HC Deb 27 October 1992 vol 212 cc847-9
1. Mr. Page

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what progress has been made over the evaluation of the European fighter aircraft.

14. Mr. Dykes

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on developments in the post-prototype additional studies for the revised EFA project.

15. Dr. Strang

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the European fighter aircraft project.

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

In August the four Governments concerned commissioned studies into ways of reducing the costs of the EFA programme; we also agreed to review the operational requirement in the light of recent changes in the international security situation. The first of these studies has now reported. I am pleased to say that it shows that the production costs can be reduced by up to 20 per cent. while still meeting the military requirement in full; that further savings, up to 30 per cent., shows also possible; and that the EFA offers better value for money than the seven alternative designs which were considered.

Mr. Page

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that encouraging reply. As important as the European fighter aircraft is, does he agree that it is even more important that the United Kingdom retains its design and build capacity for not only the EFA but EFAs of the future, unless this country wants to be reliant upon foreign supply—probably a monopoly—with all the price and cost implications that that would mean?

Mr. Rifkind

Yes, my hon. Friend is correct. If we were to purchase our fighter requirements from overseas rather than continue with the British design and British manufacture, that would make it difficult and complicate the possibility at any future date of fighter aircraft being designed and manufactured in this country.

Mr. Dykes

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer, which was extremely considered and careful. Will he confirm that what he said in his main and supplementary answers confirms conclusively that this vital and indispensable high-technology defence project must go ahead on the basis of the revised figures and that it will be possible to continue the project without our partners?

Mr. Rifkind

I very much hope that it will be possible to continue with all four countries participating in the programme. Both the Italian and Spanish Defence Ministers have indicated that they are impressed by the. savings that have been identified by the report. I recall that Mr. Volker Rũhe, the German Defence Minister, said on 21 September that the new fighter aircraft should cost not more than DM90 million. I hope that he will be encouraged to know that the work that has now been done identifies that that target can be achieved. I hope that, on that basis, Germany also should feel able to agree to continue with the project.

Dr. Strang

Does the Secretary of State accept that almost all the developing technologies that will feature in tomorrow's aerospace business, both military and civil, are part and parcel of the EFA development programme? Although many of us would like to see the companies that are involved in the EFA programme diversify more into civil products, is he aware that the short-term reality is that the continuation of the EFA programme is crucial to the future of our aerospace industry, which is of world class and second only to the United States in turnover?

Mr. Rifkind

That is the case. The arguments for the EFA programme must depend primarily on the United Kingdom's defence requirements, but the industrial implications are also significant. At the height of production about 28,000 jobs in the United Kingdom would be related to the EFA project and about 60,000 throughout Europe.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

May I offer my support to the Secretary of State and congratulations on the way in which he has dealt with this issue, especially in the past two or three days when the provocations must have seemed nothing if not extreme? Can he confirm that in the event of' the project's proceeding in such a way that individual countries could, as it were, choose their own form of EFA programme, he is satisfied that the United Kingdom would acquire an aircraft adequate to meet all exigencies and provide a proper basis for any operations in which the Royal Air Force might find itself engaged?

Mr. Rifkind

Most of the work that has been done so far has involved the Rolls-Royce engines and the airframe. The technical study that has now been completed has identified that, even on the basis of current strategic requirements, savings of up to 20 per cent. could be achieved with the EFA programme. If we wish to go beyond that and reduce our requirement in terms of the components of the EFA programme—for example, in-flight refuelling or other specific qualities—savings of up to 30 per cent. could be made.

Mr. Bill Walker

When my right hon. and learned Friend examines the EFA programme, will he never lose sight of the fact that the RAF and its pilots of the future must never be committed to battlefield conditions without at least enjoying parity in terms of the aircraft that are likely to oppose them? With Soviet air force equipment finding its way around the world, there is every likelihood that RAF pilots may come up against some of the most sophisticated of former Soviet aircraft.

Mr. Rifkind

Yes, I am conscious of the fact that twice in the past 10 years, unlike some European countries, our pilots have been called upon to use their fighter aircraft in actual combat—in the Falklands and the Gulf. We must be certain therefore that the aircraft available to our pilots are at least as good as those of any potential aggressor. We must also be conscious of the fact that Russia not only possesses sophisticated aircraft but has made it clear that it is willing to export them—including to unstable regimes in the middle east and elsewhere.

Dr. David Clark

When does the Secretary of State expect to receive the review by the four national chiefs of staff of the EFA's military requirements? When will the four Governments concerned subsequently be able to announce that the EFA programme will go ahead—which we on these Benches believe is essential for Britain's military and industrial requirements?

Mr. Rifkind

We expect to receive the chiefs of staff report in three or four weeks. It is likely that a meeting of the four Defence Ministers will be held early in December, but it is not possible to say now whether they will reach a conclusion. I remind the House that the original timetable did not envisage production decisions until the spring of 1993. Matters were brought forward because of the German budgetary problems that were raised in the German Parliament earlier this year. There is still time available, without interfering with the fundamental programme.

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