HL Deb 11 March 1987 vol 485 cc1121-6

8.2 p.m.

The Earl of Kimberley rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will use every endeavour to ensure that if an interim engine is required for the European Fighter Aircraft this engine will be the RB199.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. It may seem a slightly strange Question to ask about a European aeroplane and slightly strange to try to make certain that the RB 199 engine should be used for the prototype. But surely a European aeroplane should have a European airframe, a European engine and a European radar. There is not much point in making it otherwise. If we wanted to have a European/American aeroplane, that would be a completely different story; but the reason we want the EFA is because of European aerospace technology. We already have the Turbo-Union RB199, which is eminently suitable for the 11 prototypes. They must be all right because otherwise they would not be the power-plants for the Tornado. These engines already have in excess of one million service flying-hours, and when the EFA prototype flies that figure will be over one and a half million hours.

Further, the RB 199 is in the British Aerospace Experimental Aircraft Programme, the EAP. So far throughout the EAP's flight-testing the engine has performed impeccably. Thus it has allowed the maximum time to be devoted to airframe evaluation. There is also much similarity in the installation points and the air intakes in the EAP and the EFA, and a trouble-free operation will therefore be assured.

After the interim engine, we shall have the Eurojet Turbo GmbH, in which Rolls-Royce have a 33 per cent. share, the other two shareholders being MTU of West Germany and Fiat Aviazione of Italy. This engine is the EJ200, the full-scale development of which will be launched this year. It should be flight-tested in 1991, with production in 1995. At the present time there is a demonstrator engine, the XG-40, for this engine. That is already running on a test-bed at Bristol and has been funded by Her Majesty's Government. Therefore when the EJ200 comes along it will be an advanced high-technology engine and one which can compete with any United States developed engine. Thus it has valuable export potential, particularly for the European partner nations.

I feel it is worth considering that Turbo-Union believe that there are at least 1,000 more export orders for which the American engine, the General Electric F404, and the RB199 are competing. A General Electric victory in the interim EFA engine competition will give the United States company a major bargaining position in the battle for these sales.

The first few prototypes—probably I I—have got to have an interim engine and the talk that possibly the General Electric F404 might be used instead of the RB 199 is, to my mind, slightly outrageous. Funnily enough, I have heard it rumoured that it is the Germans who are keen on the General Electric F404. That seems to be slightly odd, as they are part of the consortium which is finally to develop the EJ200. I believe this would be a very dangerous course of action if it were to happen, as there is no doubt that it would seriously undermine the European aerospace engine industry.

I should like to ask my noble friend whether he would agree with the following points that I am about to raise. I hope that he will agree with most of them at any rate. First, there is widespread RB 199 experience among flight and ground crews at three contractor sites and many available diversion sites. That will allow immediate and unrestricted access to technical data and other engine company resources. The necessity for investment in new facilities will be minimal, since equipment at the already established flight-test centres can be used.

Selection of the RB 199 will maintain a competitive European aerospace industry, enhanced during the past two decades through several collaborative programmes. European jobs in high technology will be secure, as will Europe's reputation in the rest of the world, if the RB199 is selected for the European prototype.

Turbo-Union, incidentally, has offered the RB 199 engines for the EFA prototype on a free loan basis, only charging a fixed price for the hours flown on the prototypes. This commercial offer, coupled with all the existing engineering and management resources within the European partner companies, will result in a cheap and secure aircraft development programme. Selection of the RB 199 will ensure that the security of European technology is preserved.

There are four more small points. Europe has the ideal engine in the RB 199 and, prior to the availability of the EJ200, we must not forget that this engine was developed by the British, German and Italian Governments to meet their requirements. Our Government should make use of their large investment in this engine.

There is the threat that if the F404 is chosen it will undermine European industry and will eventually have adverse effects on confidence and employment in our industry. The EJ200 is a better engine for production than the General Electric F404 or developments thereof, as the latter would involve total dependence on an offshore supply; with related risks in connection with currency exchange rates and technology transfer. It is to be hoped that Her Majesty's Government, through my noble friend, will use every endeavour to ensure the choice of the RB 199 as the interim engine.

8.10 p.m.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I did not intend to contribute, but following the remarks of the noble Earl I wish to make a few very quick points. They are really in support of his contentions about the use of the engine required for the European fighter aircraft. I wish to point out that one of my reasons for supporting his arguments is my membership of the manufacturing union, TASS. I point out also that that union has a very good record when it comes to supporting aerospace projects.

May I take your Lordships back to the early days of the HS146? That aircraft project was going to be ditched and it was only as a result of the lobbying activities of TASS that it carried on seeing the light of day, and it is now a highly profitable aircraft for British Aerospace. We also have a track record of supporting the advanced fighter project which has now developed into the European fighter aircraft. I think that we need to stress support for the indigenous aerospace industry in this advanced project.

8.11 p.m.

Lord Irving of Dartford

My Lords, this is a very technical subject and I cannot claim in any sense to be an expert on aero engines, unlike the noble Earl; nor has it been easy to find someone who knows anything about the subject. In those circumstances, I am bound to fall back on asking some questions and I hope that they have some relevance.

First, in what circumstances and at what stage would it be necessary to have an engine for the Eurofighter which is not the fully developed EJ200? The noble Earl made some remarks about prototypes and I should like to have some information about the position. Secondly, what would be the criteria for deciding which engine it should be, if it is not the RB 199? Indeed, what are the alternatives for this purpose and what possibly are the circumstances in which the RB 199 could be rejected? Above all, would the consideration be based on political, defence, technical, financial or other reasons?

Also in regard to the EJ200, the work allocated to the different components of Eurojet engines is a much more sophisticated range than it was under Turbo-Union. Are the arguments that will be advanced in deciding about the RB 199 related in any way to conflicts about the collaborative arrangements? In other words, would it be the case that if Rolls-Royce got the engine, British Aerospace could not get the wings?

Finally, as the noble Earl has said, the RB 199 is a robust engine which has given very good service with the Tornado. Will the noble Lord bear in mind that it is absolutely vital that we give full support to indigenous industry, and that we do not lose any opportunity to build our European connections in this respect?

8.13 p.m.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Kimberley for providing this opportunity to discuss the European fighter aircraft—usually known, as my noble friend indicated, as EFA—because I have much sympathy with his concern that the commitment to the principle of EFA, which could be the most important collaborative military project in Europe, is not undermined by choosing non-European equipments unless it is shown that there are clear benefits in doing so.

By any standards, the EFA programme represents a major milestone in European defence industrial collaboration, and its success, if it comes to pass, would bring tangible economic and military benefits. It is already an example for the collaborative procurement of equipment required for the armed forces of NATO member countries and continues the pattern of much greater standardisation and interoperability within the alliance. Following on from the success of Tornado, there is a strong political will for EFA to succeed. Technologically, EFA will be extremely advanced, embodying the very latest not only in new engine technology but also in aerodynamic design, materials, avionics and control systems.

I am pleased to report that definition refinement work is well in hand. The project definition phase ended last September, and the nations are currently carrying out, on both a national and an international basis, an appraisal of the results based on the reports submitted by industry. As your Lordships will appreciate, this process is not a simple task, and it will take some months yet to prepare the groundwork for national decisions. Assuming that the results are favourable, we anticipate that the development of the aircraft will be launched as soon as possible thereafter.

In the meantime, industry are continuing to work on the further design and definition of both the airframe and the engine, with a view to identifying those areas which are of high risk or are of greatest importance in meeting the in-service date. But I must emphasise that, as in all major projects, we are taking a step by step approach to decision-making and have still to reach a governmental decision whether to commit to full development.

All four EFA nations agreed in Turin in August 1985 that if EFA goes ahead as planned, a new fighter engine will be required for the aircraft. The national engine companies, including, of course, Rolls-Royce for the United Kingdom, have now formed a new international consortium, known as Eurojet, to co-ordinate this activity. The work which has so far been done to define the development programmes for both the airframe and the engine has led us to the conclusion that it would be prudent to plan on the basis that we would use an existing engine for early flight trials during the airframe development. This is because developing a new advanced fighter engine is inevitably a lengthy business. If full development of the engine and of the airframe began at the same time, flight clearance for the new engine would almost certainly not be available in time to support the early aircraft flight trials programme. An existing engine would therefore be required for initial development flying.

Moreover, given that any development programme is bound to involve an element of risk, it makes sense not to make the airframe programme too dependent upon the engine programme. We should thus avoid the situation where any problems with engine development would have an immediate adverse effect on the airframe programme as well. It will not be necessary for the interim engine to be as powerful as the new one, since its purpose will not be to evaluate all aspects of the performance of the airframe, but rather to enable initial flight testing of the integration of the various aircraft systems and to gain some operating experience.

The consortium of EFA airframe companies, Eurofighter, is at present running a competition to select the interim engine. The choice lies between the RB 199, which was developed for the Tornado and is manufactured by Turbo-Union; and the United States General Electric F404, which powers, among others, the US F-18. Tenders are now being evaluated, and Eurofighter will be making a recommendation to the EFA board of directors within the next few weeks.

The EFA nations will need to take into account a number of factors in reaching their selection decision. Among these will be price, suitability for the task and availability of support for the engine. For example, the fact that we, the Germans and the Italians already have in place a support system for the RB 199 would be an important point in its favour; and, other things being equal, we should prefer to see a European engine as the interim choice for a European collaborative aircraft. Naturally, each government may well attach different priorities to each of the factors, and we shall have to await the detailed evaluation of the tenders and the recommendation of the airframe consortium before reaching agreement with our partners.

I must point out that the selection of the interim engine has no implications for the procurement of the advanced engine to be fitted to the later prototypes and the production aircraft. The position of the EFA nations is quite clear. We have agreed that if we proceed with full development of EFA, this will be on the basis of developing a new European engine in which Rolls-Royce will play a major part as a member of the Eurojet consortium. The United Kingdom wishes this new advanced engine also to be capable of retrofitting to the Tornado air defence aircraft if that is what the Government in due course decide.

I said at the beginning that I was concerned to ensure that the EFA nations benefited to the maximum extent possible from the EFA project. However, another guiding principle of the project is that the maximum possible use will be made of competitive procurement processes. In the interim engine competition, it is up to Turbo-Union to show that their offer of the RB 199 is the most cost-effective option. I can certainly assure your Lordships that in forming their view the Government will take into account all the relevant factors, including the points which have been made so eloquently during this evening's debate.