HL Deb 22 July 1970 vol 311 cc976-9

3 p.m.


My Lords, with permission I should like to make a Statement about the multi-role combat aircraft.

"As the House knows, the Governments of the United Kingdom, the Federal Republic of Germany and Italy agreed last year to enter upon the Project Definition phase of this project. The results of that phase and subsequent discussions between the partners confirmed the feasibility of developing a twin-seat multi-role variable geometry aircraft which would meet the requirements of all three countries.

"On coming into office, we reviewed this project and concluded that it offered the most effective and economical means of meeting the requirements of the Royal Air Force for replacement aircraft in the strike, reconnaissance and air defence roles in the later 1970s and the 1980s. We also recognised that the project offered an opportunity for a European collaborative venture of the greatest technical and industrial importance.

"We have accordingly made arrangements with our German partners to begin work on the first major development phase of the aircraft. This phase is designed to lead to the flight of the first protoype and will last about three and a half years. A thorough review of progress will be made at the end of one year in the light of the more refined assessments of cost, timescale and performance which will then be available.

"The Government of Italy is, in present circumstances, not immediately able to subscribe to these arrangements but is expected to reach a final decision within the next few weeks. Should the Government of Italy decide not to continue, we have agreed with the Germans to proceed bilaterally. On the assumption that Italy decides to continue, as we hope, expected total requirements of aircraft for all three countries would be about 900 of which our requirement is planned to be between 350 and 400. The costs of the total programme are to be shared according to the relative numbers of aircraft. The estimated cost of the first phase of development, on which we have now agreed, is of the order of£250 million of which the United Kingdom share would be somewhat less than half."


My Lords, I should like to congratulate the Secretary of State for Defence on his first Statement relating purely to defence matters, and on this occasion, speaking personally, to be able to welcome it wholeheartedly. The successful completion of that project, as I am sure any noble Lord who has followed this matter knows, is of great importance, not just for the R.A.F. but for the aerospace industry generally, and for technological cooperation in Europe. I do not doubt that the noble Lord will keep a very vigilant eye on development. The problem of keeping development and costs within existing limits while maintaining performance is a permanent one; and I make no Party point when I say that I think that he will find a greater sense of cost control and realism now prevailing in the Ministry of Defence. I do not doubt, too, that the noble Lord will report to us from time to time. This is an important project and it will be a long one; but it is one which is of great importance and, as I say, I welcome the Statement.


My Lords, I too should like warmly to welcome the Statement as another sign of international co-operation and to congratulate the Government very much on this decision. May I ask which country is going to do what; where will the work be done and, in the event of the Italian Government deciding not to participate, whether the number of 'planes will be reduced or will be shared between Germany and ourselves?


My Lords, may I first thank both noble Lords for what they have said? In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, of course I shall keep a very sharp watch on the cost. This is a very big project, and we must watch costs very carefully indeed. There is an opportunity for review specifically after the first year and after two and a half years of the development phase, and I shall certainly be willing to answer any Questions I can if noble Lords care to put them down.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Byers, may I say that the work will be shared; but if Italy does not come in there will be a requirement for 100 fewer aircraft.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say which engines will be used in this particular prototype?


My Lords, they will be British; but I should not like to specify which.


My Lords, in connection with the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Byers, could the noble Lord tell us a little more about the division of the work?—because my recollection is that the Italians were to do a substantial amount of the framework, and it will make quite a great deal of difference if they are not. May I further ask whether it is still intended to build a single-seater aircraft as well as the twin-seater?


My Lords, no: this is only the twin-seater. The Germans have dropped their requirement for a single-seater. I apologise to the noble Lord but I am afraid that I cannot tell him exactly which piece of the aeroplane is to be made by whom. This is only the development phase, not the production phase. But I can tell him that the engines will be British.


My Lords, my recollection is—and the noble Lord may be able to confirm this—that Rolls Royce actually won in a very exacting competition. It was not just that the British Government insisted: a British engine is being taken on its merits.


My Lords, I have a suspicion that the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition, having regard to one of his previous jobs, may know more about this than I do. What he says is perfectly right.