HL Deb 29 November 1979 vol 403 cc551-62

6.35 p.m.

The Earl of KINNOULL rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a Statement on the present Tornado programme and its potential sales, and on the possibility of a future development programme. The noble Earl said: My Lords, in raising the subject of Tornado tonight with my noble friend the Minister, I was to have thanked in advance a number of speakers whom I had understood might be taking part, but I suspect they have already left. Tornado is a unique product and has won already a number of "firsts" in the annals of our history. It is the largest single military project ever undertaken by our aerospace industry; it is the first swing-wing aircraft built by the industry; it is one of the few that has escaped the axe of cancellation; it is the first and perhaps the most important fully collaborative European venture, with Germany, Italy and ourselves as partners; and, lastly, it represents the cornerstone upon which our air defence and strike capability will depend over the next decade.

The questions that I should like to put to my noble friend tonight—and I hope that he has a full brief—are really to up-date us on the flight-test programme, its timing for delivery to the RAF, its potential sales abroad and its potential for development. This is perhaps a tall order in a short debate but I hope that my noble friend can cover as much information as possible. I should like also to seek briefly information on the Harrier aircraft about which I have given notice. Anyone who has studied the origins of Tornado will recall that it was conceived 15 years ago through the ingenuity of British designers who had just experienced the cancellation of TSR.2. At that time Tornado was known as the MRCA. Later it became the Anglo-French variable geometry aircraft and finally, that having been dropped, it became what is now Tornado, under Panavia.

Its design specification is both highly complicated and demanding. It is demanding because it has to serve the specifications of three air forces. It required a brand new engine, the RB.199, which has been developed by Rolls-Royce and certain European partners. Perhaps my noble friend can say whether the development of that engine now fully meets the required specification. It has immensely complicated and sophisticated equipment which has been provided by equipment companies of all three partners, except for one item which is the terrain scanner. It speaks very well of the capabilities of the home equipment companies. The demand on specification is very wide and for that reason there ar[...] two versions: the ADV, which is the version the RAF have requested, and the IDS which all three partners have requested.

From all accounts, this aircraft is already turning out to be a formidable strike aircraft with its unique flexibility and all-weather, air-to-surface capability. Flight testing, as my noble friend will confirm, began some five years ago. It would be interesting to know from him how up to date the position is and whether he is able to comment on the recent tragic loss of one of the aircraft over the Irish Sea, and perhaps to reassure us of the programme generally. On the production and delivery side, one understands that the production is split between the partners, although assembly is in Germany and England. Production, one reads, is gathering momentum.

Perhaps it is pertinent to refer briefly to an article which appeared in The Times today, reporting the views of the Chief of the Air Staff. I am sure that my noble friend has seen this. Briefly, the article states that the Royal Air Force is short of fighters and needs them quickly. This is perhaps a somewhat dramatic summary of that article. It went on to surmise that these words meant either that there should be an increase in orders for the Tornado or that there should be an earlier delivery date, or both. I hope my noble friend will take this opportunity to expand a little more on what was recently said in another place by his honourable friend about the present delivery dates of the ADV version, and whether industry would find it possible to deliver earlier than is at present expected.

The training of the Tornado squadrons is not a wholly unemotive subject, particularly for those who live in areas where low flying is permitted. One understands that all the training of Tornado squadrons will take place in Britain, from a base in Suffolk. Again it will be of interest to know whether it is expected that there will be an increase in low flying with this aircraft during the training programme or whether the offer which I understand has been made by the Canadians to allow Goose Bay to be used will in fact be accepted.

Turning to the potential export sales, and our current hopes, it will be of interest to know what the position to date now is regarding the United States and indeed other countries. Is there any talk of a NATO fleet requirement on a similar basis to AWACS, or will this involve some joint development programme in the United States? Sales outside the joint development countries are clearly quite vital to the real success of this project. Can my noble friend say when, if one took the gloomy view that no sales were coming, the present production line would finish and when is the critical time when a stretched or modified version of this aircraft has to be considered?

This leads one on to ask my noble friend whether his department now see a necessity to keep designing new airframes when we have reached the stage where manned aircraft have attained the limits of their performance, so that what is required now is the strapping on of an updated missile system rather than a new airframe.

Turning briefly to the Harrier development, one understands that the Royal Air Force has reached an apparent crossroads where they must decide which choice to make on the next version. They have the choice of either the British updated version, known, I believe, as the M5, or the United States McDonnell Douglas version, the AV8B. One is also led to believe that considerable benefits would follow to British industry if the United States Marines were to purchase the AV8B and that an RAF order would obviously help to cement the Marines' order. This is no new argument of persuasion in military aircraft procurement. But it does seem that the concept of the Harrier is proven and that it has an undoubted future and role, and, if McDonnell Douglas are sincere in their desire to collaborate, one hopes a compromise will be found for the benefit and success of the Harrier development. I believe that McDonnell Douglas must now recognise that a compromise is essential on both the technical and design features if the goal for both British Aerospace and the desire of McDonnell Douglas are to be achieved, I hope that my noble friend will say something on this issue.

My final brief and simple point is this: there has been talk in the past of a fighter gap requirement for the Royal Air Force, and perhaps the best option is to buy an existing military aircraft off the shelf from across the Atlantic. I hope that my noble friend can tonight give an unequivocal assurance that Her Majesty's Government are not considering doing any such thing, but will stick with the Tornado. I hardly need to remind my noble friend of the consequences of buying off the shelf in the case of the F1–11 aircraft, when a bill of £450 million was picked up by us taxpayers on its cancellation.

6.45 p.m.


My Lords, I find this extremely interesting because I remember the debate we had on this very issue when the roles were reversed, and my noble friend Lord Winterbottom faced a barrage of criticism that night—I thought most unfairly—especially by spokesmen from the Liberal side. I am not an expert on aircraft although I was an anti-aircraft gunner. Every time I see these planes become airborne I shudder to think of the damage which can be done. They are very fine aircraft. The Tornado has shown already that it is not only a fine aircraft from the point of view of the defence of this country; it is a very fine aircraft which can earn us a lot of money. I have a copy of the Financial Times report, an excellent article, dated 22nd March this year, by Michael Donne, their aerospace correspondent. It says: More than 70,000 workers in more than 500 companies are engaged in this £8 billion tripartite European programme to build over 800 multi-role combat aircraft through the 1980s for the RAF, the Luftwaffe, the German Navy and the Italian Air Force. The first production model is due to fly this summer ". This shows the importance of it not only from the point of view of the United Kingdom but for defence within NATO. I am glad that there has now been a change of heart. Many people criticise Tornado, although senior chiefs of staff, who are experts, have always had faith in this aircraft. I am glad they have. I know that the noble Earl has quite rightly probed the Minister, as he did the previous Minister and he has asked for certain assurances. All I can say from reading the material on this is that it is an aircraft of which we should be proud. I do not think that we should waste any more time of the House tonight. This is a very good aircraft. It will provide both defence and attack, and all of us who wish well of our own security hope that it will succeed. There are also the other benefits, to which I have referred, for this country and others as well. I hope that no one will indulge in niggardly criticism of a very fine project, which I hope and trust will succeed.

6.47 p.m.

The MINISTER of STATE, MINISTRY of DEFENCE (Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal)

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Peart, for the very robust ending to his speech with which I heartily concur. I also should like to congratulate my noble friend. He must almost have achieved a record of packing in a number of technical questions in a short speech. I can assure him that I am adequately briefed, but like the noble Lord, Lord Peart, I do not want to trespass too far on the patience of the House by going too deeply into all the questions he has asked—even supposing I knew all the answers or was at liberty to give them, even if I knew them.

An important point worth making right at the outset is that we are inclined to get a little gloomy about international collaboration and this project is an excellent example of a successful part of tri-national collaboration in as about a difficult an area as can be found. It enables me to stress the importance that we attach to making a success of these kinds of programmes while without in any way under-rating the difficulty of achieving success.

The noble Lord, Lord Peart, pointed out that here we have a programme for 800 aeroplanes. It is generally conceded that multi-national programmes do slightly increase the total development cost because of the international nature of them. Nevertheless, when you spread that over 800 as opposed to something like half—that size of an order—the unit cost must benefit from it. This kind of international collaborative effort enables us to maintain the essential research and development capabilities which we need and we can share in the development of a far wider range of equipment and techniques than we could achieve if we did it alone.

We get the benefits of spreading the development costs over a longer production line and in that way we achieve economies of scale in production and we fill the objective of getting common equipment, which has all kinds of advantages from the operational point of view and from that of logistic support. We also have an advantage from the training point of view. So here we have a very modern, very sophisticated aircraft, which is sometimes known in the Ministry as "an all-singing all-dancing aeroplane ", rather irreverently. The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, is quite right: It was called the multi-role combat aircraft. Inevitably, in the best Ministry of Defence jargon, it acquired various initials such as MRCA, IDS and all the rest of it which they always enjoy doing. It is now called the Tornado, which makes it more manageable and also a little more appealing, I think.

The problems should not be under-rated—the problems which have been successfully surmounted in producing this aeroplane. As the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, said, it is a two-seater, variable geometry aircraft, powered by two RB.199 engines. It is intended to meet the needs of the RAF, the Italian Air Force, the Luftwaffe and the German Navy for some years ahead. As far as we are concerned, this will be the most numerous aircraft in front-line service from the 1980s onwards. It represents a considerable improvement in the RAF's capability and will assist the maintenance of their effective contribution to NATO.

The Mark I version which is known as the IDS (the inter-diction and strike and reconnaissance aircraft) is the first one. This is the collaborative one: this has the terrain-following radar system for automatic flight at very low levels, which is considered essential for getting in under the enemy radar. In this role, this aeroplane will replace the Vulcans and the Buccaneers in the strike attack role and will replace the Canberra in the reconnaissance role. Coming to the mark II, the air defence variant, this is only a variant in the United Kingdom at the present time. This aeroplane has a new air interception radar and it will carry both medium- and short-range air-to-air guided missiles. In this role, the Tornado takes over from the Phantom and the Lightning for the United Kingdom and the surrounding seas, and indeed in the Central Region of Europe.

So we are confident—and I am happy to say that we are confident, because we had better be!—that in the 1980s the RAF will be able to rely on the Tornado to fulfil all the roles for which it was designed and it will be the mainstay of the fleet. The order currently is for 385 aircraft for the RAF, of which 220 will be the IDS and 165 will be the ADV. I am sorry, my Lords, I am falling into the "initial" trap which I always try to avoid.

Your Lordships will be aware that this Government have been concerned recently with tackling the problem of improving the air defences of this country. As my noble friend said, steps were announced in another place by the Sectetary of State for the RAF on 27th July. Studies are still continuing to identify the possibilities of longer-term improvements, which would certainly include the possibility of an increase in the number of front-line fighters. Studies are also going on into the possibility of speeding up the introduction into service of the F2 version of the aeroplane; but this is not a simple matter and it will be a little time before we are able to give a decision on that. However, I think I can give the noble Lord what he calls the "unequivocal assurance" that he is looking for. Regarding the purchase, or leasing, as has been suggested, of American fighter aircraft, we do not believe at the present time that this is a realistic option. One of the reasons for this is that we have a pilot shortage and it would take time to provide the training and the logistic support that would be required if we were to bring into service a new aeroplane. So I have to re-emphasise the RAF's total commitment to the F2 Tornado, which is the aeroplane they want and which they believe is most likely to meet the threat. The question is how quickly an adequate number of these aircraft can be brought into service.

As regards development, this is proceeding satisfactorily. There has been the inevitable slippage, but basically this is now going well, and I am happy to be able to tell the noble Lord that, despite a very regrettable accident to one of the experimental aircraft—the development aircraft—it has been possible to spread the development programme over the other aircraft and that the delays resulting from that accident are thought to be minimal.

Of the IDS version, which is the one currently being developed to the production stage, there are five development air-craft operating in the United Kingdom, at Warton and at Boscombe Down, six development aircraft in Germany and three in Italy. Between them they have done over 3,000 hours, and the official test centres of the three nations arc involved in flight testing leading to the initial clearance of the aircraft for use by the Services.

What the jargon calls "the flight envelope" has now been extended out to beyond Mach 2, with excellent flying characteristics being reported throughout the envelope of speed and altitude. There has been at the same time all the testing of the very complicated avionics, and it is believed that this will be a potent weapons system and also a very valuable addition to NATO. The assessment of the weapon carriage and delivery systems is still continuing, and this covers the very large range of armaments which is to be carried by the aircraft of the three nations. We believe that the combination of the weapon system and the terrain-following radar will provide us with an aircraft with a capability of exceptionally accurate delivery. But the detailed weapons system may vary to some extent from country to country.

Production of the IDS was started in mid-1976 and the first production air-craft made its maiden flight at British Aerospace Warton in July of this year. That aeroplane is now at the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down, where it is undergoing compatibility testing of the production systems. A further 18 aircraft are now in the final stages of assembly. Contracts have been let for the first three batches of production aircraft, totalling 314 aircraft, of which 146 will be for the Royal Air Force. I do not think I should apologise for trotting out all these figures, because I think that that is really what the noble Earl was after, but I accept that they are reasonably indigestible. We hope that initial deliveries of aircraft to the Services of the participating nations will commence during 1980, so that training of Service personnel can begin.

This leads me on to another rather satisfactory aspect of the collaboration on this project, because the training of Service personnel, as the noble Earl mentioned, is to take place at the Trinational Tornado Training Establishment, the TTTE, located at RAF Cottesmore. This, in itself, is a NATO collaborative exercise and the collaborative character of the project is reflected in the support area, where spares and the aircraft's ground equipment are being procured on a common basis. In some cases, there will be a single manufacturer who is producing individual items for all the aircraft to be procured by the three nations.

So far as the ADV—which is the exclusively British aircraft—is concerned, full development of that began in 1976 and the first prototype aircraft made its maiden flight on 27th October this year. It reached a supersonic speed in that flight—I think that the pilot must have been a brave man—and it is displaying very good characteristics. The two other prototype aircraft will fly during 1980, and the F2 Tornado will enter service in the mid-80s with the fourth batch of production aircraft. As the noble Earl said, the aircraft is being developed by the firm specially set up under German registration, called Panavia. This consists of British Aerospace, Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm of Germany and Aeritalia of Italy. Development and production of the RB.199 engine is being under-taken by Turbo-Union, which is a consortium of Rolls-Royce, Motoren and Turbinen Union of Germany and Fiat of Italy; and, of course, there are very many aerospace companies right across Europe which are involved as sub-contractors to these various main contractors.

As the noble Lord, Lord Peart, pointed out, this has great importance for industry in this country and I have some figures on that. The airframe assembly and other work will involve at peak some 12,000 employees at the BAe factories, mainly at Preston in Lancashire, while the engine work will involve up to 8,000 workers at Rolls-Royce. A further 10,000 will be involved on equipment, plus further work on avionics.

So far as sales abroad are concerned the programme, with a total of 809 air-craft, does not depend upon making sales overseas, but, clearly, it would be a highly satisfactory development if we were able to sell the aircraft overseas. No orders have currently been taken for the aeroplane. However, it is only just beginning to show what it can do. I think that there is a certain amount of interest being developed in this aircraft, and we have every confidence that this interest is likely to increase. It is an expensive aeroplane and many nations think that they would like a cheaper aeroplane for some of the other jobs which they visualise being able to do. What very often happens nowa-days, regrettably, is that you start out to design what you think will be a cheaper aeroplane, but by the time you have finished you begin to pinch yourself and wish that you had bought what looked a very expansive aeroplane at the beginning.

Engine development is going on satisfactorily. The engine was specially developed for the aeroplane. It is a very advanced design of engine, a very versatile engine, and we believe that this will also have sales potential outside the Tornado project itself. The noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, wrote to me apologising for the fact that he could not stay to the end of this debate. He was particularly interested to know what benefits we expected to derive from sub-sequent sales of technology developed for the aeroplane, and I think that this is possibly one. The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, extended his Question somewhat and I shall try to do the same, if I do not trespass too much on the patience of the House.

The question of stretching the Tornado is something that is quite a possibility. It has become a habit lately, because of the difficulty of developing new aircraft and new airframes, to consider the possibility of a major mid-life improvement to an aeroplane, and with a successful development like this that is clearly an option which could have considerable attraction. Beyond the Tornado—and this is another point which the noble Earl raised—I think we envisage there is still going to be a further aeroplane. We are in active discussions with the Federal Republic of Germany and with France about a future tactical aircraft for the 1990's and a particular requirement of that aeroplane is a high degree of agility. This is one of those examples where it is hoped to get a simpler and cheaper aircraft, but one wonders whether we may find ourselves asking, "Why don't we live with the devil we know? "

The noble Earl mentioned the Harrier. This is almost a question for a debate in itself because it is quite a large subject. The RAF continues to be entranced by the possibilities and the importance of an aircraft which does not rely on lengthy runways, and I venture to believe that this is an idea which is increasingly commending itself to our allies in NATO, who are getting more and more nervous about what they call the airfield denial weapons which are currently in development. The Air Force is determined to stay with the Harrier, and with the concept of short take-off and vertical landing, up until the end of the century.

As the noble Earl said, there are two possibilities for upgrading the existing Harrier. On the one hand, we have the British Aerospace Mark 5 design, which incorporates the "big wing", and on the other the McDonnell Douglas AV8B. Reaching a decision between these two—and there is no possibility of the RAF taking both of these aircraft into service; I really do not think that that is a possibility—has, regrettably, been made that much more difficult because the McDonnell Douglas prototype aeroplane with the new wing crashed recently, and this has delayed the evaluation. But one hopes that one or other of these Harriers would certainly be taken on by the RAF. As yet, it is impossible to say which it will be. Again we hope that we shall be able to work out a collaborative programme with the Americans.

Noble Lords will have heard noises about the US Marines saying that it will not be put into their programme unless we buy it. We should very much regret it if the AV8B were taken out of their programme, but clearly we cannot commit ourselves until we know which of these is going to be the most satisfactory for RAF use.

I have necessarily ranged somewhat wide of the Question. That is the fault of the noble Earl who asked the Question, not mine. Nevertheless, I apologise; I have done my best. We believe that this is an example of the effective use of the resources in the defence budget, and we shall do our best to continue to seek cost-effective ways of meeting the very real and increasing threat which we see. We believe that the Tornado is a shining example of what can be achieved if there is sufficient determination regarding a collaborative programme.