HL Deb 14 May 1969 vol 302 cc147-51

4.5 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise for interrupting this very excellent debate, but I should like now to repeat a Statement which is being made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence in another place on the multi-role combat aircraft. It reads as follows:

"As the House knows, four European Governments—West Germany, Italy, Holland and the United Kingdom—have been working together over the past year to harmonise their national requirements for a military aircraft which would enter service in the later 1970s. Feasibility studies have shown that these requirements can be met in a multi-role aircraft built to a substantially common design. Representatives of West Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom have to-day signed Memoranda of Understanding under which they will co-operate on the next phase of Project Definition which will last about a year; and I hope that within a month or two the Dutch Government will also sign.

"The countries co-operating are likely to require over one thousand aircraft, of which the Royal Air Force plans to take about one-third. It is proposed to introduce it in 1976 in the tactical strike and reconnaissance role and subsequently in the air defence and maritime strike roles. We are thus planning eventually to replace Vulcans, Buccaneers and Phantoms by Variants of a single basic design. This will have very substantial advantages in the logistic and training fields.

"By sharing the cost of developing and producing this aircraft, the European countries concerned will meet their defence needs much more cheaply than any one of them could on its own. Technically, it can help to provide a solid foundation for the future of the aerospace industry in Europe. The British Aircraft Corporation, Messerschmitt-Boelkow, Fiat and Fokker have formed the Panavia Company jointly to develop and produce the aircraft. Although the engine and avionics will not be chosen until the project has been more closely defined, importance will be attached to making the project entirely European.

"Agreement on this project marks a great step forward in harmonising the operational thinking of the major European NATO Governments, and in demonstrating their conviction that in the field of advanced technology, no less than that of defence, survival depends on unity. For these reasons it has a political significance for Western Europe extending well beyond the military and industrial needs it will meet."

4.8 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the House is grateful to the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made in another place a few moments ago. I am sure also that many of us welcome the news that Her Majesty's Government have now reached Memoranda of Understanding with other European partners to develop this M.R.C.A. project. But, hearing in mind what has happened in the past with other military projects and other memoranda of understanding, some of us may be excused, perhaps, for being a little cautious with our optimism at this stage of the development.

I should like to ask the noble Lord the Leader of the House just three questions arising out of this Statement. First, which country has been given the design leadership within Panavia? The Statement was curiously silent on this matter. Secondly, can we assume that all the participants have agreed on a common specification of the project? Thirdly, what will Britain's share be of the cost of this project?


My Lords, I should like to welcome the content and the sense of this announcement, without reservation, as indeed a great step forward in the field of technological international co-operation. Because we want to see this project succeed, may I ask the noble Lord the Leader of the House whether at an appropriate moment later on he could tell us what arrangements are being made for proper budgetary control of the capital expenditure involved in a continuing project of this kind? So many of these international projects have foundered because of lack of proper control. If at some time we could be assured that there is an adequate system, we should be very grateful indeed.


My Lords, I can well understand the noble Earl's feeling a little cautious. The Statement is quite precise. We now proceed to the Project Definition stage, and we hope thereafter that it will be possible to go to the development stage. The noble Earl said that the Statement was rather vague about design leadership. If I may say so, it was precise. There is no design leadership by any particular country; it is wholly co-operative, and it is satisfactory that it has been resolved. The noble Earl was entitled to ask that question because he knows, as I do, what a stumbling block that has been in the past, but there is no doubt that there is a co-operative atmosphere which is shared. Doubtless the British Aircraft Corporation, with their experienced team at Walton, are making an important, contribution, but I want to stress the extent to which there is a real joint set-up in regard to this matter.

I think the noble Earl is being a little premature as to the stage which specifications have reached. We have to get further on, but it is a fact that if all goes well they have now reached 85 per cent. of commonality. Each country has certain specific needs and it is satisfactory in that it appears to be possible to meet them with an aircraft which is predominantly one aircraft. Of course we are doing that within this country, and again we shall need certain different roles and different avionics according to which particular role it will be used in.

Thirdly, with regard to the cost of the project—and I am not trying to make a political point because the TSR 2 is something that both sides can hold at one another—I can only say that it will be a great deal less. Here I would stress, in regard to the very reasonable question of the noble Lord, Lord Byers, that although one would not like to be too definite, budgetary control has much improved recently and it is striking that both the Harrier, which in fact cost less than it was originally expected to cost, and the Jaguar, which is certainly within the target as an example of international co-operation, have avoided that heavy escalation which has been such a marked feature of the development of aircraft in the past. I would only add that unless the noble Lord wishes to press me very hard I would much rather not give the cost at this stage, but it will he a good deal less than other projects have been—at least the development costs should be a great deal less, and the aircraft itself should certainly be less than some of the aircraft we had contemplated buying.

Perhaps in that respect I should add that the proportion of cost to each country will be determined over the whole project according to the number of aircraft it orders, and therefore each country should end up in a net position with relation to its own particular purchases, although we hope that there will be profits from sales to other countries which may not have entered into this joint effort.


My Lords, would the noble Lord bear in mind that sometimes when a project costs less than was estimated it is as a result of the estimates being too high in the first place?


My Lords, as the noble Lord has rightly said that this is a purely European project, can he say whether the door has been left open for France to join this project should she desire to do so once the result of the Presidential election is known?


Yes, my Lords, I would certainly say so. I should not wish to seek to influence the Presidential election by any remark I might make.