HC Deb 07 July 1992 vol 211 cc181-7 3.30 pm
Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East) (by private notice)

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the future of the European fighter aircraft in the light of his meeting on 6 July 1992 with the German Defence Minister.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

The German Defence Minister visited me in London yesterday. Along with a range of other current topics, we discussed extensively the European fighter aircraft. It was clear that both countries need a new fighter aircraft by around the year 2000, both are looking for something at lower cost than the earlier projection for EFA, and both would like wide European participation.

Herr Riihe said that Germany would not proceed to produce EFA and would like to develop a completely new aircraft. I indicated that, given the investment of some £5 billion by the partners in EFA already, we believed that the best route to a cheaper aircraft was to drive down the costs of the existing design, as otherwise the taxpayers of each country would lose any benefit from the substantial sums already invested. The next step is to consider with the other EFA partners and with industry how we can best take the project forward. We do not face decisions on the production phase until next year.

Mr. Campbell

The right hon. and learned Gentleman's assurance that it is still his view that the United Kingdom will require a new fighter aircraft by the end of the century will be warmly received in all parts of the House. Can he assure the House that the Government will explore every possibility, with or without partners, to see that the United Kingdom embarks upon the production phase of the European fighter aircraft? Will he further assure the House that, if any reduction in cost is to be obtained, it will not be achieved at the expense of the inherent capability of the aircraft?

Mr. Rifkind

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his words of support for the Government's efforts. It is of course our desire that we should continue as part of an effective partnership towards the production phase of this project. In trying to identify ways in which the cost can be reduced, already substantial cost savings have been identified. In addition, it is possible to develop EFA on the basis that each participating country could identify which particular components met its own military requirements. That would mean that significant savings would be available for the country in question.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that he has widespread support on both sides of the House for the way in which he has approached this unfortunate affair? Is it not a fact, following his conversations yesterday with the German Defence Minister, that the attitude of Germany is very much conditioned by constitutional restraint and internal political pressure, and that there is an unwillingness to recognise that, since the defence of western Europe relies upon the strength of the NATO alliance, if future threats, which could emanate from outside the traditional areas, are to be met, Germany, along with the NATO alliance, must be faced with the prospect of developing equipment which can face up to those new responsibilities?

Mr. Rifkind

I agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, we recognise that Germany's decision must be based on its own assessment of its military requirements. However, we pay attention to the fact that Germany continues to state that it will need a new fighter aircraft by the turn of the century, and we cannot see how a new aircraft for which no preliminary work would be taken into account could be anything but vastly more expensive than would developing EFA to the production stage.

We also think it appropriate to take into account the fact that, while we share with the German Government a welcome for the enormous changes that have taken place in Europe, and while we recognise the completely different situation that we face with regard to Russia, a decision taken this year or next year with regard to a new fighter aircraft must take into account all the uncertainties that might develop in Europe and throughout the rest of the world over the next 20 to 30 years. That is the kind of time-frame for which the new fighter aircraft will be required, and it is quite clear that at a time when it is impossible to predict what will happen in Moscow next week it would be very unwise to make assumptions as to what might happen over the next 30 years.

Ms. Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South)

Has the Secretary of State had discussions with the President of the Board of Trade with regard to diversification plans for the employment of workers who will lose their jobs if the Government decide to pull out of the EFA project?

Mr. Rifkind

We have no plans to pull out of the EFA project, but the hon. Lady is right to make reference to the importance of the industrial implications of EFA. At the moment about 9,400 people are employed in work directly attributed to EFA, and at the peak of production the number will rise to about 27,000. I should emphasise that, so far as the Government are concerned, the primary consideration must be our defence requirements, and not the industrial implications, but obviously it is important that the House and the public should be aware of the industrial aspect as well.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I applaud my right hon. and learned Friend for the robust way in which he has endorsed the professional judgment not only of his own air staff but also of the air staffs of the partner nations, which only this spring declared that the European fighter aircraft was the aeroplane best suited to meeting the operational needs of their respective air forces way into the future.

I applaud my right hon. and learned Friend also for his clear view that this aeroplane represents the best investment for the United Kingdom's defence. Will he always see that that consideration is put first? There would be no point in buying any aeroplane that was inferior to those of potential adversaries. That would be the worst possible investment for the United Kingdom.

Mr. Rifkind

I thank my hon. Friend. In our assessment we have been fortified by the views of the Select Committee of the House, which looked into the whole question of whether there were any alternatives to EFA that would represent better value for money, given the very substantial costs involved. The Select Committee unanimously concluded that EFA continues to represent the best value for money and the best means of ensuring that the defence requirements of this country will be met for the next generation.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

Does the Secretary of State accept that all of us hope that RAF pilots will not see active service in the first half of the next century? However, the Government are responsible for ensuring that if those pilots should see active service it would be in planes giving them a much better than evens chance of survival. I put it to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that it was for that reason that the Luftwaffe supported EFA, and it is for that reason that the British Government must reject an inferior spatched-up European alternative.

Mr. Rifkind

It is certainly our view that the only alternative to EFA capable of meeting our defence requirements would be significantly more expensive. Alternative aircraft would be based on much more primitive technology, and could not begin to compete with the existing Russian aircraft, which are used not only by the Russian air force but also by those countries, such as Iraq and Iran, to which they have already been sold.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that EFA would be the best value for money for Britain, for Germany and for Europe? Does he also agree that, while it is desirable to have the Germans on board for the production of EFA, it would not be essential?

Mr. Rifkind

I thank my hon. Friend for the efforts that he has made, and his membership of the parliamentary delegation that visited Bonn. The Government's view is that the alternative approach recommended by Mr. Rae should not commend itself in this country, in Germany or elsewhere. The smaller version of EFA proposed by Mr. Rühe would involve redesign of the EFA airframe, engine and installed equipment. The work done so far would largely be wasted and the development programme would have to start again. This could delay entry of the aircraft into service by up to eight years. The operational performance of the aircraft would inevitably be substantially inferior to EFA and the cost of changing our minds halfway through the existing project would add at least 20 per cent. to the price that we would all have to pay for the aircraft.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Is it not seriously irresponsible of the Government, knowing the difficulties with the EFA and the likelihood that Germany would drop out, not to prepare plans for diversification from an aeroplane that we now cannot afford to an aeroplane that can be used in civilian service? Would it not be better to scrap the EFA scheme and concentrate on civilian airliners, for which there is a real need but in the production of which we have been left sadly behind? We are now completely dependent on American technology, mostly Boeing aircraft. Is not that unsatisfactory? We have the skill and the ability: should not we use them for peace rather than for this doubtful project?

Mr. Rifkind

The first sign of a possible German withdrawal came only two or three months ago. It is a fitting comment on his perception of these matters that the hon. Gentleman believes that the best way to deal with the challenge from hostile fighter aircraft that we might face over the next 30 years is by developing civil airliners.

Mr. David Sumberg (Bury, South)

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his robust stance on this matter, which has severe consequences for jobs not just in the north-west of England but throughout the country, and not just with British Aerospace but with hundreds of small firms. They wish him well and hope that he will achieve success.

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend is right to say that many thousands of people, not only in this country but in Germany, Spain and Italy, have an equally strong interest in the continuing project to which the House has given its support.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Is not a critical factor the financial and technical resources of Italy? Before the House comes to a judgment, could we have more information about the attitude of the Italian Government and the Italian Departments of State to this matter?

Mr. Rifkind

I expect to have a meeting with my Italian and Spanish colleagues soon. It is clear that the Italian Government would like to see the project continue. They share with us a desire to see costs significantly reduced, and we shall be working towards achieving that objective.

Mr. Harold Elletson (Blackpool, North)

Did my right hon. and learned Friend make it clear to the German Minister of Defence that Germany's decision to withdraw from this project seriously undermines Germany's credibility as a serious partner in pan-European collaborative projects of this kind?

Mr. Rifkind

While we do not dispute Germany's legal right to withdraw from involvement in the production phase, it is highly unfortunate and disturbing that, with a project that has been making good progress, that is on time and that is intended to produce an aircraft for which all the participating countries have a requirement, Germany should have decided to withdraw, especially when it is not clear to what alternative strategy it is committed.

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

Will the Secretary of State give us some more detail of what the German Minister of Defence said to him? I saw Volker Rae, whom I know to be a realistic man and the one most likely to be the next Chancellor of Germany, interviewed on British television last night. He was dismissive of the British view, saying that we had not caught up with the debate in Europe. He said that Germany had wanted the plane to fight the Russians, but it was not going to fight the Russians any more. He said that the Germans were putting money into East Germany and Russia and that the plane was intended to fight a very advanced MiG. Instead of putting money into a plane to fight the MiG, the MiG can be purchased at a knock-down, bargain price at the moment—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must ask a question.

Mr. Leighton

Why should the money be wasted and not devoted to defence diversification? The EFA will not fly.

Mr. Rifkind

The German position is not that they want to buy Russian MiGs. Instead, they want to begin to design and develop a completely new aircraft. The hon. Gentleman must reflect on the fact that it has taken seven years and £5 billion of expenditure to reach the present stage in respect of the development of EFA. It is simply not credible to believe that putting all that on one side and starting again would result in anything other than a massive increase in expenditure for the countries which might become involved.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the Government face very difficult decisions and that the way ahead is by no means clear? Does he accept that the decision must be based on the defence need, because defence is far too important to be a job creation scheme? Will he undertake that the decisions, when they are taken, will be defence-led and not industry or employment-led?

Mr. Rifkind

Yes, I can give that clear and unambiguous statement. While we are aware of the industrial implications, when one is dealing with a project which is enormously expensive and a significant burden on the taxpayer, it is crucial that we go forward with such a project only if, and for so long as, we are satisfied that it is necessary to ensure the defence needs of this country. It cannot possibly be justified that we should go forward purely for industrial reasons if the defence case was not and did not remain convincing.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

I share the Secretary of State's hope that EFA will be constructed, because of the jobs that arc affected in his constituency and in mine at GEC-Ferranti. As Volker Ruhe has said that the Luftwaffe will have to replace its aging Phantoms in the near future, does the Secretary of State believe that Germany is likely to end up buying EFA from Britain, Spain and Italy at a far higher price than it might have had to pay had it remained a participant in the project?

Mr. Rifkind

That is certainly a consequence that cannot be excluded. It was clear from my discussions with the German Minister that the Germans have at the moment no clear idea where they would acquire the aircraft they need. Therefore, if EFA continues without German participation, the Germans acknowledge that they will need a new fighter aircraft and EFA may well become the most attractive option for them. but a more expensive one than if they had not withdrawn from the project.

I must point out that Germany has made it clear that it will continue to pay any outstanding sums due with regard to its commitment to participate in the development project. That means that, even if Germany withdraws from involvement in production, there is a further £ 1 billion which Germany is committed to investing in the on-going development project for EFA. That is an additional reason why I hope that the German Government will give some further thought to whether it is in the interests of their taxpayers to withdraw from the project.

Mr. Winston Churchill (Davyhulme)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that his staunch championship of the European fighter aircraft will he warmly welcomed by the Royal Air Force, and particularly by the pilots who will be flying that equipment beyond the year 2000? Is it not clear that the House must never let down the very few who man our front-line defences by allowing them to enter future battles—should there be any—with second-rate equipment? Furthermore, Europe needs a military fighter aircraft programme. Buying off the shelf from the United States might be a solution in the short term, but in the longer term it would cost us very dear.

Mr. Rifkind

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. However, the evidence available at the moment suggests that, even in the short term, buying from the United States would be a more and not less expensive option. I agree with my hon. Friend that, if we expect our fighter pilots to be in combat against enemy aircraft. the least we can do to assist them is ensure that the aircraft in which they fly are at least as sophisticated as those of any enemy that they are likely to face.

Mr. Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh, Leith)

Is the Government's support for the European fighter aircraft dependent on the continued involvement of the Spanish and Italian Governments? If those Governments should withdraw their support, what would the Government's view then be? Does the Secretary of State agree that, in the longest recession for 60 years, it is unthinkable that 40,000 defence workers should be thrown on to the dole? Does he agree also that, in the long run, the Government must develop a defence diversification strategy?

Mr. Rifkind

I do not believe that it is the Government's responsibility to tell individual companies that they should diversify into other forms of activity. Many have done so or are doing so. Each company is in the best position to judge what is in its interests. However, I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important and desirable to seek a conclusion that enables those countries which are part of the EFA project to continue in the collaboration and thereby ensure that we have the fighter aircraft and maintain industrial capability.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that there have been too many instances in this nation's military history that have enabled us to judge the importance of air defence and to appreciate the need to have an aircraft of what I would describe as "top gun" capability? Will he confirm that EFA has such a capability? That means that it is able to take out any other aircraft pitted against it at present—perhaps not the F22 of the United States, but that aircraft is not yet flying. Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, in a quest for the cheaper version of EFA, that capability will not be sacrificed?

Mr. Rifkind

I can confirm what my hon. Friend asks. Perhaps the attitude of the House. unlike that of our German colleagues, is influenced by the fact that twice in the past 10 years the Royal Air Force has had to fly in combat and therefore has had to rely on the sophistication and quality of its aircraft in combat. That is a factor that none of us would wish to forget.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)

The whole House will agree that we do not want our pilots to go to war or into the air in anything but the most effective aircraft available to us, and at the moment EFA is that only option. Does the Secretary of State agree that the significance of EFA to our aerospace industries is greater than that of any of our partners? Does he accept that the narrowness of our industrial base is such that, unlike Germany, we cannot afford to lose the competitive technological edge which EFA represents?

Does the Secretary of State accept that the future of our aerospace industries depends to a large extent on revenue raised by the project and that the Government's refusal to fund diversification means that our aerospace industries would need EFA-generated profits to move into non-military civilian activity? Does the Secretary of State agree that the replacement of aging aircraft with anything but that cost-effective European collaborative project will leave us at the mercy of American suppliers?

Mr. Rifkind

The project certainly is of importance to the British aerospace industry, but it is quite clear from their public statements that German and Spanish industries—I have no doubt Italian industries also—attach equal importance to the continuation of the project. There is not a uniform view in Germany. A number of people and indeed the industry itself have made it quite clear that they believe that the current German proposal would be extremely damaging to their own industrial capacity. That is something which should be borne in mind.