HL Deb 17 May 1965 vol 266 cc291-8

3.35 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 Anglo-French collaboration on aircraft projects. The Statement is as follows:

"After discussion with our French colleagues, MM. Messmer and Jacquet, my right honourable friend the Minister of Aviation and I have to-day signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the joint development of two military aircraft. The first is a supersonic fixed-wing aircraft which we shall use both in the R.A.F. and Royal Navy as an advanced trainer to replace the Hunter and the Gnat, and which the French will use both as a trainer and in the light strike rôle. Both Governments will commit enough funds to enable the prototype stage of aircraft and engine to be completed, and the intention of both Governments is to proceed to full production.

"Both Governments are convinced that there will be a wide variety of uses for aircraft with variable geometry in the middle and late 1970s and thereafter and this is the basis for the work which is to be done on the second aircraft. The Memorandum of Understanding provides for each side to examine such an aircraft in relation to the projected operational needs, to formulate the technical specification and to make preliminary industrial studies, with the full intention of entering upon a joint project in due course. Both Governments will commit funds for the design, construction and development of the engine and the provision of engines for the prototype aircraft. Safeguards have been written into the Memorandum to enable either Government to withdraw for reasons of national importance.

"This Agreement puts the seal on the recent understanding between President de Gaulle and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. It offers far-reaching prospects for the future of our respective aircraft industries and an exciting challenge to the skill and experience of our scientists and engineers on the frontiers of aerodynamics."

3.39 p.m.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for repeating this Statement—and also for putting the "Royal" back into "Royal Navy", which I noticed was not in the original text. I should like to ask the noble Lord a number of supplementary questions with regard to the Statement. In the first place, I notice that some form of withdrawal clause has been included in this Memorandum of Understanding. I should like to ask the noble Lord whether this covers both projects, or only the variable geometry project. Secondly, there has been a good deal of speculation about the British firms which might be involved with these two important projects. I believe that British manufacturers of air engines, either in existence or on development, which would be suitable for the fixed-wing project and quite possibly for the variable geometry project, and, as your Lordships know, the British Aircraft Corporation, have done a great deal of work on variable geometry.

Can the noble Lord say anything in relation to the prospects of individual British firms in regard to these two projects? Further, can the noble Lord tell your Lordships anything about other projects which may be ripe for joint development? I believe that the Services have fairly early requirements for an airborne early-warning aircraft and for new helicopter types, and there is also the air bus. There is a lot to be said for developing projects like these with our European partners. Can the noble Lord tell us what these prospects are?

While I do not in any way wish to decry the importance of this bilateral agreement with the French, I would urge Her Majesty's Government to seek the widest area for such co-operation in this matter of joint aircraft development with our friends and allies in Europe. There is much to be said for using Western European Union as the focus and framework of such co-operation. Can the noble Lord tell us the Government's views on this aspect of the matter?


My Lords, I hope that I can remember all the noble Lord's questions. I believe that the first one was about withdrawing. Either side may withdraw from either project by giving twelve months' notice. Until June 1, 1967, either side can withdraw from the variable geometry aircraft without giving twelve months' notice. A Government withdrawing will be required, if the other Government so wishes, to complete its work on the engine within the agreed financial limits. But I would stress that we should not have entered into the Agreement if we thought it likely we should later wish to withdraw.

The noble Lord asked about the firms involved. The British Aircraft Corporation has been chosen for the airframes in both projects. As to the engines, Rolls Royce have been chosen for the strike-trainer aircraft engine, and Bristol Siddeley for the variable geometry aircraft engine. I cannot give the noble Lord the names of the French aircraft and aircraft engine firms, but I understand that the French Government will be announcing the names to-morrow. On the question of co-operation on other aircraft, such as helicopters and airborne early-warning aircraft, I would only say, that discussions are now going on. Having heard something of the discussions to-day, I can say that both Governments are extremely keen to find the greatest measure of agreement on all these projects.

I do not think that I should like to comment on the aero-bus at this stage, because there is still a lot of studying to be done. The final point, in which I share the noble Earl's views, is that both Governments recognise the advantages which might flow from associating further countries with these projects—but at the right time. Both the French and the British Governments have agreed at the appropriate stage to consult with other allied Governments and to invite them to participate if this seems worth while.


My Lords, I, too, should like to welcome the Statement which has just been made by the noble Lord, the Minister of Defence for the Royal Air Force. It is a good thing that we should co-operate with our friends on the other side of the Channel, but it seems to me—and I think the noble Lord went some way towards this view at the end of his remarks—that it would contribute greatly to the whole point of this if we could get some guarantee from other countries in Western European Union that they themselves will equip their own forces with the aircraft which will come out of this type of Agreement. A danger at the moment, as we all know, is that the Americans are virtually swamping the Continent by offering "fourpence off each packet", so to speak. If we can get a foothold in on the Continent and if the Continent will buy Anglo-French, possibly Anglo-Italian, or even Anglo-German projects it would be that much better for Europe.

Will there be any possibility of extending this sort of Agreement to the NORD 262, which is considered to be the best replacement—even the Americans agree with this—for the DC 3? I do not expect an answer to that now, but would like to put that to the Minister. I do not very much like the escape clause. It seems to me that if we go into an Agreement with our Allies on the Continent, we do not want to be seen to be too ready to pull out. I hope our French friends are not too worried about this escape clause.

Finally, as between the airframe and engines, I am glad to hear that both Bristols and Rolls Royce are to be given contracts. I am sorry that only B.A.C. are to be chosen for the airframes, but at least that is something. I was worried by the original Statement that our part of the contract was going to be entirely related to engines. Shall we be making a few airframes, and the French making a few airframes, or shall we do a part of the airframe and the French another part? If the answer to this cannot be given, I shall understand. So long as our own airframe constructors have a very good part in this, that to my mind is what really matters. Finally, will our technological and inventive brains—which, after all, are our biggest assets in this country—be put to full use in this matter?


I hope, again, that I can remember all the noble Earl's points. If I cannot, I will see that his views, particularly in relation to other aircraft projects, are fully taken into account. I think that it is necessary to set this Agreement in the future against the spirit in which it is signed. I would again emphasise that there is absolutely no doubt that both the French Government and Her Majesty's Government are determined to make this a success. There is a very great future for our respective countries and for our aircraft industries. I am quite sure that we have entered into this Agreement with a firm determination to go through with it. It seems to be only prudent to leave escape clauses according to how the situation develops, but we are very confident that this is as near a certainty as one can find. It will cover a wide range of operations. There will be the question of replacing in the late 'seventies the Lightning and the Buccaneer, not to mention the trainers, the Gnat and the Hunter. Particular emphasis has been put on engine development in order to get on with that. This is really a first requirement. I have already dealt briefly with the possibility of co-operating with other countries.

We are very confident that, for the same reason that we have the need for these aircraft, other countries will have the need, and that they will be tailored to a wide international need. Whatever the noble Lord may have said about competition from across the Atlantic, I share his confidence that British and French skill, in co-operation and, above all, sharing the research and development costs—which is such a big factor in these matters, and which was part of the tragedy of the earlier aircraft deals—will be fully competitive. The noble Lord also asked me some questions about the contracting arrangements. The Agreement has been signed only to-day, and I would rather not go into it beyond saying that this is already a matter of direct consultation, in order to ensure the best arrangements that will suit the contractors of both countries.


My Lords, is the noble Lord able to give any information about the rough timetable? He spoke of the late 1970s in regard to variable geometry. Is the time for the trainer rather shorter than that, or is this just a very general idea?


My Lords, there has always been the problem of matching the time scales of both countries. The French want the strike trainer by 1970 and will take the first production run. We hope to be taking production of the strike trainer in 1973–74. Of the variable geometry aircraft I would only say that we hope it will come in in the second half of the 1970s. I am well aware, from the days of the previous Government, that expressions like "the second half" are not very precise, but that is the best information we can give at the moment.


My Lords, as one who has always been interested in good Anglo-French relations, I should like to welcome the noble Lord's Statement this afternoon, which seems to be another step towards greater practical and functional co-operation between our two countries. It would seem to me, too, that this co-operation should assist our aircraft from an exporting point of view, if one bears in mind that the French aircraft industry last year exported to 59 countries, mostly outside the Common Market area and the franc area, and that of the total number of exports 76 per cent. were for military equipment. So it seems that this understanding with the French Government should assist our capacity to export.

My noble friend Lord Jellicoe referred to the question of other projects. May I ask the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, whether the question of the joint production of the Alouette helicopter was raised in the discussion, or whether it will be in the not too distant future, because it seems to me that of the French helicopters the Alouette 2 and 3 and the Alouette Astazou are the most popular from the point of view of their exports. I was just wondering whether it would be possible for us to co-operate on the manufacture of such a helicopter, as the noble Lord will be aware that B.A.O.R. have French helicopters.

Finally, I should like to ask the noble Lord one question with regard to the co-operation which is being opened up to other interested Governments. He used the words "as appropriate", and I understand that those words appear in the joint communiqué which was issued in April. Can the noble Lord say what he means by "as appropriate"? In other words, when and how would such an approach be made to countries other than France?


By Lords, I am not surprised that the noble Lord, whose interest in Anglo-French co-operation and in aircraft is well known, should ask me about this Agreement. He asked me some very relevant questions, but I am afraid—if he will forgive me—that I would rather not answer them. The Agreement has only just been signed. Certainly, we are interested in co-operation over helicopters; but this will be a matter of discussion. As regards the question of co-operation with other countries, as I am sure the noble Lord appreciates—he is quite right to ask—"as appropriate" is a very carefully chosen expression.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether this form of technical co-operation with the French is limited to aircraft, or whether it is intended that it should extend to other forms of defence equipment which may need considerable expenditure for their development?


My Lords, that question does not really arise directly out of this Statement. But, certainly, it the spirit of the discussions continues, as I am sure it will, I hope that this will lead to wider co-operation and not only in the field of military equipment.


My Lords, the noble Lord has given us a lot of supplementary information, for which I, for one, am grateful, but I should like to come back on one point, and that is the time scale for the variable geometry project. I was a little concerned to hear in the statement what is said about the middle and, indeed, the late 1970s; what is said about development of a joint project, or entering into a joint project, in clue course; and, indeed, what the noble Lord himself said about the late 1970s. I know that there are many factors here, but I would urge Her Majesty's Government to press ahead with this project with all possible speed. Projects which are undertaken slowly often turn out to be projects undertaken in the most expensive way.

Secondly, I think that there may well be a very considerable market for this particular aircraft, and not only within the United Kingdom and France. But I fear that there will be every chance of our missing the market unless we make real haste with it, and I hope the noble Lord will be able to confirm that it is the intention of the two Governments to press ahead with this variable geometry project with all possible and all practicable speed.


My Lords, that is the intention. The point I really want to make is that our own needs for this particular aircraft arise rather later than those of the French. I hope past experience will not be repeated, but if there is some slippage I hope that the effect will be that the aircraft will arrive at the right time, because in certain respects they are scheduled ahead of the time when they are needed.