HC Deb 22 March 1999 vol 328 cc4-5
2. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

What progress his Department is making in acquiring strategic airlift capability. [75965]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Spellar)

We received bids at the end of January for competing aircraft to meet our requirements for both short and longer-term strategic airlift capability. MOD officials are now assessing those bids. We will announce the outcome to the House once decisions have been made.

Mr. Bercow

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that that was a lamentably complacent response to my question. Given that it is now several months since Ministers described the need for four Boeing C17s as "urgent", will the hon. Gentleman tell the House today when those aircraft will be in service with the RAF, or whether he envisages that the country will be forced into the ignominious position of having to lease old Russian Antonovs?

Mr. Spellar

One wonders who the Government were before May 1997 and why the hon. Gentleman displays mock indignation on this issue. We are considering possible alternatives—C17 or its equivalent. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Antonov, among others, is being considered by potential industrial participants. We are conducting a proper evaluation to find out which fits our need and which would fulfil our longer-term requirements. A little less fake indignation and a little more examination of the facts would serve the hon. Gentleman well.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Can the Minister confirm that the delay in the lease of the C17s is because of problems with military exports from the United States? Is he now looking more favourably on the Airbus A400M option, which appeared at one time to be shelved? Can he not rule out at least some of the Antonov aircraft, which would be particularly ancient and really not equivalent to the C17s?

Mr. Spellar

The B52 could be described as ancient, but it seems still to be a very effective aircraft in its particular field of operation. Our short-term requirement is for out-size airlift. We are also considering our longer-term requirement for major airlift. We are examining synchronisation between the two requirements and whatever degree of commonality is possible if that will provide the best mix. We are examining the best possible outcomes and we hope as a result to remedy the deficiencies in heavy lift, in the air and at sea, that we took over when we came to office.