HL Deb 12 May 1966 vol 274 cc853-75

6.53 p.m.

THE EARL OF KINNOULL rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the concern felt at the true cost and performance of the F 111A Aircraft; and whether they can now announce if further orders are likely to be placed in the near future; and what proportion of the existing orders will have British equipment installed. The noble Earl said: My Lords, may I say at the outset that when I put down this Unstarred Question some weeks ago I was unaware of the debate that was to take place in another place yesterday on the same subject, but on studying the report of that debate I think it is fair to say that it concentrated more on the variable and geometric performance of the Minister of Aviation than on the true value of the aircraft. I have put down this Unstarred Question to-night because of the growing suspicion and criticisms among British aircraft designers that not only was this aircraft originally considered and ordered at a time when it was hardly off the drawing board and at a time when there were no guaranteed performance figures available, but also that there is a strong suspicion that the manufacturer's claims for the capabilities of this aircraft will never be achieved. If these criticisms were based solely on the opinions of British designers it would be fair to say that they could be considered biased, but when one learns of the doubts about this aircraft which exist in the minds of some senior American Service chiefs—the very people who should be the best judges of the matter—then, I think, one can take them extremely seriously.

It is no secret that this aircraft, the brain-child of Mr. McNamara, has caused some of the most bitter controversies in the Pentagon and has led to resignations. It is also no secret that the aircraft is dubbed by those in America who oppose it as Mr. McNamara's second Edsel. The point I should like to make here is that should Mr. McNamara resign or retire from the position he at present holds, are the Government fully satisfied that the opponents of this aircraft will not force its cancellation and so leave us with a second Skybolt disaster?


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Earl? It would be helpful if he could inform the House what these particular criticisms arc. I know that he himself has some technical ones. We should like to know the sort of criticisms that have been made, as he says, by senior officers of the United States Air Force.


My Lords, the criticisms are very similar to the British criticisms to which I shall be referring later. Perhaps I could ask the noble Lord at this point whether he could clarify a recent misunderstanding over an article that appeared in the Daily Express on April 25, which recorded critical reports on this aircraft by a sub-committee of the House of Representatives. The following day I understand that Whitehall dismissed this article as inaccurate. I wonder whether the noble Lord could take this opportunity to enlarge on that statement.


My Lords, I should find it easier to do so if I knew to which aircraft the noble Earl was referring.


My Lords, I am talking about the F 111A and F 111B.

Turning now to specific criticisms and doubts of the operational performance of this aircraft, the chief criticism, as I understand it, is of perhaps the one thing, above all others, that decided the British to order the aircraft: its long-range capabilities. This feature was emphasised by the noble Lord on March 8, during the debate on the Defence Estimates. He then stated that the aircraft had an immense range-potential and was to be used as protection for all three Services; that it was to used in conjunction with the new Commando ships which would supersede the aircraft carriers, and also that it was to fulfil a rÔle as a tactical strike reconnaissance aircraft to provide reconnaissance information, while, at the same time, acting as a conventional deterrent. Thus we see that this aircraft will become by 1970 the linch-pin of our Far East military strategy. Its success will be vital to us, and our dependence on it will be enormous.

But, my Lords, let us suppose, for one awful moment, that its practical range under operational conditions proves far less than has been claimed. What then do we fall back on? It may be of interest to the noble Lord to learn that some of the British designers feel that while they are impressed with the tests that this aeroplane has gone through (the 22,000 hours of wind tunnel testing and 25 million man hours of design development), they are not so impressed with the claims by the manufacturers that the range of the aircraft will be over 7,000 miles.

I should like to ask the noble Lord now whether he would answer some of the points I wish to raise in regard to the specific performance of the aircraft. First, could he advise the House when he expects the first practical demonstration to take place of the range capabilities of this aircraft with a full military load aboard? And how soon will the model of this aircraft be available for the Royal Air Force to ascertain its performance? Secondly, can the noble Lord comment on the report that a serious drag problem has arisen—I am told that it is something like 25 per cent. of the original calculation; and would he also confirm that when this aircraft is used as a conventional bomber, with armed bombs strapped under its wings, it is quite true to say that the wings cannot be folded back more than 26 degrees, therefore again causing excessive drag? Thirdly, can the noble Lord confirm whether the aircraft has now flown its supersonic speed at sea level and whether such tests have proved satisfactory? Lastly, would the noble Lord comment on the criticism that the present design of the aircraft has caused it to become overweight to the extent that the military payload will suffer on operational flights?

To turn briefly to the cost of these 50 aircraft, the House will recall that on March 8 it was advised by the noble Lord that the cost of the basic aircraft had been agreed with the American Government at £2.1 million. But the loophole which then appeared was that the cost of the modifications had not been agreed, and although the noble Lord did venture a guess that the total cost would be £2½ million, I should like to ask him why the Royal Air Force could not have been given time to specify the exact modifications required, and the manufacturers given time to arrange for some definite estimates to be given. What will happen, for instance, if the total cost of each aircraft rises eventually to, say, £4 million? Will this, say, reduce the number of the aircraft in order to keep within the £280 million programme? It is perhaps interesting to recall the experience of the Royal Australian Air Force with this aeroplane. I believe that since 1962, when 24 of the F 111A aircraft were ordered, their costs have risen by 64 per cent.

I should like to ask the noble Lord one further point on the question of the cost of spares. I have noticed that the Government have tried to stabilise the cost of spares by linking the cost to the same cost that the American Air Force will suffer, or will have to pay for their spares. What 'happens as a result of the modifications?—because surely there will be many spares which will not be the same as those used for the American aircraft. Will there be some stabilisation figure there as well?

To turn, lastly, to the question of the British equipment being fitted to this aircraft, I very much hope that the noble Lord will be able to give some hope to British manufacturers. Perhaps he could say whether the Spey engine has been considered as an alternative to the TF 30 engine. I am sure he realises, perhaps, more than anyone, that any orders British manufacturers receive not only encourage incentive but also keep them abreast of the sophisticated equipment that is required to-day. My Lords, may I finish by saying that I realise that the noble Lord has great faith in this aircraft, and is in the unique position of knowing all the facts—or perhaps one might say all the facts which General Dynamics have allowed him to know. I hope that this evening he will go beyond his natural gift for persuasion and will be able to give some real grounds for reassurance in respect of the genuine doubts and suspicions, some of which I have tried to raise this evening, that exist about this aircraft.

7.5 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for having put down this Question and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, may be grateful, too, for the occasion it offers hint to explain at least part of the conundrum set by some of, his colleagues. Frankly, I found it very hard to follow through the pages of Hansard, in both Houses, the course of reasoning which has kept Defence Ministers and Aviation Ministers apparently still happy that they did the right thing in scrapping the TSR 2 in favour of the F 111A.

In order to sell this unpalatable decision to Parliament, and to the British public, the Government first provided a concept of 150 F 1l1As instead of 150 TSR 2s. We are now down to 50 F 111As, or we shall be when they are delivered; and no one, I think, can suggest that they represent the equal of 150 TSR 2s. In trying to follow the Government's reasoning for this dramatic run-down I found Mr. Denis Healey on July 21 last year saying: One of the major differences since the last Election"— that was the Election of nine months earlier— is that the requirement for a long-range strike aircraft for a strategic nuclear role is no longer accepted by Her Majesty's Government so far as the Soviet Union is concerned."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 716, col. 1553–21/7/65.] Ten months later, in paragraph 8 of the White Paper, we learned that 50 instead of 150 F 111s were to be bought. The majority of these, it was made clear, would be kept in the Far East. This number was estimated by my right honourable friend Mr. Enoch Powell, without any Government dissent, to be 35. Of these 35, again without ministerial contradiction, he suggested that 25, at most, would be operational at any one time. That was before any wastage occurred. I readily concede that it is not customary to give estimates of the rate of wastage, but this is a force of only 35 planes of this kind, of this capability, in the Far East; that is, East of Suez. Can the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, tell us precisely how these will be used and what their rôle will be? This obviously must have been carefully thought out, but we are not privy to that thinking, and have not yet been told when they will be delivered and when they are expected to be in service in the Far East.


My Lords, if I may interrupt the noble Lord, I have no intention of giving this information. It does not arise on the terms of the Question on the Order Paper. If the noble Lord wishes to debate this subject, he can put down a Motion, but we have a very precise and very narrow Question. I should have been very happy to give the information, but we have to respect our own Rules of Order.


My Lords, I was looking upon this Question, as I said, as giving an opportunity to the noble Lord. If he does not want to take that opportunity, of course I cannot force him to do so.


It would be out of order.


My Lords, I am in order in saying that these aircraft will have to continue at least in a reconnaissance role for ten years, and my noble friend, in his Question, is interested in the efficacy of this aircraft in the role for which it is required, since the problems of maintenance in the Far East are one of the major headaches of any Air Force commander.

I wonder how these 35 aircraft are expected to compose an effective force, and endure as an effective force for ten years, once they are placed in service. I use this period of ten years because it has been mentioned ministerially as the expected life span, and because, again so far as I know, the Anglo-French VG aircraft will not have any reconnaissance capability. I believe that talks regarding this aircraft have been taking place in France during this week and I had thought, though I think it no longer, that the Minister might be ready to give a little more information on this, as it has a bearing on what the TSR 2 will be called upon for.


The F 111.


What the F 111 will be called upon for—it was wishful thinking.

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord will not think that I am exaggerating the problem of maintenance in the Far East, and he, as well as I, will have spoken to senior officers in the Far East, in places such as Singapore and other military airfields in South-East Asia, and will have had vividly brought home to him the circumstances of the continual fight against corrosion, for instance, in virtually every part of the aircraft, including the most delicate parts, which can be made accessible for examination and replacement only by an elaborate dismantling. These maintenance problems in Singapore and other Eastern bases are superimposed upon the increasing demands which the new highly sophisticated American aircraft make upon those who maintain them.

I believe it is right to say that the F 104 Starfighter, which has earned a bad name by reason of the number of accidents suffered while in service with the German Air Force, is not at all a bad plane. The fact is that the German Air Force completely underestimated the maintenance requirements they would have to face. I am not asking the noble Lord to corroborate what I have said, but simply to agree that, as American aircraft increase in sophistication, their upkeep becomes a matter of increasing expense, both in time and in money. I should like him to say whether this expense in money has been fully taken into account in the estimates so far made, and whether the expense in time has been taken into account in supposing that 33 F 111s stationed in the Far East can really comprise an effective force, over a period of ten years, with a reserve of only fifteen to call upon from home. I find it extremely hard to see how this can be.

The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, has at all times, as my noble friend said, spoken very highly of the capabilities of the F 111A, and we know well that, allowing for his natural optimism and ebullience, he would certainly not mislead the House or anyone else on this matter. His faith in its future is sincere. What would be interesting to know is how close and continuous his supply of information may be. For instance how many R.A.F. pilots have so far flown the F 111A? How often have they flown it, and how often do they report?

I have in mind the fact that on July 21 of last year Mr. Healey said We are in close touch with the Department of Defence on the progress of the F 111 programme.


If I may interrupt the noble Lord, I should like to know how many R.A.F. pilots he thinks ought to fly it so that we may know about it.


I must say that the noble Lord would never have let me get away with a question like that from that Bench a year or two ago. I have never heard such nerve. It is the responsibility of the Government and the Minister to make these decisions, and not that of the Opposition. The noble Lord's face is very red, and I am happy to see it.

On March 3 this year Mr. Healey was asked how many R.A.F. pilots had flown the F 111, and whether they had evaluated the aircraft's performance. Mr. Healey's reply was: A senior R.A.F. test pilot is currently being given the opportunity to fly the F111 during its development test programme. He has already flown the aircraft at least twice and his reports have been included in our evaluation of the aircraft."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. Commons, Vol. 725 (No. 60), col. 351;3/3/66]. Clearly, the noble Lord himself is as interested as any of us in the opinion of the R.A.F. officers on the performance and handling of the aircraft upon which they will have to depend for some years ahead.

I should also like to ask the noble Lord two further questions, of which I have given him notice; they are of a technical nature. First, has there been any compressor stall difficulty in the flight tests of the F 111A? Secondly, has there been any instance of excessive stick-loading in pitch during variable geometry tests?

My Lords, this aircraft, the F 111, was the subject of debate in another place yesterday in the context of cost and, in particular, the offset of that cost by dollar earnings. Particular attention was focused on that portion of the offset provided by collaborative sales with third countries; that is to say, deals in which the Americans stand back to allow us an open field for our salesmanship. It would be entirely improper and un-Parliamentary to seek to continue that debate in this Chamber to-day, even if it had not been, as it was, a Censure debate on a Minister sitting in that House. But I do not see how we can divorce the question of cost from any discussion of the F 111A purchase, because the alleged difference in cost between this aircraft and the TSR 2 was made the whole basis of the Government's apologia for cancelling the latter and purchasing the former, to the undisguised, uninhibited and understandable jubilation of the American aircraft industry. Therefore, in spite of, and not because of, yesterday's debate in another place, I feel it imperative to say something on this aspect of the purchase and offset arrangements, as did my noble friend.

Of yesterday's debate all I will say is that it made it more impossible than before, especially in the closing moments of the Secretary of State's speech, to follow the Government's reasoning, and even the order of events. There can scarcely ever have been a more anachronistic and contradictory chronicle of events over a short period of months. It seemed that Ministers understood it as little as the rest of us. Yesterday we had the spectacle, described or revealed to us, of Ministers who should be working in the closest harmony tripping over each other's pretensions and panegyrics.

One was immensely proud of having persuaded the Americans to step back"— that was the phrase—to enable our salesmen to obtain a £100 million contract in Saudi Arabia. Another was equally pleased by the fact that, with his encouragement, of course, those same salesmen had obtained the contract in the teeth of American opposition. We saw Ministers trying to persuade Parliament that both claims were equally true. Not surprisingly, they made a pretty muddled and unconvincing job of it. Consequently, I think it is only fair to give the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, an opportunity to explain this evening the real value and application of this offset, more than ever in the light of one particular deal, that with Saudi Arabia, because I dare swear that nobody understood the value and validity of that arrangement as a result of listening to Ministers' protestations yesterday.


My Lords, I think what the noble Lord is now doing is a gross abuse of this House. This is not a Motion. This is a specific Question which has been put on the Order Paper. The noble Lord has gone well beyond the terms of this Question. I suggest to him that this is an abuse of the Rules of the House.


I do not follow the noble Lord's argument. I do not think I have spoken outside the terms of this Question. I have mentioned matters referred to in the Question as set down on the Order Paper. Everything that I have said is related to the terms of that Question. The noble Lord the Chief Whip must have heard that my noble friend referred to the cost, and I am referring to the cost. Our ability to undertake this cost was, in fact, excused and described by the Government in relation to their own achievement in obtaining an offset in the form of dollar earnings. I cannot see how the noble Lord does not think that this is directly connected with the Question.




The noble Lord and I differ. But if this were submitted to any objective judge of Parliamentary procedure, I am sure the decision would go my way.


I will certainly take note in the Report to-morrow of what the noble Lord has said and see what steps should be taken in this matter.


Now I will relate briefly to what I understand to be the bewildering characteristics of this particular deal—and I am afraid I insist that I have a right to speak of this in the context of the cost of this aircraft.


Hear, heara


I should like the noble Lord to follow me carefully, since it was more than a prototype of the sort of advantage which the Government claim to obtain from their offset arrangement with the United States Government. It represents £100 million—280 million dollars; the major part of the 400 million dollars—for collaborative sales to third countries. Moreover, these sales to third countries form a major part of the arrangement as a whole. The story of what I understand to have happened calls into question the whole advantage in concrete terms of these arrangements, and I relate this again to the mention of cost made in my noble friend's Question.

Before December 14 the contract had in fact been agreed between our own salesmen and the Saudi Arabian Government, and as a result the former have been rightly praised and congratulated on both sides of Parliament for their success. On December 14, a delegation of 22 very high-level salesmen, mostly from Lockheed and Raytheon, were flown to Saudi Arabia, led again, according to report, by Mr. Gross, the chairman of Lockheed, and Mr. David Rockefeller. Accompanied by the United States Charge d'Affaires in Rhayad, and backed by a goodwill message from President Johnson, they presented a revised version of the American contract aimed at undercutting and scuppering ours. To that end, they were prepared to cut the price of their own Starfighter sale, in competition with our Lightnings, by no less than 70 million dollars.

Happily, this reported last minute and desperate attempt by the Americans to scoop the contract from under our noses failed. This sort of activity one might say is typical of American high-pressure salesmanship. It is widely admired and envied by their competitors. But how Her Majesty's Government can regard it, or describe it, as the Americans "standing back" to make way for us the noble Lord will have to explain, unless he can assure us that the whole report is totally untrue.

7.22 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for raising this subject and for giving me an opportunity of setting at rest some of the anxieties to which he referred. My speech will relate mainly to the technical points that have been put forward and, indeed, to the Question on the Order Paper. I shall deal rather more briefly with the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald, at the end.

It would be a disappointment if, following the quite unprecedented amount of information the Government have provided on the reason for and the costs of adopting the F 111A as the Canberra replacement, there were still public concern about the true cost and performance of this aircraft, but after hearing the performance of the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald, I really rather despair of giving information that will be intelligible to certain members of the Opposition. It is a little trying when a Government have given as much information as we have—information of a kind which was never given by the previous Administration. We have given all the detailed information on cost and performance that we could consistent with security restrictions. If I may say so, we have gone very much further than the previous Administration in giving actual numbers. The noble Lord's Government never gave numbers of purchases of this kind.

I will deal first of all with the particular anxieties that have been expressed. I am not quite clear how far the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, is concerned about Press articles and the reports of the United States Congressional examination of a proposal to introduce the FB 111 into the U.S.A.F., and I asked him to which specific aircraft he was referring. He preferred to use the generic title "F 111". Of course, the FB 111 is a totally different aircraft. The rôle in which it is to be employed, and the bomb load which it is to carry, is different. It is not the aircraft we are buying, and the discussions on the FB 111 as a military aircraft to meet the needs of the United States strategic role are not relevant to our situation. I am sure the noble Earl will accept my point.

Having made that point, I will say something about costs. Once again I shall make an attempt to set this forward in terms that may be intelligible, even to the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald. It is a very difficult problem, because this information has all been given once, but I will give it again and I will try to underline the particular points the noble Earl specifically raised. First of all, as regards the cost of each aircraft, the unit cost, as it is called. Here we have negotiated with the United States a ceiling price, including a contribution to the United States "R and D" costs, of 5.95 million dollars: in other words, £2.1 million for the basic FIIIA. If the average cost over the United States programme works out lower than this, we shall pay that lower price. If it is higher, we shall pay the 5.95 million dollars.

In addition to the basic aircraft—and this was the point about which the noble Earl expressed concern—there are certain special British items we want installed, either instead of United States items, for instance, British communications equipment, or in addition to the United States configuration; in other words, the ability to carry the Anglo-French Martel, or the AJ 168, weapon. On present estimates, the extra costs arising from these special British items will raise the unit cost to around £2½ million. It is hoped—and this is where I should like to come to the noble Earl's fear—to agree on a ceiling price for these extra costs as soon as practicable. But I can only say that his anxiety about escalation—he mentioned a figure of £4,000 million—in my judgment—


Four million.


I beg the noble Earl's pardon. In my opinion that is quite unjustified. We are hoping to negotiate a ceiling price with regard to this relatively small part of the total package of costs. In addition to this present unit cost—and I have given the value of the total capital cost of the buy—there are what we call the programme costs. These are all figures which only two or three months ago no Government had ever given. The programme covers the cost of the aircraft and their support in terms of capital and running costs over the next ten years, and the figure for this comes to about £280 million. I agree that this may need re-reading in order to appreciate it. Out of the £280 million programme costs—and this is over a period of ten years—some £240 million, including United States loan interest, is in dollars. Further dollar payments outside the ten-year support cost period raise the total dollar cost of the programme to the £260 million figure, with which your Lordships are already familiar.

The noble Earl made a point about further orders. As was indicated in paragraph 10 on page 11 of Part I of the Defence White Paper, a total of two orders was envisaged. The first was to be for ten aircraft, and this has now been placed. The second, for a further 40 aircraft, has to be placed not later than April, 1967. The question, therefore, of a further order in the near future does not arise at all. All 50 aircraft will be to the same standard, but because the total order is small and the delivery time scale is tight—the first one is due to come in about 1968, and they should all he in service by the end of 1969 or the beginning of 1970—the scope for substituting British equipment is limited. There will definitely be a British communications fit and there will be a reconnaissance pod which will have at least 85 per cent. British equipment. I should be surprised, however, if the total of British equipment for the whole aircraft were to rise above 10 per cent.

Then the noble Lord referred specifically to the Spey. The installation of the Spey was considered very carefully, but it would have added enormously to the cost for a relatively small order. Noble Lords will recall that a heavy penalty is being paid for installing the Spey into the Phantom. It is not just a question of putting in the engine it means a large amount of special flight testing and some redesign—and let me say in this context that Rolls Royce with the Spey engine, and indeed with other engines, is certainly not short of orders, and also I am satisfied that their position is not endangered by not having had the F 111. Naturally we should have preferred to have the Spey, but it was not economic.

Let me now turn to performance and deal with some of the points made by the noble Earl and also by the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald. We are already agreed that we are not discussing the FB 111, which is an American strategic aircraft. But I think at this point it might be as well (I had not been aware in what terms the noble Lord was going to raise this) if I said something about the criticism to which he referred as emanating from the United States Forces. It is a fact that in this field of aircraft procurement there is a degree of controversy, carried, if I may say so, in the case of the advocacy for certain other aircraft—and I am not now referring to the F 111A—almost beyond the bounds of decency.

Great pressures have been brought to bear to argue for certain aircraft. I am not saying this in respect of the controversy in the United States of America; and I am not really in a position, nor would it be desirable for me, to comment very much about it. But—and on this I am speaking without being able to check my facts but I hope what I say will give some indication—my impression is that the criticism springs from two main sources. First of all, the United States Navy, I understand, were not very keen on standardisation, and we have had the same thing in this country in relation to the P 1154. Secondly, the United States Air Force do not want to give up their advanced manned supersonic bomber for strategic bombing and rely on the FB 111 for this purpose.

As I understand it, there has been no criticism of a serious kind in relation to the F 111A for tactical strike reconnaissance. If there is any such criticism I have not seen it, and that is why I asked whether the noble Lord could give me a little more information. I am not trying to evade this one; it is a difficult area on which to comment and criticise opinions expressed in other areas, but when I go on to describe some of the developments which have been going on, and our views and how they are based, I hope they will to a large extent meet the criticisms which may be in the noble Lord's mind some of which he has specifically mentioned.

During our consideration of the F 111A we paid particular attention to the problems which the prototype aircraft were at that time experiencing in respect of drag and engine performance. Noble Lords will, of course, understand that in any major development programme—I must apologise to your Lordships for speaking for so long, but I have been given a lot of questions to answer—snags will arise and that their solution can often lead to new and different snags. What we had to do was to assess the problems in two main ways: first, to see whether in our view they were likely to be susceptible to a satisfactory solution; and, secondly, to find out what effect they had on our own operational requirement, which one might in rough terms say was the TSR 2 requirement.

We have had the utmost assistance and frankness from the Americans in informing us what steps they have been taking, and I greatly regret the suggestion of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, that General Dynamics have been holding back information from us. As I go on I hope to be able to show that we have access to all the information we need. They have informed us stage by stage of the steps they have been taking to overcome the two main problems connected with engine performance and drag.

So far as the engine performance is concerned, I think I can say that in respect of the R.A.F. requirement the problem has been solved. The noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald, was good enough to give me some advance information on questions of a very technical kind. I trust that he understood them before he asked them, but at any rate I think we shall both understand these ones. He asked in particular about one of the problem areas—compressor stall. There has been trouble with compressor stall, but this is by no means unusual in the early stages of the flight testing of new aircraft and engines, and it should be viewed against the background that the F 111A engines must be capable of effective operation throughout a very wide speed bracket, ranging from as low as 100 knots to a maximum performance in excess of twice the speed of sound. We have full information on the compressor stall problem, as on all matters connected with the F 111A flight tests, and the steps which are being taken to remedy it. In short, the problem has been identified and the solution to it is in sight.

Indeed, the modifications the Americans are carrying out already cover the whole of the flight envelope with which we are concerned. "Flight envelope", the noble Lord will recall, is a shorthand technical term which is intended to embrace the type of sorties which the aircraft will be required to carry out; and, of course, these envelopes vary as between different rôles. That is why I can say with great confidence that these engine modifications which are already being carried out or are planned should solve the problem entirely satisfactorily so far as the flight pattern which the R.A.F. requires is concerned. There is still a residual problem in extreme aspects of the United States Air Force profile, but these do not actually concern us in relation to the flight patterns that we want—although here again there is great confidence that they will be solved.

So far as drag is concerned, of course we have known about this for some while, and this is an area where modifications for other reasons (and I refer back to some of my previous remarks) can temporarily add to the problem, because hurried engineering changes may have the unintentional by-product of adding to the drag. This is roughly the position which had been reached a few months ago—noble Lords will recall the Hustler, for instance, which had a similar drag problem at this stage—but more refined designing as the aircraft progresses down its development path is already reducing the drag problem. Wind tunnel tests of further modifications give rise to further optimism. Naturally, we should welcome the complete solution of any drag problem, but I should make it clear that the performance of the aircraft is such that even if none of the drag were recovered the F 111A as at present would fully meet the R.A.F. requirement for range.

The noble Lord asked a question about the 7,000-mile range. This is not a figure with which I am directly familiar. It is one that I think was raised in the Congressional inquiry, and I am not sure whether this was intended to include flight refuelling as well, so I cannot make a useful comment. But I would emphasise that already in fact the F 111A meets our requirements in relation to range, and the steps already taken or tried out in wind tunnel tests show how a large proportion of the drag can be eliminated and the aircraft's performance improved.

I was asked a number of other specific questions in relation to performance. The noble Earl asked whether the aircraft would be 6,000 lb. overweight in the operational condition and whether the military payload would have to suffer. The noble Earl is of course well aware that weight growth is a special problem with new aircraft. So far as the United States Air Force variant of the aircraft is concerned—this is the one we are interested in—there is no question of the current weight adversely affecting payload. I believe that the United States Navy are embarking on a weight-saving exercise because they have a special problem in relation to carrier operation.

The noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald, asked whether there had been any excessive stick loading in pitch during variable geometry tests, during the swing. The answer is wholly to the contrary: trim changes during wing sweeping have proved to be negligble and in fact are much smaller in magnitude than the trim changes that occur with undercarriage or flap lowering on most aircraft. On this subject of wing sweeping, the noble Earl asked, when the F 111A was being used in the conventional rôle, what the effect of the bomb load would be on the sweeping wings. It is true that when the F 111A is carrying the maximum possible bomb load—and the number of bombs the Americans are proposing to hang on it is quite staggering—the wings cannot be swept. But this must be set in context. The aircraft's maximum bomb load is enormous. Even with the wings fully swept a high load of conventional armaments can be carried, nearly as much as the maximum conventional load of the Vulcan. And in this swept position a significant number of bombs can be carried externally—presumably the pylons swivel with the wings in addition to any fixed pylons—in addition to those carried internally.

The noble Earl asked whether there had been any practical demonstration of the F 111A's ability to achieve at full military load the range which had been claimed for it. I think it is a little naive to expect this to be done before the aircraft has been developed to this stage. Obviously everybody will wait for it to carry out the fullest possible trials. New aircraft have to be progressively tested up to the extent of their design capability. The performance trials on the F 111A have not yet reached the stage where full range performance has been tested; but long-range flights have already been undertaken and they give no reason to suppose that the aircraft design range will not be achieved, and analysis of flight data to date supports this view. So there are good grounds for confidence.

I should like to say something about our confidence in this project generally. We have all had bitter experiences in relation to aircraft. Confidence at this stage of development is, I feel, compounded of judgment, experience and assessment of the scientific and industrial effort; and of course there is an enormous industrial effort going into it. I do not think I should be painting an unduly optimistic picture if I said that the Royal Air Force has firm confidence in the outcome of the F IIIA programme. This confidence is derived from the very great success of the flying programme so far. I have already referred to the tremendous industrial effort and expertise and the way in which the various stages—and this is one of the most impressive things—of the programme are being ticked off right tip to schedule.

I should like to give some figures on this which will give some idea of the magnitude of the American effort. At the end of last month, no fewer than 13 F 111 aircraft were flying. The majority were F 111As and a few were F IIIBs, (which is the United States Navy version, and not, of course, the FB-IIIs). These 13 aircraft had made over 561 flights, 51 of which were at Mach. 2 or more, and the designed low level speed of Mach. 1.2 had been achieved. I should say here that in flying at supersonic speeds the F 1I1A has a high fuel consumption rate. I cannot remember whether the noble Earl referred to that—he had given me notice. I might perhaps mention that the figure of 1,000 lb. of fuel per minute, which to a layman seems staggering, is not exces- sive with modern aircraft flying supersonic at sea level. It is comparable to the sort of fuel consumption the TSR 2 would have had.

As the project develops, we are keeping closely in touch with the progress through a team of specialists working with the F IIIA project in the United States and based on the Wright Patterson airfield, the headquarters of the F 111 project office. As an integral part of the aircraft's intensive development programme, one R.A.F. pilot, an experienced wing commander, has flown and reported on the F 111A twice to date. I should have liked the noble Lord to tell me how many R.A.F. pilots he thinks it necessary to have in order to assess the performance of this aircraft when we know about its progress. We thought that further flights by R.A.F. pilots would be unlikely to advance the test programme. The test programme is advancing rapidly. Flights by the 13 F 111 aircraft totalled some 918¼ hours by the end of April, of which 39 hours were at supersonic speeds. Flight time is being added at approximately 10 hours a day. These are impressive figures.

The Government's aim is to give as much information as they can. Perhaps I should now turn to the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald. I think I should like to treat him kindly. I must say I am astonished that, without giving notice on a specific narrow Question, he should raise these rather wider questions, but I will try to give a little information. First of all, he had some comments on deployment. I really cannot discuss on this Question the deployment of the F 111A; somebody must have regard for the custom of the House in this matter. But there was an interesting point he made in this context in regard to serviceability, and this, I appreciate, is a very great problem. We have had, and we are continually having, problems of serviceability and corrosion in certain areas; but one of the great virtues of the F 111A as compared with the TSR 2 (and this is something I have mentioned in another debate) is the ease and accessibility of the F 111A for servicing. Much of the equipment has built-in test facilities, and access can clearly be got with just a screwdriver. One of the striking things is the development of serviceability and maintainability which has gone on under contractual conditions in the United States Air Force.

There was a further point that was raised by the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald, or it may have been the noble Earl, with regard to spares. Of course we have this satisfactory arrangement with the United States by which, through their co-operative logistic systems, we get spares at the same price as the United States Air Force do. With regard to British equipment we shall make appropriate arrangements for servicing, and of course some of the equipment which we are putting in will be common to equipment in other aircraft which the R.A.F. will be flying, so that it will not unduly strain this remarkable organisation which is concerned with maintenance to provide the necessary support.

I am doubtful about going further into this question of the offset agreement tonight. The noble Lord and I both sat through the debate in another place. I think that perhaps he reacted a little more vigorously under his breath to some of the remarks than I did. I can only say—I say this quite sincerely—that I do not find the inconsistencies he finds. I am not saying that we should not give all this information. There are those who advise Ministers to give no information to Parliament because it only means they will get into trouble. But I think it is the duty of Government to give as much information as possible. If the noble Lord really wishes to pursue this matter further, after yesterday's debate in another place, I shall be glad to give some further information.


My Lords, I, as a friend, do not wish to see the noble Lord continuing to labour under this invisible and, I hope, unnecessary burden. He keeps protesting against charges which I have never made. I never said, I think, in the course of my speech that too little information was given by the Government. What I said, and what he put his finger on a moment ago, was that so much of the information they gave was contradictory.


I find all this most difficult. A point comes in life when you give up and say, "It is no good explaining; the boy just has not got it". I am not worried about the invisible burden. I am conscious that I have spoken for the best part of half-an-hour on what I had thought originally was intended to be a narrow Question. I do not wish to go further into this. I should be quite happy, however, to provide a private tutorial for the noble Lord, and to take him through it stage by stage. I find that occasionally private tutorials do what lectures often fail to achieve.


My Lords, the noble Lord's difficulty will be that he will not be able to have his course cleared by what his colleagues in the Government say, because they have all been saying different things.


My Lords, the noble Lord has, I think, made the best he can out of this, and I do not think I will take it any further.

There is one final point—namely, whether it is possible that this aircraft will be cancelled on the Skybolt basis. The situation is in no way comparable. Skybolt was not funded. These aircraft are funded, and large numbers have been ordered. If there is one thing that is going to be certain, whatever else is in issue, it is that, unless there is an astonishing change in the world situation, the F111A will go into service in large numbers in the United States Air Force.

My Lords, I have said enough. I have done my best with regard to the questions of the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald, and I hope that I have answered the noble Earl's points.


My Lords, I did not wish to interrupt the noble Lord, but on a point of clarification, as I have not spoken—


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord to say that I shall have no right of reply, and it is a most unusual thing—


This is on a point of clarification.


All right.


It is purely a question of clarification, on the number of aircraft to be ordered. I did not wish to interrupt the noble Lord in the middle of a sentence. He said that 10 F111As had been ordered and that 40 are to be ordered. His right honourable friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Air Force said in another place yesterday that these F 111As were to fill an operational gap. Is it the intention of Her Majesty's Government to go beyond the 50 which have been mentioned in the Defence White Paper?


My Lords, I thought the noble Lord took part in some of the Defence debates, and this information has been given. It has been made perfectly clear that we have bought these 50 aircraft; but the future main combat aircraft is going to be the Anglo-French aircraft.