§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dorrell.]4.34 pm
§ The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Ian Stewart)
It is five years since I last took part in a single service debate in the House, and although the scene today in the Royal Air Force is clearly recognisable as having developed from that of five years ago, there is also much that has changed. In particular, the reorganisation of the top levels of the three services and the central staff in the Ministry of Defence, which took place in 1985, was not only an attempt to give greater weight to the tri-service approach to defence policy, but a recognition that the three services themselves, both in objectives and in operations, have been becoming increasingly interdependent.
It has been my clear impression, on returning to the Ministry of Defence, that although many anxieties were expressed at the time about the reorganisation, it has now not only been accepted by the individual services, but it has been found to work well in practice and has led to increased co-operation at all levels from the senior staffs to operational units around the world.
I believe that it is still right for Parliament to have the opportunity to look in closer detail at the single services. However, as became evident from the recent Army debate, there is now a substantial overlap of function from one service to another. In many areas of defence policy and activity the interests of one service cannot sensibly be discussed without taking account of the other two, or indeed looking at our defence capabilities as a whole. Although I want to devote most of my time today to discussing matters directly relating to the Royal Air Force, I also want to say something about certain aspects of defence strategy as a whole which, while highly relevant to the activities of the Royal Air Force, are not exclusive to any one service.
Before addressing those wider issues, I want to describe the current state of play in the continuous process of modernisation of the Royal Air Force, to say something of its training and exercise programe, and to deal with a number of matters concerning its personnel. Let me at the outset remind the House of the very wide range of functions which fall to the Royal Air Force to perform. In the first place, it has primary responsibility for the air defence of the United Kingdom, detecting enemy aircraft and countering them with interceptor fighters, with Bloodhound and Rapier missiles, and with Skyguard radar-controlled guns. In the Federal Republic of Germany it maintains a substantial part of the second allied tactical air force contributing both air defence and strike/attack aircraft.
The RAF also provides units for the early reinforcement of the northern region of the NATO area, and its Nimrods and Buccaneers protect shipping used for reinforcement and re-supply against the threat of hostile ships and submarines. In addition, the RAF provides airlift support for all three services and is capable of mounting operations at long distance. Out of area it supports our defence commitments in Belize, Ascension island, the Falklands, Cyprus and Hong Kong.
The major modernisation of the Royal Air Force is also a most striking feature of the last five years. Since 1979, 525 the Government have devoted very considerable extra resources to the RAF, amounting to £8 billion after allowing for inflation. Nine squadrons based in Germany and the United Kingdom have already been equipped in the strike/attack role with the Tornado GR1 which, with its terrain-following radar, provides a capability to penetrate enemy air defences far in advance of that of the Jaguars and Buccaneers that they replace.
Two more squadrons will be formed for the reconnaissance role, one based in RAF Germany, to replace the current Jaguar squadron, and, later, an additional squadron in the United Kingdom. During a recent visit to British Forces Germany, I was told that the Tornado was regarded with enthusiasm by pilots and had more than come up to expectations. Nevertheless, we are already planning a mid-life improvement package for the Tornado GRI for the early 1990s, to improve its ability to penetrate enemy air defences and to provide it with a night and all-weather attack capability, and so enable it to continue to meet the threat into the next century.
§ Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)
I ask this question out of real interest because I do not know the answer. Obviously, in the future, our air defences are more likely to be penetrated by nuclear missiles than by aircraft, because we can always intercept aircraft. That has always been the role of the RAF, of which I was proud to be a part in my youth. Which service or services will be responsible for trying to offset any penetration of air space by nuclear missiles?
§ Mr. Stewart
The hon. Gentleman asks a question about the state of play when a war reaches that level. The resources which I have described are for the protection of the United Kingdom during the conventional stage of a war. All the forces would be involved in detecting and, if necessary, responding to nuclear attack.
§ Mr. Heffer
With respect, this is an important matter. That was the most bland reply that I have ever heard in the House. When the Minister says "all the services", what exactly does he mean? Will he explain how the services would be combined? Which service would put its finger on the trigger to try to stop the missile coming? The House and the nation have a right to know exactly who would be responsible.
§ Mr. Stewart
The hon. Gentleman wants to pursue his point. All the forces would be involved. There is the question of detection and then of response, but, even if it were appropriate to go into those details today, it would certainly be wrong, either now or in the future, for this country or any of our NATO allies to spell out exactly the way in which we would respond to such an attack.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)
This is a most fundamental and interesting question. Does my hon. Friend agree that we have had peace in western Europe for 40 years because we have deterred? Deterrence prevents this hypothetical matter becoming a reality. Unless we modernise our equipment, which the Labour party appears to oppose, we shall never be able to intercept missiles of any kind. The Labour party does not support the strategic defence initiative. If our equipment were not modernised, the enemy would not be deterred.
§ Mr. Stewart
My hon. Friend is right. The purpose of our defence policy and of that of our NATO allies is to deter war and to prevent the situation which has been 526 described. The assets of the RAF and of the other services are designed to make it clear that there would be no point in any adversary attacking us in the first place. That is why we have been modernising the aircraft of the RAF and the equipment of the other forces.
§ Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in view of the question put by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), it would be appropriate for the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, when he replies, to answer his hon. Friend? The situation described by the hon. Gentleman could occur only under a Labour Government because the Labour party follows a policy of unilateral disarmament.
§ Mr. Stewart
I am sure that my hon. Friend is right, but it is difficult to give any credibility to the pronouncements of the Opposition Front Bench about any aspects of defence.
The Harrier has proved itself over a number of years to be one of the mainstays of the RAF's offensive support capability. However, we are now planning over time to replace the GR3 with the new Harrier GR5, which will have substantially improved range, payload and avionics. The House will recall the tragic loss in October of a Harrier GR5 test pilot and the subsequent ditching of his aircraft. That has inevitably meant some delay to the programme. However, it is clearly right, in view of the accident, that the most careful consideration should be given to the factors which caused it, that any recommendations arising from the post-accident studies should be implemented and that all the systems of the aircraft should be thoroughly tested. Test flying is expected to resume shortly and will include testing of the Ferranti inertial navigational system which has not yet been cleared for RAF flying.
Provided that the remaining trials programme does not identify any further problems, conversion training should start later this year. Sixty two GR5s have been ordered so far and their delivery should be completed within the next two to three years. We plan to meet our requirement at that stage for an advanced combat aircraft with a close-in agile fighter capability, to supplement the Tornado, with the European fighter aircraft, in the development of which we are collaborating with Germany, Italy and Spain.
§ Mr. Robert Hayward (Kingswood)
My hon. Friend referred to collaboration with West Germany, Spain and other countries involved in the development of the European fighter aircraft. The Government have always been firm in their commitment to that aircraft and the "engining" through Rolls-Royce in association with other European countries. Will he tell us what negotiations he has had recently, particularly with the West Germans, and whether they have indicated their firm support for the European fighter aircraft and its European engine?
§ Mr. Stewart
I have no reason to believe that they do not support that aircraft, but procurement is the responsibility of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement and of my noble Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement. I shall draw their attention to the point raised by my hon. Friend.
In addition to these major improvements, we have also made considerable progress in the air defence of the United Kingdom. Thirty four of the air defence variant of the Tornado, our new interceptor aircraft, were delivered during the last year, bringing the total to 73 out of the 162 527 on order. The first Tornado ADV squadron at Coningsby became operational on schedule at the beginning of November and a second squadron which has now been formed will become operational later this year. The Tornado ADV is armed with the highly effective Skyflash medium-range air-to-air missile and the shorter range Sidewinder which proved its worth during the Falklands campaign.
Although there have been difficulties with the aircraft's Foxhunter air-intercept radar, radars to an agreed interim standard have been fitted which already provide the aircraft with a capability superior to that of the Phantoms and Lightnings which they are replacing. To provide an effective airborne early warning system for the 1990s, the Government have ordered seven Boeing E3 aircraft which will provide the capability to mount continuous patrols and identify the approach of enemy aircraft at an early stage. This will become increasingly important as the Warsaw pact develops its capabilities for operations at low level.
While the E3 will extend the range and quality of our coverage, we are also now well advanced with the modernisation of our air defence command and control systems and ground-based radar. The bulk of the equipment involved in these enhancements, which are known as the improved United Kingdom air defence ground environment — or by the dreadful acronym IUKADGE for short — has already been built and installed, and some elements are already in service. Remaining items will be introduced during the next four years. But we are already capable of effective monitoring of the 500,000 square miles comprising the United Kingdom air defence region, and our quick reaction alert aircraft are scrambled on average three or four times each week to intercept and identify Soviet military aircraft which penetrate this area.
Next I want to say a word about helicopters. In last month's Army debate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement told the House that a trial involving 6 Brigade, and including helicopter squadrons from RAF Germany, had demonstrated the value of an air-mobile force, and that we proposed to convert 24 Brigade to this role. There has been a good deal of debate during the past year about which service should have possession of the support helicopter force. Before shifting responsibility for these assets from the RAF to the Army we would need to have clear evidence of advantages sufficient to outweigh the obvious problems of upheaval and dislocation and transitional costs.
I can tell the House that, following a study, no such advantages have been identified and we do not therefore propose to make any such change. That is, of course, a different question from where the RAF and Army helicopters supporting 24 Brigade should be located, and that is a matter to which we shall be giving consideration in due course. Until the 1990s, Chinook and Puma helicopters, as part of their overall support role for both the Army and the RAF, will provide the necessary heavy-lift capability, but after that we are looking to replace the Puma with the Anglo-Italian EH101 and to order an initial batch of 25 such aircraft for the deployment of men and material.
§ Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)
Can my hon. Friend say what studies are being undertaken to see how effective a helicopter is as a delivery system for anti-tank weapons?
§ Mr. Stewart
That is a different question from the one that I have been discussing. The best weapons systems for the anti-tank role are kept continuously under review, particularly in the light of advances in the technology of tank defence. That is a matter that the Ministry of Defence is anxious to appraise all the time. Looking a few years ahead, it is clear that helicopter weapons capability against tanks will be an important — perhaps increasingly important—aspect of future warfare.
§ Mr. Heffer
This is an important matter. Where precisely will the division be between RAF-operated and Army-operated helicopters? What role will each play? Which areas will the different services work in? In the last analysis, who will take the decisions? I ask because I was involved in these matters at one time. The division between the services is important. I should like to know where overlapping takes place.
§ Mr. Stewart
Responsibility would have to be resolved according to the circumstances of each case. In the case of converting 24 Brigade to an air-mobile force with the need for helicopters, there would be a joint command structure. It is likely that that would rest with the Army, which would be in charge of the brigade. As I said at the beginning of my speech, examples of co-operation between the forces have been increasing greatly. The RAF provides a support helicopter service for all three services. The service is attached to a unit, under Army or Naval command according to the needs. In this case the question at issue was whether the ownership and control of the assets should be transferred permanently to the Army. We came to the conclusion that it would not be a sensible move.
§ Mr. Neville Trotter (Tynemouth)
As my hon. Friend is aware, 6 Brigade has been based in Germany and so has the support helicopter force. As I understand it, 24 Brigade is to be based in the north of England, where it is now. Where is the support helicopter force for that brigade likely to be based? Can my hon. Friend hold out any hope of an additional squadron being formed in this country to support 24 Brigade?
§ Mr. Stewart
It would be wrong for me to chance my arm on that. I addressed the point specifically. It is a question that we have to resolve, but I do not think that we should do so without considering all the factors. We have announced a general decision. Once the decision in principle has been made, we can consider the best ways of implementing it. I take my hon. Friend's point.
There has also been considerable interest expressed in the House about a proposal which was put to the Ministry of Defence by Bristow Helicopters Ltd. to replace the existing service search and rescue function by a civilian contract. We have been considering whether our current arrangements for SAR could be improved, and in our studies we have felt it right to take into account the ideas which Bristow has put forward. Although we have not yet reached a final conclusion about the most effective disposition of our resources for SAR, I can tell the House today that we have made a firm decision that, wherever there is a military requirement for search and rescue, it should continue to be provided by the RAF and the Royal Navy.
§ Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)
I am obliged to my hon. Friend for his announcement, which affects my constituency. I appreciate that this is an RAF debate, but can my hon. Friend confirm that the decision will also apply to search and rescue which is operated by the Royal Navy?
§ Mr. Stewart
I did say that, wherever there was a military requirement for search and rescue, it would continue to be provided by the RAF and the Royal Navy.
§ Dr. Dafydd Elis Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)
As the Minister appreciates, there has been deep concern in Snowdonia and in other mountain areas because of the essential role played by the RAF in support of mountain rescue services, as we saw only last weekend. Did I understand the Minister to say that that support will remain and that there is no threat of privatisation hanging over that aspect of the helicopter support service?
§ Mr. Stewart
I have said that where there is a military requirement for SAR, which means the great majority of the area of the United Kingdom, the position will be as the hon. Gentleman understands.
§ Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)
Does my hon. Friend accept that his announcement will be warmly welcomed throughout the land, and particularly in Cornwall where we have the Royal Naval air station at Culdrose, the biggest helicopter base in western Europe? I think he can accept that all Back Benchers will agree that he has made the right decision.
§ Mr. Stewart
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. This is a complex issue. Although we were under pressure to make an announcement earlier, the question had to be treated carefully and thoroughly. We have come to our conclusion after most careful consideration of all the issues.
§ Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)
I want clarification. I do not understand what the Minister said about a military requirement, or whatever his words were. For instance, Bristow has managed to get its foot in the door in the Western Isles and in Orkney and Shetland. Many people would think that there was a military requirement in areas where there are naval vessels. Did the Minister mean that the RAF search and rescue service will operate only in areas where there is a military base? Indeed, there is an RAF base in Stornoway. What is the distinction? Surely the whole country is liable to the need for military as well as civil call-out. Therefore, would it not be better to say that the search and rescue service over the whole country will be kept in the public sector?
§ Mr. Stewart
Perhaps I was foolish to give way so much and not continue with what I wanted to say.
The RAF and the Royal Navy have provided a service of proven quality, which often involves a high level of skill and courage, and which we know is greatly valued. Last year, for example, RAF and RN search and rescue helicopters flew almost 1,500 sorties and rescued more than 950 people, both military and civilian. We are satisfied that there is a military requirement for the RAF's and the RN's SAR service to continue, and we also believe that that decision will be welcomed by the wider community. Among the military factors that influenced us were the service's valuable role in the training of aircrew; the need to keep a military search and rescue capability for operational crises in peace time, as well as in transition to war, and war; and the need to avoid risk of discontinuity 530 in this vital service at some time in the future. In our judgment, those and other important military considerations outweigh the possible modest financial gains that a civilian contract might have provided.
The military requirement for a military search and rescue service extends around the vast bulk of our coastline and inland mountainous areas, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport may decide to supplement the military service by letting civilian contracts. If he does, he will no doubt consider any approach made by Bristow, whose operations in the Shetlands and the Hebrides have demonstrated its ability to provide a good service.
§ Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke)
My hon. Friend will will know of my concern, for as long as I have been a Member of the House, about the issue of privatisation, and I am delighted to hear his response on this matter. I also heard him say that he had not yet made the final decision on the issue of where detachments will be placed, and whether there may be some changes. In my constituency, RAF Brawdy, which covers the whole west Wales coast, provides an excellent service for military and civilian personnel throughout the region and out into the Irish sea.
Can my hon. Friend assure me that when consideration is being given to the future of the Brawdy detachment he will bear in mind the fact that if it were taken away we should be reliant on RAF Valley in Anglesey or Chivenor in Devon which would very much increase the flying times for the area?
§ Mr. Stewart
I take my hon. Friend's point. One of the reasons why I thought it right to make the announcement in the debate today, before the final dispositions have been established and before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has completed his analysis of the position, was to enable us to hear the response of hon. Members and to take into account the points that may be raised on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces, who I hope will be responding to the debate, has been closely involved with these matters and I hope that he will be able to answer the points that will be raised in the debate.
§ Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)
Would the Minister spend a little more time explaining his intentions? I admit that I am confused. He says that the search and rescue facilities will be maintained under the respective services; then he says that the Department of Transport may let contracts. In what areas can it do that? The crunch question is: does the Minister intend to maintain the capability at its present level, or does he intend to let the civilian service run down?
§ Mr. Stewart
We do not intend to run it down. We intend to maintain a military capability where we have judged that necessary, and where we have judged it necessary is reflected in the existing pattern. It is open to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to decide to supplement it, but not as a result of its being diminished. As regards my right hon. Friend's responsibilities in these matters, it would be better to allow his study to be completed before making any announcement on the matter.
§ Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)
Our concern is that the quality of the service provided at the moment is 531 of such a high standard largely because, as the Minister said, there were about 950 operations last year. Civilian operations complement military ones, because they enable the crews to get the necessary training that the former add to the latter. How will the Minister differentiate between the military and civilian operations in this respect?
§ Mr. Stewart
We are not differentiating between them in this respect. We say that the military coverage should remain, but it is open to the Secretary of State for Transport, if he considers it necessary, to supplement, for purely civilian purposes, the services provided by the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy. I should have thought that was welcome. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the value of the services' provision in this area; it was one of the factors that weighed considerably with us when making the decision.
As the Royal Air Force approaches its 70th birthday in a few weeks' time, its reputation stands second to none in the world today. But the high level of performance which it achieves would not be possible if the RAF could not attract and retain men and women of the highest calibre and provide training for them to the highest standards. That involves not only the routine training of aircrew and ground staff, but also exercises in which aircraft and air defences can be co-ordinated. I am glad to be able to tell the House that, last year again, the RAF did particularly well in tactical exercises evaluated by NATO. Cooperation with the air forces of our Western allies is an essential part of the role of the RAF both in its forward deployment on the continent and in the air defence of the United Kingdom.
In April this year our air defences will be rigorously tested in an exercise named Elder Forest, which will be the largest air defence exercise in the United Kingdom in recent years. Aircraft from eight NATO nations will fly more than 1,000 simulated hostile sorties against our air defences over a wide area of land and sea. Our defending forces will include a dozen squadrons of RAF fighters, supported by early warning and air-to-air refuelling aircraft, while on the ground RAF missile systems and command and control facilities will be fully activated. Two type 42 destroyers acting as area defence ships will also be taking part, illustrating not only how complex and interactive air warfare has now become, but the increasing co-operation between the services.
§ Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)
The Minister started by saying that it is important to retain pilots. He then moved on as rapidly as he could to talk about anything but that. Can the Government retain pilots under their present policies, or are more of them leaving the service than are being recruited and trained? What is the cost of training the pilots that we are losing? Is it in the region of hundreds of millions of pounds for each one lost?
§ Mr. Stewart
I should have resisted the temptation to give way to the hon. Gentleman. I mentioned that I wanted to discuss both attracting men and women to, and retaining them in, the Royal Air Force and the exercises. Before I had finished the exercises half of my comments, the hon. Gentleman asked me about matters of personnel, to which I shall come in a few moments.
The flexibility of air power is also demonstrated by the operations which the RAF undertakes outside the NATO 532 area. Later in the year the RAF plans to participate in a major air defence exercise in Malaysia and Singapore in support of the five power defence arrangements. That exercise, which is scheduled to take place in September, will be the largest of its kind ever held in the region, and United Kingdom participation will include Tornado F3s. Some of the RAF aircraft involved, as well as other aircraft and a parachute display team, will then take part in an air show to be held in October at the Royal Australian air force base at Richmond, near Sydney, to mark the Australian bicentenary.
Last November I visited the Falklands and was greatly impressed by the enhanced defensive capability and the degree of tri-service co-operation resulting from the redeployment of the garrison from Port Stanley to the new site at Mount Pleasant during the course of last year. The new airport at Mount Pleasant means that the islands could be rapidly reinforced if ever the need arose, and this enables us to maintain a smaller garrison there than would otherwise be necessary. Last December the RAF achieved a non-stop flight from the United Kingdom to the Falklands, without a stop at Ascension, involving air-to-air refuelling on both legs of the journey. Next month we intend to hold the first full-scale reinforcement exercise, known as Fire Focus. The exercise will be directed by Headquarters RAF Strike Command at High Wycombe, and will take place between 7 and 31 March. It will involve the reinforcement of the garrison's air defences and an airlift of troops to the Falklands, followed by unit exercises to take advantage of the excellent training facilities in the islands. Further information about this exercise is available in a Ministry of Defence press release today.
§ Sir Antony Buck (Colchester, North)
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a good thing to have maximum publicity for what he has just said to deter any successor to Galtieri who might be foolish enough to chance his arm, and that the fact that we can now reinforce by getting wide-bodied jets there in one hop alters the situation radically?
§ Mr. Stewart
I believe that such deterrence already exists. I only hope that the reinforcement capability that we can demonstrate in this exercise will strengthen that deterrence, as my hon. and learned Friend has said.
§ Mr. Trotter
Does my hon. Friend agree that the recent 820-mile flight by a search and rescue helicopter from the Falklands to South Georgia—having to land on a Navy ship halfway to South Georgia—to recover an injured soldier is an example of the skill and ability of the search and rescue force operating in that very hostile environment?
§ Mr. Stewart
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and join him in congratulating those concerned on that achievement.
On the recruiting side, the past year has been a successful one. Targets were fully met in the main officer branches with shortfalls confined to the professional entry branches, such as medical officers. Ground airman recruiting has also gone well, with 90 per cent. of vacancies for the current financial year filled by the end of December.
Retention is, of course, another essential element in ensuring that the RAF has adequate trained manpower to 533 fulfil its role into the 1990s and beyond. In this area, too, I am pleased to be able to report that there has recently been improvement. There has in particular been a welcome reduction in applications for premature voluntary retirement in the course of the past year. PVR applications from officers generally fell during 1987 by 19 per cent. Indeed, there has been a reduction of 26 per cent. in PVR applications from pilots, while for fast-jet pilots under the age of 38—our key operational aircrew—there has been a major decrease of 57 per cent. It is, in any case, very important to keep PVR rates in perspective; they are now under 3 per cent. of trained strength for both applications and exits. The total number of pilots leaving the RAF, including those opting for PVR, has over the past three years averaged less than 200 a year, which is more than 20 per cent. lower than the figure averaged a decade ago.
§ Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)
Will my hon. Friend comment on the number of fast-jet pilots who take up their option of leaving at the age of 38, because I think that that statistic ought to be read with the one that he has just given for the PVR rates?
§ Mr. Stewart
I shall leave it to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to give the exact figure, but one of the reasons for the high levels of exit in recent years has been the end of the eight-year short service commission for pilots and others which was introduced in 1978 when the Government of the day were having extreme difficulty in recruiting at all.
§ Mr. Sayeed
The figures that my hon. Friend has announced for premature release will be very welcome. Will he confirm that between 1978 and 1979, when the Labour Government were in power, 6.8 per cent. was the figure for premature release for men in the armed services?
§ Mr. Stewart
My hon. Friend is right in saying that the figures were much higher at that time, and, of course, morale in the services was very low.
Another matter which I know is of considerable concern to a number of hon. Members is the question of low flying. I would like to take this opportunity to assure the House that the Government are very well aware that many people consider military low-flying training an almost intolerable intrusion into their daily lives. We in no way underestimate the strength of feeling of or the inconvenience borne by some of those who see more of this activity than others. The RAF, too, is fully aware of its responsibilities to the public and has no wish to antagonise the very people its members are training to protect. The RAF does, of course, do some of this training overseas. For instance, regular exercises held in Germany, the United States and Canada provide the opportunity for RAF combat aircraft to train at operational low level and carry out realistic practise using live ammunition. But the fact remains that if they were ever deployed in war it would only be by flying as close to the ground and as fast as possible that our aircrew would have a reasonable chance of avoiding enemy radar and defence systems. The training is, therefore, essential and it is simply not practicable to do it all "somewhere else".
Let us not forget that the need for low-flying training is directly related to the threat which NATO forces face in the central region of Europe. In any hostilities we can assume that a major priority of the Warsaw pact would be the destruction of our air defence capability, including 534 aircraft and airfields, and unless we were able to retaliate in kind our land forces in Europe would he at an impossible disadvantage. The Warsaw pact enjoys enormous superiority in numbers, in tactical aircraft as well as in artillery and tanks. While I welcome the efforts currently being made to draw up a negotiating mandate for conventional arms control, I do not think that we should underestimate the difficulty of achieving a satisfactory agreement to limit conventional arms in Europe.
In the first place, we shall need to know a great deal more in detail about Soviet forces than the Soviet Union has for many years been ready to divulge. There are some grounds for regarding the recent Soviet attitude to the provision of information as more encouraging. But I must say that so far glasnost has been a pretty selective process. Without full and reliable data from the other side, which has been lacking throughout the 14 years of talks in Vienna on mutual and balanced force reductions, it is going to be difficult to establish a workable basis for negotiation. Even if, as I hope, these problems can be resolved, Warsaw pact forces outnumber those of NATO by such a large margin that we must be very careful not to agree to anything that would undermine the minimum capability which we shall need to maintain the security of the West.
§ Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli)
Can the hon. Gentleman now assure us, because the Secretary of State was not able to do so at the last Defence Question Time, especially in view of the superiority in tactical aircraft which he says the Warsaw pact has, that Britain's Tornado aircraft will be included in these very important conventional arms reduction talks?
§ Mr. Stewart
We are not suggesting that any conventional capability should be excluded; and that, of course, includes the conventional capability of dual capable systems, and there are ground-based forces that are dual capable.
Let us remember that arms control is not an end in itself. The objective is to maintain our security, and, if possible, to enhance it, with whatever degree of arms control can be consistent with that. The Labour party wants things the other way round—arms control as the first priority, regardless of what it would mean for the ability of NATO to deter war or to respond effectively in the event of attack.
We can all welcome the fact that, since the RAF debate last year, agreement has been reached that one of the activities in which the service is involved should be brought to an end. I refer, of course, to the historic INF agreement in Washington last December which, if ratified, will lead in due course to the removal of cruise missiles from RAF Greenham Common and RAF Molesworth. A few years ago, we on the Conservative Benches were sick of being lectured by the Labour and Liberal parties about what would happen if such missiles were deployed. They said it would add to the risk of war, it would make the United Kingdom more vulnerable and it would wave goodbye to any prospect of agreement with the Russians to remove their SS20s. How wrong they were. We all know that if the British Government and our Western allies had not remained firm in our resolve, there would never have been an agreement on INF at all, because there would not have been anything for the Russians to negotiate about.
535 Once again it has been proved that, in matters of defence, the wisest course is usually to do the exact opposite of what the Labour party recommends. It is in that light that we must look at the truly astonishing remarks made by the shadow Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies), during the Army debate last month. He told the House then that he did not believe that NATO's concept of flexible response and forward defence was realistic any more. Indeed, he went further and told us that he had always believed it was obsolete. He went on to say that NATO should drop the whole idea of follow-on forces attack, which is the essential means of preventing the Warsaw pact from full deployment of the huge reinforcements that it can hold in reserve.
§ Mr. Denzil Davies
Perhaps the Minister would quote the words that I used in respect of follow-on forces attack. As there is some asymmetry — that is now the fashionable world — in respect of Soviet and Warsaw pact forces, I suggested that one bargaining element to ensure a reduction in the Soviet forces would be for NATO to consider—if there was such a reduction—dropping any plans for follow-on forces attack. I mentioned that in the context of a mutual agreement in respect of a reduction in Soviet forces.
§ Mr. Stewart
I do not know how the right hon. Gentleman believes that he would be able to cope with the question of Soviet military doctrine — an aggressive doctrine. The right hon. Gentleman's speech is a rich purple passage for those who want enlightenment about the extraordinary defence policies of the Labour party.
Flexible response and forward defence mean that NATO must be seen to be able and ready to mount a robust defence against any attack at whatever level it deems appropriate, and to have some degree of choice in the manner of that response. We have to make it absolutely clear to the Soviet Union and its allies that the risks of aggression far outweigh any possible gains that they could hope to achieve. Conventional weapons alone can never pose an unacceptable risk to a nuclear-armed opponent and the need for a range of both nuclear and conventional weapons in Europe will remain for as far ahead as we can see. It is a melancholy fact, but not a surprising one, that flexible response, which is the foundation of NATO strategy, no longer enjoys the support of the Labour party. There can be little sense in the Labour party's strategy, which makes it clear in advance that, in the event of hostilities, the territory from which any attacks are likely to be launched would be immune from retaliation. The whole concept of so-called defensive defence is based on a fallacy. People do not win many tennis matches by standing on the baseline and blocking the ball back against an opponent who can hit it harder.
Fortunately, the defence of our country is not in the hands of those who advocate such policies. The Government, whom the people have chosen, recognise the high priority of securing the defence of the realm. We are privileged in this country to be supported by armed forces of outstanding skill, courage and dedication. I hope that it will be a long time before the Royal Air Force has to 536 fight again to protect our interests; but it is a very great reassurance to all of us to know that, if ever it had to do so, we could rely upon it. The RAF deserves our thanks.
§ Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)
I join the Minister in congratulating the RAF on its pending 70th anniversary. I am sure that the House would also wish to congratulate it on its various successes over the past year in the different competitions in which it has participated. The 70 years of the RAF have been years of distinguished service. It was born out of the conflict of the first world war, and, in retrospect, it seems incredible that the RAF was just 21-years-old when it led the fight for the Battle of Britain. I know that the House would wish to salute those who have dedicated their lives to, and especially those who have given their lives in, the defence of our freedoms.
At this time it would also be appropriate to congratulate Air Chief Marshal Sir David Craig on attaining not only that post but that of Chief of the Defence Staff. We are confident that the country will be well-served by this distinguished and able officer.
Today's debate will be much poorer without the special contributions previously made by my friend Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones, the former Member for Eccles. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear. Hear."] As an ex-navigator, he often confessed that he did not always find the target during the war, but I believe that he often found the target on the Conservative Benches, and always with great courtesy. I am sure that both sides of the House join me in wishing him a long, happy and healthy retirement.
I must declare a personal, vested interest in the RAF. I remember, as a young boy, going down to the pit top holding the hand of one of my brothers who, during the war, left the pit when he was 17 to join the RAF. He quickly became my hero by being commissioned and becoming a member of 617—the Dambusters Squadron — and by being awarded the DFC. Obviously in a mining village he was much admired, and he certainly was my hero. He stayed in the RAF as a regular officer and, incidentally, set an example for a whole generation of nephews who are making their careers in the RAF.
I should like to crave the indulgence of the House to take the opportunity to offer my best wishes to Air Commodore Pat King, another family member, who retired yesterday from his post as Director of Flight Safety in the RAF.
I mention such personal matters for a particular reason. In a recent conversation with the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) he mentioned, among other things, the egalitarianism of the RAF. He said that, perhaps more than in any other service, ability counted for more than background. That is still the case. That principle has emphasised to my hon. Friends and myself that the defence of this country and the desire to defend it is not the prerogative of the Tory party. Indeed, the working-class communities have contributed the lives of many of their young men to that task.
Last October I began my speech in the defence debate by stating that, on both sides of the House, there is a strong commitment to the defence of this country. However, I must repeat once more that I strongly resent the implication, voiced by Conservative Members, that that is not the case on the Labour Benches. The Labour party is, and always has been, strongly and firmly committed to national defence. It is not a matter of 537 conjecture. One need only look at the record to see what the Labour party did when in power. To suggest otherwise is a mischievous lie and the meanest of political propaganda. The decisions made by the Labour party in office were made with regard to the national interest, in loyalty to our allies, and in opposition to injustice and tyranny wherever they existed.
§ Mr. Rogers
That question — like most of the statistics that are bandied around — is not only irrelevant, but meaningless. I shall deal with these issues later to illustrate my argument, rather than answer irrelevant questions.
It is not the Tory party, but the Labour party in office, that has made the really tough decisions on Britain's defence. Perhaps not all of us will agree on the merits of those decisions, but the Labour party in power made the decisions that it had to make in the national interest, and it would he wrong to suggest otherwise. I remind Conservative Members that it was the Labour party in power that decided to enter NATO. It was the Labour party in power that gave a commitment to European defence. It was the Labour party in power that decided to re-arm at the time of Korea and to support the United Nations' forces there—something which the Secretary of State knows about. It was the Labour party in power that decided to develop an independent nuclear weapon strategy. Contrary to the propaganda and lies of the Government, the next Labour Government will make the tough decisions necessary for the proper defence of this country.
§ Mr. Sayeed
I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Labour party was in power in 1967 when both the First and the Second Sea Lord resigned because the Labour party would not provide the Navy with adequate funds.
§ Mr. Rogers
We do not have to go that far back to find officers who have left the services. Many tens and hundreds of officers are leaving the Air Force at the moment, perhaps because of bad morale. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed) should take the medicine. Indeed, one does not have to go very far back to find examples of Ministers resigning because of Government cuts. That has happened within the lifetime of this Government.
§ Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)
If the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed) wants to go that far back, he should look at the record a little more thoroughly. The reason why Mayhew, the Minister responsible for the Navy, resigned was that he wanted another aircraft carrier to carry on the east of Suez policy. If the Government really want to continue an east of Suez policy, they will need a great many more aircraft carriers than they have now.
§ Mr. Rogers
Contrary to popular belief and Tory propaganda, the present Government are not very good at defence. If Conservative Members bother to apply their limited mentalities, they will find that it is self-evident that the Government are not very good at the management of defence. This is a subject to which I shall return. Furthermore, it is now becoming pretty obvious to 538 everyone that they are not very good at defence policy, either. That criticism is made, not only by the Labour party, but by someone who knows better than any Conservative Member and who until relatively recently acted as a permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence. His impartiality and political objectivity are beyond doubt. I would certainly venture to guess that he never voted Labour.
Let us examine what Sir Frank Cooper said—before the Government slap an injunction on him. He said:The politics of expediency run the Ministry of Defence —rather than a properly worked out policy.That is not surprising, but it must have been taken to grotesque extremes for a permanent secretary to have said that. The man is no raving Leftie. He is not even a member of the Labour party. Sir Frank Cooper is chairman of United Scientific Holdings, deputy-chairman of Babcock International and a director of Rothschild, the bankers, besides having been a permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence during this Government's lifetime. Sir Frank continued:ministers made lots of speeches about efficiency and new procurement initiatives and managed to give the impression that things were happening in defence. Instead, Mrs. Margaret Thatcher's successive administrations have failed to tackle issues that will not go away.What are the issues that will not go away? Sir Frank says that the main issues are Britain's international role in defence and the ability to pay for an over-full defence programme. He said:Mr. Michael Heseltine, the former Secretary of State for Defence, adamantly refused to conduct a review of those issues.Opposition Members have said that on many occasions, especially my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—I am sorry. My right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies)— —
§ Mr. Rogers
It is not wishful thinking. If we can convince the voters of the desperate state of our defences, we shall be in office sooner rather than later. [Interruption.] I know that this hurts the hon. Member for Bristol, East, but he should be quiet and listen. He might learn something.
Sir Frank went on to say:In brief, the politics of expediency have not changed."—under this Government—They continue to override both policy and management.The Minister talked about the reorganisation in the Ministry of Defence and extolled its virtues. Sir Frank continued:The vast amount of reorganisation, running down and changes in staff in the ministry and its research and development establishments meant that they had neither the capability nor the resources to sort out industry development problems in the way that had been possible 10 or 20 years previously. Ministers were deprived of proper advice during discussions over the cancellations of GEC's contract to develop the Nimrod radar surveillance aircraft in 1986.So much for the Government's policy. Sir Frank Cooper, an ex-permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, thus destroys the Government's credibility on defence policies.
Opposition Members note that the Government like to project a certain image of themselves, that of streetwise business men who know their way about the City and are much smarter than the people who work there. They like 539 to give the impression that they really know the score. In answer to a question on defence in 1985 the then Minister of State for the Armed Forces said:My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has great commercial experience. He is not a person who is likely to be out manoeuvred". —[Official Report, 21 February 1985; Vol. 73 c. 1246.]In other words, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) could handle the French, the Italians and the Germans because he was a better business man than the business man.
John Harvey-Jones knocked that theory on the head and gave a rather apt quotation last Sunday. He said:Business men make even lousier politicians than politicians make business men, and that's saying something!That statement is true of the Government: they are pretty hopeless at managing defence. We know that Mr. Harvey-Jones is correct. Decisions taken by the Government are not always wise, and their management of programmes has not always been correct.
§ Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)
The hon. Gentleman has extolled the virtues of United Scientific Holdings as a source of advice. Will he acknowledge that the Government have responded by appointing a business man with such a background as head of defence procurement to blend politics with business?
§ Mr. Rogers
Peter Levene has been there for some time, but as yet he has not straightened out the Government. On many issues, policy has not been sorted out. I would rather trust the judgment of an ex-permanent secretary, Sir Frank Cooper, than that of the hon. Gentleman. Britain's defence policy is in a critical state. When Sir Frank Cooper talked about the over-full nature of our defence commitment, he was right. Rather than waving flags or running around shouting gung-ho, it would be better if Conservative Members applied themselves to the problems with Britain's defences that will manifest themselves in the 1990s. Britain's defence policy and defence equipment are in a critical state because of the Government's mismanagement and ineptness. They are a Government of bunglers, quick-money artists and expedience. They have subordinated the national interest to an ill-conceived economic theory, followed by blatant auctioneering. When they make mistakes, they wrap them up in secrecy.
§ Mr. Bill Walker
As we are debating the RAF, will the hon. Gentleman say what commitments the RAF would no longer have if the Labour party were in government? The hon. Gentleman said that commitments are the problem.
§ Mr. Rogers
I know that the hon. Gentleman does not like listening to the truth, but he should be more patient. He did not interrupt the Minister when he said that although it was an RAF debate he wanted to make it a little wider. If I make the debate a little wider, it would be courteous of the hon. Gentleman to sit and listen.
Let us consider some of the specific projects that the Government have been responsible for managing. Let us look at some of the Government's incompetence. About £3 billion has been spent on torpedoes, but they still do not work. The Government have managed the Nimrod project 540 for eight years and have spent £1 billion, but it has been cancelled. We shall now have to find £1 billion to replace it.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry (Mr. Robert Atkins)
Who originated it?
§ Mr. Rogers
The Labour Government originated it, but Conservative Governments have been responsible for managing it since 1979. The Government cannot continually duck and say that it is not their responsibility. They must grow up, behave like mature men and accept that they have been in office for nine years—nine years too long. It is about time that they started to accept their responsibility.
§ Mr. Rogers
Conservative Members continually want to put the responsibility on us. The Conservative party has been in government for nine years. Conservative Members should accept their responsibility, accept that they have made a mess of defence and behave like grown men.
The Government have spent £650 million on the Foxhunter radar, but it still cannot do the job. The battlefield artillery target engagement system—BATES —has doubled in cost, to £200 million, but it still does not work. The command and control system for frigates, CACS 4, has been cancelled, and £30 million has gone down the drain. The SP 70 howitzer cost £88 million, but that has all gone down the drain.
The list is long. The Government put forward the proposition that they are good at managing defence, but those projects show that not only are they bad at policy, but lousy at management as well.
I turn now to some specific RAF projects. With regard to the European fighter aircraft, during a debate the then Minister of State for Defence Procurement the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) described the Turin agreement on EFA as a "major milestone" in the re-equipment programme. He described the efforts of the then Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Henley, as, "a tremendous political achievement."
They have both gone. Seemingly, so has the political will and desire to reach the next milestone in this marathon venture. Indeed, the project does not seem to have reached the first hurdle. Why is that? Mismanagement? Lack of money? Different requirements? Why has there been a deafening silence from the Government as to the exact status of this project? We can discover information only from the Germans. At least they are not obsessed with secrecy — unlike this Government. The Germans are being honest about the difficulties involved, but this Government are hiding behind them. They are using them as a convenient scapegoat. The well-respected magazine Jane's Defence Weekly of 16 January said:The Ministry of Defence is surprisingly philosophical about West Germany's vacillation.The Ministry of Defence and the Government are surprisingly philosophical about 40,000 jobs and the future of our military aviation industry.
§ Mr. Rogers
The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to participate in the debate.
541 The aeroplane should not only be well into its development by now, but its radar suite should have been ordered. I note that the Minister is not prepared to say anything about that matter. It is a serious delay that might do for EFA what Foxhunter is doing for the Tornado.
When tenders are received, will the Minister ensure that EFA has a European radar that is not subject to United States' extra-territorial restrictions? EFA is vital to our air forces on the central front in the 1990s and beyond.
§ Mr. Rogers
If the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) wants to participate in the debate he should take his feet off the Bench and sit on the Back Benches, where he can catch Mr. Speaker's eye. Meanwhile, he should be quiet.
A number of experts have told me that no existing aircraft can fulfil our need and requirement to combat the Soviet threat. Indian pilots who have flown the F16 and MiG 29 paint an alarming picture of Russian superiority, which probably accounts for the Indian Government's decision to buy MiGs.
§ Mr. Jack
If the hon. Gentleman had read the Offical Report over the past few months, he would have seen a series of parliamentary questions from Conservative Members eliciting a stream of information about the EFA. If he were to quote less selectively from the article in Jane's Defence Weekly, he would note that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has written to Members participating in the project urging them to continue their commitment to it.
§ Mr. Rogers
As my hon. Friend says, "Big deal."
Last year we heard exactly the same words from the Minister about the EFA. We are still in that position. The project is no further along the road. Regardless of the answers that are elicited, the fact is that the project is not developing as it should do. The radar suite has still not been ordered, which means that when the plane comes into existence it will not have the radar capability to carry out the job. [Interruption.] Do not tell me that the radar suite has been ordered, because I found out this morning that it has not been ordered. [Interruption.] The tenders may well have been closed, but no Government decision has been made.
In talking about the mismanagement of the Government's defence programme, I come to the "jewel in the crown", the pride of the Government's mismanagement and the peak of their incompetence—the Tucano. What a wonderful non-flying plane! It does not give us any pleasure to catalogue the Government's ineptness in this matter. However, one notices how, in previous debates, Ministers and Conservative Members attacked my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and accused him of scaremongering because he pointed out that plane's obvious deficiencies and queried the reasons for the excessive delays. I am pleased that his perception has been vindicated. My hon. Friend was right—the choice was wrong. There are excessive delays, and there is a cost to the taxpayer.
In both defence debates and questions the Minister has continually reiterated that there is no cost to the taxpayer as a result of the excessive delay over the Tucano. That is 542 simply not true. There is a cost—the cost of keeping in operation the antique Jet Provost, at a cost of about £10 million every six months. There is also the cost to our pilots and service men, who continually have to patch up, make do and train on those 152 antique Jet Provosts. Those planes have given great service to this country, but are 12 years older than the average pilot being trained on them. This is yet another of the Government's disasters in managing our defence programme.
In last year's debate the Minister said that the Tucano would be received by the RAF last May and that it would be up to squadron level by now. However, as we know, the reality is that no Tucanos are in service and training pilots. The plane has not finished its release for service trials. Indeed, it did not commence them until 8 December. There are still substantial problems, such as fitting the engine into an air frame that cannot take it. Although that problem has been pointed out to the Government, it is still nowhere near being properly resolved.
Will the Minister come clean and tell the House the plain truth? What are they going to do about providing a plane on which our pilots can train in future years? It is significant that the PC9, which was turned down by the Government — one of their brilliant commercial judgments — is in service with the Saudi air force. Indeed, 30 have been delivered in the past year alone. The Government have a disaster on their hands and should do something about it fairly quickly before we have to borrow some planes from the Saudis on which to train our pilots.
At the beginning of the debate the Minister spoke about pilot retention and loss. I do not know where he gets his statistics from. He should sack some of his civil servants for coming up with figures that are wrong, as they did last year and this year. The haemorrhaging of pilots from the RAF is a problem of great concern. In last year's debate, referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North, the Minister said: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." —[Official Report, 22 January 1987; Vol. 108, c. 1114.]The Minister then proceeded to give a series of relative figures and percentages which, quite frankly, were as misleading as the figures that he has given today. The truth is that this severe problem is worsening.
Opposition Members have only the most unstinting praise for those who have chosen careers that put them in the front line of defending our freedom. That is why we are concerned that something should be done about our most valuable resources. In 1985, 147 pilots left the Royal Air Force. In 1986 that figure was 175, and in 1987 it was 224. There was a net loss of 49 pilots in the last year alone, with only 175 graduating. I do not know why the Minister gets his figures wrong and gives the House the impression that there is no problem and that things are improving. It is incredible. I do not understand it and I certainly do not believe the Minister's figures. The figures for pilots leaving before they complete their engagements were 58 in 1985, 114 in 1986 and 150 in 1987. This represents a severe problem which the Minister should address and about which he should give some answers to the House.
§ Mr. Sayeed
I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would answer my question, because I genuinely do not know. Do the figures that he has quoted include those who have qualified as pilots, but who have not qualified in further training?
§ Mr. Rogers
I have included all the figures. They are available for the hon. Gentleman to inspect. Quite honestly, the easiest way for him to get the figures in all their various categories is to get them from the Library. They may well be complex, which is why the Minister can twist them around so easily. The figures are self-evident. There is severe pilot loss, and the Royal Air Force has a severe problem in pilot retention.
There are many problems. I am not very happy about what the Minister said about conventional talks. I am not quite sure what the Government are going to do about the replacement of ground-launch cruise missiles with air-launch cruise missiles. I am not sure to what extent the Government will include dual capability aircraft in the conventional talks. That problem might well need to be addressed in a further debate.
I realise that time is getting on, but I should like to turn to the issue of air-sea rescue. Obviously we are very pleased with the news of the rejection of the privatisation of the air-sea rescue service. However, we would be much more pleased if the Minister could assure us that the capability of the existing facilities will be maintained. Frankly, I think that the statement contained a little humbug—that is if the whole statement was not humbug.
I should like to know why it took so long to consider the project. The Minister said that it was because he wanted to give the matter careful consideration. However, the facts on which he made his decision were available a year ago. Why did the Government sit on the matter for a year? Obviously, they wanted to privatise the service and were trying to find a way to do so. It was only because of pressure from hon. Members of all parties that the Government have made a humiliating climbdown on the issue. They have turned themselves upside down, but they do not have the guts to say so. The Government wanted to privatise, but, as Sir Frank Cooper said, the politics of expediency have triumphed. Twelve months ago the policies of national interest should have led to an immediate rejection of the absurd proposition that was put forward by Bristow—a proposition which, incidentally, undermined the morale of many of our service men who were involved.
Finally, in view of the Government's statement, will the Minister give a real vote of confidence to the air-sea rescue services by providing them with adequate, modern helicopters to carry out their difficult and demanding task, instead of leaving them with 30-year-old Wessex helicopters and quite ancient Sea King helicopters? The air-sea search and rescue teams need such a vote of confidence, and I hope that the Minister will be able to provide it.
§ Mr. Neville Trotter (Tynemouth)
It is inevitable that when we are debating a service that uses such complex and expensive equipment we should spend most of our time discussing that equipment.
However, I should just like to say a few words about the 93,000 volunteers who give their professional skills to the Royal Air Force. My contacts with other countries have revealed how highly the skill of our Air Force is regarded by our allies.
Earlier in the debate, low flying was mentioned. It is essential to practise the capability of flying low under enemy defences in peace time because it would otherwise be impossible to achieve during war time. The safety 544 record of our aircrew has been most commendable. When they have to fly low they do so over unpopulated areas, and the recent safety level is the best that has been seen in modern times, with the lowest number of accidents. It is interesting that two thirds of the accidents that inevitably occur in high-performance flying take place not at low levels but when aircraft are high in the sky. We must pay tribute to the skill and professionalism of our pilots and those on the ground who maintain their complex aircraft.
There is no shortage of aircrew in the Air Force. That contrasts with the situation in Europe. I spoke to the Chief of Staff of one of our smaller NATO allies 18 months ago, and he told me that two thirds of his fighter pilots were contemplating leaving the air force to join the civil airlines who were recruiting actively at that time. Fortunately, we do not have a shortage of pilots in the front line, and the reason is that morale is high. That is because life in the Air Force is as good today as it has ever been, and because nine consecutive recommendations from the Armed Forces Pay Review Body have been met in full. That contrasts very much with the situation when the Labour Government were in office.
There is, however, a problem on the horizon because demographic trends show that there will be 25 per cent. fewer young people in each annual age group by the end of the century. That means that there will be a smaller pool of young potential recruits who can be attracted to the services. In particular, the airlines will be competing for those who wish to become pilots. In the years ahead there will be an increasing recruitment problem because of the demographic situation in Britain.
I should like to say a few words about the Air Training Corps, which has 45,000 members. I am sure that all hon. Members are in contact with the squadrons in their constituencies. I am always impressed with the smartness of the cadets and staff at the Whitley Bay and Tynemouth squadrons. One third of all those who serve in the corps join the Air Force and provide a substantial number of the recruits—both officers and men—into the services. I am impressed by the number of girls who are now seeking to join the corps. I have been in correspondence with my hon. Friend the Minister about that. There is such a demand among young ladies wishing to join the cadets that a ceiling has had to be applied; otherwise, there would be insufficient room for boys in the squadrons.
I am delighted that the strength of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force is being built up. It has always been by far the smallest of the three reserve forces. Perhaps we should be thinking about forming an auxiliary air force unit equipped with civilian aircraft in a transport role. Again, I have been in correspondence with my hon. Friend about that.
The Select Committee on Transport is surveying the Merchant Navy. As we all know, there has been considerable reduction in the size of all the NATO merchant navies. It seems that, in an emergency, we will have to put greater reliance on the use of air transport to carry cargo. Perhaps we should form auxiliary air force squadrons using those civil aircraft that have considerable cargo capacity.
The air defence of the United Kingdom is of crucial importance to securing our home base in Britain. I shall confine the rest of my remarks to that subject. That absolutely vital task has always been performed so well by the Royal Air Force. The United Kingdom air defence area, as has already been said, covers a vast area, hundreds 545 of miles out into the western Atlantic and north into the Norwegian sea. In war, the main threat to Britain would undoubtedly come from the air. In peace, on average four long-range Soviet aircraft a week enter our air defence region over the sea, and they are intercepted by our on-duty fighter force. In war, we could expect a large number of enemy aircraft to be directed against us, and, with the long range of modern aircraft, they will be able to approach the United Kingdom from all directions.
In 1979, probably the greatest weakness that the Government inherited was the inadequacy of our air defence forces, having regard to the considerable increase in the potential air threat against Britain. One of the greatest achievements of the Government has been the improvement in the air defence of Britain in past years, and the continuing programme for the years ahead.
Our defence depends on a combination of the capability of the fighter forces, the capability of our radar, the effectiveness of our command and control organisation, and, of course, the survivability of the bases and headquarters in the event of an attack on them.
The Government increased the number of fighter aircraft from the inadequate number that they inherited. In the years ahead, we shall need to maintain our present front-line strength, and I am sure that the Government intend to do that. Their next step was to add 72 Hawk fast-jet trainers in an armed configuration to the fighter capability in a crisis. Detachments of those aircraft are regularly moved to Newcastle airport to provide a close defence of the north-east of the country. The introduction into service of the Tornado fighter is a generation away from the aircraft that it is replacing. Indeed, the Lightning that is going out of service represents a 30-year gap in technology. There is an enormous advance in capability.
The creation of a Tornado fighter base at Leeming is particularly welcome. The geographical spread of our fighter bases in the past has not been as it should be. With the creation of the wing at Leeming we are bridging the gap between Scotland and Lincolnshire, and that makes a great deal of sense. The entry into service of the VC10 tankers and the TriStar tankers has greatly increased the capacity of the tanker force and enabled the fighters to provide a far more capable defence. Through air refuelling they can operate further out from the coasts and stay much longer away on station. An additional squadron of tankers is equivalent to a number of additional squadrons of fighter aircraft, and that increase in our strength is greatly to be welcomed.
There have been great improvements in the strength of our ground radar, and many fixed installations have been brought up to date, complemented by the new mobile radars which can be moved as necessary to meet changing circumstances in a crisis. That huge improvement of ground radar has greatly increased our capability. Without doubt the main improvement in radar coverage of the United Kingdom, however, comes from the Boeing E3 and the AWACS systems. No name has yet been chosen for this aircraft. It is known as the E3A Sentry aircraft in the American services. Perhaps we should be thinking of our own name for such a vital piece of equipment in our Air Force. It provides a great mobility of radar cover and can operate far in advance. It is much more survivable against attack than any group of radar stations. In an emergency, it could be used to plug a gap if a ground station is taken out by enemy action.
546 It is appropriate to say a few words in praise of the devoted crews of the ancient Shackleton airborne early-warning aircraft, which continue to drone through the skies of the north of Scotland. These aircraft are at least 30 years old. They were not even the last model of Shackleton, and the last model was in service when I was in the RAF—a long time ago. Indeed, 30 years ago I remember flying similar aircraft, and they were then described as 30,000 rivets pulsating in unison. I doubt whether they are any better now than they were 30 years ago. Their capability is very limited compared with modern equipment, but their crews maintain the skills in being until they can transfer to the new Boeings.
I was pleased to hear the announcement that an order for a further AWAC is to be placed, bringing the total up to seven. If there is one message that I want to leave with my hon. Friend the Minister tonight, it is that we need an additional aircraft to bring the total up to eight. With seven aircraft we can just maintain the necessary 24-hour cover that we need over our air defence area, but we must take into account the possibility of losing an aircraft in an accident. The planes will be in service for a long time. The ancient narrow hull of the Shackleton precluded any major change in its equipment, but the AWAC is basically a Boeing 707 with a great deal of room inside and one can expect that over the years major improvements will be incorporated as technology develops. However great the skills of the crews, it must be a possibility that one of the fleet will be lost over a 20 or 30-year life span. If only six aircraft were left, would we be able to maintain the essential cover? I strongly urge my hon. Friend to see whether an eighth aircraft can be added to the order. The dollar has fallen and that must make such a purchase cheaper and slightly more affordable.
There have been enormous improvements in command and control in the air defence environment in Britain, and the implementation of those improvements is most welcome. They provide a great deal of flexibility in command and control, with numerous control centres around the country. It will now be possible from the south of England for controllers to operate fighters nearly 1,000 miles away over the Norwegian sea as easily as if they were in a control centre in the north of Scotland. There will be a much improved capability for co-ordinating operations with neighbouring NATO air and maritime commanders out at sea. That will enable our air defence commanders to deploy defending fighters in the right place, at the right time, in the right quantity, and, in particular, as far forward as possible over the sea so that there will be the maximum number of enemy interceptions and engagements.
The need to engage our attackers as far out from the United Kingdom as possible is greater than ever in an age of ever-increasing long-range land attack missiles launched from aircraft. It is possible that, with the number of attackers that could be expected, some would get through and our airfields would become prime targets. Therefore, I welcome the progress that has been made in hardening facilities at our bases. That is a most noticeable change when one visits stations or passes them in a car.
Efforts have also been made to set up a capability to repair damage to those airfields in an emergency arid to ensure secure communications under attack. I welcome the increase in the number of Royal Auxiliary Air Force squadrons defending our bases. I hope that we shall 547 continue to add more Royal Auxiliary Air Force defence squadrons in future because they are a cost-effective way of providing an essential element of our defence.
We can expect that as our own attack capability improves, so will that of our potential opponents. We need to maintain a high standard in our air defences for the future in line with new and developing technology for both defence and attack.
In the next year or two, we must consider where we shall go in the next century. It takes five years to decide what to do and 10 years to bring into production equipment that must then last 20 years. There are exciting prospects in over-the-horizon radars, where a beam is bounced off a layer of the upper air, giving a long range. At present, there are problems with weather conditions, but there is scope for these systems in the future. It is something that we should be looking at. I am sure that all Western countries are considering what can be done in that direction. Similarly, surface wave radar are coming into technological development, where the radar beam can follow the earth's curve, and that has the great advantage of detecting low-flying aircraft which at present would be sheltered by the earth's curve as they approach.
There is a highly classified stealth programme in the United States, which officially refuses to admit that it has any stealth aircraft. Indeed, it is only when, from time to time, a sudden hole appears in the ground as one goes astray that one knows that they exist. I am told, however, that they are not so stealthy that they cannot be seen. They are still visible. However, they are so constructed that their radar signature is only a fraction of that of the present generation of aircraft.
However much the United States seeks to keep that technology hidden, it will eventually become available to those on the other side. The plans will either be stolen or developed. We must accept that, looking ahead to the next century, potential attackers will have such technology. We shall have to look ahead to new forms of detection altogether.
Radar, which has been the main defence sensor for 50 years since the Battle of Britain, may well be replaced in the next 20 years by completely new detectors. One wonders whether heat detection may come into its own by that time. High performance aircraft give out a great deal of heat from their skin surface and it must be possible to detect that form of energy release.
The Tornado fighter is designed to detect enemy aircraft at long range and to fire its missiles at them while still miles away. But there is a clear need now for another type of fighter to complement that capability. In the crowded skies over Europe, it is often not possible to engage an enemy at a distance because too many aircraft are about and it is not possible to distinguish friend from foe miles away in such circumstances. Therefore, there is a need for a fighter that is designed more for its agility than for its long-range capabilities—designed for the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation of a dog fight. The RAF has a clear need for such an aircraft in the 1990s. It is to meet that need that the European fighter aircraft is being brought forward by us and our European allies.
It is not economically practical for the United Kingdom to design and build an aircraft of this nature in the sort of numbers that the RAF will need. The EFA project is an important collaborative programme. It is important 548 economically, militarily and politically. It is the most cost-effective way of meeting the RAF's needs for the next generation of aircraft. I am pleased that we are making significant progress towards the introduction of the manufacturing phase of that plane.
Our total need and that of our allies for that aircraft is over 700, and the United Kingdom industry will perform one third of the work. Such an aircraft should have a good export potential. There is likely to be a big demand overseas for aircraft with such capability and at such a price.
It is important to obtain from the manufacturers the necessary guarantees for the future, in terms not only of performance but of availability once it is in service. It should be possible to enter into an agreement with the consortium to cover both performance and maintainability.
Thirty years ago, in the infamous 1957 White Paper, the end of manned aircraft was forecast. It is difficult to forecast what the exact nature of the environment in the air will be 30 years from now. However, I remind the House that we must start thinking about it because, as I have said, it takes five years to decide what we want and 10 years to build, with 20 or 30 years in service. The aircraft that are now beginning to come forward will be in service well into the next century, perhaps until about 2030 —rather a horrifying thought for some of us.
Whatever the technological environment and the circumstances in which the RAF will be flying when it enters its century —it is an interesting thought that in another 30 years we shall have a century of the RAF to celebrate—it will still be keeping the peace and deterring aggression as successfully as it is today. It will be in as fine a shape then as it is today, which has never been better in its history.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, because it gives me a chance to refer for the first time since my election to the Royal Air Force base at Leuchars, which lies in my constituency. Leuchars has been an RAF base since 1920. It currently contains some 2,000 service men together with 1,500 dependants. The presence of those service men and dependants contributes richly to the variety of life in the community, and—in another sense of "richly"—to the local economy. The RAF has become well integrated with the community, and relations are generally very cordial. Indeed, so popular is the RAF at Leuchars that last September an air show which was scheduled to attract 10,000 spectators attracted four times that number, with the result that roads were blocked for some 20 miles around.
Like other hon. Members, I was pleased to hear the Minister of State refer to the Government's decision on search and rescue operations. As the Minister will know, a flight of 222 Search and Rescue Squadron is deployed at Leuchars. Like other hon. Members, I was much concerned at the reports that privatisation was being considered. I was not alone in writing to the Minister on the subject. I shall not repeat the arguments that we put to the Government, except to say that a privatised service would be susceptible to industrial action, and possibly to legal action, as a consequence of which equipment might 549 be seized. Anything of that nature which stood in the way of a proper and effective service would obviously be something to be deplored and avoided.
Self-evidently, the search and rescue services are complementary to other training and necessarily involve the use of equipment already in place. Search and rescue services began at Leuchars in 1956, and since then 1,955 rescues have been performed. In 1986, the number of rescues was 121, and in 1987 it was 114. Notably, 104 of those were what might be described as civil rescues, and only 10 were military. Those figures emphasise that the existing armed services' facilities for search and rescue are also a very important part of the civilan services.
The House, I feel, would not be slow to offer its congratulations not simply to those who perform such responsibilities from Leuchars, but to others all round the country, on the skill, expertise and heroism that they are often required to demonstrate, frequently in association with other rescue services. If I may make another local point, one such association is with the lifeboat stationed at Anstruther and others stationed elsewhere around the country.
What I said about Leuchars is not unique. It is, I believe, typical. My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) today drew my attention to the fact that at RAF Boulmer, which lies in his constituency, the same standards of dedication and heroism are frequently displayed.
Low flying has been mentioned, and I should like to say a word about that, and also about training. It is clear that low flying is necessary for the proper training of our pilots; it must be equally clear that, in certain circumtances, it causes inconvenience. On many occasions, it has caused grave concern, and will doubtless continue to do so. It is also clear that where a training squadron is deployed at a base the pattern of activity may change radically because of training requirements.
On 26 November last year, some of my right hon. and hon. Friends, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel), met the Secretary of State and, I understand, the Minister who is to wind up the debate. They were very well received, and helpful and constructive discussions took place. At that meeting, I understand that the Government agreed first to consider the use of independent radar checks to ensure that the RAF's own rules are being observed by its pilots; and, secondly, to consider the extent to which some present low flying might, at least in part, be transferred to either the Falkland Islands or Canada. I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us the result of that consideration, or at least let us know in some other way after the debate.
The issue of training also embraces that of noise. As must be self-evident, an alteration in the pattern of operations, while it may not increase the intensity of noise, may well increase its frequency. A noise that is tolerable at a certain level when it occurs once, twice or even half a dozen times a day may, at the same intensity, become unacceptable if repeated many more times.
In a written answer to a question that I put down on 12 November 1987, the Minister revealed the amount that had been spent in and around Leuchars on insulation after the arrival of a training squadron. That amount was negligible — £45,000. I urge the Minister to be more flexible. Such payments are essentially discretionary, and thus enable the Minister to take particular account of particular circumstances. Relatively modest sums would 550 create a disproportionate amount of good will, because those affected by noise find it very disturbing, and sometimes distressing. I do not consider it an overstatement to say that some at least find the quality of their lives affected. The solution is not to suggest that necessary training should be curtailed or abandoned. The solution is to ensure that the effects of such training are alleviated by more flexible provision of grants for insulation or double glazing.
Reference has been made to pay and conditions. Obviously they have an effect on recruitment. They may be even more significant in the retention of skilled personnel, but in considering the retention of skilled personnel we should not concentrate entirely on pilots. Very high levels of skill and expertise are demonstrated throughout all the trades practised in the Royal Air Force, and dissipation or dilution of those skills is obviously regrettable and to be avoided. The issue of pay and conditions should he considered in regard to all ranks and occupations in the RAF, rather than in relation only to the more obvious occupations, such as that of pilot.
Hon. Members have mentioned the European fighter aircraft. Clearly such development, if successful, is to be applauded. I hope that the Government will give as much emphasis as possible to a policy of common procurement. We should not, of course, underestimate the difficulties involved in such a policy, but, equally, we should not underestimate the desirability of its achievement, in both the financial consequences and as a strengthening of political links within Europe. That is something that alliance Members, at least, find highly desirable.
The country needs a robust defence and within that defence it is necessary that the Royal Air Force should play a significant part. For my part, that is a primary consideration. The proper defence of the United Kingdom is a fundamental responsibility of Government. I do not place any less importance on the responsibility of Government to be responsive and flexible when the possibility of disarmament without prejudice to robust defence is made available.
Suggestions made recently, that the Government favour a nuclear stand-off missile to be carried by the Royal Air Force, would seem to put in jeopardy some benefits of the INF treaty. The United States deploys the Patriot missile system, which is conventionally armed and replaced the nuclear-armed Nike Hercules system. If that is good enough for the roles that the United States seeks to fulfil, the Government would be well advised to pause before embarking upon a nuclear system. It seems neither necessary nor desirable to increase reliance on nuclear weapons.
There is no substantive motion before the House, but the House will not find it difficult to express its confidence in the professionalism of the Royal Air Force, to recognise its loyalty and bravery and to express the hope that those important and notable qualities will continue to be exhibited by those who serve in the Royal Air Force on behalf of us all and to whom we have very good reason to be grateful.
§ Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)
I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) on his speech. It was unexceptional in that it told us very little about Liberal party policy on defence, but that is nothing new from the 551 Opposition Benches because the shadow defence spokesman, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), who opened the debate, was equally shadowy. As long as the Opposition go on shadow boxing we are not worried; it is when they go into action on the real things that we will be concerned.
§ Mr. Rogers
Will the hon. Member accept that it is not my function as shadow spokesman to delineate the policies? His party is in government and he ought to be more constructive and comment on his party's policy and the Government's action. The debate is about the Government's custodianship of the Royal Air Force.
§ Mr. Colvin
I agree with two things the hon. Gentleman said: he congratulated the Royal Air Force on its 70th anniversary, and he congratulated Air Chief Marshal Sir David Craig on his appointment as Chief of Staff.
§ Mr. Colvin
I accept what the hon. Gentleman said about the PC9 and I am pleased that it is being sold to the Saudi Arabians.
As a humble member the PBI, I hesitate to take part in a debate about the Royal Air Force, but having once represented a constituency which has a considerable interest in the aerospace industry, I will address most of my remarks to that aspect of the debate.
The debate is timely because, following the Reykjavik summit in October 1986, progress is being made on reducing nuclear arms in the new and very welcome atmosphere of perestroika. However, the more flexible and encouraging attitude of the Soviet Union must not lead us to lower our guard. The move towards INF reduction was achieved by negotiating from a position of strength. That must remain our aim, just as our independent nuclear deterrent will stay as the linchpin of our defence. It is because we follow Churchill's dictum not to let go the atomic weapon until we are sure, and more than sure, that the other means of preserving peace are in our hands that we must continue to maintain and strengthen our conventional defences.
NATO is still the foundation of our defence policy, and 95 per cent. of our defence budget is committed to it. The Royal Air Force makes a very important contribution to NATO's air defence and strike capability on the European central front. It is responsible for the United Kingdom's air defence and provides airlift support to all three services.
The Minister of State referred to the cover the RAF gives to our merchant shipping. I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) said: I hope that there is a Merchant Navy for it to give cover to in the future. That is a matter of considerable concern to all hon. Members.
The effectiveness of the Royal Air Force in fulfilling its role depends in large part on the equipment with which it is supplied. As 18 per cent. of the total defence budget — some £3.3 billion — will be spent on equipping the Royal Air Force this year, I will speak about the aircraft and aerospace industry. It is good to see my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins), the recently appointed Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, attending the debate because he brings to the 552 Department considerable experience and knowledge of the aerospace industry, which I am sure will be extremely useful, and also a considerable constituency interest.
No one can say that the Government, since their election in 1979, have not given the Royal Air Force the tools to do its job. Major items of equipment have been ordered since our election, and I list some of them: the 82 Tornado GR1s, of which 73 have been delivered—they are the strike attackers; 162 Tornado air defence variants, of which 48 have been delivered; and 62 Harrier GR5s — the big wing Harrier, equivalent to the AV8B in America. We should pay tribute to the United States for having joined Britain in developing that aircraft. In fact, if it had not been for the United States Marine Corps there may not have been a Harrier. We should think about what that would have meant for the outcome of the Falklands operation.
Other items of equipment are: seven AWACs, none of which has been delivered—it is a pity it is not a British product, but the less said about that the better; 15 Phantoms, all of which have been delivered; 18 transport-tanker aircraft, which will have tremendous impact as the force multipliers in keeping aircraft in the air—five of those are TriStars converted from British Airways aircraft; eight support helicopters, all of which have been delivered; 130 basic trainers, which are to come soon; and 25 EH101 helicopters, the successor to the Sea King, which will now be manufactured. Let us hope that Rolls-Royce succeeds in getting the RTM322 engine into that aircraft.
The most impressive equipment programme is the Tornado. There are 600 in service in the United Kingdom, West Germany and Italy — the three partners in the project. Some 809 have been ordered from those three countries, and Germany may require a few more. Together with the Saudi Arabian contract, about which we were all pleased, the total output of the Tornados by the time the programme finishes may be well over 1,000. The Tornado, besides being part of the comprehensive modernisation programme, has provided many jobs in a high-tech industry.
I pay tribute to the British aerospace industry for the application of good design. The technological and engineering skills of its men and women have meant that it has been able to add tenfold to the value of the raw material it uses. That is an added value ratio which, for a country such as the United Kingdom, which is not rich in raw materials, is the sort of industry that we ought to encourage. In fact, 55,000 jobs in the United Kingdom aerospace industry are dependent on the Tornado programme.
§ Sir Antony Buck
My hon. Friend knows much about these matters and, as he has just said, the Tornado is a remarkable example of the success of British technology. Does he agree that the Harrier probably runs it pretty close? Britain has sold 110 of them initially abroad, which is a remarkable achievement, and the Harrier programme has gone on to be another success. The Harrier is a great achievement in British industry and the programme has had much help from the Royal Air Force.
§ Mr. Colvin
I agree wholly with my hon. and learned Friend, as I usually do. The Harrier and the Tornado are also examples of inter-country collaboration. Bearing in mind the very high cost of aerospace projects today, I believe that such collaboration is the only practical way forward.
553 The 55,000 jobs that I have referred to are not all within British Aerospace but are spread across Roll-Royce which produces the engines and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other companies that supply the bits and pieces. As the strike attack Tornado force is completed and the air defence variant becomes operational, we may be tempted to relax a bit. As early as the mid-1990s, however, even some of the Tornados that came into service early might need to be replaced. Certainly all of our Phantom F4 force will have had to go by that time. That is what has led to the biggest ever financial collaboration programme undertaken by a group of NATO allies, the European fighter aircraft. It involves four countries—the United Kingdom, West Germany, Italy and Spain. They have agreed a broad specification for the aircraft in terms of weight, engine thrust and payload. They will share the work, depending upon the number of aircraft that each of them requires.
The United Kingdom will have a 33 per cent. stake in manufacture, because we require 250 aircraft, and West Germany will have exactly the same work share and number of aircraft. Italy will have a 21 per cent. stake because it wants only 150 aircraft. Spain will have a 13 per cent. stake because it wants 100, or perhaps as many as 150 aircraft. We are not sure yet of its requirements. A total of 750 to 800 aircraft will be required for the member countries, who may want more aircraft in due course, and this will bring tremendous export potential.
I should like to put on record the arguments for proceeding with the EFA, which has now reached a crucial stage of decision making. The industry is plagued with acronyms. It is often said that, provided one knows the acronyms used in the aerospace industry, one can find a way around and persuade people that one is very knowledgeable.
It is worth my running through the pedigree of the EFA because it is an important project. It goes back to 1980, when the British, Germans and French together produced the ECA, or the European combat aircraft. That collaboration led in the following year to the United Kingdom proceeding alone with the P110. Perhaps hon. Members will remember the campaign that we mounted at that time to persuade the Government that the project should go ahead.
At the same time the Germans decided to do their own thing, and they produced the TKF-90. Both of these designs were still on paper, and were brought together in 1982 when the ACA, or the agile combat aircraft — I hope that hon. Members are following this—went on the drawing board. At that time, we roped in Italy as an additional partner. That led the then Secretary of State for Defence, now Sir John Nott, to announce at the Farnborough international air show that the EAP, or the experimental aircraft programme as it had been renamed, would come into being.
It is worth quoting from a press release issued at that time. Sir John said that this project was to bea research experimental aircraft programme which would bring together current component elements of demonstrator work and further advance our knowledge of the demanding technology which will be essential to the high performance requirements now foreseen".It was not to be a prototype. No one would be designing an aircraft that he thought would be required in 10 years' time, but an aircraft that could give us all the information required to produce, in the light of circumstances and tests, 554 the sort of aircraft that we needed. The designers were going to look at high agility, more efficient use of composite materials, artificial stability or "fly-by-wire", and stealth techniques that have been mentioned today, as well as advanced cockpit and systems design. A demonstrator model would tell us much about these matters, and provide information useful in developing our STOVL aircraft, the Harrier, and to improve the Tornados already in service. There was much more value in producing a demonstrator model than there could ever be in producing a prototype. In the history of the British aerospace industry, far too many prototypes have finished up on the scrap heap. The Government were right to approach the problem in the way that they did.
Sir John Nott also said at that time that the aircraft would be ready to fly in about three years, and that has happened. Those of us who were at Farnborough two years ago were very impressed at the performance that it put up, and so too have been the 11 pilots who have flown it.
When the EFA first comes into service, it will have the RB- 199 engine, built by Rolls-Royce at Patchway. As production proceeds, the aircraft will need a new engine, the EJ200. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward) asked earlier in the debate about the Government's attitude towards that engine. It is probably safe for me to say that the Government, if they go ahead with the EFA, which I am sure they will, will have no alternative but to accept the EJ200 engine as well.
In August 1985 came the real turning point in the EFA programme, with the signing in Turin of the agreement to proceed between the member countries — the United Kingdom, West Germany, Italy and Spain. France had pulled out, although it had been in the programme up to that stage. It was developing its own ideas. It wanted an aircraft that was lighter and more adaptable, and would not have the same capability. Its ACX programme, as it was called at that stage, became the Rafale. The Dassault company proceeded with its manufacture. I believe that that aircraft has now flown.
The EFA is very important for jobs. The employment graph in a British Aerospace or Rolls-Royce factory looks like a cliff edge for 1992, when work on the Tornado programme is due to run down. The EFA could generate as many as 40,000 jobs. That is 15,000 fewer than Tornado because Spain has become an additional partner. But the project will be crucial to our aerospace industry. Employment is a good reason for joining the project, although it is not the only one. It must be the right project for the job, as I am sure it will be. Nevertheless, the project is crucial for our aerospace industry and for maintaining a credible industrial base for our defence systems.
Let us also hope that the radar that will go into the aircraft is British. Some of us have received today a note from the GEC-Marconi Defence Systems company outlining its suggestions for radar in the aircraft. The contract will be worth £1 billion and involve the four-nation consortium. Let us hope that we go ahead with a European radar system rather than an American one. The danger of putting an American radar system into this aircraft is that, when it comes to selling the aircraft to third countries, the Americans can sanitise the radar. In fact, the USA even has the right to veto some of the sales at times. I am not sure that that is good. Let us hope that it is British or European radar in the EFA.
555 Last summer, Eurofighter, the national EFA partners' joint company, which will develop and build the aircraft, and Eurojet, the company which will develop and build the new engine required, submitted a definition phase report on the European fighter aircraft. This report covered the technical definition of the aircraft, the division of work between the member companies and the proposed programme and estimate of costs. It will be an extremely tightly costed project. Last Sunday, the Sunday Times identified the work already being done by the member companies in this £20 billion project and areas in which economies could be made. They have suggested reductions of about 8 per cent. in the cost of production, worth some £400 million. That is the right attitude towards such a project. Just because the Government are the purchasers, companies should not have the impression that there is a blank cheque, because there is not.
In November 1987, the Ministry of Defence was sufficiently satisfied with progress for approval of the equipment policy committee for EFA developments to be given. However, the final step of approaching the overseas and defence policy committee of the Cabinet awaits international agreement in respect of some aspects of the programme. This is a particularly sensitive issue in West Germany. The West German defence budget is very tight for a number of reasons. First, there is a demographic problem which results in a shortage of military personnel. An increase in conscription in West Germany and an improvement in wage rates did nothing to solve that problem and attract more recruits. Secondly, there has been delay in the updating of their Phantom force. Thirdly, there is the problem of the Luftwaffe's need for additional Tornado aircraft. Finally, there is the launch of a new helicopter, the PAH2. All of these run concurrently with EFA activities.
We are now seeing all the strands of the European fighter aircraft being pulled together in Bonn and I hope that we shall soon receive formal Bundestag approval for the project to go ahead. That is all we now need. Everybody else is happy.
§ Mr. Rogers
Will the hon. Gentleman explain the basis on which he makes that statement? I understand that Herr Wörner is having great difficulty in justifying the expenditure to the West German Cabinet. Will the hon. Gentleman give the source of his information?
§ Mr. Colvin
The hon. Gentleman must not be such a pessimist. That is the problem with Opposition Members. They run down this country. I am an eternal optimist. I have talked to the representatives of the industry, the West Germans and our other partners and there is every reason for optimism. We are optimistic that, before he leaves to take over Lord Carrington's post at NATO, Herr Wörner will succeed in obtaining approval for the EFA. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that we want to see that.
The time scale for the introduction of the EFA to the RAF to replace existing aircraft which will be obsolescent by the mid-1990s is now becoming extremely tight. That is why this matter is so urgent. The aerospace industry has already embarked on certain aspects of the work at its own risk to maintain the programme time scale. We should pay tribute to both British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce and to their shareholders for putting up the money. I question 556 whether those companies would have been able or willing to do so had they been in the public sector rather than the private sector.
The EFA is vital to NATO and to the RAF if the Warsaw pact air capability is to be contained. It is also essential to maintain close Government and industrial collaboration on air projects in Europe. It is particularly important to the British aircraft industry to get back into the combat aircraft field. We have not developed a high-performance fighter aircraft since the Lightning and, for the past 20 years, this primary field of military export has been left to the Americans and the French. That is not good enough. We need the European fighter aircraft for the RAF and our collaborative partners in NATO. We need the EFA to sustain the technological capability and excellence of our aircraft industry. We need the EFA to be launched soon.
I should like to say a few words about the aerospace industry, which has served the RAF and the nation well over the years. In turnover terms, in the Western world, it is second to only the United States. Its sales exceed those of France and West Germany added together. Its turnover has increased from £2.5 billion in 1977 to almost £9 billion today. Nationalisation took place in 1977. That shotgun marriage may have been necessary. It brought the industry together, but it cost many jobs. The increase between 1977 and 1988 is some 50 per cent. in real terms, allowing for the rate of inflation. About 60 per cent. of the figure relates to military sales and about 40 per cent. to civil sales.
There are problems about the sale of civil aircraft because of the collapse of the dollar. Civil sales are priced in dollars, whereas military sales are quoted in pounds sterling. Sixty per cent. of the output goes for export. By comparison, the United States exports only 20 per cent. of its output. Exports have increased from £1 billion in 1977 to £5.5 billion last year. In real terms, allowing for inflation, that figure has doubled over the past decade and has made a dramatic contribution to our balance of trade. In 1977, we had a £200 million surplus which has increased tenfold to £2,000 million in the past 10 years. That is not bad going.
I wish to speak briefly about the so-called two-way street — the reciprocal sale and purchase of defence hardware—between ourselves and north America. When we came to power, it was about 4:1 in favour of the United States, but it is now only 2:1 in favour of the United States. That shows how we have managed to increase the sales of our hardware in a difficult area. The United States still takes 28 per cent. of our aerospace exports. The Americans have had difficulty with their budget deficit and, during a presidental election year, their Government are unlikely to be making generous decisions in respect of procurement. As a result, some of the contracts that they have signed will be pushed to the Right, but I think they are still safe.
The industry has great productivity achievements. Productivity has more than doubled over the past decade, which has made our aerospace industry competitive. That is why, over the same period, we have managed to increase our share of the world market from only 10 per cent. in the late 1960s to 17 per cent. today. Job prospects are good and will be even better because the industry has good products to sell. When it comes to selling aerospace products, nowhere is more important than the Farnborough international air show. That is the British aerospace industry's major shop window. Britain and her overseas competitors and partners put their aerospace 557 wares on display at that biannual show at Farnborough. In spite of rising costs, it looks like being a sell-out for 1988, with bookings up 20 per cent. on 1986.
The show is organised by the Society of British Aerospace Companies. The Ministry of Defence is their landlord. The £1.75 million which the Ministry of Defence charges, or is instructed by the Treasury to charge, for the services it provides at Farnborough is a bit steep, particularly when we bear in mind that the Paris air show, the French equivalent which takes place in alternate years, gets the services at Le Bourget airport for nothing. Perhaps we could learn from that.
Rising charges have an effect on participation. British Aerospace, which is undertaking a cost-cutting exercise, is tightening its belt. But I would say to British Aerospace and to other participants in the Farnborough air show that to cut their advertising to save money is like stopping one's watch to save time: it is a short-sighted exercise.
I trust that by the first week in September, when the Farnborough international takes place, all the partners will have agreed to proceed with the vital European fighter aircraft project. I hope that we can get the EFA into service with the RAF by 1995 and start winning a share of the enormous market for that type of aircraft which will open up as the Fl6s in particular need replacement by the year 2000. I am mindful of the staggering fact that the final value of the orders for such a project can be over 10 times the initial value of the aircraft. The advanced fighter market is the single biggest market in the business. There will be a dog fight for orders. I want to see Britain and her EFA partners winning it.
§ 7.1 pm
§ Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)
Like other hon. Members, I welcome the announcement today on the rescue service. I hope that there is no get-out clause. The Minister spoke of local aspects of the service possibly being under private control. I regret that the issue arose, but it arose, not because the Ministry of Defence said that it was thinking of privatising the service, but because Bristows came knocking rather impertinently on the door and said, "Would you mind privatising the service?" That is an unsatisfactory way to proceed.
I want to focus attention on the air defence of Britain. I shall not try to emulate the boyish enthusiasm of the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin). I shall take a more critical approach to the subject than some Government Back Benchers have done. A great deal of money has been spent on air defence in recent years. The Financial Times recently estimated the total budget for air defence improvements since 1977 at more than £5 billion. If anything, that is an under-estimate, since the 162 air defence Tornados, the seven E3 AWACS and the money down the drain on Nimrod amount to nearly £5 billion on their own.
At its low point in 1970 the RAF's force of interceptor aircraft numbered not more than 120. Most of them were short-range Lightnings, with limited fire-power and a poor maintenance record. Today there are some 270 air defence aircraft in Britain, of which 50 are the latest Tornado F3s costing £20 million each. When the Government have poured another few hundred million pounds into GEC-Marconi's coffers to make the radar work, each aircraft will be able to do the job of several Lightnings.
No one should over-estimate the Tornado's capability. Certainly the RAF does not. When the Tornado was 558 designed, it was thought that this one aircraft could carry out virtually all combat roles from long-range strike to air defence. But the attempts—comical, if they were not such a waste of public money—to design a plane to satisfy the requirements of all three participating nations soon collapsed, with Britain deciding to go it alone. Shortly afterwards we were told that this wonderful new purpose-built fighter would not be capable of performing the RAF's air defence duties in West Germany.
Then it emerged that the Tornado would not even take over the defence of the United Kingdom for which it was specifically designed. Instead, two of the existing Phantom squadrons had to be retained. Now the original 16 Tornado Mark 2s, most still with concrete where the radar should be, have been withdrawn from service and put into storage at an RAF base in Wales, less than two years after they entered service. When the Minister replies, I hope he can say why more than £300 million worth of weaponry has been languishing in a hangar for the last year. I hope he will tell us what will be done with the aircraft and how much more will be spent on them.
As to the European fighter aircraft, the latest estimate is that they will cost £30 million each. If the history of such projects is anything to go by, it may end up as a jack of all trades and master of none, years late and over budget.
The sorry saga of the airborne early warning system is the second principal area of the Government's enormous spending on United Kingdom air defence. The House knows only too well that £1 billion has been wasted on the Nimrod AEW3, with the subsequent spending of a further £1 billion buying the Boeing AWACS. The main reason for buying these hugely expensive flying radar stations was said to be the need to detect Soviet bombers attacking the United Kingdom at a low level, underneath ground-based radar cover. Yet we now hear that the RAF also intends to buy over-the-horizon radar to be sited around the coastline, also to fill the gaps beneath the ground-based radar coverage. We have heard about over-the-horizon radar for a long time, but there are still many questions to be answered. It is time that the House was given some of the answers. What is the radar for? Where will the stations be built? How much will the programme cost? The antennae are up to 1 mile long and 150 ft high. They will pose environmental problems and electromagnetic radiation will be a potential health hazard. Since Marconi — a name that is always cropping up—will almost certainly be the prime contractor, no doubt another few tens of millions of pounds will be added to our air defence budget.
The third major expansion in our air defences is the revamping of the ground-based radar system, or improved IUKADGE. The history of Britain's radar defences since 1945 has been a sorry tale, with billions of pounds wasted on systems which were obsolete before they were deployed and which would have been virtually useless against air attack.
On current trends IUKADGE looks like repeating the pattern. The first two radars for the new network were due to become operational at Benbecula in the Western Isles and at Buchan in Aberdeenshire in 1983. More than four years later they are still not working fully. The radar station at Buchan, regarded as the most vital one m the country because of its position, continues to rely an a type of radar first introduced more than 30 years ago, 559 supplemented by a more modern United States radar set which was captured from the Argentines during the Falklands war.
The IUKADGE system will involve mobile radar as well as refurbishing the fixed sites such as Buchan and Benbecula. While cruise missile convoys will soon be a thing of the past, radar convoys will take their place. In addition, there are plans to set up decoy radars and passive electronic sensors around the country. I hope the Minister can tell the House what plans there are for additional sites for decoys and passive electronic sensors, and what the arrangements will be for the deployment of mobile radar convoys in peacetime exercises.
All these developments, together with the hardening of air bases against air attack, are costing the British taxpayer, with some assistance from other NATO countries, more than £5 billion. What is it all for? What is the threat of air attack against Britain? If we are to believe the Government's snow on the boot theory, the Soviet air threat to the United Kingdom has expanded greatly in recent years. Suffice it to say that the RAF's own figures demonstrate what a fallacy that is. On 14 December last the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Stewart) said in a written answer that the RAF's interceptions of Soviet military aircraft are now occurring on average onlythree or four times each week." —[Official Report, 14 December 1987; Vol. 124, c. 412.]That is a reduction of at least 20 per cent. and possibly as much as 40 per cent. in seven years, yet during this period the RAF's protection capability has increased substantially at mind-boggling cost.
Evidence that the RAF has over inflated the capabilities of the Soviet air force comes from many sources. Back in 1977, journalists attending a press briefing at RAF strike command headquarters at High Wycombe were told:Royal Air Force crews to date have not intercepted any Tupolev Backfire bombers flying snooper missions, but `expect some soon'.The Backfire bomber is the great bogey of the 1970s. Its reputed ability to attack Britain from the west was used to justify new radar stations in the Western Isles, Northern Ireland and Cornwall, and a £40 million upgrading of the airfield at Stornoway against the wishes of the local community and the recommendation of a public inquiry. But it went ahead, because the Backfires were about to invade the Western Isles.
Where are they? There is no evidence that they have ever been seen near Britain, more than 10 years after the RAF expected to see them. The furthest south that they have been recorded is off the Lofoten Islands, 1,000 miles away. The number of Soviet aircraft penetrating the United Kingdom air defence region in recent years has been so low that RAF fighter controllers have been having insufficient practice in controlling real interceptions. To compensate for that, the RAF has installed simulators at even the busiest radar stations, Saxa Vord and Buchan, to enable the controllers to keep their hand in when the Russians are not threatening enough.
NATO already has such a superiority in the north-east Atlantic that the Soviets have been increasingly concentrating their resources on defence, not offence. And, as the Americans pursue their highly risky offensive maritime strategy, US naval intelligence officers have been 560 telling Congress that Soviet activity in the north-east Atlantic has been declining, not increasing, as they pull back their forces to defend their own territory.
Why should Britain be spending a fortune on massively upgrading its air defences? The answer is that the Government have once again caved in to the demands of the Pentagon. The Americans want free protection for their hundreds of nuclear strike aircraft in Britain as payment for the dubious privilege of basing them here. By all means let us have defence against air attack, but this country has poured billions of pounds needlessly into successive generations of over-specified, needlessly complex weapons, largely as an act of gratitude to the Americans, whose military forces make Britain such a target in the first place. What tangled logic this is, from which the principal beneficiaries would appear to be the shareholders of GEC-Marconi and the other contractors in this lucrative industry.
§ Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)
As this is the 70th anniversary year of the Royal Air Force, I offer my gratitude to it for the way in which it has served this country since it was created in 1918.
I want to take a parochial approach to the Royal Air Force this evening. In particular, I want to discuss one air base—Greenham Common—in my constituency. In the course of his opening speech, my hon. Friend the Minister referred to the INF talks. All of us living in and close to Greenham felt that those talks had more importance to our constituency than to any other in the country. They came about as a result of five years of hard negotiation and a great determination by NATO not to be brow-beaten by the Soviets' deployment of SS20 missiles. They came about because NATO stuck to its dual-track approach of bringing cruise and Pershing II missiles to Europe while the USSR persisted in maintaining and building up its SS20 force. The talks came about because NATO was not prepared to allow the Soviets to gain an advantage over it in Western Europe.
In 1983, when the first cruise missiles appeared at RAF Greenham Common, most of us thought that they would remain there for at least a decade, if not longer. So, as we watched RAF Greenham Common being updated from a sleepy standby base for the United States air force to become the active base of the 501st missile wing of the United States air force, we did so in the belief that there was going to be a new generation of nuclear missiles in our part of west Berkshire for as long ahead as any of us could imagine. We watched the old barrack blocks that had fallen into almost complete disuse being refurbished and new facilities being built, including the six huge bombproof shelters in which the missiles were to be stored. We began to accustom ourselves to the antics of the women who had come pledged to prevent cruise's arrival and who succeeded only in creating a false hope in the Soviet mind that Western leaders could be frightened off bringing in Pershing and cruise.
Those same women, who brought with them the promise of preventing the arrival of cruise, succeeded only in bringing a great deal of squalor and hassle for local people, an enormous amount of extra work for local police and huge cost to the local population. They also brought, perhaps most significantly for all our lives, a hideous fence around the base, which was the single ugliest and most ostentatious demonstration that cruise missiles had 561 arrived—and with them, the women and their tinkers' camp of old vehicles, tents and general mess that the women designate their peace camp and which, in miniature, is still disfiguring the Greenham common.
§ Mr. Cohen
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this country is still supposed to be democratic and that people who want to protest against these missiles, which are deadly and dangerous to them, their families and future generations, should have the right to do so? Is he denying them that right? Is it right that the forces of the British and American Governments at Greenham Common should intimidate and harass those women on every occasion—and zap them, causing them illness?
§ Mr. McNair-Wilson
Not the base; the common. If he did, he would know that there are byelaws that control the use of the common. They prevent anyone — not only protesters—from camping on it. The people of Newbury have not objected to CND demonstrations that lasted inside a day. They have objected to having this tinkers' camp imposed on them by people who seem determined to ignore the laws of the common which apply to everyone in the country, local people included — and who seem to believe they have some pre-emptive right to maintain their squalid camp regardless of the aggravation and loss of amenity to local people. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not want to support people who wish to break the law to make their protest, especially as I agree with him so much that in a democracy, unlike what happens behind the iron curtain, we all have the right to demonstrate as long as we do so within the framework of the law.
§ Mr. Cohen
I still do not think that the hon. Gentleman has answered the point about these people's right to peaceful protests — and they have all been peaceful. Have not the Government broken many of those byelaws? Are not the Government before the courts charged under a number of them? Is there not a case at the moment about women who were left in a pit with the troops and police surrounding them, denying them the chance to get out? Is there not a case being brought by the NCCL against the Government and the authorities in that instance? How about the hon. Gentleman applying his diktats to their role in those cases, too?
§ Mr. McNair-Wilson
If the law has been broken, those who broke it will be prosecuted. If the byelaws to which the hon. Gentleman referred do not stand up in court, no doubt the judges will tell us so. As yet they have not said so, but that has not in any sense prevented the women from continuing with a camp which has been illegal from the moment that it was first created. Nor has it prevented them from trying in every way they know how to involve those cruise convoys, which go out to Salisbury plain without any missiles in any of the launcher vehicles, in a serious accident, so that in some way the United States forces shall be held responsible for an accident that will not have been of their making but will have been provoked by the women. I find it difficult to believe that the hon. Gentleman really supports that sort of behaviour, which is against the defence of Western Europe and of our country.
562 Those women and their protest may have deceived the Soviets briefly — perhaps long enough to make them hold off finally signing the INF treaty — but here we are, five years later, and, thanks to the resolution of the Government and of NATO, we have an INF treaty signed by the President of the United States of America and the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist party of the Soviet Union, Mr. Gorbachev. I think that all of us should celebrate that fact as one of the most significant acts in terms of reducing nuclear weapons that the world has seen since the first nuclear weapon was created.
The INF treaty still has to be ratified by the United States Senate and the Supreme Soviet, but if we may assume for a moment that both parties will ratify it, between 30 and 90 days after ratification the first Soviet inspectors will be arriving at Greenham Common to examine the cruise missiles stationed there and to set about their task of verifying that those missiles are being dismantled in line with the agreement under the treaty. That means that the Soviet observers should he arriving at Greenham Common some time between May and August of this year. Because they are arriving at a Royal Air Force base, they will be greeted by the RAF commander.
I understand that the Soviets will be allowed to bring five teams of two inspectors and will be permitted, under the treaty, to visit three areas of the base and to inspect any room on the base which could take an object 11 feet long and 21in in diameter. Of course, they will fly in in a Soviet aircraft, and accommodation is being built for the aircrew. I also understand that that team that inspects Greenham Common will make visits to RAF Molesworth by road from Greenham. The visits will be for short periods only to verify where the cruise missiles are kept and that they are gradually being reduced in line with the treaty arrangement.
A fortnight ago I had the good fortune to be invited to RAF Greenham Common by the base commander. I was enabled to follow the route that the Soviet observers will take when they arrive at the airfield. I was shown the three areas to which I have referred and was told that it is expected that the last cruise missile and its support equipment will be leaving Greenham in or about 1992—perhaps the last cruise missiles to be taken out of Western Europe as a result of the INF treaty.
§ Mr. Harris
Did I hear my hon. Friend aright when he said that for this brief visit accommodation would be built for the Soviet aircrew? What is the justification for building accommodation for a very brief visit? I am puzzled.
§ Mr. McNair-Wilson
The brief visit, as I understand it, will probably last 48 hours. The Soviet aircrew have got to live somewhere, and it was felt to be better that they should live in Portakabins, which are going to be put up for them, than in the barrack blocks currently used by the United States air force.
Then what happens? Three years hence the defence postures of NATO and the Warsaw pact may be very different from what they are today. There may have been further reductions in the nuclear armouries of East and West and their conventional forces may have been scaled down, even though progress in the MBFR talks in Vienna, at the moment at least, are disappointingly slow. All this 563 is in the future, but the withdrawal of INF missiles, welcome though it is, does not immediately presage a change in NATO's need for vigilance and effective, flexible response. Nor does it suggest that the United States would necessarily wish to alter its dispositions, whether at Greenham or anywhere else in Europe.
§ Mr. Rogers
The hon. Gentleman said that on his visit to Greenham he was told that the last of the ground-launched cruise missiles would be removed by 1992. Did he find out on his visit when the warheads were going to be brought back to be fitted on to the air-launched cruise missiles?
§ Mr. McNair-Wilson
I have here the note that I made at the time of my visit, which may be of some interest to the House. I was told that the missiles will go with their launcher vehicles, and it will probably be a flight of missiles at a time, to the Davies Monthan air force base in Arizona, where they will be met by a Soviet team. Any one missile will be split down the middle and its wings will be taken off—rather like cutting up a bird. Then the bits of the missile will be crushed. The warhead will be immobilised and the guidance system can be removed. What happens after that is not in my remit. The launcher vehicle—not the tractor—will be cut up. So the missile and the launcher vehicle will be destroyed, and the warhead will have its guidance system removed.
I am afraid that I have wandered a bit, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I hope that what I have told him has been of some interest.
As I was saying, there will be a Soviet team in Arizona to meet the missiles when they arrive, and presumably the same situation will exist in the Soviet Union, with American observers waiting for the missiles to arrive there.
NATO has a need to maintain vigilance and effective, flexible response for the foreseeable future. As has been said by so many speakers in the debate already, the air forces of Europe have been and are being updated with new aircraft and, as we know, the air forces of the Eurogroup of NATO intend to bring 200 new combat aircraft into service in 1988. Most of those aircraft will be either the advanced Tornado or F16 types.
The Tornado is proving to be an outstanding European aircraft. It has had its teething troubles, particularly with its Foxhunter radar, and perhaps this is the moment for me to ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether he can say whether the present system is meeting all its specifications and, if not, how soon he thinks it will be able to meet its phase 1 requirements. Perhaps he would also say whether any decision has been made about phase 2.
The European fighter aircraft — due to come into service at the end of this century—is another important addition to NATO's armoury; another generation of aircraft to maintain our defence flexibility. Can my hon. Friend say anything about development expenditure on this aircraft? Has an overall cost been decided with our West German, Italian and Spanish collaborators? Has any fresh approach been made to persuade the French to think again about coming into the project?
I think that all of us have felt for a long time that the more NATO can standardise its equipment the better, although I know that the French prefer to have an observer status in NATO. The recent talks with the French Defence Minister make me hope that perhaps it has been 564 possible for the French to reconsider their decision to stay outside the project. There are decisions to be made about who builds the airframe, the engine and the radar programme. It is a huge programme, 800 aircraft, and obviously of the greatest importance to the defence of Western Europe, to the effectiveness of the RAF and to our aerospace industry.
I have allowed myself to digress from the subject of RAF Greenham Common, to which I shall now return. It is possible that some of the aircraft to which I have referred will be stationed on airfields in Western Europe. If there is a reduction in conventional forces, presumably some of those forward air bases may be decommissioned. Such decommissioning could lead to a reappraisal of the airfields in the United Kingdom.
I believe that it is generally accepted that the idea of stationing noisy, high-performance aircraft, such as the Tornado, the EFA, the F16 or the F111, at RAF Greenham Common is out of the question because of its proximity — as much as anything — to Newbury and Thatcham — both areas of considerable population. When I asked the American commander at Greenham what he thought would happen to the base when the cruise missiles had gone, he replied, rather enigmatically, that it would be used for an "air force purpose." He did not say —indeed, he may have been unaware of it—that even when the cruise missiles go, three years hence, Soviet observers will still be able to go to the base. They will still be able to visit the three designated areas and to travel to RAF Molesworth. They will be able to do so until 2001 according to article XI of the treaty. That is 13 years hence. Although the agreement affects both Soviet and Western European bases, I wish to concentrate my remarks on the effect that the agreement must have on RAF Greenham Common.
I hope that the Minister will be able to answer my questions. What will article XI mean to RAF Greenham Common? If the United States air force decides to give it up as a base, will that mean that, regardless of the use that the RAF might wish to make of that airfield, it could do so only on the basis that Soviet observers could arrive and inspect the three designated areas or any room that could take an object 11 ft long and 21 in in diameter? That right will continue for the next 13 years. Does that mean that, whether the USAF or the RAF are stationed at the base, they must always make allowances for those observers to come, even though the cruise missiles will have been gone for years?
If the RAF wishes to use the base for a different purpose, does it mean that it is still subject to those visits? The Soviet observers have the right to come and look around if they so desire. Therefore, does that not considerably limit the future uses to which the base can be put, bearing in mind that six bomb-proof shelters are in that area for inspection? Does that effectively mean that the base is frozen as regards its future for the next 13 years, or could it be de-activated if it was found to be surplus to requirement? In that case, would the base return to what it once was so many years ago — simply Greenham common? Obviously, those arguments must similarly apply to RAF Molesworth as that base is also included in the INF treaty. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend could answer those questions.
During my visit to Greenham common I was taken to inspect one of the shelters. For the first time in the five 565 years in which cruise missiles have been at Greenham I saw and put my hand on a cannister that contained one. That, in itself, is of no importance to anyone except me.
As I came out of the shelter I spoke to the young airman on guard—he was from the RAF Regiment. In October, I had been to Northern Ireland to see the county regiment into which people from Berkshire and Wiltshire enlist. In the course of talking to those soldiers I was frequently reminded that they were not satisfied with the boots that had been issued to them. They had all sorts of complaints about them, one of which was that they were anything but waterproof. Others said that they did not believe that they were the ideal boot for a soldier. Indeed, one corporal had chosen to go out and buy himself the boots that he was wearing on duty. Hon. Members may ask, "What has this got to do with RAF Greenham Common?" The fact is that when I spoke to that young airman of the RAF Regiment, I asked him about his boots and, to my surprise, he told me that he, too, had bought his own boots. I asked him why, and he told me that general issue boots were too heavy and hurt the Achilles tendons in his heels. In consequence, when on sentry duty, he preferred the boots that he had bought because of their lightness and flexibility, even though they were not very waterproof.
I asked the United States colonel who was accompanying me what he thought about boots and whether his service men were pleased with their boots. He said that the American service men were also rather unhappy about their boots, but that they had got over the problem of waterproofing with over-boots. He showed me a pair of excellent waterproof over-boots. I suggest to my hon. Friend that that is one solution to the problem.
Given my present interest in military boots, and as the RAF Regiment wears the same boots as the Army, I was especially interested in an item that appeared in The Times on Monday. That article had the headline:Army to march in style with 'Rolls-Royce' boot.I do not know how accurate that report is, but I should be grateful if my hon. Friend could say whether the Ministry of Defence is considering introducing a new Army boot, which The Times described as a "super boot". Has that new boot been approved? If so, how soon will it be introduced? This is an RAF debate, but will those who serve in the RAF Regiment, along with those in the Army, be receiving the boot in the near future to give them the comfort and protection that the present general issue boot clearly fails to provide?
§ Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)
I wish to address my remarks to the problem of low-flying aircraft.
My constituency is in rural Wales and it is a particular victim of low-flying aircraft. Because of the low population density of Wales, we have far more such flights than most of mainland Britain. Indeed, I grew up with the problem—I remember from early childhood aircraft flying low over the ground. However, over the decades, and especially in the past few years, the problem of low flying has become worse. The aircraft seem to go faster and faster and fly lower and lower; and there are far more frequent sorties by the RAF.
Unfortunately, low flying makes the news only when there are crashes. Last year in Wales we had two crashes, one in Aberystwyth and one in Builth, with the loss of three lives. It is unfortunate that low flying makes the headlines only when there are such incidents because it 566 represents a day-to-day torment especially for children and for people working outdoors in my constituency and in other parts of rural Wales.
People complain and over the years before I became a Member of the House I received many complaints. From the reading that I have done in preparation for this debate, I understand that last year the Ministry of Defence received about 5,000 complaints, with about 480 from Members of Parliament, an increase of 50 per cent. on the previous year.
So that the House may understand the complaints of the individuals who write to me or to the Ministry. I would like to read extracts from three or four which I received last summer. The Rev. Dr. Patrick Thompson, rector of Brechfa in my constituency, wrote:I have received a great many complaints from parishioners during the past three days about excessively low-flying aircraft coming over Brechfa… Several of the small children in the village have been terrified, and their mothers have been having to keep them indoors as a result. We would be most grateful if you could raise this matter with the appropriate Minister.I dare say that during those three days excesses were committed or that Brechfa was a particular victim.
A mother wrote to me:We sometimes have as many as 10 or more a day; in fine weather, this can go on for days on end … when we're in the garden my son is too frightened to play outside by himself. Lately this intolerable state of affairs has extended to the evening also, sometimes after 7 o'clock when my son has gone to bed.Can the House imagine what it feels like to be a small child woken from sleep by these screaming monsters? We are used to so much noise in the House that we get a bit hard of hearing, but young children's eardrums are much more sensitive. When they are playing outdoors in the middle of summer, the sudden searing noise of an aircraft terrifies them.
Last August I had a letter from some grandparents which read:We, who are well used to the 'normal' flying, occasionally are subjected to a terrifying attack. Just such a one happened at 10.25 am today. It is not possible to note the direction etc., the shock is too severe, one is still shaking an hour afterwards. Life is precious. I beg you to do all you can to help us. It is so distressing to see our grandchildren terrorised in this way.That is the experience of thousands of my constituents and millions of people up and down the country.
I had a letter from some people who have just come to live in my constituency. They live in the rural part inside the special tactical training area, where aircraft are allowed to fly as low as 100 ft. They are absolutely amazed and appalled at the low flying activity in their area. They write:Flying is continuous on some days and over our property in the valley definitely no more than 100 feet. I am about to have my second child and have been too afraid to go outside the house on a couple of occasions as we have had some aircraft over so low I felt that I would go into labour if outside at the time.That young mother is so frightened by the aircraft noise that she is afraid she might go into labour if subjected to it.
I hope that those personal examples have brought home to the House the searing and sudden nature of the noise. The aircraft come over suddenly on a quiet summer's day when people are out sunbathing, working or playing. The tranquillity of rural life is shattered within a few seconds and, for young children especially, it is terrifying.
Over the years, I have had the impression that the problem is getting worse, although when one lives with a 567 problem changes can be almost imperceptible. It was because of complaints such as those that I read to the House that I went with the hon. Members for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells) and for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) to meet the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces, who is here tonight, on 27 October. We put our constituents' complaints to him. He gave us a courteous hearing and was very frank with us. However, he immediately conceded that the problem is getting worse and that the number of sorties has dramatically increased in the past 10 years. He said that in 1979 there had been 85,000 sorties, whereas in 1986 there were 151,000. That represents an 80 per cent. increase in seven years. The number has virtually doubled. The Under-Secretary readily conceded, too, that the aircraft involved are noisier today. The F111, the Jaguar and especially the Tornado are noisier. I contend that, with double the flights and double the noise from each individual aircraft, the nuisance today is three or four times as great as it was 10 years ago.
I have a number of peripheral points to make. Some aircraft are allowed to fly as low as 100 ft. It used to be 250 ft. Apparently, only about 0.5 per cent. of all flights are allowed to fly that low and I accept that figure, but may I ask the Minister for an assurance that it will stay that low? We do not want the figure to creep up imperceptibly.
Flying takes place in the late evening and even at night. In a civilised country that should never be allowed to happen. Apparently, about 5 per cent. of sorties occur in the late evening or during the night. That is absurd. There should be a ban on all night flying.
Pilots must have targets set for them. They need landmarks so that they know which flight path to follow. We have been assured that individual farmhouses are never selected as targets, and that is some relief. However, the landmarks selected tend to be road and rail bridges. There tend to be clusters of houses by such bridges at the bottom of valleys because that is where people choose to build, so targeting brings the aircraft nearer to where people live.
As I said earlier, the nuisance is much greater these days than it was 10 years ago. Since last summer, as part of the public relations exercise of the Ministry of Defence, Members of Parliament have been circulated in advance about low-flying exercises. I last received a circular at the end of January which told me that for four to five hours a day during the periods 8 February to 12 February, 15 February to 19 February and 22 February to 26 February and on 29 February there would be low flying. In other words, as from 8 February there was to be low flying from Monday to Friday every week. That advance warning was addressed to me alone. As it happens, I intended to be in London every week during February.
It would be more useful if the Ministry of Defence extended that exercise to allow local newspapers to carry information in the same way as they carry chemists' rotas, hospital visiting hours and other public information so that the general public can be warned in advance of low-flying exercises. It is no good expecting hon. Members to distribute the Government's information or literature.
How should we counter this increasing nuisance? I concede that we need to train our pilots in low flying, but I wish that the nuisance could be less. As I said, the 568 nuisance is three or four times greater today than it was 10 years ago. We want to reduce the number of low-flying exercises.
I am told that with the new technology it is possible to simulate flight conditions almost as realistically as those in flight. Surely more exercises could be carried out on simulators.
Reference was made earlier to flights overseas. I understand that exercises take place from bases in Newfoundland and Turkey and that the Ministry of Defence is considering increasing flights from those bases. I can appreciate the cost of those exercises, particularly in Newfoundland, and the climatic problems, but surely Turkey is an attractive option; it is nearer and the weather is no problem. It is a mountainous country and it is far more sparsely populated than any part of Britain. The nuisance would be much less. The Turkish Government would be willing to co-operate in carrying out those exercises because they would attract foreign exchange. I appreciate that they would be more costly, but I understand that the main cost of training is fuel. However, the cost of fuel is the same whether flights take place over Turkey, Wales or mainland Britain.
Turkey has one clear advantage: it is more mountainous than Britain. Therefore, the quality of training would be far better; it would be a more realistic exercise. I should have thought that, in terms of training quality, one hour's flying in Turkey would be worth two hours' flying in Britain. I hope that the Ministry of Defence will consider seriously those alternatives to low flying in Britain.
It is certain that the number of low flights has increased. Why has it doubled in the past 10 years? Earlier the Under-Secretary said that the need for low flying is dependent on the perceived threat in central Europe. Does that mean that the perceived threat in 1988 is double what it was in 1978? Since Mr. Gorbachev came to power, there has been talk of detente, the INF treaty and an improvement in relations with the Soviet Union. Therefore, I cannot understand why we need twice as many flights today.
People's attitudes to low flying are changing. In my constituency, demographic change has contributed to that change in attitude as more retired people have moved in. Generally, people today are much more aware of environmental issues and are much more willing to complain. They appreciate the quality of life much more. Today we have a much more discriminating public than we had in the 1950s, 1960s — when the problem first started — and the 1970s. The Ministry of Defence is running out of time and the nuisance is increasing. The public is much more critical. We will have to find a solution to the problem of low flying.
§ Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)
I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for having this opportunity to speak in the debate. As hon. Members will know, my background means that I have a special interest in aviation and, more specifically, in aviation connected with the RAF.
For as long as I can remember, the procurement of military aircraft has been a subject of lively political debate. As long as 30 years ago the debate was raging whether the Lightning would be the last manned fighter aircraft in service. Some 30 years later those Lightings are about to leave active service and are being steadily replaced by the Tornado F3.
569 I was pleased to hear the remarks of my hon. Friend the Minister concerning the Foxhunter radar. I sincerely hope, now that we have negotiated a new contract for the updating of that radar, that we have finally got rid of the time and cost over-runs of the past.
There is now a new debate about the replacement for the Jaguar and Phantom aircraft, the European fighter aircraft, which has been mentioned at some length. I shall keep my remarks about that aircraft brief, but it is of particular significance to me and my constituency, which is situated close to where the aircraft will be built.
The EFA is important to NATO and to the RAF. It is important to the north-west of Britain, which I think has the largest concentration of aerospace factories this side of the Atlantic. This concentration is having a tremendously beneficial effect on the north through the spin-off of technology into other more traditional industries, to say nothing of the employment prospects and other wealth-creating prospects that will exist if it goes ahead.
Despite the remarks of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), it is not this Government who are holding up the development of the EFA; it is those committees in the Bundestag that have yet to be convinced of its suitability for the roles that have been assigned to it in NATO.
It is true that the Germans are keen to cut the cost, but in cutting the cost we must be careful not to cut the performance envelope of that aircraft, making it little better than an F16 or an F18. We should ensure that the EFA is of the same category and quality as the advanced tactical aircraft, which is currently on the drawing board. We should take advantage of the latest technology—fly by wire, composite materials and stealth technology, which has been so successfully developed in America.
I should like to turn to another major procurement programme that has not been mentioned at length —AWACS. Part of the deal that we signed to procure AWACS was that there would be 130 per cent. worth of offsets—130 per cent. of the value of that aircraft would be in offset purchases in this country. I hope that when my hon. Friend replies to the debate he will be able to give some assurances about how those offset purchases are going. Information that I have been given leads me to believe that there are problems. It may be that Boeing does not always act in the best interests of British subcontractors. That is particularly the case with regard to the procurement of ground equipment, which amounts to £100 million. I ask my hon. Friend to say whether those offsets are coming through, when we can expect a certain percentage of them and when we can expect the full 130 per cent. to be reached.
Apart from new aircraft, another area of importance is the mid-life update of existing aircraft. Undoubtedly, that applies to Tornado. It is increasingly clear that in the years ahead the survivability of manned aircraft over the target will become less and less, until it gets to the point where it is not worth risking one's expensive and slender air assets over an attacked target. Therefore, I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had meetings in France with his opposite number about the development and then procurement of a stand-off weapon for Tornado.
I am not over-bothered about whether we develop it with the French or the Americans. Ideally, in the years ahead, we should look towards a development including both the French and the Americans, because we are rapidly coming to the point in NATO where having two 570 separate areas of technological excellence on either side of the Atlantic is no longer affordable. Therefore, 1 should like to see that stand-off weapon developed by the Americans, ourselves and the French.
On other procurement programmes, I was also pleased to hear about the Harrier GR5, but I should like my hon. Friend to say whether the problems associated with the nav/attack system of that aircraft have been finally solved. We do not want a repeat of earlier circumstances, where aircraft came into service without properly developed avionics.
Before I leave the topic of procurement, I should like to mention a slightly less fashionable subject. It is all very well to spend many billions of pounds on aircraft hardware, but one essential criterion is that one must know which are one's own and which are the enemy's. In that respect, secondary radar and its development are of primary importance. At the moment NATO has a programme to update its IFF capability, but it is a long way behind what it should be in terms of when the programme should have been initiated. Again, I sincerely hope that that is now under way and that it will provide a better air environment for the Tornados and the EFAs of the future, simply because without it it is much harder to see how those aircraft could be used effectively.
Before I turn to personnel, I should like to speak about management, a subject much mentioned in the speech of the hon. Member for Rhondda — or what he terms "mismanagement". I was fortunate to be able to do a few calculations since the hon. Gentleman's speech. It is noteworthy that he quoted a number of programmes which during this Government's period of office have been cancelled at various stages of their development. If we consider the period 1964 to 1970—I stress that that is a shorter period than the period 1979 to 1987 — we see that the number of cancellations, in financial terms and brought up to today's prices, is more than double the number that has occurred since 1979. Indeed, the TSR2 alone accounts for over £1.5 billion in today's money. Therefore, if there is any mismanagement, it has been in the past. Certainly the record of the present Government in managing our air assets is better than that of their predecessors.
§ Mr. Rogers
The hon. Gentleman has been extremely selective in the dates that he has chosen. Perhaps what he should do is to go back to the record of promotions and cancellations of projects since the war. If he does, he will find a long list of cancellations by successive Tory Governments, through the whole range from the Hawker P1083 thin-wing Hunter, to the Hawker P1121 fighter. Previous Conservative Governments have cancelled an alarming number of programmes.
§ Mr. Mans
I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but I was trying to compare one period of office under a Labour Government with a similar period under a Conservative Government to make my point.
I turn now to personnel in the Royal Air Force. There has been a lot of talk, both in the Chamber earlier today and in the newspapers, about the shortage of aircrew. Such shortages, if they have occurred, are liable to get worse, not only because of the demographic changes that were mentioned earlier, but because the market outside the Air Force for pilots is steadily growing and does not look as if it will reduce in the near future.
571 We must look a little more closely at the statistics, and more specifically at the fast jet pilot statistics. We must also look at the way in which we retain people. At the moment, if someone leaves at the age of 38, which is the option date for most pilots, he receives a gratuity. It is no secret that quite often six months after a pilot has left the Royal Air Force he will be written to by the personnel department of the Ministry of Defence and invited to come back. There is a significance in that six-month gap. After it the pilot keeps his gratuity. At the moment there is no possibility of a pilot who reaches the end of his engagement and who wants to stay on keeping his gratuity. He must leave and then reapply. It does not take a genius to see the administrative inconvenience of that system, and how much better it would be to acknowledge the fact that if we need to retain someone it is much easier to pay the gratuity at the time when the engagement ends and ask him straight away to reapply to rejoin the Air Force. I am convinced that if we adopted that policy our training costs would fall. As has been mentioned, the training costs for a Tornado pilot amount to £3 million. We train just over 200 pilots every year. If we could cut that training cost by just a small percentage, by retaining people at the other end, it would be a lot cheaper for the defence budget.
When one runs short of pilots, one does not tend to see that straight away in the front-line aircraft or on the new aircraft. I have little doubt that the Tornado in Germany and, increasingly, in the United Kingdom will be up to strength with experienced pilots who are fully capable of using its potential. However, in the process I have little doubt that the Phantom force is being denuded of experience. There are many young pilots on the Phantom force, but not many who are experienced. That is just one example of the problems ahead unless we take some drastic action over retention rates.
Finally, I should like to say a brief word about organisation and keeping costs down. We hear about this all the time in the Royal Air Force, but normally it amounts to cutting a particular aircraft procurement programme. I should like to suggest a slightly different approach. We should look closely at the supporting arms in the Royal Air Force to see whether we can continue to justify their cost. Those supporting arms, such as the education branch, or even the medical branch, are expensive in terms of pension arrangements and in terms of the people who actually work in them. I am not suggesting that we get rid of such branches completely, but I do suggest that we look closely at them for savings that will be needed in the future, rather than at our equipment programme and front-line strength.
A small example is the Royal Air Force hospitals. At any time, roughly one third of the hospitals are filled with service patients or their dependants. Another third are filled with National Health Service patients from the locality using the particular specialties of that Royal Air Force hospital. When that happens, there is a transfer of funds from the NHS to the defence budget to cope with it. The other third of bed spaces are taken up on a much more ad hoc basis and there is no transfer of funds so, in a small way, the defence budget is subsidising the National Health Service. All I am saying is that if we are to understand the true cost of our defence, we must come up with arrangements that acknowledge such facts.
572 Another fact that is very much in the news these days is contracting out. Contracting out, or privatisation as Opposition Members would like to describe it, is a perfectly legitimate way of keeping costs down. It has been highly successful, especially in support command at the flying training stations. However, I should like to add a word of warning, because with contracting out go problems of over-stretch.
At times of tension, during exercises and when there are security alerts, service personnel are required to carry out several functions — guard duties, operation duties and their own jobs. That particular burden is falling on fewer service men as a result of contracting out. That should be recognised. It also has to be recognised that a new method will have to be found to deal with that problem. An obvious method is a partnership between civilian manpower and service manpower in a station. That would provide a much better chance of cutting costs without running into problems of over-stretch.
Finally, I should like to add my congratulations to those offered by the hon. Member for Rhondda and say how nice it is to have for the first time in more than seven years an airman holding the post of Chief of the Defence Staff. I congratulate Sir David Craig on his appointment earlier this week.
§ Dr. Dafydd Ellis Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)
The debate has been wide-ranging over such issues as procurement, personnel and policy. I shall not deal with all the issues that the hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) raised. I shall deal with one aspect that he mentioned—the importance of the aerospace industry and its impact, economically and regionally, on the United Kingdom. I have stressed the importance of that industry for employment in the south-west of England, to the detriment of some other regions. The economy in northeast Wales is dependent on the aerospace industry. Its collaboration on a European level in civil and military aircraft development is crucial to that aspect of our aerospace industry.
I welcome the Minister's statement about search and rescue. That is an important issue to my hon. Friends and I, as we represent mountainous and seaboard constituencies. The hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) would wish to be associated with my welcome. Hon. Members will have read her recent article in The House Magazine describing in graphic detail the role of the mountain rescue services. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones), who has RAF Valley in his constituency, will also welcome the Minister's statement. In my constituency there are mountain rescue services in Snowdonia and tremendous voluntary effort goes into the provision of those services. I mention the events of last weekend in my constituency when, tragically, a number of climbers were killed because of a sudden change of weather. I am sure that the House will want to join me in expressing gratitude to the rescue services and to RAF Brawdy, which plays a similar role in the southern part of Snowdonia.
That is the acceptable face of the RAF and the Royal Navy in my constituency. I now turn to the less acceptable face of the services—the environmental impact of low-flying training in that part of Wales. The Minister would be disappointed if he did not hear me speak on that subject because we have corresponded and held regular meetings on it.
573 I am concerned that the environmental impact of low-flying training is not taken sufficiently seriously by the people who do not have to put up with it. I am pleased that in tonight's debate a number of hon. Members representing Wales and other areas have made that point.
The Minister said at the beginning of the debate that the Ministry of Defence takes all possible steps to limit the disturbance to the public from low flying. The reality is that the current policy ofspreading the disturbance as evenly as possibleis designed to maximise the amount of low flying that can be done, not to reduce the environmental impact. That is publicly intolerable.
That is illustrated by the policy on "avoidance areas". Those are areas around major airports and cities, where military pilots are not allowed to fly below 2,000 ft. Last year, the Minister for the Armed Forces said:As part of the continuous monitoring of the UKLFS, a programme of reviews of avoidance areas is carried out and changes made when necessary … aimed at spreading low flying more evenly and enhancing flight safety, while at the same time reducing, where possible, the disturbance to those on the ground.No one could quarrel with that quotation.
Group Captain Alan Bowman, the RAF officer responsible for the operation of the United Kingdom low-flying system, was more frank when speaking to a NATO conference in West Germany in 1986. He said that the Ministry of Defencestrive constantly to reduce the number of avoidance areas to the minimum".In recent years, several areas which were previously considered too noise sensitive or not suitable for low flying for other reasons have been opened up to low flying. They include substantial areas of Kent and Sussex and the Isles of Wight, Scilly, Orkney and Shetland. Even Northern Ireland is now officially available for low-flying training by helicopters.
The Minister confirmed last November that no consultation took place with local authorities, farming interests or environmental bodies in those areas prior to their designation as low-flying areas, when the MOD decided to increase the maximum speed for low-flying aircraft from 420 to 450 knots. The Minister said:Nor was such consultation necessary." —[Official Report, 16 November 1987; Vol. 122, c. 453–54.]I must contrast that with the situation in the Federal Republic of Germany, which has attempted to increase the areas available for low flying, but its federal structure allows the individual "lander" to block attempts to impose new low-flying areas. No such control is available in Great Britain. More importantly, the Federal Government actually respond to public pressure to reduce the disturbance from low-flying training. The result is that West Germany has already reached the point where it is unsafe and environmentally impractical to increase the amount of low flying within the present constraints. So it has to export it to places where the regulations are not so tight. That means Britain.
Britain particularly attracts aircraft wanting to fly as low as 100 ft, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) has said, aircraft which are involved in night low-level training. In Germany, night flying as low as 100 ft is banned and the night low-level training can take place only down to 1,000 ft above the ground. Last September, the RAF held its Salmond trophy competition—it has nothing to do with my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) — 574 which is a low-level bombing and navigation competition for German-based Tornado squadrons, in eastern England and Scotland. It had been shifted from Germany for environmental reasons, and caused an understandable public outcry, particularly in the north of Scotland.
Officially, the Ministry of Defence's policy is that the United Kingdom low-flying system can be used only by forces based in the United Kingdom, although in addition, according to Group Captain Bowman,We have agreed that our European allies can carry out limited low flying in the United Kingdom on an exchange basis normally during exercises … we do not accept low flying from other countries as a matter of routine.The reality is rather different. Britain imports routine low-level training, including types of flying that would not be permitted in Germany. For example, in late 1986, the United States army sent eight UH60 helicopters from a base in West Germany to Salisbury plain. The pilots were in Britain to train for their night low-level qualification which included flying 50 ft above the ground, in darkness, with no navigation or collision warning lights on, and over populated rural areas.
Not surprisingly, the extent of low-level training results in a substantial number of complaints to the Ministry of Defence. I am grateful for the way in which the Department has investigated each complaint with which I have presented it over the years.
According to a parliamentary answer that I received, last year the Ministry of Defence received an all-time record number of 5,695 complaints about low flying. An analysis of the figures shows that there was a higher ratio of complaints per low-flying sortie last year than at any previous time. In the mid-1970s, before the free-for-all system was introduced in 1979, following the last review of low-flying areas, the MOD was receiving about one complaint for every 40 to 50 low-level flights over Britain. As soon as the new system was introduced which permitted low flying all over the mainland of Britain, complaints rose to one for every 27 sorties. Last year it reached the record level of one complaint for every 23 low-flying sorties, during a year when the total number of low-level flights went down slightly.
In Germany, there have been 3,000 or 4,000 complaints about low-level flying each year in recent times—rather less than in Britain. Yet the German Government have been more responsive to public criticism and have scaled back low flying considerably.
It is important to take a considerate approach on low flying within European and NATO countries. I am sure that the people of Turkey would have strong views on the suggestion that we should export low-flying training there. I am not arguing for that. I am arguing that all NATO countries in which low-flying training takes place should take a similar sensitive attitude towards the public who have to suffer low-flying training.
The German Government have been much more sensitive than the United Kingdom Government, perhaps because its environmental movement is stronger because of its system of proportional representation. Whatever the reason, the German Government have shown greater sensitivity to public criticism of low-flying training.
We have had much discussion in recent weeks about civil aircraft safety as a result of near misses, problems with air traffic control, and so on. When Britain was 575 opened up for low-level flying in 1979, the number of low-level flights almost doubled. The purpose of that change was to allow for the introduction of the Tornado.
Once again, the low-flying system seems to be coming up against its limits. Last year, there were six crashes involving RAF fast jets at low level over Britain. Clearly, as I have told the Minister on several occasions when we have discussed this, our first concern is with the aircrew who are so tragically killed, their families and friends. But our other concern is public safety.
The Ministry of Defence has refused to release official figures on the accident rate of aircraft at low level, but independent analysis shows that the low-level accident rate for fast jets was higher last year than at any time since 1979. Two of those were mid-air collisions, one of them involving two separate aircraft running into each other while flying independently through the Lake District.
Not only do the Government refuse to release accident rate figures which could easily be obtained from its own flight safety computers, but they have been issuing incorrect figures on the safety record of low-level flying.
In 1974 there was the tragic death of a crop-spraying pilot in collision with an RAF Phantom over Norfolk. That provoked a major row at the time and led to changes in safety procedures. More recently, Ministers, in response to questions, have repeated the statement that no civilians have been killed in accidents involving low-flying military aircraft this decade. That is not accurate. In February 1984, a civilian trainee pilot was killed when his Cessna 150 was in collision with a United States Air Force A10 over Norfolk. According to the official accident report, the collision occurred at about 1,000 feet. Low flying is defined by the Ministry of Defence as anything under 2,000 feet. It is important that we should be clear and honest with the public about such tragic instances.
I am concerned about the free-for-all approach in which individual pilots plan the routes that they fly at low levels without reference to any authority. The system is becoming inherently unsafe. Last year's tragic accident rate may well be repeated in future years. Unlike civil airlines, which are constantly under radar control from the ground, military aircraft at low level are not under any form of air traffic control. When a pilot enters a low-flying area, he is not told anything about other aircraft which may be in the area, possibly flying straight towards him at the same height. It is entirely up to his own eyesight and quick navigation to spot other aircraft in time and to take avoiding action.
The situation is now so bad that the director of flight operations at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough has written to the Ministry of Defence expressing his fears about the total absence of air traffic control in the United Kingdom's low-flying system. The director's responsibilities include a great deal of night low-level flying, which is bound to increase over the next few years as the new Harrier GR5 is introduced and as Tornados are given a greater night capability. The idea that pilots, flying in total darkness on instruments, should operate in total ignorance of who else is in the air around them is intolerable for public safety.
The Royal Aircraft Establishment's flight operations chief has suggested the installation of a computerised automatic flight planning system. That would collate the planned routes of all aircraft preparing for low-level 576 sorties, work out possible conflicts, and tell aircrews to change their routes where necessary. The technology already exists in the Tornado and Jaguar, and will be installed in the Harrier GR5 and Buccaneer. Therefore, it will be possible for such an automatic system to be introduced.
An automatic flight planning system is now being introduced in Germany. Either when the Minister replies or later, in response to what I have said, I should like him to make a commitment that, in the interests of safety, a similar system will be introduced in the United Kingdom as soon as possible.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important RAF debate. I must, first, declare an interest. I am a serving officer in the RAF Volunteer Reserve. I also want to mention the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro). He is an honorary air commodore of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. He wanted to speak in the debate, but only one of us could be excused from the Committee upstairs and I was the fortunate one.
I join others in congratulating Sir David Craig on his appointment as Chief of the Defence Staff. We are delighted that a light-blue uniform is once again in charge and we are equally delighted that a man who is so capable and highly regarded has been selected for the job.
Earlier in the debate we listened to the Labour party's views on the RAF and defence. In columns 194–95 of the Official Report of 26 January we were led to believe that the official Opposition's position, as articulated by the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies), is that they do not believe in flexible response because it is not realistic.
The truth of the matter is that the Opposition do not believe in many things. Earlier this evening we heard the real voice of the Labour party on defence—the voice of the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson). What he said showed that the Opposition do not believe in upgrading or replacing weapons systems. They do not think that it is important that the RAF should survive over the battlefield. More importantly, they do not believe that the RAF should have a stand-off capability.
§ Mr. Denzil Davies
Let me make it clear that the Opposition have supported the European fighter aircraft. The cost is considerable and we have supported it from the beginning. Before and during the general election we made it clear that we would continue with that project. We have continued to support the modernisation of sensible RAF systems. What we object to is the notion that somehow replacing a hydrogen bomb on a Tornado aircraft with an air-launched nuclear cruise missile is modernisation.
§ Mr. Walker
Of course it is modernisation. As long as the enemy has the capability—and it has—and if the RAF is to deter, it must be suitably equipped. Again, the Opposition choose to ignore the deterrent role of the RAF. If one goes back to the days of the cancellation of the TSR2, which was mentioned earlier, it is clear that the Labour party's view boils down to opposition, except where a manufacturer in a Labour constituency will get an order. That effectively sums up the Labour party's views on defence. Indeed, it would be true to say that the RAF would still be flying Spitfires and Lancasters if the choice were left to the Labour party.
577 We are all in agreement on the search and rescue services— the helicopters. We all accept that the RAF and the Royal Navy must retain that capability. Our reasons for that are that the service must have pilots and aircraft that are capable of meeting the needs of tomorrow, which may be a war-time situation.
It is interesting that the Labour party supports search and rescue. That service obviously does a lot of good, which the Labour party recognises, and there is a lot of feeling for that in the constituencies. But why is it not equally supportive of the necessary—indeed, essential—low-flying role? The point that I was trying to make when the right hon. Member for Llanelli intervened was that RAF pilots have to be capable of surviving, not just defending. If they are to attack enemy bases, they must be able to penetrate below the radar screens and survive. They will require a stand-off capability to do that effectively.
§ Mr. Walker
I shall give way in a moment.
They will also require the capability to fly low and fast. Therefore, it is essential that pilots are trained to the necessary standard. They cannot acquire that skill on the day that war begins.
§ Mr. Davies
My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) has pointed out from the Back Benches—and we have agreed from the Front Bench—that the training is needed. The point that we are trying to make is that, in the areas that have to bear the noise, it has increased considerably over the past few years. As my hon. Friends have said, attempts should be made to find other areas to alleviate the burden on rural areas which are suffering, especially in Wales. However, we accept that training is necessary for the safety of pilots and for the defence of the country.
§ Mr. Walker
I find this narrow parochialism fascinating. I represent a 2,000-square-mile highlands constituency, where the RAF regularly flies planes low and fast. Anyone who cares to check will see that that is the case. Indeed, we probably have more intensive low-level flying operations than the part of Wales mentioned by the right hon. Member for Llanelli.
I am not being narrow and parochial. I am not suggesting that the low flying should go elsewhere. Of course it should not; it should take place in areas of sparse population, and I represent a constituency that is sparsely populated. I fully expect and endorse— —
§ Mr. Denzil Davies
The hon Gentleman has said that low flying should go to areas of sparse population. That may he, but west Wales is not sparsely populated; it is quite heavily populated, as are the areas over which the planes fly. We do not object in principle, but we feel that efforts should be made to alleviate the burden.
§ Mr. Walker
That sums up the attitude beautifully, "Let them fly anywhere, but not in my back yard." It is important that the House and the public should understand that.
I hope that we are looking carefully at the need for proper identification of friend and foe, and for secondary radar capabilities. It is important that we can tell friend from foe. I was pleased to hear that the Foxhunter radar has improved, and delighted that it is moving forward.
578 Sometimes, people are critical of certain programmes, and I have been critical along with others. However, we should remember that in developing technology —particularly in avionics, electronics and radar—we are always entering new areas. It can be frightfully costly and difficult. The cost difference between 80 and 100 per cent. work-out of a programme can be horrendous. It is also important to recognise that we are always attempting to stretch technology to the point at which we will get the maximum from it.
I welcome the news that we are to have an additional AWACS. However, I endorse the view that we should try to find a way of purchasing a further AWACS, so that we have the correct balance.
The Opposition Front Bench made some play of the Tucano question, suggesting that the only voices of doubt and uncertainty about the purchase were those of Opposition Members. That is not true, as anyone who has studied the matter will realise. I was very hostile to the purchase of the Tucano, and left no one in any doubt about that. However, I have since visited the Tucano factory in Brazil. When I went to see for myself what had happened to the aircraft, I found that it has been substantially redesigned. We are not talking about the Tucano that used to exist. The best example that I can give to hon. Members with a long and lasting interest in aircraft is this: the difference between the Tucano that is going to come into service and the earlier model is like the difference between the Mustang with an Alison engine—which was a very poor aircraft—and the Mustang with a Rolls-Royce-Packard-Merlin engine, which became the most successful long-range fighter aircraft of world war 2. I am very optimistic about the Tucano, and I only hope that the Ministry of Defence will not have to pick up the cost. I feel that Short Brothers and Embrair between them should bear the true costs.
On my recent trip to the Falklands, the service on board the TriStar was unique. The only other time when I have enjoyed service of such a standard was when I was fortunate enough to fly in the presidential service jet in the United States, where I was served in a manner that I had never before experienced. I compliment the crew of the TriStar.
I was pleasantly surprised—that word is important, because the name of the base that I am going to talk about is Mount Pleasant—at the high quality and standard of the buildings, and of the runway and taxiways. I had thought that an airfield built in such a short time would be reminiscent of the airfields built in a comparably short time in the war. However, it is a very fine and well-built base, and I congratulate the RAF and those responsible for its construction.
The ability to use tankers and air-to-air refuelling has enhanced the operations of the RAF in a remarkable and wonderful way, which means that fewer aircraft can carry out many more sorties much more effectively.
I also had the good fortune to visit the Harriers in Belize. I was very impressed by the morale of the forces, the use of the Harriers and the way in which local people never complained about the noise that the Harriers made. No matter how low the planes flew, the people welcomed them. That is because they see a real threat, not an imagined one. No one is saying, "It is 40 years since anything troubled us in Western Europe; perhaps we can do away with this". In Belize, they know that the enemy is just over the border, and they have never doubted the 579 enemy's views. The enemy wants to take over Belize, and the presence of the Harriers is very welcome. I met that feeling at every level.
I have a special affection for the reserve and auxiliary forces, and I should like my hon. Friends on the Front Bench to give sensible and serious consideration to how we can enlarge our capability in that regard. It is interesting to reflect that we have been saving money by converging support roles on bases, and we have been using what the Opposition would call a privatised structure to achieve that. I remind my hon. Friends on the Front Bench that immediately after the war we had volunteer reserve bases. Those units were manned by people who worked for organisations such as Airwork, but all the instructors were members of the reserve forces. They were all there to be used at any time when the RAF required them. We should look at that much more carefully.
We should also look carefully at the circumstances in which individuals leave the service at any of the break points up to the age of 38, and find a proper, fulfilling function for them, with a proper reserve commitment. I know that we use a number of them in air experience flights with the Chipmunks, and they do a splendid job. I hope that the Chipmunk operations will continue for as long as Chipmunks can fly — and, given the way that they are flying, it looks as though they will fly for a long time.
The cadet forces are often forgotten, but they are the natural source of the best material for the RAF. There are 35,000, or perhaps 45,000, cadets, the squadrons, the 27 volunteer gliding schools and the central gliding schools. I ask one question about the central gliding schools: when can we expect to see replacement winches?
I wish to say thank you to Wing Commander Paddy Gilmer, a gentleman who has given many years of service and who is to retire this year. He is retiring for a second time, because he retired from the regular Air Force to take up his appointment at Headquarters Air Cadets to look after the interests of the gliding schools and air experience flights. He took over at a time when morale was low and things were very bad. Largely due to Paddy Gilmer's inspired leadership, the position has changed dramatically and today morale is very high. I hope that he has a long, healthy and wealthy retirement.
I draw the attention of my hon. Friends on the Front Bench to the concern felt about the dog-training unit at Newton. Two attempts have been made to work out a system of marrying the Army and RAF dog-training capabilities and on both occasions it was decided that RAF Newton would be the best venue. A third review is going on. I hope that something will be done about this soon because it creates a lot of uncertainty. It would be sensible to amalgamate the unit at Newton, as has been twice recommended.
One aspect for which the Royal Air Force often gets very little credit, although it has done a splendid job, is YTS. The Royal Air Force has always been open to people from all walks of life. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), who opened the debate for the Opposition, referred to the conversations he has had with me. My fondness for the Royal Air Force is partly because one is judged by one's ability to do the job, not by the way one 580 speaks or where one has come from. It is important that one is capable of doing the job professionally and effectively.
One of the interesting by-products of YTS is the substantial number of youngsters who would not have been accepted for training by the Royal Air Force because they were considered to be below the standard required, yet, after 12 months in YTS, about one third of them have been accepted for full-time service in the RAF. This is marvellous and I hope that the House will compliment the Royal Air Force on achieving this breakthrough for those young men who may not have been considered up to the standard required by the RAF. Anyone who knows anything of the RAF knows that, whatever job one does, it must be done to a very high standard.
Reference has been made to the problem of retention when a break point in the engagement is reached. The problem is not new; it has always been there when civil airlines are short of people. The civil airlines, which do not train people and often make no investment in training, want Royal Air Force people, particularly aircrew. They try to entice them away from the Royal Air Force or the Royal Navy.
I believe that there are ways of finding answers to problems. One way of retaining the young men on whom we have spent a lot of money to train in various jobs, whether pilots or ground crew, and of encouraging them to remain in the service after they have reached the break point at eight, 12 or 22 years, is by giving them a lump sum greater than the lump sum they would get if they were to leave. They would have a substantial sum to invest, which would encourage them to stay, because people who join the Air Force to fly do so because they love flying. They love the service and the flying and they do not want to go outside because they want a stable home for their family. We should give them a lump sum. I am not talking of £1,000; I am talking of tens of thousands of pounds, because it costs millions of pounds to train chaps up to standard. That money should be invested to keep the chaps in the service. More importantly, they would be able to provide a stable home for their families. They would not have to commute their pensions, as many of them do, to provide a family home. Serious consideration should be given to that.
I hope that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will bear in mind that, in order to keep families happy, married quarters should be kept in good condition. If families are happy, the chaps are happy. If the chaps are unhappy, it is because their families are unhappy, and they are more likely to leave and to give trouble.
§ Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)
The hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) began his 20-minute dissertation with a most unworthy attempt to vilify the Labour party's attitude to defence. There is no way that the hon. Member can question my commitment or the commitment of the Labour party to the defence of the country. I counsel him in future not to be quite so gratuitously offensive. The role of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition is to question the Government on the basis of facts, and that is precisely what we have been trying to do, as opposed to the blather that has been emanating from the Government Benches.
Before the ink was dry on the INF treaty the Prime Minister had declared her intention to Mr. Dimbleby on 581 television in December to proceed with a fresh escalation of the arms race with a brand new air-launched missile for the RAF. The missiles will have a range of about 400 km, giving the Tornado a similar range to the ground-launched missiles at Greenham.
If those weapons are fitted to the 200 Tornado fighter bombers, which carry an average of two missiles each, we would end up with 400 long-range air-launched nuclear missiles, compared with the 160 ground-launched missiles that will leave Greenham and Molesworth under the INF treaty, not counting the United States missiles at RAF bases in Britain. This would represent a major escalation of capability. That is an undeniable fact. Those weapons are not a modernisation of old weapons; they represent a new type of weapon which NATO has not deployed before.
If we are to maintain a balance, the Minister should tell the House which types of weapons the Soviets are developing, as neither the International Institute for Strategic Studies' "Military Balance" nor the Pentagon's "Soviet Military Power" makes any mention of such weapons being designed to equip Soviet tactical aircraft or even being in development. The argument for those weapons is that we must be able to penetrate Soviet air defences, but after Mathias Rust's flight the RAF would be better advised to buy the much cheaper high-winged, low-flying Cessna than the cruise missile.
The USSR and the United States have had large, heavy and often inaccurate air-launched cruise missiles on long-range bombers for many years, but the proliferation of small, highly accurate nuclear missiles for fighters is a unilateral escalation and should be acknowledged as such without any equivocation or ambiguity.
On 26 January the Secretary of State told my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) that he was not aware of any United States plans to base air-launched cruise missiles in Europe in the future. That was a very misleading statement. Was he deceiving himself in misleading the House, or did he mislead the House honestly? The United States, according to testimony to Congress from Secretary of Defence Carlucci, is making development of a nuclear tactical air-to-surface missile an "urgent priority" within the framework agreed four years ago at the Montebello nuclear planning group meeting. He says that the missileis a development programme to provide both US and Allied dual capable aircraft … with the capability to attack high value heavily defended targets throughout the theatre.There can be no doubt that these missiles will employ cruise technology. There are two candidates already for the system. The first is the United States joint tactical missile system, which, according to United States sources, is already flying. This is a cruise missile with stealth technology. The second missile is the modular stand-off weapon, the MSOW. It is likely that both will be deployed eventually and use cruise technology. Thus, it is clear that the United States is developing nuclear air-launched cruise missiles for deployment in Europe according to NATO decisions, to which the Government were party.
For the Secretary of State for Defence to say that he is unaware of such plans means that he is not doing his job. He is not reading the papers in his ministerial box. Equally, if he knew about this, he has misled the House. If he did not know, he is guilty of neglect. There is another explanation, though, which is that his officials are using a false and legalistic definition of air-launched cruise 582 missiles which deliberately refers to the present existing US air-launched cruise missiles that are carried by B-52 bombers as ALCMs.
The reason for the right hon. Gentleman's fear of using the phrase "cruise missile" is that it is well known to the public. The right hon. Gentleman would prefer to call them "stand-off" weapons. We have heard that phrase used tonight. Indeed, he would prefer to call them anything other than what they really are. The public think accurately that these are cruise missiles and are an escalation. That view has been confirmed by the Secretary of State in his desire to misinform the House.
I ask the Minister to confirm whether these weapons are indeed part of the NATO programme, Will he say whether they will be fitted to United States F111 and F15 aircraft at RAF bases in the United Kingdom, or is there some hidden opposition to the Prime Minister's nuclear addiction? On the other hand, can the Secretary of State categorically deny that these nuclear air-launched missiles will be in this country? Will he explain precisely his intention and whether he will allow the United States to base more F111s in the United Kingdom and to deploy the new F15E Strike Eagle here? According to Mr. Carlucci, the F15 Strike Eagle can deliver the full range of nuclear and conventional bombs and missiles, and it will be deployed throughout Europe by the early 1990s.
In the recent United States report on nuclear strategy, entitled "Discriminate deterrence" by Kissinger, Brzezinski, ex-Under Secretary of Defence 1kle, and many other military figures, it is made clear that the weapons that the United Kingdom Government want for RAF bombers, which the United States will put on United States planes based in the United Kingdom, are crucial to their plans. The report says:The Alliance will still need an ability to use nuclear weapons effectively and discriminately.It continues:The Alliance should threaten to use nuclear weapons not as a link to a wider and more devastating war—although the risk of escalation would still be there—but mainly as an instrument for denying success to the invading Soviet forces.Central to these new strategies are the highly accurate cruise missiles that are now in development. According to former Under Secretary Iklé, they add up toThe most important military development since world war 2 … the thirty-year revolution in accuracies has more cumulative impact than the initial leap from conventional explosives to the A-bomb.The new weapons have revived the ludicrous idea that it is possible to fight a limited nuclear war in Europe; naturally, where else? The idea is still being pursued at the highest level in the United States. Before Conservative Members protest that that is all right because we will act in this insane way only when the Soviets have already gone mad and attacked us, they should ponder the problem of war by accident escalating from a regional crisis or from technical and human error: from cock-up rather than from a conspiracy.
The Royal Air Force is already part of the nonsense of flexible response, which could only promise to add a nuclear defeat to a conventional one. These new weapons will reinforce those obsolete ideas. According to the NATO allied tactical paper 33A, dealing with the deployment of nuclear weapons in tactical air operationsnuclear weapons must be used with discrimination and precision.The RAF is unfortunately still forced to train according to this nonsense. Ask the inhabitants of Nagasaki and 583 Hiroshima how much discrimination and precision they recall. Ask the people who were close to Chernobyl and the nuclear fallout how precise that was.
These ideas may constitute a dangerous political strategy of bluff, but they are not a military strategy, for to justify the term "strategy" a military plan must have at least some chance of securing victory, whereas these ideas owe more to the traditions of the charge of the Light Brigade and the mentality of The Sun than to the Battle of Britain.
What is worse about the Government's position is that they have not the remotest real interest in pursuing a policy of arms control and disarmament. The Prime Minister's scuttling style and bullying tactics since the INF deal are manifest testimony to that.
I could continue, as I have many more remarks to make, but I am conscious of the fact that two more hon. Members have been waiting to catch your eye all evening, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wish to give them the opportunity to speak in the debate.
I plead with the Minister to answer the questions that I have asked tonight. Those that he cannot answer tonight will he answer later in some form of letter to me?
§ Mr. Michael Jack (Flyde)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) for curtailing his remarks so that I may speak in the debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) and for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker). They laid the ground very well for this most important debate.
My own interest is in future RAF procurement needs. The reason for that is simple. In the middle of my constituency of Fylde is the British Aerospace military aircraft division at Warton. Along with other military aircraft establishments in Lancashire, and the Preston area, Warton accounts for about 16,500 jobs. In addition, we must take into account the contribution by companies such as Lucas Industries at Burnley and Rolls-Royce in Barnoldswick.
I pay tribute to the work force in the aerospace industry, both management and trades unions. Their contribution is noted and it does much for the quality of the aerospace industry.
I hope that I can follow in the footsteps of my good friend the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins). He has made many pertinent interventions in debates on aerospace. In last year's debate on this subject he raised 25 per cent. of the questions on the RAF. For his trouble, he is now the Minister with responsibility for aerospace, so I suppose that that says something about parliamentary promotion.
The background to the debate was laid by other hon. Members, but there are three key points underlining the role of the RAF and therefore its future procurement needs.
First, the enhanced role of conventional aircraft has been brought into sharp focus by the INF treaty. Secondly, there is the still real threat of the conventional bomber and, thirdly, the improvement—this is a most important point—in Soviet fighter cover. Today, Soviet fighter cover, such as that accompanying a bomber force, 584 can reach the west coast of the kingdom for the first time. That raises important questions about future procurement to counter that new threat.
For me, there are three key issues — first, the Tornado mid-life update; secondly, the development of the small, agile, mobile battlefield aircraft, known as SAMBA; and, thirdly, the European fighter aircraft. I should like to add my thanks to Ministers for their efforts in their dealings with the other three partner countries in this project. There may be problems, but it is not for the want of trying that we are now teetering on the brink of getting the project under way.
I should like to ask the Minister when we can expect to see the placing of contracts in respect of the Tornado mid-life update. That is vital to British Aerospace in maintaining continuity of employment in my constituency and my constituents would greatly appreciate some more positive news. SAMBA is a private venture concept which British Aerospace is currently evaluating. Its principal role is the destruction of helicopters, for example, heavily armed helicopters in a German battle situation. It could also be adapted to take on tank formations. That is an interesting concept. It poses some powerful questions about the future role of the helicopter on the battlefield. I should be grateful if the Minister would comment on that.
On the European fighter aircraft, we are so near and yet so far. I raise this point, not by way of criticism, but to try to stem the uncertainty which has been circulating in Lancashire, particularly in the local newspapers. Many of the workers are influenced by rumour and I hope that this evening we can quell some of those rumours about the future of the project. I was reminded of the EFA in church on Sunday because, when the vicar was reading the marriage banns, he paid attention to the number of partners he wanted to join together. In the case of the European fighter aircraft, we want to join together four partners. If anybody in the Chamber knows of any good reason why those four partners should not be finally joined together, I challenge him to declare it now. We want to see the marriage fully consummated by the final signing of the full development project.
It is important to restate the operational requirements that the European fighter aircraft will fulfil. We must review the alternatives if something went wrong. We should also consider the implications if the project was stopped. Many people would lose their jobs. We should also consider the role of and justification for the EFA. This can be summed up in a quotation from the November 1987 edition of a magazine called "NATO's Sixteen Nations", which states:In its current postulated form, EFA should be one of the most effective European combat aircraft ever introduced into service.There can be no finer plaudit for that project than that simple assessment. The project incorporates new technology in materials, radar and avionics. Its principal role will be to back up the Tornado F3. It will also be able to take on potential enemy bomber forces. It would help to replace the Phantom aircraft in West Germany and to cope with the need for an agile dog fighter. It also has the capability of a ground attack role. That would be of particular value to NATO, particularly in respect of the northern Norway commitment.
The European fighter aircraft project is a great ambassador for the British and European aerospace 585 industries. Its principal role is to counter the growing threat from the MiG29 — known by its NATO nomenclature of Fulcrum, a fighter not dissimilar to the F18 and the Sukou Flanker, the bomber escort. It can help to counter the renewed threat from the bomber in close-in fighting only by using its agility, speed, weapons system and radar. The EFA is a unique solution to this air defence problem.
It also has a tremendous export potential. I ask one question of Opposition Members: has the Labour party altered the policy published in 1986 dismantling the export machinery for selling British armaments abroad? If that is still its policy—I have not seen anything to counter it—it would be profoundly worrying to aerospace workers, particularly in my constituency, who look to Saudi Arabia, for example, to update its air force by the purchase of the European fighter aircraft.
Without doubt the EFA can meet the challenges of the RAF's specification — agility, a single-seat fighter cheaper than the Tornado which uses state of the art avionics. It has a stealth capability, but it is not so stealthy as to sacrifice performance as a fighter aircraft. Most important, it has the ability for STOL—short take off and landing. In other words, it will not be restricted if runways are damaged. It has the technical capability to do the job.
I should like a clear statement from the Government Front Bench tonight that the F18 fighter is not a realistic alternative for the Germans or for the United Kingdom to consider. The Ministry's own assessment of the capability of the EFA and the F18 show that, while the EFA has an 80 per cent. chance of survival in a dog fight, the F18 or the F18 Hornet 2000—an idea existing only on paper—would stand only a 20 per cent. chance of survival. If that is not a clear reason why all the European partners should proceed at all speed to have the European fighter aircraft, I cannot find another argument. The advanced tactical fighter, a large aeroplane, is not an option for us to consider.
We should ask the Secretary of State for Defence to do all he can in conversation with his West German counterpart to influence the Germans strongly to make an early decision on the project and to make certain that the European fighter aircraft enters service at the earliest opportunity.
§ 9.7 pm
§ Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me at this stage. I shall try to curtail my remarks.
It is a shame that I have so little time because I would have liked to say a lot about the waste of money, particularly in relation to RAF procurement, but many of my hon. Friends have already spoken on that. I shall refer simply to the Foxhunter radar system which is to operate in the Tornado aircraft, which is vital to the Government's military strategy. That aircraft is now known as the Blue Circle jet because it flies not with a Foxhunter radar but with slabs of concrete where the radar should be. That project must be approaching the £1 billion mark; it is almost 100 per cent. over budget. Many of my hon. Friends have already referred to that and to other examples of waste.
I want to concentrate on modernisation, the public relations term used by the Government which the press dutifully repeats. Initially the Secretary of State talked 586 about compensatory measures in the wake of INF. It might be more appropriate to call it circumvention or, if we wanted to be nasty, even cheating on INF. The Russians call it rearmament. "The Soviet News" of 27 January had the headline, "NATO plans of rearmament". The description by the CND was probably the most appropriate. It referred to renuclearisation — a difficult word to pronounce but a much more valid description than "modernisation".
What is this all about? It is a new technology covering the speed and accuracy of nuclear weapons. The Pentagon's discriminate deterrence report referred to the possibility of a surgical nuclear strike and making the weapons politically usable. In those circumstances, the target would be not only the Soviet Union, although it is the main one, but the Third world. That is a dangerous development and it will make the world a much more dangerous place.
After the INF agreement the Prime Minister said that, in her view, arms control had gone far enough. She wants the opposite of arms control: a new arms build up, potentially leading to a new arms race. We have clearly seen that in the form of the short-range and battlefield nuclear missiles. The Prime Minister sets her face against the third zero in the triple zero option to such an extent that even the West German authorities are now strongly in dispute with her. They do not want such weapons because they know that they will fall on their territory if they are ever used. That is why the Government put great emphasis on the Tornado with new nuclear bombs and missiles, so that it can replace the WE177 free-fall thermonuclear bombs.
There was a possibility of a deal with the French on the ASMP. One could call that, in the words of the light hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), the Euro bomb. The Government rubbished it before the election, but are now considering it. One can spot the Tory in the case of the hon. Member for Devonport, or the Owenites in the Tory party — or a bit of both. However, the Government are unlikely to do that deal with the French. They prefer being in bed with the United States, to which they are almost completely subservient in these matters. Also, they want a longer range than the French ASMP has, as a compensatory measure for the scrapping of missiles in the INF agreement.
How much will the replacement of the WE177 cost? The Guardian of 9 February quotes a figure of £2.3 billion. Is that true? If that is included in the Defence Estimates, what will have to go from the Defence Estimates to pay For it? What jobs will have to go? Is this sort of expenditure the real reason why the Government will not — properly—invest a similar amount in the National Health Service, as the Opposition have been demanding for months on end that they should? That article in The Guardian also says that the Government have been working on a replacement for the WE177 at Aldermaston. I have been asking questions about that and receiving evasive answers. Has this work on a new nuclear weapon been going on without parliamentary approval? When did the Government authorise it? We deserve an answer to that.
Then there is the matter of the 1,300 air-launched cruise missiles that, it has been suggested, are likely to arrive by the 1990s. They represent a massive increase in NATO's ability to hit the USSR and the Third world. They would be capable of hitting the same range of targets as their ground-launched counterparts, which went out under the 587 INF—but with a shorter flight time. Politically, they would be highly provocative, and they come on top of all the other non-RAF nuclear weapons such as Trident, the enhanced radiation neutron bomb, and the MLRS nuclear-capable systems.
It has been suggested that more nuclear bombers will be based in Britain, perhaps at Lakenheath and Upper Heyford. Has the Secretary of State offered RAF Greenham Common and RAF Alconbury as bases for the F111 or its replacement, the F15E Strike Eagle? We are to have all those and the Tornados at RAF Waddington and RAF Marham all over the place, too. Britain will become, and is increasingly becoming, a nuclear battle station. That can only be described as renuclearisation. It is certainly a replacement of those that were scrapped under the INF treaty.
I come back to the points made by Soviet youths because they pose the choice between arms control and arms build up. It is said:They want to act contrary to the wise English saying that one cannot 'have one's cake and eat it'. The replacement of the systems of nuclear armaments with other ones, more numerous and no less dangerous, is not disarmament. It is a mockery of nuclear arms reduction.Unless NATO nuclear arming in answer to the elimination of intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles is prevented, this can lead to a new spiral in the arms race, and undermine the nascent positive process in Soviet-American relations.I think that that is the case and certainly this new arms build up was never put before the electorate at the last election. The points about politically usable weapons were never put to the British public before the last election and the British people do not want them. If the British people perceived the truth of the matter in this respect, they would see the Prime Minister and the Government for what they really are—nuclear maniacs.
§ Mr. Rogers
When the Minister was winding-up the defence debate in October he threw across the Table at me one of my election leaflets, on which was written, "This is the only election address Conservative Central Office could find." It was one of the election addresses that I put out dealing with social services. The Minister challenged me—and, of course, it is on record—saying that I had not said anything about defence during my election campaign. I said then, and I reassert now, that I did, particularly in my main election address. Anyway, I thought that I would bring a souvenir for the Minister tonight—the declaration of the result in the Rhondda constituency, which is in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest majority in this Parliament. I think that will demonstrate to him that, defence or no defence, the people of the Rhondda know how to vote.
Each year the debate seems to follow a pattern dictated, it would seem, by the Ministry of Defence's word processor. We have a tour of the world, some fine words about morale, some blood-curdling rhetoric about the Soviet threat and some inaccurate information about equipment—a part of the speech that gets thinner and thinner every year, particularly as Trident takes an ever-increasing share of a decreasing budget. Because of this, of course, we are unable to perform our vital NATO role.
588 The Opposition contend — as I think we have demonstrated in the debate—that it is not just Trident that is distorting our defence problems, but general mismanagement by the Government.
One of the issues that has not come out in this debate, but to which the Minister could perhaps address himself in his winding-up speech, is the change in Government policy of not publishing project unit costs. I put down a written question to the Minister asking when it became his practice not to publish project unit costs, and the answer that I had from him was that it could be inimical to the commercial interests of manufacturers.
Why is that? The price of a Tornado has no commercial secrecy value. The aircraft is made up of many individually priced parts and there is no commercial value in simply knowing the price of the whole.
Is it true that the policy is brought about by the Government's increasing embarrassment in their procurement role—that it is not secrecy to cover security that we are seeing, but secrecy to hide incompetence? It is not secrecy in the interests of the nation; it is secrecy in the self-interest of the Government and the Tory party.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) brought up the acute problem of low flying. He demonstrated to the House the enormous physical impact that a low-flying aircraft has on anyone who happens to be under the flight path. It is an extreme and shattering experience. Although the Minister has addressed himself to this problem on many occasions and answered us with the greatest of courtesy, I hope that he will continue to consider it.
I accept the strictures about the need for training. I have an Army — I had a humble role—rather than an Air Force background, but I cannot accept that there is any skill acquisition from flying at 500 miles an hour at 100 ft. All that happens are knee-jerk reactions. As I have said before, one cannot improve one's reflexes simply by practising in that way. There are other ways to test and improve such reflexes. To repeat what I have said before —indeed, it illustrates the point well—one does not get better at Russian roulette by practising.
§ Mr. Bill Walker
Pilots do not fly low and fast simply for fun, nor do they do it, the older they get, simply to get a kick. They do it because it is the only way that they will survive in a battlefield environment, and, sadly, there is no substitute for it.
§ Mr. Rogers
The sad truth of the matter is that many pilots do not even survive peace-time practice and the accident rate is now reaching alarming proportions. I still contend — I will leave it at this— that there is no real skill acquisition in flying at a height of 100 ft at 500 miles an hour. All one can do is practise knee-jerk reactions.
§ Mr. Rogers
No. The hon. Gentleman has just entered the Chamber. We are tight on time and I gave way a considerable number of times during my opening speech.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) mentioned many interesting matters in his speech. He talked about his relief that the search and rescue service had been redeemed. However, both my hon. Friend and I are still disturbed about the "get out" clause that was included in the Minister's statement. I hope that 589 that matter will be clarified when the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State replies to the debate. My hon. Friend is also concerned about the present problems with the Tornado and IUKADGE. There are grave difficulties with our Air Force defence and I hope that the Minister will address himself to them in the relatively short time that he has.
The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) mentioned his visit to Greenham Common and informed us of his discussions with the United States commander. Apart from giving us a nice dissertation about boots, he did say that the commander had said that the base would be used as an aerodrome. Perhaps the Minister could tell us— —
§ Mr. Rogers
I am sorry. However, my question is still pertinent: whose air force and for what purpose?
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) made an extremely good contribution to the debate. In common with me, my hon. Friend gets extremely offended at the gratuitous insults that are sometimes thrown from the Conservative Benches.
§ Mr. Rogers
From one or two Conservative Members. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that the pattern appears to be that Conservative Members believe that they are the sole custodians of the defence of this country. I have addressed this problem before and would simply ask them to consider the problem themselves. They should remember the record of some members of their party during the 1930s.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North made some extremely pertinent points about nuclear deterrence and strategy. I hope that he will not consider me in any way condescending if I say that he has acquired a formidable reputation on nuclear matters, both civil and military, and that his remarks are heeded.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) referred to a surgical nuclear strike and demonstrated the absurdity of some of the contemporary discussion of political and military strategy.
The hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) made an extremely critical and balanced speech. He addressed the problems as they should be addressed in a debate such as this. He referred to one concern of Opposition Members —the identification of friend and foe system and the incompatibility that is developing within the NATO forces. He also referred to an issue that I mentioned in my opening remarks — the problem of pilot retention, or perhaps I should say pilot loss. He told the Minister that drastic action was needed. The hon. Gentleman preferred to refer to privatisation as contracting out, but properly pointed out the dangers that can arise when there are more civilians than service men in a military unit. The service men then cannot carry out their operating role because they are administering the civilian sector.
The hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) was concerned about the future of the European fighter aircraft, in which he has a large constituency interest. I am glad that he is joining us in putting pressure on the Government. We are not being negative. We are saying deliberately and clearly that it will not be possible for the Government to fulfil 590 their nuclear role with Trident and their conventional role within NATO. We may find a severe defence gap developing in the 1990s because of that. Will the Minister tell us whether the EFA is to maintain its dual role as an air interceptor and ground attack plane, or whether the Department has given in to the Treasury and downgraded the specification for the EFA to make it a single role interceptor?
It is well over a year since the Government decided to purchase AWACS, and the matter has been raised yet again today. What is to happen to the Nimrod airframes, of which there are 11? Are they still rotting away at Waddington and Abingdon? Will they be sold or converted to perform a maritime reconnaissance role? Surely the 11 airframes will not be needed for that. Their maintenance is an enormous drain on our defence budget, and, furthermore, they have the capacity to be sold off. The Government are keen on selling off surplus assets in health and so on. How about selling off some surplus assets in the RAF, which could probably realise about £100 million to contribute to the ever-decreasing budget available for defence?
This is my second bite of the cherry this evening. The Minister has been posed an awful lot of questions and I should like to leave him as long as possible to answer the genuine questions and grievances that we have put to him. Opposition Members say that the Government are in severe difficulties and that they will experience even greater difficulties in safeguarding the defence of this country as we move into the 1990s. As Sir Frank Cooper — a former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence—has said, the main issues have not been and are not being addressed by the Government. He also mentioned Britain's national role and the problem of an over-full defence programme. Until the Government address those issues they will not fulfil their obligations to this country.
We are anxious to co-operate to obtain maximum security for Britain. We want to safeguard our freedoms and traditions as much as anyone else. I hope that the Minister and other Conservative Members will accept that our commitment to the defence of Britain is at least as strong, if not stronger, than theirs.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Roger Freeman)
I thank the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) for giving me a copy of his parliamentary election return, which I read with great interest. I congratulate him on the size of his majority, and I draw attention to the fact that, judging by the return at the bottom, he holds the record in this country for those voting for more than one candidate in a constituency.
§ Mr. Rogers
People in the Rhondda are extremely generous. Having given me 35,000 votes, they had to give some to the Communists, the SDP, the Tories and Plaid Cymru.
§ Mr. Freeman
The debate has been good natured, interesting and informative. Many questions have been asked — I counted over 100 — so I am sure that hon. Members will forgive me if I do not answer them all in the time available. I give an undertaking, as I did last year, 591 that I or one of my colleagues in the Department will write to hon. Members who have raised points that I cannot answer tonight.
We take these single-service debates very seriously, as do the services. The thin attendance for the debate would give a misleading impression to those who look only at the numbers who attend. It is an important debate, many important issues have been raised and the Ministry of Defence very much welcomes it.
I offer the House, through you, Mr. Speaker, the apologies of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who is hosting an official dinner for a German defence delegation, for not being present.
According to today's Daily Telegraph, Lloyd George told the young Harold Macmillan:You've no idea how to make a speech. Twenty points make a good speech to which nobody listens … As a junior Minister, you can allow yourself two.I am afraid that I am about to cover 15 or 20 points, which raises the question, if our proceedings are to be televised, of how television will cover the winding-up speeches.
The hon. Member for Rhondda and my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) mentioned exit rates of pilots, particularly fast-jet pilots. There are three categories of pilot exits. The first category is premature voluntary retirement. I hope that the hon. Member for Rhondda understands that the application rates from all pilots — fast-jet pilots, and younger fast-jet pilots specifically — for premature voluntary retirement is down, which is good news. The second category of exit is those who leave at the end of their career. We cannot be blamed for that. The third category is those who reach recognised option points during their career. The hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to the fact that those who signed on for a 12-year commission in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but who had an option to leave after eight years, are now leaving in slightly higher numbers. We regret that, but it is not terribly surprising, because there are great attractions in the civil airlines. However, I advise my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Rhondda that the total exit rate for PVR — those who are leaving either at the end or during their engagements—is not excessive. There is no shortage of fast-jet pilots now, nor is one foreseen in the Royal Air Force.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) raised the question of gratuities—I apologise to him for not being in the Chamber when he spoke—as did my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre. In the light of recent social security legislation, which requires occupational pension schemes to preserve benefits after two years' service, we are considering whether gratuity earning engagements should continue to be offered in the future, or whether to allow short-service officers and airmen to become members of the armed forces pension scheme from the outset. My hon. Friends will appreciate the significance of that. If those service men become members at the outset, there is no question of paying a cash gratuity at the eight-year point. If they leave at that stage they will have a preserved pension right, but there will not be a cash incentive for pilots to leave. I take that point seriously.
§ Mr. Bill Walker
I believe that we should consider a positive approach to this problem and pay those officers to stay in the Royal Air Force. It would save the Air Force millions of pounds in training costs if we gave service men 592 a handsome gratuity to stay in with which they could then buy the houses and all the other things for which they are now using their terminal gratuities.
§ Mr. Freeman
I appreciate my hon. Friend's point. However, the right way to proceed would be to make sure that the pay and allowances for those who continue to serve are continuously looked at and improved where possible. I do not think that a cash gratuity to those who stay in and are retained would be the right way to proceed. However, I take my hon. Friend's point.
§ Mr. Frank Cook
Will the Minister consider establishing some form of transfer fee? If the pilot or flying technician — call him or her what one will — took up another flying post on leaving the RAF, with another military air force or civil airline, could we not charge something for the training that that pilot had received?
§ Mr. Freeman
That is an interesting idea, but I do not hold out much hope of making it effective. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have a minimum return of service for pilots and, indeed, a quota system for those who, sadly, decide to apply for PVR. We seek to amortise the expensive cost of training pilots. It costs £3 million to train a pilot, and £1 million to train a navigator.
The hon. Member for Rhondda raised the question of Foxhunter, the radar for Tornado. Even in its present form this radar is performing much better than on its first introduction to service. We are confident that its capability will continue to improve as the development progresses. It does not yet meet in full the requirements of the RAF, but radars to an agreed interim standard are now in service and the system is already providing an operational capability that is superior to that of the aircraft that it is replacing. Already two units of Tornado F3, one squadron and the operational conversion unit, have been declared to NATO and a third will be declared shortly.
The hon. Member for Rhondda and my hon. Friends the Members for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson), and for Fylde (Mr. Jack) mentioned EFA and EFA radar. I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde to these debates. I feel sure that he will be a great successor, not only to the previous hon. Member for that constituency, but to my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins), who used to carry the flag for EFA and the aerospace industry. We look forward to his contributions in these debates. My hon. Friends asked about the decision on the radar for the European fighter aircraft. Bids for the radar were received last week and are being assessed, but no decision on the radar will be taken before Easter.
The hon. Member for Rhondda also raised the question of the Tucano programme. The first two production Tucano aircraft are currently undergoing flight clearance trials at Boscombe Down. Once those trials have progressed far enough, deliveries to the Royal Air Force will start, although it will be later than was originally planned. Shorts expects to recover any delays later in the delivery programme.
§ Mr. Rogers
Are the Minister and his Department absolutely satisfied now that the technical problems of shoehorning the engine into the Tucano airframe have been overcome?
§ Mr. Freeman
With any complicated aircraft — the Tucano is less complicated than the Tornado and the 593 European fighter aircraft—one can never be 100 per cent. sure. I have made a statement which I believe to be clear and comprehensive, and I am sure that we shall return to the subject at a later date.
The hon. Gentleman asked me whether any decision had been made on the future of the 11 airframes. We have recently decided that three of the Nimrod airborne early-warning airframes should be utilised to provide spares for Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft. The future of the remaining eight airframes is still under active review.
The hon. Member for Rhondda and the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) asked some important questions about search and rescue. I am happy briefly to expand on what my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces said earlier. He explained that where there is a military requirement for search and rescue the service will continue to be provided by the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, whose services will, of course, continue to be made available to the wider civilian community.
Several hon. Members asked me to explain what is meant by a military requirement. I should explain that military search and rescue are the responsibility of Defence Ministers, while my right hon. Friend the Secretay of State for Transport is responsible for civil, marine and aviation search and rescue policy. The military requirement is to rescue military personnel of all three services, in peacetime, transition to war and war itself, on land or sea. To meet that requirement, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force helicopters cover most of the United Kingdom coastline and inland mountainous areas, providing a search and rescue service in all those areas where military personnel are likely to be in difficulties throughout the year.
That does not apply in the north of Scotland, where Bristow provides a service at Sumburgh and Stornoway. Military personnel benefit greatly from the dedicated and courageous services of other organisations, such as HM Coastguard, the RNLI, the civil police and civilian mountain rescue organisations.
At the same time, the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force search and rescue helicopter squadrons gladly make their services available to civilians in trouble. More than 90 per cent. of their call outs are to help civilians. That will continue.
Civilian search and rescue requirements are defined by the helicopter coverage group reporting to the Department of Transport. In some areas the helicopter coverage group would wish to see some improvements. As a result of the deployment studies which were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, and which are continuing, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force helicopters, together with civilian helicopters established in the Shetlands and Hebrides, will provide coverage in future, meeting virtually all the requirements of the helicopter coverage group. I can assure the House that overall coverage will not be diminished. On the contrary it will be enhanced considerably by the military search and rescue helicopters.
§ Mr. Freeman
I shall finish my point. These helicopters are subject to study for redeployment and we expect to make an announcement shortly. Coverage is also provided by civilian helicopters, of which there is only Bristow in the north of Scotland.
594 I recognise that hon. Members would like details of our deployment plans, but I cannot provide those today because our studies are not yet complete. However, we thought it right to put an end to uncertainty and speculation about contractorisation and to set at rest some fears that are understandable but groundless. Where we do not find it necessary to provide military helicopters to meet military search and rescue requirements, but where my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport judges that civilian activities require unusually high search and rescue needs, my right hon. Friend may decide to supplement the military service by letting civilian contracts. I must ask the House to accept that that will be so.
§ Mr. Freeman
In a moment. The vast bulk of the search and rescue helicopter service will continue to be provided by the much-admired yellow and dark blue helicopters and by their dedicated and courageous crews.
§ Mr. Wilson
The more the Minister speaks, the more he reintroduces doubts that we thought had been erased. It might be purely a semantic confusion between the military service and the service provided by the military mainly for civilian use. Will the hon. Gentleman assure us that no base from which the Ministry of Defence provides a search and rescue service will be privatised? Will he also assure us that there is no area covered by the military service, beyond the areas covered by the two bases which already exist, where the privatised area will encroach, either from those bases, or from other bases which are to be established? In other words, although the principle of privatising the whole service has been rejected—we are pleased about that—we do not want to see a gradual erosion of the Ministry of Defence service, with Bristow's finger going a little deeper into the pie every time it obtains another base, as it has in Stornoway and Shetland.
§ Mr. Denzil Davies
The Minister mentioned military redeployment and said that he may be able to tell us something in the future. Is he in a difficulty because that redeployment might mean a reduction in military needs and demands and he is hoping that that reduction can be made up by civilian operations conducted through the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry?
§ Mr. Freeman
The answer is no. The studies are taking some time. We hope to announce the result shortly, because they involve consultation with different Government Departments. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that there is no intention to diminish or contract the military cover that is provided. As he knows, some 90 per cent. of those rescued by military helicopters are civilians.
The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) and the hon. Members for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy and for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) asked about low flying. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East talked about radar. He was referring to Skyguard. That is a fire control radar system, normally used in association with Oerlikon guns. The possibility of using a Skyguard system to monitor the heights of low-flying aircraft was the subject of a recent trial. The equipment's potential in that role will not be clear until the 595 results of the trial have been fully assessed. However, I can assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that I and the Ministry of Defence take seriously the evaluation of the trial. If the trial proves that the equipment can be used to monitor the height of low-flying aircraft, it will be so used.
The hon. and learned Gentleman also asked about the extent to which we can transfer. He mentioned low-flying training in the Falklands and Canada. Yes, we would like to transfer to many different countries, but it is costly to transport the aircraft and crew, and it clearly reduces our defence capability while the aircraft are away. One must also bear in mind that those countries might also have views on the number of aircraft that they are prepared to take. The answer to the hon. and learned Gentleman's question is yes. Where possible, we are seeking to increase the amount of low flying done abroad.
The hon. and learned Gentleman also asked about the noise compensation scheme at Leuchars. I worked closely with his predecessor and I pay tribute to him for his defence of his constituents' interests. I understood that the noise insulation grant scheme was welcome. If there are problems and the hon. and learned Gentleman cares to write to me, I shall be pleased to pursue them. I believe that the grant rate scheme per house is adequate and that it is a widely popular scheme.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen made a thoughtful speech and raised five points. First, he mentioned children being terrified. I take his point, and I give him an undertaking that I shall reflect further on how we can alert and inform children, either through school or through parents, about the effect of low-flying aircraft and the suddenness of the sound. While I regret to say that low-flying training must continue—and the Tornado and the F111 are noisy aircraft—the hon. Gentleman has made a valid point.
The hon. Gentleman was probably mistaken in believing that the problem is not only becoming worse, but will continue to get worse. He was right, however, to draw attention to the fact that, over the past five or 10 years, the number of missions flown at low level has increased. That is historically true. The reasons are simply that our pilots must perfect the technique of flying low. That is a relatively new development, because the introduction of the Soviet radar system is itself relatively new, and that is the reason for pilots having to practise low flying. The Tornado aircraft is now fully in service, and, with the introduction of a new aircraft, such techniques must be practised.
Where the hon. Gentleman is wrong, and where I hope I can help him, is in his view that a plateau has been reached in the number of missions flown. I believe that the hon. Member for Rhondda said that 1987 had seen a small diminution, and the situation will not get worse.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the proportion of flights undertaken at ultra-low level. I cannot give him an assurance that we will stick to the percentage of 0.5 per cent. However, I can say that flights in the centre of Wales, the borders and the north of Scotland are necessary and will always remain a very low proportion of total missions flown. It involves great skill to fly down to 100 ft., and it is done in preparation for training abroad.
The hon. Gentleman asked about a ban on night flying. Night flying forms a very small proportion of the total. Although I cannot offer the hon. Gentleman a ban, I can 596 say that, where possible, crews cease flying at 7 pm. Night flying has to be practised in the summer months, because many missions flown in war would be in the middle of the night, but they try to keep the disturbance to a minimum.
The hon. Gentleman raised an interesting point about notification of low-flying exercises, and whether we could do more about notifying the local media. I try to write to hon. Members notifying them not only of general exercises, but specifically when there is going to be activity in ultra-low-flying areas. However, I shall see what else we can do.
The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy raised a number of points. Let me comment on three or four of them. He talked about our policy on avoidance areas. Since 1979, when the Labour Government changed the low-flying system into one unlike the German system, in which pilots could fly anywhere in Great Britain, apart from the great conurbations and airfields, our policy has been constantly to try to reduce the number of avoidance areas. Sometimes we introduce new avoidance areas—I announced one recently at Quedgeley, a suburb of Gloucester—but our general approach is to reduce the number of such areas. This, I believe, is consistent with the comments by the RAF officer. Our purpose is constantly to spread the burden as widely as possible. I accept that it is an interference.
The hon. Gentleman asked about low flying being exported from Germany back to this country. I am not sure which aircraft he is thinking of. Our own aircraft, belonging to RAF Germany, are part of the Royal Air Force. Sometimes they train in Germany, but they also return to this country: that is legitimate. Only 1 per cent. of all missions are flown by non-RAF and non-United States air force jets, and they are mainly from the European NATO air forces. I consider that a modest proportion, and I do not accept the implication that other European nations are sending all their fast jets here and over-burdening us.
The hon. Gentleman's most important point was about the safety rate. There is no time to go into the subject in depth, but I will say that we take it extremely seriously. The accident rate in 1987 was the lowest for the last decade. Accident rates are expressed in terms of accidents per 10,000 hours of flying. The rate in 1987 was one accident per 30,000 hours flown in military jets. Each mission flown normally lasts for between an hour and an hour and a half. That was a good safety record, despite the sad bunching of accidents in the middle of the year, and the inevitable media interest that has followed.
The hon. Gentleman drew to the attention of the House the fact that only one third of low-flying accidents —sadly, there were 14 or 15 accidents last year—can be attributed to low flying, when technical malfunction or pilot error resulted in a crash. Two thirds of such accidents occur at high level and may involve technical malfunction or other reasons. I am proud of our safety record and hope that it will be maintained.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the civilian pilot who was lost in 1984. I am sorry if I misled him in any way. The statistics prepared are for civilian casualties on the ground, not in the air. There was no intention to mislead him.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside referred to the RTM322 engine, the Rolls-Royce turbo mecca engine. We have decided that a competition will be held for the supply of production engines for the Anglo-Italian EH101 helicopter. A 597 specification is being prepared and we aim to issue tenders and complete the competition as soon as possible. We expect the RTM322 to be a strong contender and we are looking forward to receiving a keenly competitive bid.
My hon. Friend referred to the Farnborough air show and asked whether something could be done about the charges. I should like to think about that and write to him. We would like to be helpful, but we are restrained by Treasury requirements and good housekeeping to ensure that we recover our costs.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury referred to Greenham Common. Under the terms of the INF agreement Soviet inspection teams will be entitled to visit Greenham Common on a limited number of occasions over 13 years after the entry into force of the treaty, which will be shortly after ratification by the two countries. All treaty-related items will have been removed from the base during the three-year draw-down period.
As for the United Kingdom being a base country, the treaty applies only to cruise missiles and their support facilities at RAF Greenham Common and RAF Molesworth, so it places no formal limitations on other forms of activity or use of the base. However, in practice we would have to take into account in our forward planning the fact that for the foreseeable future Soviet inspection teams will be arriving to make inspections at very short notice. I do not expect that a decision on the future use of RAF Greenham Common will be made for some time, but I notice my hon. Friend's comment about the sensitive question of future use, and about aircraft being based at Greenham Common.
My hon. Friend also referred to the boot. Being an Army boot, I am afraid I am unsighted on that and I shall have to write to him. I appreciate the problems. I am afraid that we will never satisfly the Army or the RAF on a new boot, but we will try.
598 My hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North referred to dog training. This review is the eleventh in the Ministry of Defence under various Governments, as far as I can gather. A decision is expected once our consultants have reported.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre referred to the Boeing offset agreement. We are currently evaluating Boeing's first six-monthly report detailing contracts for which it wishes to claim offset credit. There is no reason to believe that Boeing will not meet its obligations under the AWACS offset programme, which will also cover the seventh aircraft. Its only other offset commitment in the United Kingdom, against the purchase of Chinook helicopters, has recently been fulfilled.
The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) asked about air-launched cruise missiles. No decisions have been made on modernisation or changes to the United Kingdom's tactical nuclear capability. As my right hon. Friend has told the House, we are studying the possibilities, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that no decision has been taken.
My hon. Friend the Member for Fylde asked about Tornado mid-life updates. This is planned for the early 1990s.
Finally, the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) asked about several issues. I assure him, as I assure the hon. Member for Stockton, North on the free-fall bomb. This is the tactical nuclear weapon for the Royal Air Force. It is most important in bringing our systems up to date. No decisions have been made, but I can assure the House that the RAF will be given the capability to defend the country.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.