HL Deb 13 December 1965 vol 271 cc503-7

3.43 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to intervene to repeat a Statement which is being made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence in another place on the option for the F 111A:

"On April 6 I informed the House that Her Majesty's Government had no intention of requiring our forces to forgo the aircraft then planned to replace the Canberra towards the end of this decade, without making quite certain that they could carry out their operational tasks by other means. I also said that it would not be possible to define these tasks precisely until the Defence Review was completed.

"Her Majesty's Government secured from the United States Government an option on the F 111A aircraft under an arrangement which did not require the option to be exercised until the end of this year. The arrangements made also provided that any initial order would be a very small one and that further orders would not be required until April, 1967. As I indicated at the time, we wanted to be sure that we would not need to place even an initial order until we had completed the main work on our Defence Review.

"I believe it would be a mistake to take a decision on the Canberra replacement separately from other major decisions on the future structure of our forces. In any case the House will wish to consider the implications of the Report of the Committee under Lord Plowden, which is to be published this week, before final decisions on the aircraft programme are taken. I have therefore asked Mr. McNamara to postpone the initial F 111A option for two months until March 1. I am glad to say that he has agreed to this request. I believe this change will meet the convenience of the House."


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement by the Secretary Of State for Defence. I should also like to ask whether he agrees with me that two of the most important ingredients are I believe it would be a mistake to take a decision on the Canberra replacement separately form other major decisions on the future structure of our forces"; and, a sentence later, I have therefore asked Mr. McNamara to postpone the initial 111 A option for two months until March 1. Taken in conjunction, these two sentences suggest that by March 1 all major decisions for the future structure of the Armed Forces will have been taken. Parliament has a right to expect a major Statement by then reflecting the completed Defence Review. This is my conclusion from the Statement. If that is so, I should like to ask the noble Lord how this accords (and I am not reluctant to welcome it) with previous Government explanations—that of course this is not the way things are done; that findings and recommendations are announced as and when they are reached and confirmed?


My Lords, may I endorse half-heartedly what the noble Lord has said? I think the Government surely have rather more of a case than the noble Lord made out. The first order, I gather, is to be a very small one, and that surely can be reconsidered after this very welcome pause which Mr. McNamara has been good enough to offer us. I think that the Government should be congratulated on getting this slight delay until the Plowden Report is out, and until we know better where we are. In the meantime, may I ask for an assurance that they are giving full consideration to the Mirage which, after all, has a Rolls-Royce engine and which, I am told, meets with very considerable support in the ranks of the Royal Air Force?


My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on his deductive powers. I think that his reading between the lines is very good. I quite agree that it is very difficult to give a clear picture as to how these decisions are arrived at, but some clearly can be taken right away, some cannot be postponed and have to be taken, and others we hope to take when the force structure is settled. This, of course, has some bearing on numbers and whereas, as I say, some decisions have been taken and we might have been compelled to take a decision on the F 111A, it is obviously more convenient to postpone it.

On the particular point of the noble Lord, Lord Rea, he is aware, of course, that there is a debate in another place on the Mirage Spey. I would only say to the noble Lord that the Mirage Spey as such, as an aircraft, does not exist. The Mirage exists as a high level bomber. I do not think this is the time to debate the merits, but I am not myself aware that there is any very considerable support in the R.A.F. for this particular solution of the problem. But it is a complex one and, though I would be willing to pursue it further, I must stress that at the moment the Mirage Spey does not exist as an aircraft.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord two questions? As it was announced last week that Her Majesty's Government's evaluation of the Spey Mirage IV has been completed, and that this evaluation was being studied by the Secretary of State for Defence and the Minister of Aviation, may I ask the noble Lord whether he or his right honourable friend would be prepared to make a Statement with regard to the feasibility or otherwise of the Mirage Spey as an aircraft for the R.A.F. before the expiry of the extended option, or at any rate before a final Statement is made regarding a decision on the F 111A?

In view of the noble Lord's comment concerning the non-existence of the Mirage Spey, may I draw his attention to a letter inThe Timesof December 6, written by Mr. Allen Greenwood, a Director of the British Aircraft Corporation? In effect, it stressed that it would be a suitable aircraft, that it has flown, and that it could be adapted very effectively and cheaply and within the time scale.

The second question is this. As the noble Lord referred to the Plowden Committee's recommendations, which I understand are coming out next Wednesday—it was mentioned in The Times to-day; I presume there was some leak or some knowledge available of some of the recommendations—does he not feel that, as one of the recommendations that the Committee came out strongly in favour of was co-operation with Continental countries, that could be implemented most usefully in regard to the Mirage Spey?


I think the noble Lord will be surprised when he reads some of the contents of the Plowden Committee's Report, although obviously I will not anticipate to-day what is in it. Certainly, speaking for Her Majesty's Government, I would say that we are strongly in favour—and I would stress this, very strongly in favour—of co-operation with Europe, and particularly Anglo-French co-operation, in relation to the Jaguar aircraft and to the variable geometry aircraft. This question of the choice of aircraft is very much a matter of time and of the particular rôle for which it is intended. I stress again that the Mirage Spey as such does not exist. I have the gravest doubt (a statement will undoubtedly be made on this) whether it would in fact arrive in time or would meet the requirement. It is, after all, tied to long concrete runways. This is not to reflect on the Mirage as an aircraft—it is a first-class aircraft for the rôle for which it is intended—but I cannot comment effectively on an aircraft which must lie in the future. Fitting a new engine and developing the aircraft for a low-level rôle, carrying out the necessary fatigue tests and, above all, developing the electronic equipment to fit it for that rôle is a major undertaking. To that extent—although I read the letter in question, I think the noble Lord must assume that the Government will announce a decision very shortly—my own opinion is that the Mirage, unfortunately, will not meet our requirements.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister for clarification on one point in his reply? I understood him to say that he found no great anxiety in the Air Force—I think his exact words were "no great support in the Air Force"—for the project of the Mirage Spey. Is he telling us, in fact, that that is the Air Staff's view? Because it is a very important fact, we want to know whether he is in fact revealing to us the Air Staff's view as to the Mirage Spey project.


I feel I must confine my remarks to the ones I have already made, that I have failed to find any great support for the Mirage Spey in the R.A.F.; and this is in relation to the Statement that was made. I think it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the opinions of the Air Staff.


But when the noble Lord talks about the Royal Air Force, I think we are entitled to ask him whether he means the Service in general or whether he as a Minister is stating the Air Staff view. I think we must press him on that.


The noble Lord can press me, but I can only repeat again what I said in reply to a particular point: that I have failed to find the support in favour of the Mirage Spey that the noble Lord suggested existed; and I really do not think it will do the noble Lord much good to press me further on this.