HC Deb 26 July 1993 vol 229 cc906-26 2.50 am
Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

I welcome the opportunity to initiate an Adjournment debate on the further development of the programme for providing efficient, up-to-date helicopters for our armed forces. Many hon. Members believe that they are crucial to the effective defence of our country. The debate refers specifically to support helicopters for the Royal Air Force.

I do not believe that I need to spend too much time arguing that it is necessary for us to provide such helicopters. Every indication suggests that modern warfare is increasingly becoming a matter of quick, positive response. Helicopters are an essential part of that reaction.

Whatever reductions it may be possible to make in our defence budget and that of other nations, there is no evidence that any power, major or minor, has decided that it is possible to reduce the requirement for and dependence on helicopters.

We have had experience of warfare in the south Atlantic and more recent experience in the deserts of Arabia. We pray not, but we could have experience of warfare in the mountains of Bosnia. Those theatres of conflict are immensely different, but it would not be possible for us to maintain our national interests in each one if the helicopter did not act as a main element in our operations.

We can move on from deciding whether we need to increase and develop our helicopter capacity for our armed forces to considering what kind of helicopter is needed for the support role undertaken by the RAF. We need a utility helicopter that is capable of a multiplicity of roles. If possible, we need a helicopter whose design relates closely to those used by other sections of the armed forces. That immediately brings to mind the decision of the Royal Navy to choose the Merlin version of the EH101 helicopter, which is built by Agusta of Italy and Westland of the United Kingdom.

I should declare an interest—and speak with pride—about the fact that my constituency is home to the Westland subsidiary of FPT Ltd. It is at the cutting edge of technology in the use of laminated substances for self-sealing petrol tanks and other containers that need to survive the kind of treatment to which they are subject in war.

The United Kingdom headquarters of IBM is also in my constituency. It is good to see the commercial expertise of that great international company involved in collaboration and co-operation with a British defence manufacturer. I take pride in that, too.

The EH101 is the only truly modern helicopter being developed in Europe which will be available within the period of need to our armed forces. That is why I suggest that the Minister puts it at the top of his procurement list for the RAF. This is not just another helicopter that one could purchase off the shelf anywhere else. It is designed for the needs of today and of tomorrow. It has the potential to meet the needs of our armed forces for many years to come.

I shall not go into the details of the aircraft's technical advantages over its most obvious rivals, but it would be sensible at least to list them for the benefit of those who examine these matters closely. Apart from its Anglo-Italian design, the EH101 has certain technical advantages over all its competitors.

First, the design of the rotor blades is remarkable. That is the key to the technical efficiency of the helicopter. Nothing else flying either in Europe or America offers the same efficiency.

Secondly, allied to the efficiency of the rotors is the increased capability of the EH101 due to its built-in active control of vibration. Vibration is a major cause of wear in helicopters, leading to problems of maintenance and repair, which are in turn key factors in the immediate availability of an aircraft in wartime. The EH101 can measure and counteract the development of vibration, thanks to its careful original design.

With any aircraft being used intensively in war, there is a need to check on its efficiency and safety, both for the success of an operation and for the safety of the crew. Such monitoring of safety and usage has been applied later to some helicopters, but the EH101 is the first to have had the monitoring system built in from the start. The idea was that this is an essential: it should not be a boll-on afterthought.

I referred earlier to the different theatres of war in which our forces might be called upon to protect our interests. The EH101 has an enormous advantage over its potential competitors in that it has an all-weather capacity that is unsurpassed—indeed, unequalled—by any similar rotor aircraft. It means that it is an aircraft which can be used in weather in which helicopters would usually be grounded. Such arguments must be taken into account when we make a final decision.

We have a British product which is well ahead of its nearest competitor and which is already likely to be a world beater. When the Royal Navy announced that it would opt for the Merlin version of the EH101, Canada followed and placed an order for the naval version but also ordered some of the utility versions, which we are recommending for the Royal Air Force. It is clear that other countries are watching closely the decision to be taken by the Ministry of Defence. They are looking to see what decision the British take on British products. If we show confidence, the product will he a world beater in not only the military but the commercial sense. It will be something that we can promote with great enthusiasm.

I stress that the EH101 is not an expensive aircraft that we are trying to persuade the Minister to buy; it can be sold on the basis of value for money. If the Royal Air Force follows the Royal Navy and if, at some later stage, the Army also decided on a compatible helicopter to allow for flexible operations and the exchange of aircraft and spares in an emergency, not only would this helicopter remain excellent value, but its unit costs would be reduced. If the EH101 were the helicopter chosen across the armed forces, we would be getting an extremely good bargain. That should surely be kept in mind in the present economic circumstances.

I have sought to establish that we need a decision that the EH101 is the prime choice. The final question is, when should an order be placed? The answer is tonight. A decision should be taken here and now. We need a commitment that the EH101 is the Government's choice. We need the decision to be taken quickly so that it is possible to continue the development of this fine aircraft and move on rapidly to its production. We need immediate confirmation, which will itself convince potential customers that they can place their confidence where we have placed ours.

We must express our confidence in the EH101 project. A great deal of money has already been spent on it. It is not an untried proposal but an aircraft available as the basic helicopter for our armed forces well into the next century. It is the ideal choice as a support helicopter for the Royal Air Force.

3.3 am

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

Even at this very late hour, I am pleased to take part in this important debate on support helicopters for the Royal Air Force.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) on initiating the debate and on the way in which he set out the arguments for the EH101 utility helicopter to fulfil our defence forces' requirements for support helicopters.

I thank other hon. Members, especially Conservative Members, who signed the motion and therefore enabled this debate to be extended to three hours.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Knapman) on his long-standing interest in the project. He has many potential subcontractors for the EH101 project in his constituency and he would have welcomed the opportunity to be here to participate in the debate, but unfortunately he has to visit the glorious Gloucester Regiment, which faces amalgamation. I believe that he must be there in time for reveille, so he is unable to be with us.

I should like to congratulate the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), whose constituency is the home of Westland, on supporting the EH101 project throughout. The saying that a politician's mind is conditioned by the state of his seat certainly applies to the right hon. Gentleman, but I have some difficulty in reconciling his support for the project with his views on the social chapter and his party's views on defence expenditure.

I put that point to him during our debate last Friday afternoon, but I was not satisfied with his response. He could not say which would cause the most damage to Westland's workers: the social chapter, with the additional burdens that it would impose on Westland as employers —Westland is very much against the social chapter—or the 50 per cent. cut in defence expenditure that his party advocates. He did not say, and probably could not say, what the answer to those questions was.

Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)

He is not here now.

Mr. Colvin

As my hon. Friend says, he is not here to answer, so we will continue to put such questions to him.

I have forgotten how many speeches I have made on defence matters, but in each I have made a plea for more helicopters. In April 1987, I thought that at last the Government had got the message, when the then Secretary of State announced that the Government would order 25 utility EH101 helicopters. We all cheered, but we are still awaiting confirmation of the order.

I note that the full title of today's debate is "Support helicopters for the Royal Air Force". I cannot boast a great constituency interest in the manufacture of the EH101, although I dare say that few constituencies do not have some aerospace content, but the Army Air Corps is just up the road from my constituency and down the road from my home. I am well aware that it would dearly like to be flying support helicopters for the Army. That, in a sense, is another debate, and I do not think that we want today's debate to be side tracked into a discussion about who should fly support helicopters. Let us just accept that our armed forces need them and, for the sake of the debate, that the RAF will be providing the pilots and the air crews.

Each time I have made my plea for more support helicopters the circumstances have changed and the need has become more urgent. We saw the collapse of the Warsaw pact in 1989, and the so-called new world order, which has developed into new world disorder. We saw the peace dividend lead to the previous Secretary of State's introduction of "Options for Change". We saw the creation of new military structures—smaller but better is the new basis for our armed forces.

We are seeing a far greater role for United Nations operations, following the Secretary-General's paper "The Agenda for Peace" with more peacemaking, peacekeeping and peace-building operations. There are 17 United Nations operations around the world, and 25 potential flashpoints where hostilities could break out at any moment where our troops may need to be deployed.

As a permanent member of the Security Council, the United Kingdom should be ready to participate where Britain's national interest is identified—anywhere in the world. In the new NATO structure, in which we are privileged to lead the rapid reaction corps, we have an important role to play. Under the new-look NATO structure, a British-dominated rapid reaction corps totalling between 70,000 and 100,000 men will train for quick deployment. That means having an air mobile division made up of British, German, Belgian and Dutch units, and a southern region division, probably under Italian leadership.

We must have the equipment to meet our new role, and our new obligations worldwide, and that means greater flexibility for our armed forces, and far greater mobility—two important principles of war. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, in his introduction to the recently published White Paper on the defence estimates for 1993, said: improvements to our amphibious capability and the Army's anti-armour capability, and further investment in transport aircraft and support helicopters were proposed. He at least has at last got the message.

There is no doubt that, in trying to meet our obligations in providing peacekeeping and intervention forces, the United Kingdom is not adequately equipped. The fourth report of the Select Committee on Defence for this Session homes in on the problem of mobility and helicopters. It draws attention to the fact that a number of capabilities have been prioritised in the focus on intervention forces, the principal ones being helicopters, which are playing an increasingly important role in support and combat.

Our report goes on: A number of important choices remain to be made, notably on the choice of a support helicopter to replace the present fleet of ageing Wessex helicopters, and to complement the heavily stretched Pumas and Chinooks. It draws attention to the fact that the RAF operates a fleet of 140 aircraft in all—Chinooks, Pumas and Wessex support helicopters. It concludes: It is, however, doubtful whether MoD has sufficient helicopters to be able to perform the increased role that they envisage, and we are concerned at the apparent prevarication and lack of urgency with which the Minister is addressing this point. That is the Select Committee's conclusion this year.

We can go back to 1989–90, when it said in its third report: MOD's consideration of the requirement for support helicopters, and the way in which such a requirement should be met, stretches back to the mid 1970s and the matter needs urgent resolution. And so we say again this evening.

Our report concludes: We consider that the Ministry must face up to the fact that delay and inaction is becoming costly both in financial and effectiveness terms and that a decision on the way forward must be made immediately. I do not think that I need to say more, but I shall none the less.

In United Nations operations, especially in Bosnia, there is a great need for support helicopters. The United Kingdom has had to send Sea King helicopters to Bosnia, presumably because we have run out of support helicopters. We have none to spare; they are all far too busy in Northern Ireland, where almost half of all our helicopter hours were flown in 1991–92 in support of our security operations.

No one disputes the case for more helicopters. We could probably manage with fewer tanks, but that is another debate. The question is which helicopter should the Ministry of Defence order. Apparently, we have to consider three options. I wonder whether that is genuine or whether there is really only one that we must consider seriously. Currently, the force consists of 32 Chinooks, 42 Pumas and 64 Wessex, making a total of 138 support helicopters. That includes those undergoing repair, modification or refurbishment.

There is certainly a case for commonality, as my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North said. However, I should have thought that we could eliminate the Pumas —not because they are French, but because they are a very old design. They do not have the lift capability and they are too small. They carry only 12 men fully equipped; perhaps 16 not fully equipped. They do not have an adequate performance—the range is inadequate and they do not fly fast enough. They are a fair-weather aircraft, and my hon. Friend made the important point that we need a helicopter with all-weather capability.

The performance of the Chinook is not that bad. It certainly has good lift capability, and can carry 42 men in all. It has old technology and is not especially reliable. Indeed, it is notable that Chinooks are no longer used in support operations for North sea oil and gas exploration. It is certainly a costly aircraft—not so much in its unit cost, as Boeing Vertol have cut that to the bone to try to get orders, as in its life cycle costs, on which the MOD now rightly concentrates.

Even having got rid of all the amortisation, it still costs between £2,000 and £3,000 an hour to operate. That compares with £750 an hour for an EH101. It is obvious that the EH101 has a cost advantage. In fact, it only costs —I say "only", but it is still an expensive aircraft—about £12 million. One should also bear in mind the fact that the Chinook is an old design—30 years old—and needs midlife updates, which can be extremely costly. Those costs are presently estimated at between £4 million and £5 million.

We must not forget that all that expenditure occurs in the United States, so we pay for it in dollars and the work goes to American factories and workers. It has been the British Government's policy for many years to try to make the so-called two-way street of reciprocal sales and purchases with our American allies across the Atlantic more evenly balanced. The exchange is still 2:1 in favour of the United States of America, and to order Chinooks for the RAF would only make that two-way street more out of balance than it is already.

We might he able to justify the purchase of some Chinooks as so-called attrition buys to replace those that we have lost for one reason or another. We cannot justify buying a 30-year-old design when a new, modern technology aircraft is available. The RAF would not take that action were it considering the purchase of fixed-wing aircraft, so why does it even consider doing so when considering the purchase of helicopters?

Tonight we are considering the utility version of the EH101—EH stands for European Helicopters, which is a combination of Westland and Agusta. The commonality issue, which has been raised, is valid. The Ministry of Defence has already ordered 44 of the helicopters—the Merlin version—for the Royal Navy. It is important to have commonality with other countries within the rapid reaction corps, which I have mentioned.

The Italians, who belong to that force, are joint manufacturers, with Westland, of the aircraft. The Dutch, who are also in the unit, are keen on the project and have already, as a matter of defence policy, quoted a preference for buying more helicopters and fewer tanks. The all-weather capability is important in relation to the EH101, which does not ice up. That means that the big capability gap in helicopters has at last been closed.

We should not forget that Her Majesty's Government have already spent £1.3 billion on development of the aircraft—the air frames, the avionics and the engines. In all defence procurement it is important to consider the impact on Britain's industrial capability. There is no doubt that the helicopter would bring many jobs for British industry. It is estimated that 3,000 jobs would be created by the order for only 25 of the helicopters over three to four years.

The RTM322 Rolls-Royce engine is made jointly with Turbomeca of France—half the development goes to each country—which may improve the chances of the French looking to the aircraft as a better support helicopter than the Puma, as it has greater capability. That engine is already flying in the fourth preproduction aircraft.

The technological lead has been mentioned, and there is no doubt that the anti-vibration development—the active control structural response—means that the aircraft has great potential for civilian use. Those of us who have travelled in helicopters appreciate that vibration is one of the hazards. Undoubtedly, with a military version, the lack of vibration will have a significant bearing on the length of time that equipment on board lasts.

The sales potential of the EH101 is good. The Canadians have already ordered it for their navy, as well as the utility version. The middle east is certainly a big potential market. Japan is also a potential market. It is estimated that the market for the EH 101 is probably about 750 aircraft, so eventually there will be many jobs for British workers if worldwide sales achieve that target. We await the stamp of approval from the British Government for the utility version of the EH 101. Surely that will be a great encouragement to other countries to order it.

Paragraph 122 of the defence White Paper, which is the section on the RAF's air transport and support helicopter fleet, says how vital the EH101 is to strategic and tactical mobility. It says that the RAF Chinook helicopters are already the subject of a modernisation programme which will extend their lives well into the next century. We have been reassessing our requirement for support helicopters in the light of the changed strategic circumstances. We have concluded that, in view of the need for increased flexibility and mobility in the new operation environment, there is a need to procure additional support helicopters to supplement our existing assets. We are urgently considering how best this significant enhancement to our operational capability can be achieved. Once more, we say "hear, hear" to that.

Timing is absolutely crucial. The Government cannot prevaricate any longer. We need to confirm the order for 25 EH101s and order a further 25 without delay.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

The hon. Gentleman knows that I would join him in support if it did not disqualify me from my debate, which is next on the Order Paper. He explained why the Government had been prevaricating. Why has there been such a delay? Is it that the defence procurement budget cannot sustain such an imaginative and long-awaited approach, or is somebody on the military side in the MOD sticking the knife in?

Mr. Colvin

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that interesting intervention. As far as those who take a special interest in defence matters are concerned, somebody in the Ministry of Defence seems to have it in for the EH101. I will not name names this evening—perhaps another hon. Member will be brave enough to do so. There is no doubt in the minds of those who have investigated the matter that the preference of the Royal Air Force is for the EH101 helicopter, so probably only one person is standing out against it at present. Perhaps if it were someone else in that position, it would be a much easier decision for the Secretary of State to make. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will clarify the position.

I hope that this is my last speech on the subject of the EH101 helicopter. I hope that the Minister has received the message loud and clear, and will appreciate that the order for these aircraft is one way to ensure that, in the words of the White Paper, we defend our future.

3.29 am
Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)

It must be well over 10 years since my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) and I started to raise the subject of the EH101 in the House. Most Conservative Members have been ardent supporters of the home-grown product, and in that we have had Opposition support.

This is a unique occasion because there are no fewer than six Conservative Members in the Chamber who all have a direct interest in the EH101 and the Westland factory. It is sad that the person with the greatest interest in Westland—for obvious good reasons—is not here to support his constituents. I speak of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), the leader of the Liberal Democrat party. Perhaps he has other fish to fry elsewhere. As my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside said, the right hon. Gentleman has always supported the cause, and perhaps it falls to me to speak on his behalf and on behalf of his constituents.

Westland has about 7,000 workers, and probably well over 1,000 of them live in my constituency. The Lords Commissioner to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker), who is in his place on the Front Bench, could probably lay claim to 700 or 800 of those workers. Other hon. Members who are present for the debate represent a substantial number of people who are directly employed by Westland.

However, that is only part of the total number, because all over the country and in—dare I mention it?—Christchurch, hundreds of subcontractors look to Westland for orders and, in particular, to the order for the EH101.

Over the years we have all shared a sense of frustration. I was with the management of Westland in Yeovil on the night that the agreement with the Italian Government was signed. We waited anxiously in case there was any slippage, and we wondered whether our Secretary of State for Defence had signed up and whether anyone would renege. There was a great sense of relief when, as a result of pressure, the agreement was finally signed. The co-operative agreement between us and the Italian Government and Agusta is unique.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside has said, there was an agreement in 1987 to purchase the utility version of the EH101. We are not dealing with a public inquiry on the channel tunnel or Twyford down or with a bypass for Dorchester. We expect such inquiries to be long-winded because of the unbelievable democratic process. Public inquiries can go on for ever, but we are not discussing a public inquiry but an internal Ministry of Defence matter. It is almost unbelievable that we and the Westland work force are still waiting some six years later.

I accept that delicate balances sometimes have to be struck. I am reminded of the recent battle between Rosyth and Devonport. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, who is to reply to the debate, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had to strike a balance and make a political decision. Day after day, they were bashed and bullied by those on both sides of the argument: the Scottish parliamentary lobby spoke for Rosyth, while the vociferous west country group spoke for Devonport.

There is no such conflict with the EH101. It is a straight choice. The EH101 is first and foremost a British product, built in conjunction with the Italians; it is a modern, well-designed, superlative helicopter that will see us well into the next century. There is nothing wrong with the Chinook, but it is a bit clapped out in terms of design.

I made my last parachute jump from a Dakota. I loved the Dakota—it was a marvellous aircraft—but it was designed in 1937–38, and we were still parachuting from it in 1957–58. That does not detract from it, but when we have the opportunity to buy a really modern helicopter, for God's sake let's get on with it. There is 100 per cent. support for it in the House and the country. If my hon.

Friend the Minister told the House, "We have made this political decision", he would have the wholehearted support of hon. Members and the country.

Westland holds a unique place in the affection of our people. I have known and worked with the company for just over 20 years; it must be said that some 20 years ago it was not quite the company that it is today. What has happened to the work force and the factory over the past seven or eight years is almost unique: it is now a lean, fit company, producing a magnificent helicopter. I can only say to my hon. Friend the Minister that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside suggested, it is high time we recognised that. By placing this initial order, we could trigger a potential order for 750 aircraft.

There has been some mention of where the opposition to the order lies. I do not know, and I do not much care; what I know is that we cannot pretend for much longer that we have a genuine air-mobile capability if our air-mobile force does not contain enough helicopters to warrant naming a brigade or division as air mobile.

This is not the time to discuss relative helicopter strengths. However, whether we look at the United States, the Germans or the French, we find that every country that has adopted an air-mobile role has provided sufficient helicopters. Only two weeks ago, in the debate on the estimates, I said that it was time for us to face up to the conflict—not that there is a conflict any longer—between the tank and the helicopter. We all know that the number of heavy battle tanks will be reduced dramatically: we must move to an air-mobile role, and we cannot do that without the EH101.

I beg my hon. Friend the Minister to stand up and, diplomatically—as I know he will—make it clear to the isolated pockets in the Ministry of Defence that may oppose the placing of the order that we will not put up with that any longer. It has to be a political decision. It would be welcomed by everyone in the country. The sooner that that decision is made, the better it will be for the work force at Westland and for everyone on this side of the House.

3.39 am
Mr. Mark Robinson (Somerton and Frome)

I join in the congratulations given to my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) on his success in securing the debate. I also confess a touch of nostalgia to my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer). I am perhaps a little older than I look, but my first flight was in a Dakota and I have a great affection for that aircraft.

I have sought to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because many of my constituents, like those of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West, work at Westland. They are represented at all levels, from the chief executive, who is my constituent, to the shop floor. My hon. Friend mentioned the social chapter. There is deep anxiety about the effect that the social chapter would have on Westland's costs. It is worth passing that message through to the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown). I concede that he has been a great supporter of the EH 101 project, but I hope that he will bear in mind some of the comments that have been made in the House about the social chapter.

The continuing success of Westland group is important to the south-west, which has seen a great contraction in the defence industries. That has served to heighten the impact of the recession throughout the region. As our armed forces seek to take their support helicopters into the next generation, Westland has produced in conjunction with Agusta the next generation helicopter, which is the only one of its type.

Already the Government have ordered the Merlin variant of the EH101 for the Royal Navy, but there has been overlong delay in implementing the original decision of Lord Younger when he was Secretary of State for Defence in relation to the Royal Air Force.

I should like to dwell on the jobs aspect and the technological advantages of the EH101, which I believe are clear. It has a unique all-weather capability and long-range operational potential, together with innovations to remove vibrations from the cabin. That demonstrates its advance over the present generation and places the aircraft at least seven years ahead of any possible rival. It fits precisely with the requirement of "Options for Change", namely, rapid reaction capability, which is so vital in this era of flexible response.

The EH101 would be an asset in not only military operations but humanitarian exercises, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) said. The requirement to take part in humanitarian exercises is increasingly prevalent, as we were reminded by the United Nations Secretary-General's "Agenda for Peace". It is perhaps no coincidence that an earlier three-hour debate in the Chamber this evening was about the former Yugoslavia. The Sea King helicopter is playing a significant role in that very operation. If we look to the future, we can see the EH101, with its adaptability, playing an important humanitarian role.

I have no doubt that recent international events have served to highlight the fact that the Government's decision in 1987 to support the EH101 project was correct. The only competition in sight seems to come from overseas, either in a possible lower capacity helicopter, which is only on the drawing board at present, or in old technology aircraft such as Chinook or Puma. Replacements for old technology aircraft will inevitably be sought sooner or later by their producers, but with some considerable delay compared with the availability of the EH101.

In this efficiency-conscious era, it is important to seek commonality across our helicopter fleet, and the EH101 provides an opportunity to do that. With the Royal Navy using anti-submarine warfare, airborne early-warning and commando helicopters; the RAF using support, combat, research and rescue helicopters; and the potential for the Army and the Royal Marines to perform a variety of functions with a support helicopter, standardisation of the United Kingdom defence force fleet would bring obvious and varied advantages.

Cost is an important ingredient. The price for the utility EH101 is more competitive now, bearing in mind the technological advances that it embodies and the reduction in through-life costs that it offers compared with previous generations of helicopters. Also, I understand that Westland has offered to reduce the initial procurement price of both the Merlin and utility variants if the RAF order is placed. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will bear that in mind. I thank him for his forbearance in recent weeks. Although I am new to this subject, I cannot help feeling that when my hon. Friend sees me coming down the Corridor, he thinks, "My goodness—here comes another support helicopter."

The EH 101 adds up to a convincing case for a British product which will be at the forefront of technology, and which can succeed in the intensely competitive overseas defence market. Success depends on winning overseas orders. The RAF order confirmation would not only add to the Government's seal of approval but would be a welcome fillip to the overseas saleability of both the military and civilian version.

Continuing indecision has made the battle to win orders more difficult than it might otherwise have been. The time must be right to put an end to that uncertainty. The estimated worldwide sales potential for 750 aircraft has a consequential spin-off worth at least £8 billion to this country—apart from orders that could develop in the United States.

Westland has a unique product that can exploit a considerable gap in the world market at a time when other manufacturers are not ready to fill it. The RAF needs support helicopters. When it comes to exports, success at home breeds success abroad. So there is common purpose, and one that will provide much-needed jobs throughout the south-west.

The necessary decision should not be further delayed. It would be welcome in not just Somerton and Frome but Christchurch, where there is a Westland facility that would benefit from the order. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will do his best to ensure that a decision is made at the earliest possible opportunity.

3.48 am
Sir Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

I thank the large number of my hon. Friends who signed an application to the Speaker for this debate, and I thank in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) who interrupted his holiday plans to introduce this debate on precisely the right note, which was maintained by my other hon. Friends.

We are here to endear ourselves to my hon. Friend the Minister at 10 minutes to four in the morning, and I hope that our diligence will be rewarded. I know that the Minister will not want us to speak for too long, as he has other things to do. It was good of him to come here to answer the debate, which I hope he will find persuasive.

I, as a matter of principle, support the theory that it is not for politicians to support one product or another when it comes to its adoption by the armed forces. However, for various reasons, that has become the practice in recent times, when the items concerned are competing domestically within the United Kingdom for the attention of the procurement division of the Ministry of Defence.

As has already been pointed out, this is not one of those occasions. It is not a question of either Rosyth or Plymouth; it is a question of our helicopter being, without any doubt, the item. There is no technical rival to it in the world. It is clearly a question of money and of subversive pressure being exercised within the Ministry of Defence, which we must ask our Ministers to overcome by the sheer logic of the argument.

For many years there has been a fundamental flaw in the acquisition of support helicopters for the British Army. They have been provided by the Royal Air Force. During the short time that I was in the Ministry of Defence, I sought to make that point. Subsequent to my departure, an inquiry was conducted. I am afraid that the lobbying and politicking that went on resulted in no change to that basic policy but, as has already been said, this is neither the time of night nor the place to go into that matter.

If we give one service responsibility for another service, inevitably that service will put its own service requirements and its own service priorities before those of the other service. Once again, this has been shown to be the root cause of the difficulty.

Nobody has suggested that the next fighter aircraft for the Royal Air Force should be a 30-year-old design, or that the RAF should consider buying second-hand aeroplanes from the French, so why should the RAF do that when it comes to helicopters? The truth of the matter is that the RAF does not care. The helicopters are not for the RAF; they are for the Army. This is clearly seen to be a matter of prejudice within the RAF. I hope that the Minister will either deny that allegation or deal with it in due time.

I heard a rumour that, despite the obvious decision, the RAF had said, "Let us re-write the specification." After all this time, that is so obviously and clearly a deliberate delaying tactic that I hope it will be seen for what it is.

The cost of the original item is an important issue. No one has suggested that the EH101 is a particularly cheap aircraft but, as has rightly been pointed out, it is a reliable one. Those of us who have used machinery, in whatever way and in whatever form it may have come, know that it is no good having something cheap if it does not work and that it is worth paying for quality, design and a modern device.

The fact that the Royal Navy has already ordered this aircraft, though a slightly different version, leads me to believe that there must be huge cost benefits in getting together with the Royal Navy, in terms of both spare parts and training, but I am far from convinced by what I have heard that these cost benefits are being taken into account, because there is no machinery for so doing. Each service does the costing for its aircraft. That, too, will, I hope, be taken into account. The aircraft's all-weather capacity, for example in respect of the former Yugoslavia, is also important. We have sent troops into the former Yugoslavia and we have apparently had to borrow Royal Navy helicopters because there are simply not enough RAF helicopters. That is an appalling situation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), in an excellent speech in which he covered all the technical points that apply to the argument, said that he had been making speeches about helicopters for many years. I have been doing the same. For year after year, we have pointed out the absolute requirement for more helicopters, and particularly for those of a general purpose and utility nature.

I am sorry that the Liberal Democrats have been unable to field someone to participate in the debate. However, it is acknowledged that there is all-party agreement on the issue in the House. When my hon. Friend returns to the MOD, I hope that he will take a very clear message from this debate. Although I have a Westland plant in my constituency and most of us have some interest in Westland and its sub-contractors, there is a basic defence argument that promotes this helicopter beyond all others. As I said at the beginning of my speech, that must be the parameter on which defence equipment is chosen.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to put down very swiftly the counter-arguments that have been raised for entirely the wrong reasons. I hope that he will acknowledge that this is the best helicopter for the armed forces, that it should be purchased, that that purchase should start forthwith, and that that message should go out to our friends and allies who will also consider purchasing the helicopter when they see the confidence that should so rightly be placed in it by the RAF.

3.56 am
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) on securing this debate. He said that it was the Adjournment debate. Unfortunately, it is not. I have the Adjournment debate, which will take place at 8 am. The hon. Gentleman will understand if I am brief.

I have just come from the Tea Room, where we saw one of the famous Westminster mice. However, before that, I smelt a rat. It is a pity that the Liberal Democrats were not here to see it. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Robinson) pointed out the Christchurch factor. I will be the first person to congratulate the Minister tonight on announcing the order for the 25 EH101s.

Many of us have been involved in politics for a long time. I recall the Labour party once being accused of building the Humber bridge in order to win a by-election. I think that that accusation was made by Conservative Members. I am sure that the Minister is going to announce the project tonight. It is not often that we have such a noble array of knights of the shires on the Conservative Benches at 4 am. They know, and I know, that the Minister has decided that two days before the Christchurch by-election would be a good time to announce the project.

The EH101 is an excellent aircraft which has always been supported by the Labour Benches. It is a pity that it has taken the Government more than six years to confirm that it is to be built. According to my notes, Lord Younger was only Mr. Younger—he had not even received his knighthood—when, in April 1987, he announced his intention to replace the Pumas with 25 utility versions of the EH101 in preference to the Chinooks. He said: The choice will build on the investment that we have already made in the naval version, and reflects our policy on European helicopter collaboration."—[Official Report, 9 April 1987; Vol. 114, c. 470.] That was the position in 1987. It has taken a by-election in Christchurch to announce the project. We are pleased that a sinner repents, and I am sure that that will be welcomed in the west country.

In the spring, I went to the Westland factory at Yeovil. It is an excellent facility. The craftsmanship was fine, the management were fine, and there was great co-operation between the trade unions and the management. I was very disappointed to hear tonight that they were against the social charter. It would not seem to have an effect on such a good employer as Westland. Perhaps that is more to do with politics than with industrial relations.

As hon. Members have said, the situation with regard to support helicopters is desperate. It is not just one person in the Ministry of Defence, even if that person is suspected of being high up in the chain of command. I have talked to several senior RAF officers over the past 18 months. There is no doubt that they are lukewarm about the helicopter.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) mentioned that the pilots also fly helicopters for the Army. That situation is not satisfactory, and it has to be tackled. That is why we are in such a plight with our helicopters. In the past, the Army wanted more tanks, the RAF wanted more Tornados, and the number of helicopters suffered. Now, in the new ball game, we do not need as many Tornados or tanks, and we do not have any helicopters. That is nonsense. The Conservative Government have been in office for the past 14 years, so they must take the blame for the present situation.

The Minister's announcement will save jobs. I record my disappointment that no Liberal Democrats are present. They are probably in Christchurch gathering votes. The Minister is in the Chamber gathering votes We will welcome the Minister's announcement. It is a pity it has taken so long.

4.1 am

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Jonathan Aitken)

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) on his good fortune in securing this debate, which the House and the Government regard as a subject of prime importance. My hon. Friend said that support helicopters are essential to the future of our armed forces. I certainly concur in that judgment.

I recognise that this nocturnal debate, polite and even-tempered though it has been, symbolises the rising political temperature of the subject. I am aware that a large number of hon. Members have signed the motion which led to the debate. I am aware also that, in recent months, many more hon. Members have tabled parliamentary questions, written letters on the subject, and even, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Robinson) said, forcefully buttonholed Ministers in the corridors. My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer) summed up the matter when he eloquently spoke of his feelings of "frustration" at the seemingly endless twists and turns over the long delays that have characterised this matter. I understand his and other hon. Members' strong feelings.

The saga of support helicopters for our armed forces has been Wagnerian in its length and Shakespearean in its complexity. Many of my hon. Friends would like the saga to be brought to a glorious conclusion tonight, with the equivalent of the crashing chords of the entry of the gods into Valhalla or the speech of Henry V at the siege of Harfleur. In commercial terms, that would mean the announcement of an order. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North said that he was expecting an order tonight.

That phrase seems to have sent the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) into orbit. In his political excitement, he has smelt a by-election rat. He thinks that it is the Tory card to win the Christchurch by-election. The hon. Gentleman's sense of smell is characteristically misplaced. What we have heard tonight is the familiar sound of the Labour party harking up the wrong tree.

This is a serious and important subject. I understand the impatience that has been expressed by my hon. Friends, and I recognise the formidable political pressure that has been exerted by all parties on this issue. I noted in particular the telling quotations from the Defence Select Committee of which my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) reminded the House.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin), a former Defence Minister, reminded us, this is, above all, a defence issue. Such issues are always subject to careful consideration and deliberation. I am sorry to say that tonight I will not announce an order for helicopters, but I will signpost the way ahead and give my hon. Friends some encouraging and hopeful signs in response to the good points that they have raised.

As my hon. Friends reminded the House, the starting point for the debate was the announcement in 1987 by the then Secretary of State for Defence, my noble Friend Lord Younger. He declared that the Government had an intention to place an order for 25 utility EH101 support helicopters. He made it clear, however, that that was subject to the resolution of contractual and other issues.

Since 1987, we have witnessed dramatic changes in the strategic environment. The Warsaw pact has collapsed and the former Soviet Union now belongs to the history books We have made great progress in establishing mutual trust between ourselves and our former adversaries.

At the same time, the release of tensions previously restrained under the old cold war structures has made the world, in some respects, a less stable and less certain place. We must now look beyond the possibility of a static conflict in the central region.

We now require a much more flexible approach. That word was used in many speeches tonight and I accept its importance in relation to support helicopters. The linear battlefield has become a thing of the past, and we must look towards equipping our armed forces so that they are adaptable and mobile.

Against that background of change, it was only right that we should reassess our requirement for support helicopters—just as we have had to reassess our requirements for all aspects of our defence capability. "Options for Change" remains the foundation for such assessments, but, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence made clear in the 1993 defence White Paper "Defending our Future", it is important that we retain the ability to respond and adapt to a fluid strategic situation. Accordingly, my right hon. and learned Friend announced in "Defending our Future" that we plan to introduce a number of additional support helicopters to our existing fleet.

A great deal of work has been necessary to establish the new requirement for support helicopters. We have in particular been looking at the nature of the tasks that our future support helicopter fleet is likely to perform. I am conscious that this process has taken some time. Some of my hon. Friends would say that it has taken too much time. I am pleased to say, however, that we have now completed our reconsideration of the requirement. We are now addressing the next step—the procurement strategy.

The main conclusion is to confirm that our current support helicopter fleet is not large enough to carry out the tasks that will be assigned to it under the concepts of operations which are being developed to meet the defence roles of our forces. The Army's new role in the Allied Command Europe rapid reaction corps is just one of the developments which has led to an increased demand for support helicopter capability. My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside was right to draw attention to that dimension of the argument. We have therefore assigned support helicopters a high priority within the overall defence programme, and we have made substantial financial provision within the forward programme for the procurement of additional helicopters.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North referred to the fact that this is the age of peacekeeping. The field Army's requirement in this new age insists on greater mobility and flexibility. The requirement for support helicopters can be broadly broken down into two areas. First, we must look towards meeting the requirement for more helicopters to support field Army, providing it with the increased flexibilty and mobility that it now requires. Secondly, we need to address the problems posed by the limited performance and capabilities of our existing Wessex fleet.

I will not go into detail here about the options for the Wessex. It would be helpful for the House, however, if I set out the considerations facing the military strategist and planner in the new strategic environment of the last decade of the 20th century and beyond.

First, there is likely to be a requirement to project force over greater ranges. Ranges between points of disembarkation and the forward operational area may be considerable, and sometimes much more demanding than previous central region logistic requirements. For example, during the Gulf conflict, the distance from A1 Jubayl to the field force maintenance area in Saudi Arabia was 300 km, with the tactical assembly areas a further 150 km beyond. Or, as another up-to-date peacekeeping example, it is a day's journey by road or track from Split harbour and airport to the base of the British UNPROFOR battalion in Bosnia, but only one hour by helicopter.

Secondly, Army operations may be conducted in areas with a much less developed communications infrastructure than was the case in the central region. Thirdly, operations on a more fluid and less dense battlefield will require greater support helicopter mobility and reach.

A more capable and versatile support helicopter force is therefore needed for military activities across the spectrum of conflict, which may range from peacetime support operations to major ACE rapid reaction corps deployments and high-intensity operations.

A support helicopter may seem a fairly straightforward piece of equipment at first sight, but the view of support helicopters as the airborne dumper truck of the battlefield is an over-simplistic one. There are, in fact, a great many operational, technical and contractual matters that have to be resolved in order to get the right kit into the hands of our forces. Needless to say, this has to be done in a way that achieves best value for money—not only for the taxpayer, but also for the forces themselves, so that they derive the maximum capability from what is inevitably a finite defence budget.

Because these calculations are so important, we must be sure that we get them right. With the best will in the world, this takes time. It may therefore help the House if I give an insight into some of the factors that we have to take into account.

Mr. Martlew

indicated dissent.

Mr. Aitken

The hon. Member for Carlisle shakes his head, as though these things did not matter, but they are serious, and I am sorry that he is not interested in them.

Mr. Martlew

The Government have had since 1987 to make these calculations, yet the Minister comes here to tell us of more delay.

Mr. Aitken

The hon. Gentleman is still excited about the Christchurch by-election. Like Harold Wilson, he is a man whose vision is limited to tomorrow's headlines. I am trying, at this thoughtful nocturnal hour, to take the House into the Government's confidence and to outline the factors involved in reaching the decision to which all thoughtful people want to move quickly—but it must be the right one.

First, there is the straightforward question of lift. There are some loads that, either for physical or operational reasons, cannot be broken down beyond a certain size. Indeed, some, such as artillery pieces or Land Rovers, are so large that they have to be carried as underslung loads. We thus have an unavoidable requirement for a certain minimum number of very large helicopters—I shall return later to the way in which our present fleet meets this requirement. But most of our loads are divisible and are thus liftable by a number of different helicopter types.

At first sight, one might be led intuitively to suppose that the most economical way of carrying this balance would be with a smaller number of larger aircraft, much as it is cheaper and quicker to move house with a single large removal lorry rather than with innumerable car loads. If lift were the only concern, this analogy might have some validity. But for support helicopters, there are other considerations: flexibility, survivability, maintainability and through-life costs. Flexibility, for example, is of particular concern. This is achieved largely through having a greater number of helicopters. It may in some circumstances be operationally advantageous to have a larger number of smaller helicopters, even where that results in lower overhaul lift for a given investment. Needless to say, this greater number of smaller helicopters would be an economic proposition only if the smaller helicopter were significantly cheaper than the larger helicopter.

We also have to consider the configuration of the helicopter itself. The ability to carry underslung loads is significant, although it is preferable from the point of view of agility and vulnerability to carry loads inside wherever possible. The capacity to carry fully-laden troops and bulky internal loads is important, as is the ability to load them on and off quickly. For this, a rear ramp is essential. That is one advantage of the EH101. Another factor is the aim of not having too many eggs in one basket. A balance has to be struck between the attraction of retaining operational coherence with large loads and the operational consequences of losing such a load.

The survivability of the helicopter depends on three factors: first, the ability to fly with sufficient agility close to the ground to avoid being seen; secondly, the size of target that is presented, both in conventional and radar and infra-red terms; and, thirdly, the ability to withstand a hit through, for example, the duplication of certain essential flight systems. Clearly, most of those factors are influenced by size, although others could be expected to feature more strongly in a modern design.

Reliability is another important factor in operational and financial terms. The consequence of breakdowns during operations is self-evident, especially in the later phases of a prolonged battle. Reliability also influences the number of aircraft needed to maintain a given establishment in peacetime. The more reliable a particular type, the fewer helicopters we have to buy to maintain a particular establishment size.

The final factor is ease of maintenance and low through-life costs. We see great attractions in the latest form of health and usage monitoring system, known as HUMS. HUMS monitors wear and tear on a continuous basis, thus enabling just the right amount of work to be done at precisely the right time. When taken with the ease of access and the maintainability of modern designs, it clearly contains the cost and deployment of spares and support staff.

I hope that I have given the House a flavour of the complex analysis which has to be undertaken to find the best way forward. Some of the debate has centred around the two main contenders, the Chinook and the utility EH101. I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside said. It is a difficult comparison as, to some extent, the Chinook and the utility EH101 are like apples and pears. They are two very different aircraft, with very different virtues.

The Chinook clearly has the larger lift capability and there are therefore some tasks that only the Chinook is capable of performing. Our Chinooks have given excellent service, and the fleet is now undergoing a mid-life update which will increase its viability and extend its life. We expect to gain many more years of service from this helicopter. However, the Chinook will never match every feature of a newer generation helicopter such as the EH101.

So far, my Department has invested about £1.4 billion in the development of the EH101. It is primarily in support of our procurement of the Merlin anti-submarine warfare variant, but it included the airframe which is, of course, the essence of the utility version.

We are well pleased with the progress of the Merlin and we have no doubt that the utility version will be a thoroughly reliable modern helicopter, possessing all the features that one would expect of its generation.

Several of my hon. Friends, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North, mentioned the fine technical qualities of the EH101, such as its vibration control, the advanced design of its rotor blades and its unsurpassed all-weather capacity. They and a number of advantages that have been so well championed by its manufacturers, Westland, will of course be taken into account, as will the industrial factors of which some of my hon. Friends spoke so eloquently. We shall also bear in mind the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North to the effect that Westland held a unique place in the affections of his constitutents and many others across the country.

One or two of my hon. Friends mentioned the export potential of the EH101. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome spoke of an £8 billion export potential. I assure my hon. Friends that I am very conscious of the EH101's considerable potential in that respect, and I congratulate Westland on its success last year in winning an order for 50 EH101s from the Canadian Government. My Department, and specifically the Defence Export Services Organisation, will continue to give the company every support in pursuing other export prospects.

There is currently an export prospect in Holland. I have had constructive and comprehensive discussions with my Dutch counterpart, and the two Ministries of Defence have exchanged detailed information about their requirements. At a recent meeting, I took my Dutch counterpart through our thinking in some detail. Hon. Members will appreciate that those discussions on a Government-to-Government basis must remain confidential, but I can assure my hon. Friends that we have done our best to be helpful in this and all other export cases.

I have tried to summarise the wide panorama of points and interests that this helicopter decision encompasses. I hope that I have fairly summarised the nature of the decisions that we face. There is no doubt that we have a requirement for additional medium support helicopters. The characteristics that we seek are varied, reflecting the range of operational scenarios that we now face. The world is certainly a different place from the days of 1987. We need the flexibility, familiarity and dependability of a proven aircraft and the benefits of reliability and survivability that are promised by a modern design. We need lift capability and agility.

Mr. Colvin

Will my hon. Friend deal with the point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) on the specification of the EH101? My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State confirmed before the Select Committee that the EH101 meets the Ministry of Defence's required specification. Will the Minister confirm that that is so?

Mr. Aitken

I can confirm that. As my right hon. and learned Friend said, we have looked at this very carefully, and the EH101 meets the specifications that we have laid down.

Although the specifications of the Chinook and of the EH101 are fine, there is no perfect solution to the catalogue of requirements that I have outlined. There would seem to be clear operational support attractions in a mixed fleet solution as well as the industrial advantages to which many hon. Members have drawn attention, but the prices quoted by the manufacturers will be crucial to our choice. I cannot stress this latter point too strongly. I was very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome mentioned it in a passage of some eloquence. Overall value for money is the key. I shall certainly be delighted to see him coming down the corridor if he brings me further news of price reductions from any manufacturer.

Sir Jim Spicer

My hon. Friend is quite right to say that there must be value for money, but one manufacturer has been producing helicopters for the past 30 years and is determined to dominate the world market. It might be prepared to enter into unfair competition with the aim of destroying the opponent's capability of breaking into its potential market. Surely there comes a point when price ceases to be a factor, and we have to bear in mind the national interest.

Mr. Aitken

Of course we bear in mind the national interest, and, although my hon. Friend is right to signal some anxiety on this point, we in the Ministry of Defence were not born yesterday. Any manufacturing company whose product has had a long run could, towards the end of the run, offer a much cheaper price—my hon. Friend calls it an unfair price, but it would be a much cheaper price—compared with a company that is bringing on the newest technology just after development. As I tried to say earlier, not just in product but in price one would to some extent be comparing apples and pears. I did not use the phrase "financial price" so much as "value for money", which is the key calculation. I was simply stressing that, in the final judgment, overall value for money is the key to procurement decisions.

We are now in the last stages of our studies and deliberations. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare spoke with all his experience as a former Defence Minister of delaying tactics by service interests. I assure him that Ministers have gripped the issue firmly and are determined to move forward speedily. We are well aware of the urgency of the matter and of the urgency of our forces' requirements. We are also aware of the industrial case, which has been made so well tonight.

I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Carlisle by not being able to make an announcement on the way forward before the recess. I assure the House that we hope to make a further announcement soon.