HL Deb 23 July 1973 vol 344 cc1509-13

2.55 p.m.


My Lords, may I have the leave of your Lordships to make a Statement about the progress that the Government have made in their consideration of the project for a maritime version of the Harrier aircraft.

The evaluation of the results of the project definititon studies has now been completed, with technically satisfactory results. There still remains, however, the question of the priority to be accorded to the project in comparison with other important projects which compete for Defence budget resources. The usual annual review of the forward Defence programme in relation to public expenditure as a whole is in progress, and meanwhile it would be premature to authorise full development of the aircraft. Pending a final decision, the present design effort work at the firm will continue to be supported.


My Lords, I am sure the whole House will thank the Secretary of State for his Statement on this very important project, and I am certain also that the House is glad to know that the project definition studies have shown that the project is technically satisfactory. However, may I ask three questions? First of all, is the cost of the maritime Harrier significantly higher than that of the standard Harrier as supplied to the Royal Air Force and the United States Marines? Secondly, two questions regarding the time scale. Are we likely to have some kind of indication as to the probability of the maritime Harrier's being put into production in the next Defence Estimates which we will receive in due course, and will the decision be reached in time to continue the production lines flowing without a break?


My Lords, with regard to the cost of the aircraft, of course the main increase in cost will be the development work and the research which has been necessary to convert what was a ground attack fighter into an all-weather aircraft. Probably the version which the Navy will need will be a little more expensive because of the extra equipment which will be needed. But the cost has not risen from the earlier estimates which were given when we were considering this project. With regard to the time scale, I hope very much that I shall be able to announce the final decision within the next two or three months, and I anticipate that there will be no difficulty about the time scale.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord, hoping that my present question will not make him quite so angry as the previous one did, whether it is not correct that the Ministry of Defence has authorised the construction of a ship which would be suitable for the use of this maritime version of the Harrier, and what contingency plans have been made for other uses of that vessel if the development of the maritime version does not go ahead?


My Lords, the ship was in point of fact not designed for the purpose of operating the maritime Harrier; it was designed for the purposes of anti-submarine warfare and operating Sea Kings, being a Command ship, and also helping in the air defence of the Fleet with the Sea Dart missile; and the use of the maritime Harrier would be an additional bonus. I hope very much that it may be possible to do this, but I think we must look at our priorities. I hope the noble Lord will never see me when I am amused.


My Lords, would my noble friend say whether the success of the U.S. Marine Corps in operating the present Harrier and their continued interest in the developed Harrier continue; and has their interest been taken into account when considering the priorities which should be given to the future development of this aircraft? Is it not a fact that the most expensive portion of the development cost will be the uprating of the engine from the present rate to 24,000 lb. thrust? Further, has consideration been given to sharing the cost, perhaps with Pratt and Whitney, or some other interested person with whom production might also be shared at a later date?


My Lords, my noble friend is now speaking about a different version of the aircraft. He is speaking about the Pegasus 15 version, which we are considering at the moment with our friends across the Atlantic. The Harrier has been most successful with the United States Marine Corps, but they are using it as a ground attack fighter and in that sense it is not strictly comparable with what we want for the Royal Navy; but I think there could be uses in the United States Navy and other navies for the maritime version.


My Lords, as one who very much welcomes this Statement and who believes that the Harrier is a very remarkable aircraft, may I ask the noble Lord whether these trials have shown a fairly wide range of operation in terms of different types of ship? It has never occurred to me that it would be confined to the through-deck cruiser which, as the noble Lord pointed out, was not intended specifically for this purpose. Do the tests suggest that quite a range of different ships might be able to carry the Harrier, and could he say anything more about the export possibilities which in the past have been much underrated but which have been shown to be of very high potential?


My Lords, with regard to the export possibilities, these are very much in the mind of the Government. We want to do everything we can to see that this aircraft is successfully exploited since it is the only VSTOL aircraft in service in the world. The tests we did were primarily to judge whether or not the aircraft could be used off the through-deck cruiser, and I am afraid I cannot say without notice whether or not those tests have shown whether the aircraft could be used off smaller ships, but I will certainly find out and let the noble Lord know.


My Lords, can my noble friend say whether any of our Western European allies are interested in this aircraft? I know the noble Lord said that the export potential was not very great, but I wonder whether any interest has been shown?


Not so far, my Lords; but there is to-morrow a large Royal Navy-Royal Air Force exercise in the Firth of Forth when I shall have the opportunity of talking to my opposite numbers in the NATO countries and I shall certainly bring the success of these trials to their attention.


My Lords, when does the noble Lord expect to be in a position to enlarge upon the possible estimate that will be involved in regard to this new form of development?


My Lords, does the noble Lord mean a cost estimate?


Yes, my Lords.


My Lords, at this stage I do not think it is ever customary to make an estimate of costs, but certainly it is within the limits that we thought it would be when we first launched the project.


My Lords, can the Secretary of State tell us whether this is an all-weather version and therefore that it could be used on land as well as at sea? And would not an all-weather version of the Harrier possibly be more interesting to the Swiss than the existing version because of the peculiar situation in which it would have to operate?


My Lords, I think that again is something that one ought to look into, but of course there are penalties for turning the aircraft into an all-weather version and no doubt one would have to weigh those up to see which was the most suitable version.