HL Deb 04 July 1978 vol 394 cc961-79

9.5 p.m.

The Earl of KIMBERLEY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is the strategic concept which determines the possible locating of the American KC135 tanker aircraft at Fairford. The noble Earl said: My Lords, it is perhaps appropriate that this Question should be raised today, on Independence Day. Although America and England may have parted company a long time ago, perhaps they are closer today than they have ever been. The other aspect that gives me pleasure is that my noble friend—I like to call him my noble friend—Lord Jeffreys is about to make his maiden speech; we were old Grenadiers together. Therefore, it is with somewhat mixed feelings that I raise this Question tonight in your Lordships' House.

All concerned with the defence of our country and with NATO realise that we need to have these KC135 aircraft, as they will, supposedly, make a vital contribution to NATO. When the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, answers for the Government, I should be very grateful if he would confirm that they are strategically vital to NATO.

So we have the problem of where these aircraft should go. The inhabitants of the Cotswolds are quite justifiably con cerned—as the Ministry of Defence will know only too well from the spirited action that the Fairford Action Committee has already taken—about the environmental pollution which these aircraft cause, as well as the hazard of a possible disaster if one should crash. It is no good saying that their safety record is very high. The possibility of a disaster must be taken fully into account, however unlikely it may be.

Many of the inhabitants around Fair-ford are ex-employees of BAC or are still employed by British Aerospace, and as such know a thing or two about aeroplanes. I think that it will be of interest to your Lordships to note that at one stage during Concorde's flight-testing, one of the overseas venues where the Concorde was tested was the old American SAC base at Torrejon in Spain. I believe that KC135s still operate from there. While Concorde was there there was a stock joke among the employees of BAC who used to say that the KC135 relied on the curvature of the earth to lift off and climb out. At the same time the crash-barriers at the end of the runway were removed to avoid the undercarriage hitting them and there was a considerable delay between take-offs in order to allow the smoke to clear from the engine pollution of the previous aircraft. I would also add that the noise generated was considerably higher than that made by the prototype Concorde.

So this is why the people of the Cotswolds are worried and concerned. Your Lordships must bear in mind though that they are pro-British and pro-NATO. But we must also bear in mind that these aircraft were developed 25 years ago, and since then we have had engine development, take-off performance improvement, noise abatement techniques improved. But alas none of these things has happened with this particular aeroplane. So perhaps a very brief comparison would not go amiss. A Super VC 10 maximum take-off weight of about 335,000 lb., on four engines, will achieve a 6.7 degree rate of climb. AKC 135, fully laden with 26,000 gallons of kerosene, all-up weight round about 300,000 lb., on four engines achieves a three degree climb out—less than half.

I could go into atmospheric conditions and everything else but we would get too technical, and time is pressing. When these aircraft have theoretically reached Cirencester, the VC 10 would be at a height of 3,900 ft., and the KC 135 would be at 2,000 ft. If either of these should lose an engine the story is radically different. The VC 10 climbs out on three engines at 1.8 degrees, and the 135 at half a degree. This means that the VC 10 will have reached 2,000 ft. on three engines, which is what the KC 135 does on full power, but the KC 135 will be approximately 300 ft. up. The highest church spire in Cirencester is 162 ft. high, so all things being equal the American aeroplane would clear the spire by 138 ft. Your Lordships' House from the Prince's Chamber to the Peers' Lobby is about 138 ft., which is not very much for an aeroplane with 26,000 gallons of fuel on board to miss a church spire by. These figures have been checked by a qualified aerodynamacist.

So, I should like to ask the Government the following questions. First, will the United States Air Force operate these aircraft to the same standard as the RAF does in peacetime; that is, to British Civil Airworthiness Requirements, which specify a 3 per cent. rate of climb for one engine out on the WAT limit? WAT meaning weight, altitude, and temperature. In this instance 3 per cent. is about 1.8 degrees, which is what I have already said the VC 10 can do. Secondly, what noise abatement techniques will be used, if any? Thirdly, if the United States Air Force does not operate to BCAR, then to what standards will they operate? Fourthly, will the Minister confirm my figures for the 135s rate of climb on three engines? Fifthly, what is the distance to unstick on three engines with a failure marginally after VI (the safety take off speed)? Sixthly, what does the United States Air Force intend to do to improve the jet efflux from the dirty engines? Seventhly, should fuel have to be jettisoned, at what height could this be done, and what effects would this have on farmland, homesteads, towns and villages in the surrounding countryside?

It has been stated on several occasions that these 135s will only be used for training. But in peacetime surely training is the main function of all military aircraft. It has been stated that among the reasons for not chosing Greenham Common is the proximity of Aldermaston, the poor performance of the 135 making the probability or possibility of an accident to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment an unacceptable hazard. Why then, when Greenham was originally considered in April 1977, was it not immediately ruled out by the Ministry of Defence? This statement regarding the possibility of a disaster at Aldermarston does not make the inhabitants of the Cotswolds feel any happier or more secure. If anything, it does the reverse. The other reason that was given for rejecting Greenham Common was environmental. To be fair, therefore, a similar consideration must be given to the people in the Cotswolds. If cost is to come into the consideration, the Ministry of Defence must take account of the cost of the disruption of life in the Cotswolds, not only domestically but also with tourists.

I end up by asking: will Her Majesty's Government, if they have not already made up their minds, issue a clear statement regarding consultation with planning authorities relative to the area finally chosen? Will there be a public inquiry? In what circumstances could objections from the planning authority concerned lead to the abandonment of a base chosen by the Ministry of Defence? The KC135s we must have, but I hope that my few words this evening will help in some small way to persuade the Ministry of Defence that Fairford is not the place for these aircraft, and that there are other bases which have equally good, if not better, strategic criteria.

9.14 p.m.


My Lords, in venturing to address the House for the first time, I can assure your Lordships that I shall be brief, certainly bearing in mind the hour at night to which the House has been made to sit, and I trust that I shall be non-controversial, albeit that we are discussing a subject which has caused considerable controversy in North Wiltshire and South Gloucestershire. At the outset I should say that I fully support and accept our national commitment to NATO and recognise the essential role that air-to-air refuelling plays in the strategic air defence of the Western World. That this capability is to be stepped up is something I fully support and for which we should all be very grateful. However, I find a certain irony that we should be discussing the imposition of additional, and locally unwelcome, forces from another country on this date of all; that is, 4th July. It is, however, important to question the Government to ensure that any decision as to the siting of the new base for the KC135 is in the best interests of as many of the interested parties as possible; in the best interests of safety, of the local community adjacent to the base, of the United States Service personnel who will have to man the base and in the best interests of this nation and NATO.

I shall not attempt to get involved in the technical aspects of this or any alternative aircraft, as was so ably done by the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley. This aircraft has a reputation, which I am not personally capable of judging, of being extremely noisy and dirty, and potentially lethal. I think your Lordships would agree that any chance of an accident over land involving one of these aircraft when fully laden with fuel is one that is totally unacceptable. Should that accident take place over a remote rural area, the resulting destruction and pollution would be appalling; should it take place over a built-up area, the potential destruction and danger to life defies description.

Thus, if the Government are considering Fairford as a potential base, I would ask them in the interests of safety to consider certain matters. First, are they satisfied that the risks of an accident in the vicinity of the neighbouring towns of Swindon, Highworth, Lechlade, Cirencester and the Stroud Valley are so negligible as to be not worth considering? Secondly, are they satisfied that the air traffic control arrangements involving the already quite busy air base at nearby Lineham are sufficiently foolproof to preclude any chance of any such accident taking place; and if they are in any doubt, what would be the cost of either improving the air traffic control system or of reducing the amount of use made of Lineham and of the consequent disruption of Service life at that base? Thirdly, are they satisfied that the activities of the Red Arrow squadron of the RAF currently stationed at Kemble, nine or 10 miles from Fairford and directly on the flight path of the KC135, would not constitute a hazard to aviation? I remind your Lordships that the activities of this squadron are acrobatic to an extreme. I cannot believe their presence would really be considered safe; and if it were not, and if the Government should consider that a hazard does exist, what would be the cost and the disturbance involved in removing this squadron to another base?

I turn to what I call the local emotional feeling against any decision to base these aircraft at Fairford. The feeling could not be described as either political or anti-NATO, although there may be some people, of vastly differing views, who would object either because they were opposed to the Government or because they were opposed to NATO. In general, however, local objections are based on fear; fear of noise, fear of pollution, fear of an accident and fear of the effect on the community of fairly large numbers of additional personnel, both temporarily during the conversion of the site to NATO requirements, and subsequently by the permanent garrison needed to man and maintain the base. These objections based on fear would doubtless be raised to a greater or lesser extent according to whatever site the Government and NATO eventually decide on.

However, in the case of Fairford, there is a reason, which your Lordships may or may not consider to be valid, and which—if the decision to base these aircraft on Fairford were taken—might locally be considered to be somewhat wanting in tact. Fairford was, and to a limited extent still is—but it may not be for very much longer—the home of Concorde during all its proving flights in this country. It was a daily spectacle. Whether or not local people were personally involved in its future—were not we all to a greater or lesser extent?—nearly everyone admired it as the ultimate in grace and beauty that had yet been produced by Anglo-French aeronautical engineering.

Although it was an international project, local people in South Gloucestershire and North Wiltshire felt it to be particularly theirs. They were proud of it. And pride in national achievement is not a sentiment which is totally dead in that part of the world. They wished it well. They therefore felt, perhaps more strongly than others in the country, a sense of frustration and anger at the campaign of delay, some would say a pernicious campaign, waged against their Concorde by certain sections—I assure your Lordships that I mean certain very limited sections—of American opinion which, in the end, resulted in the end of the Concorde programme.

What are they offered now? Should those same people who admired that aircraft so much be offered, in its place, the KC135? Should they welcome this vast, obsolete, noisy, dirty and potentially dangerous piece of machinery as a welcome guest in their own neighbourhood, where once they had a child of their own, a child of grace and beauty and of their own breeding? I fear that they will not accept any decision to make Fairford a base for the KC135 with a good grace; I fear, too, that the traditional friendship and hospitality with which we like to treat everyone, and perhaps especially our guests from the United States who visit that part of England in large numbers, will not be forthcoming, and that the two communities might exist in a state of less friendship than we should like. I should therefore like to ask the Government to consider very carefully whether there is no suitable alternative site to Fairford which will both satisfy our obligations to the NATO Alliance and meet with the approval of the local community.

9.24 p.m.


My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to be able to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Jeffreys, on his maiden speech, which was terrifically fluid. and strong. We look forward, I am sure, to hearing him speak many times in the future.

I wish to state emphatically that I share the consternation of all the people living in or near Fairford and in the Cotswolds. It was with great regret and frustration that I found myself unable to take part in their demonstrations and deputations to Ministers in the House of Commons. Many of us remember how, not so many years ago, at the height of the cold war, American bomber aircraft were flying day and night high over our heads, and we were told that they were loaded with H-bombs. Thus it was with a great sigh of relief that most of us living with our families in the neighbourhood learnt that the American Air Force had decided that it could evacuate Fairford aerodrome. Now it may be coming back with heavier, dirtier, and noisier planes. Life is going to be grim, and I would join any campaign to stop this. But I will take no part in any campaign which attempts to impose this nightmare on any other community elsewhere so that we around Fairford can go free. I think that it is absolutely immoral to try to put it on to other people when we thoroughly disagree with it ourselves.

If the arms race continues and more and more bombers, tankers, and missiles have to be placed in Britain, more and more English communities will be engulfed; and even if Fairford escapes now, it will be a full blast American base before long if the cold war continues. In fact England will become an expendable American aircraft carrier. If that happens, Fairford, along with many other English communities, will be priority missile targets for the enemy. We and our Government must face up to that when the increase in the number of military air bases takes place.

Your Lordships may accuse me of talking off course, away from the Question of the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley. However, it is difficult to discuss location, pollution, and noise without saying something about more basic questions leading up to them. First, I want to refer to the absolute madness of the armaments race for both sides—East and West. When, and where, are any of us going to stop this crazy race? Being unable to take part in the delegations and deputations, it was arranged for me, as a Member of this House, to meet a Member of Her Majesty's Government to discuss the issue contained in the Question. To my amazement this important person asked me which would I prefer, to be fried or polluted? Are we, in this debate on this vital question, for which we are seeking a solution, to discuss the matter on such a low, infantile level?

Is not the whole of humanity—at least outside those in the arms industry—crying out for this madness to stop; for the arms race to be halted, reversed? Enough arms and bases already exist to blow mankind to smithereens. It seems to me that we are adding to this madness by introducing these American tanker planes around our village communities in our unique countryside; and at a time when there may be just a glimmer of hope—a small spark—which on no account should be ignored or stamped upon. I am referring to recent events in the world.

First, there has been Brezhnev's speech in West Germany—which the Germans thought very important indeed—in which he said that both sides were crazily heading for self-destruction; that neither side can negotiate from superiority of arms; that both sides must get around the table and discuss, discuss, discuss how to stop this madness.

Secondly, another very important event has been the getting together of so many nations at the United Nations to seek a way out of this madness. I remember talking, on the day it was assembling, to one or two Members of the Government Front Bench in this House. They had the excited air of optimism, hinting that Britain was going to play a leading part in discussing how to halt this crazy arms race. We have not yet heard fully what happened at the United Nations. A third hopeful event is that the Soviet Union has agreed that the forces of both sides could be reduced in Europe. Surely these three very important recent events constitute a chink of light in the dark curtain. I hope that Her Majesty's Government—all Governments, of whatever ideology—will push and push to make that chink wider and wider. The world has been treading down a very dangerous road, but I believe we can still turn back. Is this not a more realistic approach to take away the threat to Fairford, or any other English community, of being essential as a war base, torn by noise, smeared with pollution and perhaps faced with extinction?

9.31 p.m.


My Lords, may I, with respect, bring your Lordships' House back from the chink of the noble Lord, Lord Milford, to Fairford? I live two miles from the end of the Fairford runway and four miles from the end of the Brize Norton runway, which is also a candidate for the KC135. I therefore clearly have an interest to declare. It is not upon this interest that I wish to speak in any way this evening; nor I think, my Lords, would all my neighbours in the Cotswolds area. We all of us realise that defence has to be a major priority; we are all of us aware of those people who say that we have not paid enough money for defence or done enough for defence but who then, when somebody suggests that our airfield should become the home of the KC135, say, "Any airfield except ours".

This is the old story that we have heard so often in politics. People say, "Government expenditure must be cut to the bone, but not my bone". How often have we heard Members of Parliament say, "Government expenditure must be greatly reduced, but not in my constituency"? So we all say that we want these extra KCl35s to help us, but not if they are anywhere near our back yard. Of course, this is natural. All aircraft are dangerous, smelly, beastly things, as the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, has emphasised, and all airfields contain potential danger. We know this; so what we are asking the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, to do tonight is to say that he accepts that but, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, also to say that there is an overriding strategic reason why this airfield rather than any others should be chosen for this particular aircraft. We understand completely the need for these aircraft—those of us, particularly, who are interested in defence—but we want to know why this particular airfield is better, more suitable, strategically more acceptable, than any other.

My Lords, our local newspaper, the Wiltshire and Gloucestershire Standard, in which is incorporated the Swindon Express and Echo and the Malmesbury Mercury, has recently conducted a ballot. For what it is worth, 183 voted in favour and 356 against. All the usual arguments were paraded, and they are all good ones: jobs that were lost when the Concorde was taken away and might well come back if the KC135 comes back, noise, pollution, traffic troubles—all these are rightly exercised. But there are two arguments to which I should like to draw your Lordships' attention, which I think are a little less obvious. One is obviously that a newspaper ballot is not the ideal way of settling a nation's higher defence structure. The second is that our planning procedure, out of which all this arises, is still unsatisfactorily chaotic.

Your Lordships have heard it all often before—over Maplin, over the fourth terminal at Heathrow, over the A3 road past Winchester, and over the Archway. This will go on interminably as it is today over this Fairford row, unless we try to get our planning procedure into slightly more civilised and practical methods. Within bicycling distance of Fairford are three Roman roads: Fosse Way, Akerman Street and Ermine Street. They were built 2,000 years ago and you can see them plainly both from the air and from the ground. If the Romans had to follow the planning procedure that we have to follow nowadays those roads would never have been built let alone lasted 2.000 years. Can you imagine what would happen if we had from this House formed a deputation, an "aggro" to go off to the headquarters of the 20th Roman Legion in Cirencester? Do you think that the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, would be allowed to put down an Unstarred Question to Julius Ceasar and to the Senate at Rome? No, not at all! This has been the trouble.

With all respect to the noble Lord, Lord Milford, I should like to quote to him one remark in a letter in our local paper. It reads: Personally I would rather have the Americans fuelling their planes here than the Russians. After all, one would not be able to protest at all if the nationalities were reversed". Therefore I come back to endorse the Unstarred Question of the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, and ask the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, on behalf of the Government this. We all know about the pollution and the noise, particularly if we are a baby or an invalid. Any aircraft on any airfield is bound to be a nuisance and a potential danger. All that the noble Lord, on behalf of the Government, has to convince us is that this is the only place strategically where these aircraft can be placed; and we, believing in the necessity of defence, will put up with and accept the noise, the nuisance and the potential danger. We shall certainly accept the Americans if we are going to have these aircraft here; and I shall be the first person to give them a very warm welcome, provided I can be heard above the din.

9.37 p.m.


My Lords, we are doubly fortunate this evening, first, that the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, has seen fit to raise this important matter; and, secondly, that the noble Lord, Lord Jeffreys, has chosen this occasion to make his maiden speech. What a pleasure it was to listen to him. The noble Lord's command and style are very much in line with the highest standards of your Lordships' House, and I hope that he will intervene in our proceedings regularly in the future.

The noble Earl's Unstarred Question refers to the strategic concept governing the use of these tankers. The noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, when he replies, may not be in a position to reveal this to us precisely. I have no doubt that this is a classified matter which may not even be revealed to the Government at all. But it is very difficult, if not impossible, to determine the burning issue of where to base these aircraft without at least some knowledge of the location and scale of their proposed operations. Of course there have been some leaks. Having said that, the United Kingdom is by American standards a small place, so that if the area of operations was, for example, the North Atlantic, the different locations of possible sites in England, Wales or even Scotland is of no particular consequence.

That being so, I wonder if I can put to the noble Lord the possibility that these aircraft could be based in Northern Ireland. That Province is, for the most part, much less densely populated, and the extra 200 or so jobs which would result would be even more welcome there, I fancy, than here. There are a number of now derelict aerodromes in Northern Ireland. These could be restored and adapted for this purpose, again providing some very welcome short-term employment while the work is in progress.

The noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, dwelt at some length on the inadaquacies, as he put it, of the performance of the KC135. I do not want to follow him along that road because although I would agree that most of what he said was, so far as I know, accurate, none the less, I believe that he is a little misleading if he chooses to compare the KC135 with the VC 10 or the Super VC 10. It would be more accurate to compare the KC135 with the Victor tankers which the Royal Air Force now operate. Although I understand that there are some plans to convert VC l0s to tankers, there are no such aircraft at present. The VC 10 was a second generation jet transport, and both the KC135 and the Victor could be described as first generation transports, and therefore are more directly comparable.

Your Lordships know that I have often spoken in your Lordships' House on aviation matters. I suppose I am a wholly dedicated aviation person; and, indeed, earn my living in the industry. I believe, none the less, that aviation, whether civil or military, can no longer plant its noisy footprints with impunity—to use the modern jargon—over local communities without accepting strict controls. Of course, if war were imminent or happened, the situation would change dramatically. In peacetime I believe that there must be some regulation even on these military aircraft.

What then are we to say to our American allies who need quite justifiably to operate the somewhat elderly and noisy aircraft hereabouts? First, we must select an aerodrome which will cause the least possible annoyance to the population. Because of the technical requirements of the runway and the copious fuel supplies necessary for these operations, the choice is clearly somewhat limited. I believe that the environmental considerations so eloquently put in particular by my noble friend Lord Jeffreys are such that would rule out places like Fairford and Brize-Norton. Indeed, I believe that the people who live around Brize-Norton have enough to put up with already.

The choice is thus narrowed to an existing coastal site, of which the RAF have a number, or to redevelop an old and remote aerodrome, perhaps in Scotland or Northern Ireland. Secondly, we should say to our friends that we insist that the KC135s are replaced by the newer, quieter and more efficient DC10 tankers now on order just as soon as maybe. They are, I believe, expected in service in a couple of years. It might be reasonable to insist that the first place they base them is at the point decided for what I hope will be the short-term operation of the KC135s. This will no doubt require some replanning of the USAF tanker deployment; after all, they have an enormous fleet of tankers and there are nearly 1,000 KC135s still in service. I believe that our friends will realise that we have unique problems here and will he willing to do this for us.

If the Americans grow impatient at the very detailed and careful consideration which the Government must give to this matter, or if they start to read the fine-print of the NATO Treaty, they may care to ponder on the two years or more that it took—and this was mentioned also by my noble friend Lord Jeffreys—to secure the landing rights for Concorde in New York. The situations arc not perhaps exactly parallel, but the Government do have a duty to provide these new facilities only after the most careful thought.

9.45 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, for putting this Question because, first, it encouraged the noble Lord, Lord Jeffreys, to make his maiden speech, on which I congratulate him and quite sincerely say that I hope we shall hear him again soon, and possibly on matters of defence. It also enables me to explain why the requirement to base extra KC135 tanker aircraft in this country has arisen and to try to allay the fears of the more nervous brethren among us.

I think it will be generally accepted that we owe the long period of peace and stability we have enjoyed in Europe to the North Atlantic Alliance. As noble Lords will recall from the interesting debate we had on defence strategy in July last year, the North Atlantic Alliance practices a strategy of deterrence. For effective deterrence the Alliance needs to convince any potential aggressor that the use of force, or the threat of force for political ends, carries risks far outweighing any likely advantage.

NATO's deterrent strategy is based on forward defence and the capability of flexible response. Forward defence means that NATO is committed to defend the full territorial integrity of its members and to halt any attack at the earliest possible point. Flexible response means that NATO must have a range of military options wide enough to ensure that whatever form agression took NATO would have the ability to meet it. For the deterrence to be effective in all circumstances, sufficient forces must be stationed forward in Europe to defend Alliance territory at all times against any attack the Warsaw Pact could mount until reinforcements could arrive and to support these forces on arrival.

As part of its commitment to this NATO strategy and in response to the continuing build-up in Warsaw Pact military forces, the United States has recently increased the number of its fighter and strike/attack aircraft based in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe. For that, we shall be grateful to them. As a result, the small number of KC 135 tankers currently stationed at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk can no longer provide sufficient air-to-air refuelling capacity to get the maximum combat effectiveness out of these tactical aircraft and others which would cross the Atlantic to reinforce them in time of tension or war. The noble Lord, Lord Jeffreys, mentioned "fear". Are the inhabitants of the Cotswolds of softer tissue than the inhabitants of Suffolk? I do not believe it. If Suffolk can take KC 135 aircraft then I think the Cotswolds—if it should be the Cotswolds—might also be able to stand up to the challenge.

Tankers have been aptly described as "force multipliers": by topping up combat aircraft with fuel in the air, they enable them to fly further or carry a heavier weapon load, or both, than is possible without flight refuelling. Indeed, tankers increase significantly the operational effectiveness of the combat aircraft they support, and thereby make a major and cost effective contribution to deterrence and peace; this is why Her Majesty's Government have recently decided to purchase extra VC 10s to add to the RAF's own tanker force.

It is important that the KC 135s, which would operate in Europe in war should train regularly in the theatre to provide practice for their own crews in a European environment and training for the tactical aircraft pilots stationed here. Only in this way can they maintain the operational readiness and effectiveness that is so essential for deterrence and the efficient defence of Europe. The United States Government has accordingly decided that it must increase the number of KC 135 tankers deployed in Europe as quickly as possible to match its increased commitment of combat aircraft. For military reasons, it is not sensible to base them in the forward area of the NATO Central Region, where they would be vulnerable to attack by tactical aircraft of the Warsaw Pact. We would not put them on the Russian border. Nor is there room for them at airfields in the central region.

NATO greatly needs the increased air refuelling capability represented by these KC135s, and Her Majesty's Government fully accept the urgent operational case presented by the United States Government, and supported by the NATO military authorities, to deploy extra tankers to Europe. We wholeheartedly welcome this addition to allied deterrent and defensive strength. We also agree that, given established NATO strategy and planning, the United Kingdom is the most suitable country in Europe for them to operate from. We are, after all, an unsinkable aircraft carrier. I believe that noble Lords will not dissent from that either.

The question of where in the United Kingdom they should be based is, however, as we have heard this evening, a much more difficult matter to resolve. There are many factors that the Government have to take into account in reaching a decision. Fortunately, strategy is not one, since almost anywhere in these islands would be within range of the tankers' operational rendezvous areas. I note the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, about Northern Ireland. Remembering one great airfield there which has been closed, it might be an excellent idea, but that is not for us to discuss this evening.


Why not?


Because I have simply said that the actual placing is not determined by strategy; it is determined by other matters. I shall come to the point later. However, the pattern of our other aircraft deployments, the availability and suitability of airfields, cost and environmental considerations are all matters that have to be studied and balanced one against the other. But apart from repeating what was said in another place on 26th May about the reasons for ruling out Greenham Common, I regret that I am not able to say anything tonight about the Government's choice of airfield as the base for these tankers, or even about the list of airfields which has been considered. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence hopes to make an announcement in the very near future. I cannot anticipate this, and until then I must ask noble Lords to be patient on this point. This is, to some extent, an answer to the Question about Fairford, which was the main focus of the noble Earl's attention. But, as I said, it is not strategy; it is a complex of considerations upon which the Government must base their decision.

May I now turn to some points which, I hope, will allay the fears of noble Lords. First, the United States Government has asked Her Majesty's Government for a base in the United Kingdom for 15 extra KC135 tankers in peacetime. That answers the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, about the scale of the operation. The deployment of these aircraft would take place over a period of two years. When complete, the force would generate an average total of about eight sorties a day. Initially, it would be proportionately less. Flying would normally take place only in daylight hours and on weekdays, although there would be occasional exercise periods involving night and weekend flying. Reports of flying round-the-clock on seven days a week are, therefore, totally untrue. In addition, the nature of the aircraft's role means that its sorties take it away from base for several hours at a time. Many of the reports of noise and pollution levels have, therefore, been considerably overstated, and so has the degree of nuisance which the deployment of these aircraft would cause.

Local opinion has also been concerned about the quantity and type of fuel carried by the aircraft. The KC135 normally carries somewhat less than 26,000 US gallons of fuel. The noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, painted an awful picture of one of these 'planes flying on three engines and staggering up towards the local church tower. But it does not have to aim at the church tower; it can aim to avoid it. Furthermore, it does not have to take off with a full load. The basic point is that if you paint a black enough picture you can frighten yourself in any situation, if you really wish to do so.


My Lords, will the noble Lord give way for one moment? If it does not have to take off with a full load, there really is not much point in having it.


It is one thing to operate an aircraft in peacetime and another to operate it in war. Come hostilities, we would be just waving the boys goodbye and saying, "Take off with an extra gallon if you can fit it in". The basic point is that in peacetime you adjust to peacetime considerations. I am certain that the noble Lord, Lord Jeffreys, knows that the Red Arrows would be warned that the thing is taking off before they start doing aerobatics.

We have a pretty competent system of air traffic control in this country. When we go hack to the 26,000 US gallons of fuel—I am glad to say they are not British gallons but US gallons of fuel—that is considerably less than the amount carried by a modern jumbo-jet airliner of the kind which fly every day to and from civil airports in this country. The Cotswolds can have a jumbo jet crashing in their back garden quite easily. There is no greater risk with a KC135 than there is with a jumbo. The additional KC135s would carry fuel identical to that used by the RAF, known to NATO as F34 and similar to civil aviation JP8 fuel. The United States Air Force in this country is converting to this fuel from the more volatile F40 fuel, in accordance with a NATO decision to adopt F34 as the standard fuel for all land-based jet aircraft. Contrary to reports, the safety record of the KC135 since it entered service has been excellent, and is several times better than the average for all United States Air Force or indeed Royal Air Force aircraft.

I hope that will steady people's nerves. I want to make one more point. I have read my brief with a few amendments and am now going to speak my own mind. I want to know where noble Lords stand. We know where the noble Lord, Lord Milford, stands. He wants us to lower our guard and take whatever risks are likely to come as a result of lowering our guard.


My Lords, I want to get rid of this madness of the arms race so that we can get down to a sensible, decent peacetime again.


My Lords, will the noble Lord please tell his Russian friends about that. It would be very helpful perhaps. The other point is that I have stood here for the last 3½ years—in fact, many years before that—and have been told that the Party which I represent is betraying this country, cutting defence, and so on; yet noble Lords opposite who claim to be the defenders of the Realm have the effrontery to say that because some rather noisy and smoky aircraft which we need desperately for the defence of NATO are going to land somewhere near them—not even in their back garden, but somewhere within 20 or 30 miles—they must go somewhere, anywhere else, but "not in God's name in my back garden". The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, made the point. I have a long memory and when noble Lords get up to speak on defence in the future, if they are going to take this line, I shall have to remind them of it. My Lords, that is my attempt to answer the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley.