HL Deb 17 April 1969 vol 301 cc276-94

7.32 p.m.

THE EARL OF KINNOULL rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the growing concern at the lack of specific plans for the future procurement of military aircraft. The noble Earl said: My Lords, we come now to a slightly different subject from street offences: to the future procurement of military aircraft. The reason for my Question to-night on military aircraft procurement for the R.A.F. is not, as the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, may suspect, to stir up the muddy waters of the past five years—although I must admit that the temptation to do so is strong; and the fact that £225 million has been paid out by the Government on cancelled projects should not be forgotten—but to seek information from the noble Lord in his relatively new capacity as the Minister responsible for the R.A.F. Perhaps I may add my belated congratulations to him on his appointment and ask whether he could explain to the House what the specific aircraft are going to be to fill the gap of our long-range strike reconnaissance aircraft in the mid-'70s when the V-bombers and Canberras are phased out.

This gap, my Lords, seems to get wider and wider as the months go by—and dangerously, in many people's opinions. Many of us who are less informed than the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, on the recent procurement policy of the R.A.F. have found it one of bewildering change, counter-change and dilemma. If one casts one's mind back to 1967, we were told then that the replacement of the V-bomber strike force in the mid-'70s was to be, in the first place, the F.111 which in turn would be replaced by the AFVG, the core of the future defence policy. It is history now, and sad history, that within six months both of these were cancelled and that since that time no specific aircraft with similar capability has been ordered by the R.A.F.

There have been, as the noble Lord will know, in the month before Easter two debates in another place covering the R.A.F. Anyone who has read those debates, as I have, and has studied them will have come to the conclusion that at the present time the contingency plan to replace the V-bombers is divided into two parts. The first part would promote aircraft which in 1967 were considered to have had insufficient capability to lead our tactical strike force. The second and corresponding one is to reduce our commitment to meet the reduced capability of this force. I sincerely hope that this conclusion is erroneous and that the noble Lord will seize the opportunity to-night to explain positively what replacements are planned to fill this gap.

The second point I should like to make to the noble Lord concerns the numbers of aircraft which the R.A.F. have in service. The Minister of Defence, in a recent speech, I think to NATO, set out in table form the balance of aircraft power in Europe. It is very noticeable that Britain comes well down in this league table. Such countries as Germany, France, Italy; and even Sweden, all have more military aircraft in service. The question that comes to one's mind is: how is it that the Government are so satisfied that they have equipped the R.A.F. with a sufficient number of aircraft to cater for an emergency, to defend over 58 million people in our country, when neighbouring countries—some with only a quarter of our population, if one takes Sweden—can afford, and consider it wise and prudent to afford, more aircraft.

My Lords, I turn briefly to the various projects planned for the re-equipment of the R.A.F. The one that I think we are most anxious to hear about to-night is the MRCA, which I venture to call the white hope of our 1980s defence policy. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to give us further news on this project. The project has reached the project definition stage—a stage, one must remember, which the late European air-bus reached in 1967. So there is a long way to go. This is the stage when both partners in the project commit themselves to development costs. I am wondering whether the noble Lord can inform us of the likely costs of Britain's share in this project and whether the chief designer for the project has yet been appointed. Could he also say whether it has been decided whether the aircraft are to be twin-engined or single-engined? Finally, perhaps he could advise us what percentage of common specification in the aircraft is anticipated between the British and German requirements.

The MRCA project, and its success, must be now quite vital to the re-equipment programme of the R.A.F. The sands of time must almost be running out when one considers that this project is now the third attempt to replace the TSR 2. I hope that the Government will give this project all the firm and resolute support that it needs and will overcome the almost inevitable pressure of cancellation which seems to be the modern malaise of British aircraft projects.

Turning now to projects closer to fruition, the Jaguar, I would ask the noble Lord if he can tell us to-night whether there has been any cost escalation with this development programme and whether the project is on schedule. If I may turn to the VTOL Harrier, I wonder whether the noble Lord could explain one of the queries which is in the minds of a number of people about this aircraft? How in practice will the Royal Air Force support the Harrier in the field in order to use it to maximum advantage? Will they be placing further orders for the Chinook helicopter? Also, I think it would be helpful to know whether there is any further news about the suggested U.S. Marine Corps order for the Harrier. Much play was made by the Government in another place about the exercise by the squadron of Lightnings that flew from Scotland to Singapore recently and were refuelled in the air. The refuelling was carried out by Victor tankers and I think it would be of interest to know what are the plans to replace these Victor tankers.

I should like to ask the noble Lord a question on a topic which, although outside the central core of my Unstarred Question, I am sure he will construe as being within its ambit. I refer to the Air-Sea Rescue Service of the Royal Air Force. These duties have been performed in the past with exceptional skill, courage and devotion by the Royal Air Force. It is a duty which I believe the country, perhaps wrongly, had begun to take for granted would be fulfilled by a peace time Royal Air Force. The need for an air-sea rescue service around our shores is I am sure, one which will be a continuing and increasing requirement. Whether or not this need should be met by the Royal Air Force is not a question which I should wish to pose to-night. Nor do I wish to comment on the recent tragedy about which we all read in the Press. I should like to put two questions to the noble Lord. What has been the cost of this service over, say, the past two years as provided by the Royal Air Force, and how many lives have been saved? Can he explain what steps are at present taken by the Royal Air Force when a service is planned to be withdrawn from an area?

My Lords, I would end by saying that the re-equipment of the Royal Air Force is, I am sure, an expenditure which very few would begrudge as being inessential to our defences. I hope that the noble Lord can assure us that the capability of the aircraft which the Royal Air Force will have in service in the late 1970s will continue to be considered as a deterrent not only by this Government but by less friendly foreign Governments,—a deterrent strike-back to inflict unacceptable damage on the enemy. This I believe to be the minimum requirement for the Royal Air Force.

7.43 p.m.


My Lords, in rising to speak very briefly in this debate I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Kinnoull for raising a matter which is very pertinent at this time. Like the noble Earl, I do not think it particularly profitable to go back over the past history of undoubted mistakes in aircraft procurement—they were not confined to the present Administration—but none the less it is perhaps worth while remembering (some of us may not agree, but the point should be made) that the cancellation of the TSR 2, leaving aside the other cancellations made at that time, was regarded by the experts as catastrophic; and nothing that has happened since then has in any way tended to change that view.

At the time of the cancellation we were told that the long-range strike and reconnaissance role of the Royal Air Force would be replaced by F.111s which would be bought at very considerable expense from the Americans. The cost of that order apparently escalated, so it was cancelled. Then, as we all know, Mr. Healey told us that the AFVG would now become the corner stone of our strike capability, but that, too, fell by the wayside. Finally, the role was apparently to be filled by Phantoms and. to a lesser extent, by Buccaneer aircraft which were ordered to fill the gap. If the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, seeks to reject the contention of my noble friend that there are no specific plans for future aircraft procurement, I hope that he will at least outline to us the plans in some respects.

I should like to put to the noble Lord some points specifically relating to aircraft not mentioned by my noble friend Lord Kinnoull. First, regarding transport aircraft, the present fleet of Andovers, VC 10s and Hercules aeroplanes will come up in due course for replacement. The Hercules have only just gone into service and they are hardly modern aircraft. The production line for these aircraft, as we all know, had to be reopened to build them for the R.A.F. as they had long since ceased to be manufactured for the American forces and for the Canadians. So we had a none too modern aircraft when we had it new. Now it is supposed to be forming the backbone of Transport Command, or rather Air Support Command as it is now called. What are the plans for replacing the Andovers and the VC 10s as they come up for replacement?

Secondly, my Lords, I should like to look briefly at the field of communications aircraft. As I understand it, the aircraft used at present are the B.206. or Bassett as it is called in its R.A.F. guise, the Devon and a number of Pembrokes and Percivals. The Bassett was built specifically to meet an R.A.F. requirement but only 20 were ordered. We understand that when delivered the aircraft was not entirely as the R.A.F. had wished it. My information is that the R.A.F. has only itself to blame, because like so many other aircraft projects, not confined to the R.A.F., the customer insisted at the last minute on all sorts of extra equipment being added which many people thought unnecessary and which added to the weight of the aircraft so that it could no longer meet the performance requirements for which it was designed. I further understand that there is now a supercharged engine available for this aircraft which the R.A.F. apparently has declined but which would restore the aeroplane to the performance specification which was originally required. If so, would it not now be possible or desirable for the R.A.F. to order additional Bassett aircraft to meet the requirements to replace the aging Devons and other aeroplanes which the R.A.F. still has?

Finally, my Lords, there is the question of training aircraft. I do not wish to go into that question in too much detail, but the older jet Provost will be coming up for replacement shortly. Is it the intention to replace this aircraft purely with more up-to-date Provosts? The latest one has a pressurised cockpit and is, I understand, now available. Is it the intention to replace all the older type jet Provosts with the new type or are they looking for another aircraft? The ab initio training role in the R.A.F. could perhaps best be met by ordering Beagle pups. This has, I know, been suggested. Can the noble Lord say whether the R.A.F. has any intention of ordering this aircraft and, if so, when are we going to hear about it, because the requirement to replace the Chipmunks is very urgent. I do not think that I have any further points to make. I would once more thank my noble friend Lord Kinnoull for raising this matter and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, will be able to allay at least some of our fears

7.49 p.m.


My Lords, if I say anything which appears controversial in the few words that I wish to add to those of my noble friends Lord Kinnoull and Lord Trefgarne, the intention will be no more than skin deep, except possibly in small patches of already calloused tissue. The noble Lord, Lord Winter-bottom, my noble friends and I have the effective defence of this country equally at heart, and particularly in this debate the part which the R.A.F. must play in that defence. This is an Unstarred Question and I shall try not to abuse that formula. If I put questions which appear to be loaded, I shall be as happy as anyone if the Minister can de-fuse the implied charge behind them.

My Lords, five years ago we still had the largest aerospace industry in Europe, competing on equal terms with the United States and in many respects the envy of the American industry. Can it be said that this is so to-day? In late 1964, and in 1965, decisions were made which effectively cancelled three leading British aircraft projects. Of these, I believe that the Government must, in their hearts, deeply regret the cancellation of both the TSR 2 and the P.1154; and, to do them justice, they must be extremely glad that they were unable by the terms of the contract to cancel the Concorde civil project, as they declared at the beginning of their reign to be their intention.

I have heard Ministers groan audibly and histrionically when the TSR 2 was mentioned. But I believe, and many others believe, in America as well as in this country, that were it not for their destructive decision that aircraft would be not only flying to-day but earning orders from the United States, who have signally failed to produce its equal, or even its competitor, and our balance of payments problem would be that much less of a headache to the Government to-day; because, of course, if the United States were buying it, then certainly other countries would be buying it as well. I am not going to ask the noble Lord, Lord Winter-bottom, to chastise himself to the extent of pronouncing his confidence (which I believe to be real) that we should now be selling the TSR 2 to America, but I think that it is fair to prick him into saying whether it is quite conceivable to him, or even probable in his mind, that this would be the case.

The TSR 2 prototypes, which were deliberately, and to some of us with unseemly haste, converted into scrap within weeks of the new Government's taking their decision, have vanished into rusty limbo. I went to see them in a Bradford scrapyard. What we have to ask, and what the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, really has to answer, is: what is going to take the place of the Anglo-French VG aircraft, which was to take the place of the F.111, which was to take the place of the TSR 2, which would now, but for its deliberate extinction, be earning us valuable dollars and assisting with the defence of the Free World as a whole?

There are disturbing rumours about the MRCA, the multi-role combat aircraft, upon which hopes are pinned. In the debate on European technological co-operation some weeks ago, the question was asked about the proposal reportedly made by France to Germany that Germany should withdraw from this project and take part instead in the development and production of a new version of the Mirage. On that occasion, the most the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, at the Dispatch Box felt able to say was that the rumours that the R.A.F. would eventually be equipped with the new Mirage were "premature". Can the Minister to-day say whether those rumours are still premature, less premature or totally misconceived?

The noble Lord who answers this debate will refer to the success story of the P.1127, now known as the Harrier. We shall applaud this success story, and our applause will be quite unaffected by the fact that it is the success story of the previous Administration. He will speak of the Jaguar, where there is an- other success story; and again the volume of our applause will not be affected by the fact that it was my right honourable friend Mr. Julian Amery, now once again in Parliament, who launched the policy of co-operation with Continental countries in the aerospace industries.

We have to appreciate—it would be blind not to appreciate—that the cost of research and development in this field is titanic and beyond the economic reach of any single European country, including our own. The answer must be a European aircraft construction policy. But can the Government claim that such a policy exists to-day, even though its beginning was part of the valuable heritage of 13 years of active productive Tory Government? In this context, the debate on European technical co-operation to which I have already referred, though interesting and, as usual, extensively well-informed, was not altogether happy. I thought, in its conclusions. Our sincerity—that is to say, Britain's sincerity—is doubted to-day in a way that did not exist five years ago. The withdrawal from ELDO and other technological aspirations cannot enter into this debate, but they form a part of the pattern of uncertainty and suspicion regarding Britain's attitude to the Continent of Europe and particularly to technical co-operation; and into this field comes the aerospace industry.

I am not pretending that simply because some European countries come together and agree that it would be a good idea to build a certain type of aircraft, this aircraft is therefore bound to be a winner. The Jaguar, commercially, is going to be a success story. In May of 1965, when Britain and France signed the agreement, the two countries undertook to build 300 aircraft—150 for each country—and this was later increased to a total of 400. It was a going concern from that moment forward and no-one doubts that it will be a fine investment.

What I should like the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, to do—and I have no doubt that this is the purpose of the Question of my noble friend Lord Kinnoull—is to contradict credibly the belief that Britain's confidence (and by that I mean the confidence of Her Majesty's Government) in our own aircraft industry, is shaken or dwindling. It is a matter of Parliamentary experience that if anyone on this side of the House, in particular from the Front Bench throws doubt upon the quality or effectiveness of Service equipment, he is accused of "knocking" the R.A.F. or whatever Service may be involved. The noble Lord opposite knows, I hope, that I should be no more capable of "knocking" the R.A.F. from this Bench than he will be of so doing from the same Bench in a matter of months. When we are roused to indignation is when we think, and because we think, that the men of the R.A.F. are not being given the aircraft and the weapon systems they deserve.

I repeat again the question that the Minister himself must wish to answer more than any other. What is to be the long-range—this question was put by my noble friend, and perhaps because it was put by my noble friend it is not necessary to listen to me.


My Lords, I was just wondering what this had to do with the Question on the Order Paper, that is all.


My Lords, this is a question of aircraft procurement. I understand that the noble Lord the Leader of the House has enormous and wide responsibilities, but I am referring to aircraft procurement in a debate on that subject. I repeat again the question that the Minister must wish to answer more than any other. What in two or three years' time shall we know is to be the long-range, all-weather, strike and reconnaissance aircraft in the hands of the R.A.F.? He and I know that all the officers and men of the R.A.F. require is equipment equal to that of a possible enemy. We know, and they know, that their skill is superior to that of the men of most air forces, perhaps of any air force; but the attitude of this Government seems to have been up to now, "If you think you can finish the job, then you can probably do it with older tools, fewer tools and preferably somebody else's tools." I should like this evening to hear the noble Lord's contradiction.

8.0 p.m.


My Lords, I came this evening to answer what I thought was a comparatively simple Question, the point put to me by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, whether we …are aware of the growing concern at the lack of specific plans for the future procurement of military aircraft. May I straight away say that I hope the noble Earl will not think that I ant being discourteous if I leave out the question of air-sea rescue. That is an important question, but it certainly does not fall within the particular Question that he has put down. I should be glad to discuss the matter with him perhaps on another Unstarred Question, because it is important.

As I have said, I came to answer a limited Question but I am willing to extend it a little in order to reply to the points made by the three noble Lords who have spoken. Basically, the Royal Air Force at the moment are in good heart, because they are receiving over almost the whole range of their equipment new aircraft of high performance. That is a simple fact of life. They are now receiving the Phantom and the first squadrons are forming. They are receiving the Buccaneer. They are receiving the Nimrod. They are receiving the Harrier, and in the not-too-distant future they will be receiving the Jaguar. These are all hard facts, and hard facts expressed in terms of operational conversion units taking the aircraft and training the men in them: or actual facilities which the noble Earl must realise are necessary for receiving them or, in the case of the Jaguar, the prototype flying and testing, in preparation for their entry into the Royal Air Force and into the French Air Force.

In addition—and this has not been mentioned this evening—we have the package agreement with the French for the new generation of helicopters which are required for the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. Since aircraft in service life have a life of 10 to 15 years, the fact that we are receiving this wide range of new aircraft, into the Air Force means that the future procurement of military aircraft does not weigh on our minds as heavily as the introduction into service of the new aircraft that we have already ordered.


My Lords, will the noble Lord allow me to interrupt? He speaks of aircraft having a life of 10 to 15 years, and he mentioned the Buccaneer. Does he mean to say that the Buccaneer is going to last another 15 years? It is not even a supersonic aeroplane.


I think the noble Lord is a little confused. In fact, it is not the aeroplane that matters but the missile that it delivers. The Buccaneer in many fields is an extremely versatile, advanced and important aircraft. I am speaking now off the cuff, and I hope that wiser men than myself may correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that one of the problems in aircraft that we face at the moment is the problem of sophistication. What you want to do is to get, not an aircraft to a certain point, but a weapon to a certain point. The Buccanneer in many ways is extremely well-equipped to do just that. One of the questions that I ask myself (and perhaps on April 29, when we have the Defence debate in this House, I shall try to answer myself on the subject) is whether extreme sophistication is what we now require. That is a question that I suggest noble Lords should ask themselves. We see our American friends struggling in Vietnam. We see a highly sophisticated machine struggling with men of high morale with unsophisticated weapons.

When we talk of the multi-role combat aircraft—and I shall be talking about this further in a few moments—we must remember that it will not fly faster than the Phantom. It can do many other things better, but I am almost certain that it will not fly faster. So simple speed alone is not the important thing; it is the total range of capacity of taking a weapon from its base and delivering it on an enemy field.


My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord yet again, but he really cannot have it both ways. The cornerstone of the Government's argument for having smaller fleets and military air fleets than other countries is that we have more sophisticated and better aircraft. Now the noble Lord says that we do not need sophisticated aircraft. Which way is it?


I did not say that. I said that sophistication is not speed alone. It is short take-off and landing. Anyone who sees the Phantom landing realises that it lands like a brick. When we are operating in Western Europe we may want aircraft that do not land like a brick. But we want something that can face a situation where sophisticated landing fields and the rest are not available. That is one of the interesting things about the German argument in the MRCA which I commend to the noble Lords: that other things may be required than top speed, which very often leads to high landing speed, which could be a nuisance in a period of confusion. The fact that the Buccaneer is not supersonic does not mean that it is not a good aircraft. It has many virtues which other aeroplanes have not. I am sorry if I have been carried off course, but this is a case in point: speed is not the only factor in aircraft construction.


My Lords, I am slightly disturbed. I follow the noble Lord, and I realise that he always talks sense, but I do not think he is answering the whole sense of my noble friend's question. We all agree that speed is not the only essential of sophistication, but I hope he will not give the impression that he discounts speed among the factors of sophistication; because if we are up against faster aircraft they can overtake us, but we cannot catch them.


But we are not chasing each other; we are going along the ground at low level, below enemy radar, in order to put a missile on a certain enemy site. The air is not going to be full of aircraft fighting splendid dog fights; they will be doing something quite different.

What I will do, if I can find my place in this voluminous brief, is to give to noble Lords the position about various types of aircraft and the role they have to play as the present aircraft that we have phase out and the new generation of aircraft phase in. We are at the beginning of a new era. I say this with trepidation when I think of my return to my Department, but I believe I can say that in the field of re-equipment the Royal Air Force are pretty satisfied with what they are getting. We are talking of long scales of procurement for seven to ten years. Take the Jaguar, which was a successful project which is proving successful; it was launched by the signature of the present Secretary of State in the presence of my noble friend the Leader of the House. We are at the beginning of a new generation of aircraft. The Royal Air Force are satisfied with them, and I am willing to say this in public.

I should like to explain to noble Lords the role in each field that these new aircraft have to play. The long-range strike reconnaissance role was mentioned by noble Lords. As they know, this at present is met by the Canberra and the Vulcan. The Vulcan is shifting from its strategic role to a strike and reconnaissance role, where in the next few years it will carry on. The Canberra, oddly enough, is carrying on for a long time in certain specialised roles. It is a marvellous aeroplane, and it still has a role to play. The Buccaneer is, we agree, a transitional aeroplane. It is entering into service with the Royal Air Force this year, and the main force will build up in 1971–72. From then on it will with the Vulcan take over the Canberra role. Then—and this is an important point which noble Lords are probing—from 1976 onwards, assuming that we can reach agreement with our friends in NATO, the M.R.C.A. (the multi-role combat aircraft) will replace the Vulcans and the Buccaneers in their overland role.

I would suggest, since noble Lords are probing into the future—this is very much within the terms of the Question I have been asked—that I should talk for a few moments about the multi-role combat aircraft. As I have told the noble Earl, he has raised this question at a moment when the whole issue of the M.R.C.A. is under discussion. I think it true to say that this Government have in fact started and brought into being the techniques of international co-operation for the production of aircraft. To produce a new type of aircraft is fiendishly expensive, as noble Lords know. So the sensible thing to do, if we are to develop the potential of Europe as a European military concept, is to use the techniques of mass production in order to get our sophisticated aircraft at a reasonable price. The only way we can do this is by international co-operation. We in Europe are facing two super-Powers, the Americans and the with their vast markets, with their capacity to produce many aircraft in a single run. The M.R.C.A. in Europe gives us this possibility. The number of aircraft required is about 1,000, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has informed us. We have learnt how to work with the French. .The Concorde, as we know, is working. The Concorde administrative system is working—with some difficulties, because this was our first attempt. The Jaguar system is working a great deal better because we have learnt how to tackle international co-operation. The helicopter scheme is working so well that we do not hear anything about it, as are the collaborative operations in the field of missile production. Nobody has questioned this. It is a question of good news being no news. This is going all right.

But now we are moving into a field where four nations are trying to collaborate in the mass production of an important and sophisticated new aeroplane. I suggested to the noble Earl that he might put a Question down to-day in order that we could have an advance discussion of the situation. But perhaps in a month, or two or three months, from now we might know rather better how we are going in this field. But do not let us think it is easy for four nations to get together to agree to the mass production of a highly sophisticated aeroplane. This is the situation that is facing us, and this is really what we are talking about in the terms of this Question: what is the future of the British aircraft industry in the field of combat aircraft? It is the M.R.C.A. It is not easy. The Germans naturally want to reconstruct their aircraft industry. They want to be able to produce sophisticated modern aircraft in the same way as the French do. Therefore, there is argument about who should have design leadership; there is argument about who should produce the engines. There is also argument about the whole field of the management of this very large project indeed. Perhaps your Lordships will permit me to stick to my brief at this point because, having told your Lordships that the whole matter is still under international discussion, I should like to tell your Lordships the state of play.

All the countries concerned—that is ourselves, the Germans, the Dutch and the Italians—are now evaluating the re- sults of a series of feasibility studies that are taking place, together with the estimated costs of the production of the aircraft; and considering the form of the arrangements which will regulate the future progress of the project if it goes ahead. I believe that the Governments concerned will very soon have the necessary information available so as to enable decisions to be taken within the next few weeks; it is as close as that. It has to be very soon, because we are not talking about a long-term matter. I spoke about 10 or 15 years. If the project goes ahead, we are aiming at the aircraft coming into service in 1975–76. That is the kind of time-scale we are aiming for.

It will of course be a twin-engined aircraft. This is a point in which I believe the noble Earl is interested. The difference between the British concept and the German concept is that we want a two-seater because we are thinking in terms of longer ranges than the Germans, and the Germans are thinking only of a single seater. But, as we know, this is not a major problem. The Harrier has single-seater and two-seater versions. A human being is comparatively light and simple compared with the other objects that have to be fitted into an air frame.

The noble Earl may ask what will happen if the project should founder. This project is so important that I say, "Do not let us start on the assumption that the project will founder". We must make it succeed. And I do not want to talk about fallback positions now. But BAC have a first-class design team, and if we keep it together we have in fact the resources to find our own solution to this problem if the MRCA does not in fact come off. But I feel that ail of us who want to see a European defence community emerging hope that this particular project will succeed.


My Lords, I wonder if I may interrupt again, on the point of the MRCA. The noble Lord says that he expects it to come into service in 1975, assuming the go-ahead. When are we going to decide whether or not we shall go ahead with this aircraft? Or has the decision already been taken?—because surely it would be better to reach the decision to undertake our own project, if for any reason we had to do so, as early as possible.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord is doing a piece of special pleading. I think we should all hate to undertake our own project, but we may have to do it if necessary. What we want to see is a European Defence Community (if I may resuscitate the old phrase), and a European aeroplane where we can have over a thousand aircraft built in series, when the costs will come down remarkably. We shall never be able to match the super-Powers of the world unless we as a Continent place our production resources against the production resources of Russia and the United States. That is the state of play.

It is all very early days. The principal firms involved have made good progress towards collaboration on design and development. The feasibility study has been successfully carried out under joint arrangement, and, as noble Lords will know, B.A.C., Messerschmitt Bölkow, Fiat and Fokker have recently agreed on the formation of a joint company for these purposes, registered as PANAVIA. I wish I could peer into the future clearly and say whether this collaborative effort is going to succeed. I believe, and I know, that it is the aim and policy of Her Majesty's Government to make it succeed, because we shall not be able to develop the potential military strength of Europe unless we work collaboratively in projects such as this.

So, my Lords, I cannot tell your Lordships with certainty what the specific plans for the future procurement of military aircraft in this country are to-day. All I can say is that we have procured, and are delivering, a complete range of aircraft which are suitable for the next decade; but that in the decade from 1975 onwards we require a long-range strike reconnaissance aircraft, a new aircraft—the MRCA. This is now—I will not say on the verge of birth; but we are at the point where the various conflicts between national interests are being harmonised, and where we hope that a very sophisticated, although not necessarily an enormously fast aircraft, with a British engine, will in fact be the one chosen for the defence of Western Europe.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down could he answer just some of the questions which I put in my remarks? I appreciate that his brief may not have in it every detail, but the two points related to the possible acquisition in the near future of any further Basset aircraft, possibly in the new form, and also the possibility of the R.A.F.'s acquiring Beagle Pups, which I understand is a pressing requirement to replace the now very old Chipmunks.


My Lords, this is an interesting point but it is not of the first importance. In communications we have the Hawker Siddeley 125, which is a very good aeroplane indeed. Speaking quite frankly, from the R.A.F. point of view we should love to have a fleet of Hawker Siddeley 125s; and possibly Jetstreams, something sophisticated and very good. On the other hand, we are getting on well with the aircraft we have; namely, the Basset and the Devon. These will not affect our military future. At times we have to cut our suit according to our cloth—if that is the phrase; and whereas I should be delighted to provide those of us who nip about the various Commands with the highly sophisticated aircraft which are now available, I think we shall have to soldier on with the old ones for a little time longer. This is not going to affect national security.

Turning to training, I admit that the Chipmunk is an old-fashioned aeroplane; but, on the other hand, it is very sound: it gives people ab initio training. I am sure we should all be pleased to have something more sophisticated and "with it", but the fact remains that the Chipmunk does its job.


My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord yet again, but this is an important point. I understand—and as the noble Lord may know I do have a certain amount of inside knowledge of this matter—that negotiations are in progress for the Pup. Can he tell us how far these negotiations have got and whether any order is likely to be announced now or in the near future?


Oh no, my Lords; this would be most improper. If I knew, I would not tell the noble Lord; and, quite frankly, I do not know.