly of the policies recently produced by the Government to deal with this important problem. We have introduced a noise compensation scheme to alleviate the nuisance military aircraft cause in the vicinity of military airfields. Depending on the location of the house affected, the compensation that is paid by the Ministry of Defence in these circumstances may take one of three forms.
First, a grant to cover the cost of acoustic secondary double glazing is paid when noise levels are at least 70 decibels over a 12-hour period, and in addition special account is taken of night flying. Secondly, we offer to purchase where dwellings are subject to exceptionally high noise levels; for instance, where properties are subject to 83 decibels or more over a 12-hour period. Finally, compensation for the depreciation of property value is offered. The district valuer of the Inland Revenue assesses this compensation to ensure that the sum of money paid is independently assessed. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton mentioned in particular the noise survey at RAF Cottesmore. I am hoping to have the report in February and to consider extending the scheme in a few months time.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck) asked about Hawks and potential sales to Venezuela. I understand that British Aerospace signed a contract to supply Hawks to Venezuela in 1982. The Venezuelans did not proceed, but both the Ministry of Defence and British Aerospace remain hopeful that they will decide to proceed with the purchase.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North raised a number of points, and I shall try to deal with the major ones. In one point he was joined by the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh). They all referred to the loss of pilots in particular, but officers in general, from the Royal Air Force through what is called premature retirement. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North said that he detected a lack of urgency in the Ministry of Defence in dealing with this problem, but that is not true. I shall briefly explain how we are tackling this problem with great vigour.
It might be helpful if I corrected the impression that the hon. Gentleman gave that this problem is getting worse. Far from it. The latest statistics are good news. I shall deal first with all officers and then with pilots in particular. For the 12 months ended 31 December 1985, the number of officer exits as a percentage of the total trained officer strength was 2.7 per cent., but in the most recent 12 months, in the year ended 31 December 1986, that percentage has fallen to 2.3 per cent. I am glad that there has been that reduction for all officers, and it is true also of pilots. In the year ended 31 December 1985 the number of pilot exits as a percentage of trained pilot strength was 2.1 per cent., and for the most recent 12 months, ending 31 December 1986, that percentage had fallen to 1.9 per cent. That is good news about pilot exits.
We all understand the reasons for these exits and in previous debates, the hon. Member for Woolwich has alluded to some of the factors. The push factors are the turbulence of service life, and this is not just a feature of RAF life but applies to all three services. There are some 1115 criticisms of conditions of service, particularly in the RAF. The gratuity that is paid to pilots at the eight-year point when, if they are on 12-year commissions they have the right to leave, creates distortions. My hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) referred to some of the pull factors, the main one being the attractions of the airlines and British Airways in particular.
What are we doing about the problem of exits, which I hope I have shown is a little less severe than it was a few years ago? We have taken three measures. First, as regards turbulence, we are extending the tours of RAF pilots and officers. That should give a greater stability to family life. Secondly, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North said, we have appointed a two-star officer to study the terms and conditions of service of RAF officers, and in particular to see whether we can learn any lessons and identify problems. Finally, we are looking at some of the allowances, such as those that relate to the movement of officers and men, and at some of the separation allowances.
§ Mr. Freeman
I gladly pay that tribute. Unfortunately, the issue has not been raised in the debate. I hope that we can return to the important issue of maintenance.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North also raised the matter of the Tucano. My hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North and the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) also alluded to this. I am sorry that I was not in the Chamber when the hon. Member for Eccles spoke. I pay tribute to him. As I understand it, he is one of the last hon. Members who fought in the second world war. We shall miss his contributions.
My hon. Friends will be aware that the first Tucano rolled off the production line a couple of days ago. Boscombe Down will receive two aircraft for trials and evaluation in a few months. The company predicts that two aircraft a month will be delivered to the RAF, starting in May. Training of the first Tucano squadron is due to begin in the summer of 1988. Delivery of the first aircraft to the Royal Air Force will be a few months later than originally planned, but we hope to recover some of this lost time later in the programme.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North asked also about AWACS. He asked whether six Boeing aircraft would be enough. Obviously in reaching any major procurement decision, affordability is a major consideration. Six of the E3As can be accommodated within the available defence budget provision, whereas eight will pose more difficulties. A decision on whether to exercise the option on the further two aircraft will be taken in the light of the outcome of the annual recosting of the defence programme on which the Department is currently engaged.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North asked about the Foxhunter fire radar for the Tornado. My hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble and for Gainsborough and Horncastle also asked about this matter. Concern has been expressed by the Ministry to GEC Avionics about slippage in the programme. The company has agreed to aim for accelerated production. 1116 We are also discussing with GEC the basis on which to resolve the problems associated with the current radar sets and demonstrate acceptable performance in the near future. Our aim will be a mutually agreeable fixed price contract.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North also asked about the GR5. The size of the second batch order is under consideration. Orders for certain long lead items were placed last year, and a decision on further long leads will be made in the next couple of months.
The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble also asked about the experimental aircraft programme. It is our intention that any future Ministry of Defence funding of the experimental aircraft programme should be as part of the collaborative EFA programme on an international basis. We are currently awaiting proposals from industry on how EAP could be used in this context.
§ Mr. Robert Atkins
Does my hon. Friend not recognise that pressure needs to come from Ministry of Defence Ministers within the four-nation consortium to ensure that the other three countries are prepared to accept that EAP has a vital role to play in the development of the Eurofighter?
§ Mr. Freeman
The Official Report will show faithfully the concern expressed by my hon. Friend. He knows that one of the procurement Ministers has noted carefully what he said, not only in his intervention, but earlier.
My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) spoke generally about the importance of helicopters—he was joined by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow)—and specifically about the control of support helicopters. This is the argument about whether control of all support helicopters should pass, in part, from the Royal Air Force to the Army.
My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North referred to the 1985 reorganisation of the Ministry of Defence, whereby operational requirements are considered centrally. He talked about purple officers and staff at the Ministry of Defence. This reorganisation removed any risk of capabilities which cross Service boundaries not being given their rightful priority. I can confirm that, in my experience in the Ministry of Defence, this is indeed the case. Nevertheless, the Government are considering the matter and are bearing very much in mind the Defence Committee's views as expressed in its third report. What I have just said was reiterated by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when he set out the Government's position not only in the debate on Westland, but in the Government's response to the third and fourth reports of the Select Committee.
The hon. Member for Woolwich referred to the condition of married quarters and said that he believed that 70 per cent. of them are below an adequate standard. This is a very important issue and I attach great importance to it not, only when I make visits, but when planning the allocation of Ministry of Defence resources. In recent years the Government have been devoting increasing resources to improving the accommodation for Service men. A comprehensive programme is being undertaken to modernise the accommodation for single service men, at a cost of over £170 million in the next 10 years. We have also been devoting increasing resources to 1117 modernising the RAF's married quarters estate. We plan to spend £16 million on improving married quarters in this financial year, with a planned investment of the same order in each of the following 10 years.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to the Government's attitude to defence against short-range ballistic missiles. We shall study Hansard with great interest, because the hon. Gentleman made detailed contribution to the debate. He is right to draw attention to this threat. It has to be taken very seriously. The existence of the threat is an illustration of the range and diversity of the dangers against which we have to structure our defences, but the nature of the appropriate response is difficult and complex. There is a range of possibilities. The hon. Gentleman referred to many of the considerations that have to be borne in mind. The NATO Alliance—and undoubtedly the hon. Gentleman's own alliance—is considering this issue carefully, and the United Kingdom is naturally playing its full part in that consideration.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble raised what seemed to be well over a quarter of the outstanding questions that I have yet to deal with. I shall deal now with three of the most important ones and will certainly respond to the others. The first related to ASTOVL. The United Kingdom signed a memorandum of understanding last year to exchange information on national studies on development technologies, including propulsion systems and advanced flight control avionics. The ASTOVL aircraft is seen to be a potential replacement for the Sea Harrier, the Harrier GR5 and the Tornado GR1, but we are at an early stage in our studies and cannot commit ourselves to any particular system.
My hon. Friend also asked about the NATO IFF. This is a very complex area, as he suggested, and it is not surprising that discussions within NATO have proved to be protracted. The IFF system, to be carried on ships, aircraft and ground weapons systems, is currently under project definition. I shall write to my hon. Friend in greater detail on the matter.
My hon. Friend also asked about the consequences of the diversion of the Tornado aircraft to the Saudis, and asked for an assurance, which I shall now give him, that this will not prejudice the Royal Air Force in terms of the ultimate number of aircraft that it will receive or, indeed, the cost. All the replacements for the RAF's programme will be received by the early 1990s.
The hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) asked about the United Kingdom mobile force in the context of the transportation of that force to the central front, or at least on the northern part of the central front and the northern flank. The Government are committed to making efforts to improve output from the considerable resources that we devote to defence. In this context we are discussing within NATO whether, in its present role, the United Kingdom mobile force represents the most effective use of those resources. The financial implications of any change in current deployment plans depend on the outcome of the confidential discussions that are under way in NATO, the outcome of which cannot yet be predicted.
As for the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker), I pay tribute to and acknowledge the fact that his commission in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve has been extended to the age of 60, which is many years off. We thank and congratulate him on his many years of valuable service to the Royal Air Force. He has vast experience and has raised a number of 1118 detailed questions on gliding schools, which are manned by volunteers. I welcome the opportunity to pay tribute to the work of these men. They do a tremendous job in encouraging the enthusiastic youngsters who go to them to learn to fly. The RAF give all the support that it can to the gliding schools and we are aiming to expand their activities to whatever extent this can sensibly be done. My hon. Friend referred to a number of specific problems, about which I shall write to him in due course.
My hon. Friend also referred to air cadets, a subject that is dear to my heart because in my own constituency of Kettering there is an excellent contingent of the Air Training Corps. As my hon. Friend knows, the RAF derives a proportion of its recruits from the ATC. In 1985 the number of ex-ATC cadets expressed as a percentage of the total RAF intake was: officers, 33 per cent., airmen 32 per cent., and apprentices 41 per cent. It is clear that entrants to the service with an ATC background have a decided initial advantage in training over those without it and wastage is likely to be less.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) has important constituency interests in Rolls-Royce and British Aerospace. He expressed clearly to the House his aspirations for the two engines, the RB199 and the EJ200. His concerns are noted, and I know that my hon. Friend in defence procurement listened to that contribution with special care.
The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Thomas) explained that he had to leave the House before the conclusion of the debate. He spoke about low flying aircraft, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North. It is a problem, but it is not getting worse when judged by the number of complaints from the public and from hon. Members, and also in terms of the flying hours and the number of missions flown. Nevertheless, it is an important problem and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North knows, we have changed the system. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) will be familiar with this problem, because he dealt with these issues with great care and diligence when he was at the Ministry of Defence. We changed the system about 10 years ago from the system that the Germans now have.
I must take issue with the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, because he is wrong. In the Federal Republic of Germany there are complaints that the system, which confines all low flying to certain designated areas, concentrates the problem. Our system is better and we have no intention of changing it. I know that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy will study the record. In the past I have offered to meet him to discuss the problems of low flying in Wales and I repeat that offer.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle asked about Binbrook. The future of RAF Binbrook is being reviewed in the Ministry of Defence. No final recommendations have been made and a formal announcement will be made as soon as possible. I give my hon. Friend the undertaking that when we reach a conclusion I will consult him and convey our conclusions to him on the earliest possible occasion.
My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall) asked about Skynet. The delay to the United States Shuttle programme which followed the tragic Challenger accident last year necessitated a review of the planned launch arrangements for the three Skynet satellites 4A, 4B and 4C. As a result of this review it was decided to switch Skynet 4B 1119 from a Shuttle to an Ariane launch in order to meet as early as possible the urgent military requirements for improved satellite communications.
It is also planned to launch Skynet 4C on Ariane. Although the subsequent failure of an Ariane rocket on 31 May has led to delays in that programme, there has been no further revision of the basic launch strategy for the Skynet 4 satellites. Skynet 4B will be the first of the three satellites to be launched in May 1988. Skynet 4A is still planned for launch by the shuttle, but the most recent date offered by NASA is July 1990. As a consequence of the delay in the shuttle programme, the United Kingdom payload specialists—that means the people who go in it—have returned to normal service duties for the time being. It is intended that when circumstances permit selected members of the team will be recalled when appropriate for refreshment training to enable a United Kingdom payload specialist to fly on the shuttle mission during which Skynet 4A is launched.
Perhaps it is appropriate for me to concentrate my closing remarks on the contribution made by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook). I shall then have done justice to all hon. Members who contributed to the debate. He argued that nuclear weapons are unnecessary. The Government's policy is quite clear. It is that an effective defence policy needs conventional and nuclear weapons. These are the weapons possessed by the forces of the Warsaw pact and it is important to duplicate them for our forces. The Royal Air Force needs a nuclear capacity. I put to the hon. Gentleman a question that was not answered in the debate on the Army. If the RAF loses its nuclear capability, will the risk of aggression by Soviet pact forces be more, or less?
§ Mr. Freeman
It was a rhetorical question, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows. Conservative Members believe that there will be a greater risk from the strategy of the hon. Member for Stockton, North. Labour party policy is dangerous and will be rejected decisively by the electorate.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.