HL Deb 28 October 1987 vol 489 cc613-25

8.17 p.m.

Lord Orr-Ewing rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the current and planned improvements to United Kingdom air defence.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I tabled the Question because in recent months there has been a certain amount of ill-informed criticism on the United Kingdom's air defence. This culminated in Granada television's programme "World in Action" on 5th October. The programme is seen by some 6.5 million people. I wanted to give the Minister an early opportunity to set the matter right. As a keen follower of the televising of the House, I am surprised to observe that the "robes" are being put on the cameras in the Chamber at this moment so that not much of this debate will be seen on television, which is the subject of the Question!

The clear object of the programme was to undermine confidence in the air defence abilities of the UK and NATO. Some points can be dealt with by the Minister; some fall within the areas of responsibility of the regulatory authority, the IBA, and behind that of course stands the Home Office. Granada's "World in Action" series provides the flagship of the ITV companies current affairs programmes. "Panorama" is the equivalent programme of the BBC. We have had reason in recent years to complain of imbalance in this field. We touched on this very much in the debate of 21st July initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont.

Since seeing the programme on 5th October—at the time I made some notes—I have borrowed a video from the IBA, which I have been through in detail with a number of my noble friends. Thus I was able to see yet again the intention of the producers. It was the clear intention to set up a hatchet job. In fact, the introduction to the programme said: 'World in Action' looks at the scandal whereby hundreds of millions of pounds have been wasted on radar which did not work".

Then, as happens in such programmes, the so-called experts are called in for interview. It seems that sometimes they are most desirable experts if they live in sunny climates far away from this country, which gives excuses to travel and interview them. To underline the programme's intention and the theme, one brings in so-called experts. In this case a Dr. Tom Amlie was called in. By hostile and loaded questions the interviewer seeks to produce from the expert the result he wants. The broadcasting company goes as far as to describe Dr. Amlie as one of, the world's greatest experts on missiles". Perhaps they should have said the greatest expert of the free world. That is quite an achievement but I cannot find any reference to him in any UK or US reference book. However he did his best to destroy all faith in the Boeing E3 AWACS aircraft on which NATO relies currently and which we now have on order.

Another witness who is much quoted is Dina Rasor. Clever stuff is used to describe her. She is shown coming down a hill with the Congress building and Capitol Hill pictured behind her. She is described as working on Capitol Hill. That is meant to give weight to her form. We are told that she is monitoring a project concerned with military procurement and expenditure. She duly sings the right tune and seeks to rubbish AWACS too.

Many parliamentarians in both Houses have been at the receiving end of such treatment. If they do not sing the producer's tune either their contribution is cut or totally eliminated and generally they are not asked to appear again.

After seeing the programme I wrote to the chairman of the IBA. With his usual courtesy Lord Thomson replied. It is important that his reply is put on record. He writes: It is normal practice for current affairs programmes to edit interviews. But in so doing the IBA's guidelines lay down that the objective is to express clearly and fairly the views of the interviewee and not to suit the views of the producer". If that is the aim the actual result is very different.

I turn to another witness who was interviewed, Sir Keith Williamson. He was Commander in Chief of the UK air forces from 1980 to 1982 and he was Chief of Air Staff from 1982 to 1985. He is also a Marshal of the Royal Air Force. Sir Keith told me that he was interviewed for no fewer than 2.5 hours and that on many points the interviewers insisted not just on the take but on the retake and on the re-retake and so on ad infinitum. That was done presumably in an effort to get Sir Keith to make the points which the producer desired.

I can only say that in the end, after 150 minutes of interview, Sir Keith's contribution was cut to 1.5 minutes, which is 1.5 per cent of it. The other 98.5 per cent. was presumably discarded. As a senior officer of Her Majesty's forces who has had great responsibility he must have been extremely astute in his replies.

How do the rules which I have read out and which are laid down by the regulatory authority come to be carried out? What are the sanctions of the IBA? If a sportsman transgresses whether he be a jockey, a cricketer or a footballer he is stood down and temporarily banned. I asked the IBA what happened if a broadcaster transgressed. The IBA replied that if the case was proven it was in a position to censor the programme company. I may not have been reading my papers as assiduously as I should have been but I do not recall any person being censored in public or in print in recent years. Perhaps I have overlooked such a case.

Of course, the extreme sanction is to deprive a programme company which continues to disobey the rules of its licence. But it is no good cutting off a chap's head if one wants to cure the ill. I think that the IBA should examine whether the regulatory authority has enough teeth. I understand that that is a matter for the Home Office but as we shall be considering the whole future of broadcasting in due course perhaps that matter should be looked at. If regulatory authorities are to be effective they must have usable sanctions.

I now come to the question to which I seek a reply. Are our air defences as vulnerable as the 6.5 million viewers are led to believe? If they are so vulnerable is it true that several times in every week our fighters intercept Russian long-range bombers which are probing our air space? Did my honourable friend offer to help with this programme in any way so that Granada more closely carried out the terms of its licence and those of the IBA directive concerning impartiality and balance in programmes?

Today I came across a most apt quote by happy coincidence. It comes from Alan Whicker's book which was published in 1983. It is the paperback version. The autobiography is called Within Whicker's World. All noble Lords will know that Whicker is one of the doyens of television commentators and journalists. He said of the series: These topical programmes, which presume to give objective truth unalloyed by the personal idiosyncracies of a reporter, are in fact the most opinionated and politically slanted of all television series. 'World in Action' is clearly a sort of Marxist party-political". Those are not my views but those of one of the doyens of commentators.

I hope that when my noble friend comes to reply he can do something to restore the faith in Britain's ability to design, manufacture and operate the air defences of this country.

8.27 p.m.

Lord Fanshawe of Richmond

My Lords, I would first like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing on raising this subject tonight, and on his comments on the TV programme which took place recently. I wish to intervene briefly for several reasons. In the early 1960s I spent some time as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Air and therefore I worked for two years very closely with the Royal Air Force at that period. Subsequently, I spent two years as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of Aviation. At that time we were playing a part in the build up of the procurement operation which we see today and which is handled by the Ministry of Defence.

That was the beginning of sophisticated weapons systems coming into our defence procedures. It was interesting to see at that moment of time the development of many of the problems which we faced then which have got more difficult and sensitive as time has gone past. We may say that that was a long time ago and ask why on earth I am talking about it today. However I must now declare my interest as a member of the board of the Westland Group plc. I have been on that board for two years and therefore in more modern terms I have seen something of the procurement difficulties which are faced by the Ministry of Defence and by industrial companies at today's date. That is 20 to 30 years later than the time when I was first involved in the early 1960s. I have nothing to add to the comment made by my noble friend this evening. That needed to be made and I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.

I have some sympathy with the difficulties which have been faced with the Fox Hunter radar which is carried by the Tornado Aircraft. I understand that as a result of the actions which have been taken, of which I hope we shall hear more tonight from the Minister, the Royal Air Force is well pleased with that aircraft which provides a major increase in the capability of the defences of the United Kingdom and those of the NATO northern sector since the early difficulties over this radar have been overcome. I look forward however to an update on that from my noble friend this evening.

Moreover, I hope also that my noble friend will be able to say a word about the timescale and what is happening on the major modernisation of our ground-based radar system or UKADGE, because this is obviously extremely important to the defence of the United Kingdom. I think that an authoritative statement by my noble friend would be very helpful at this time.

The main point I wish to make tonight, in my very brief intervention, I must confess is to the credit of my noble friend the Minister. It is the fact that he and his team have created a gradual change in the MoD/industrial contractual system. This has been stimulated and encouraged by my noble friend. It was much needed as many of our foreign competitors, that is competitors of British defence contractors, enjoy domestic government support. This often gives them an unfair advantage and is something that worries us.

In the past the procurement system has been rather like a disconnected body—an arm here, a leg there and the head elsewhere—with the result that the body is thrown together at the end of the day out of phase and probably out of the timescale. This may be followed by a major political row because the weapons system does not appear on time or has something wrong with it.

My noble friend and his team in the MoD have now put together a new approach, which really hands over total responsibility to a prime contractor in the defence field instead of having disparate elements all doing their own thing and being out of touch with each other. This new approach, with a controlling contractor handling a programme at a desired price and within a desired timescale, is beginning to work quite well. I should like to express appreciation regarding this welcome development, which I think is important.

Of course it will only continue to work if the goalposts are not moved half-way through the game. I am sure that my noble friend will make certain that does not happen, though it has happened in the past. I remember 25 years ago seeing the goalposts moved around by the then Ministry of Aviation. In those early days it caused great difficulty to defence contractors who were trying to carry out instructions and deal with proposals put forward by the Air Ministry of the day.

The other point I should like to make—I do not think it came over clearly enough, though perhaps it was not the fault of the producers of the programme—is that we are dealing here in electronic areas at the very frontiers of knowledge and scientific endeavour. I personally regret, for instance, the decision by Her Majesty's Government—though this has nothing to do with my noble friend because it concerns another department—to pull out of the European space programme. I believe that there are areas there which are of great importance to us and that there is great scientific benefit to be gained from being part of that programme, even though 1 recognise that it is expensive. Nevertheless I think it is a great pity that we opted out.

However, we are not alone in dealing in areas at the frontiers of knowledge and science. Other countries are doing it: the Americans are doing it. I have been round some American electronic factories quite recently and they are facing problems very similar to those which our electronic developers are encountering here. So we are not alone; other nations and not just Britain, sometimes get it wrong. I think that we in the West are continually breaking new ground in an attempt to give our weapons a competitive edge on the battlefield. That is what we are all trying to do to help our respective ministries of defence. Here in this country it is the MoD; in the United States it is the Department of Defense; and I have no doubt (although I have no direct knowledge) that our allies in Europe are also facing the same problems.

I believe that my noble friend the Minister of State and his department are getting it right for industry and the nation. There will be more problems in the future, but I believe they are trying to get it right and I think that the Government should be congratulated and not derided. For that reason, I welcome the fact that my noble friend has brought forward this question tonight, which has enabled us to talk about the matter in public. I look forward to hearing my noble friend's reply.

8.35 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I want to thank most sincerely the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, for giving us an opportunity to have what I believed was going to be a debate on the United Kingdom's air defence. Yet I am bound to say I was most surprised that the overwhelming proportion of the time taken by the noble Lord did not deal so much with air defence as, perhaps fairly, with the criticism of a certain programme. I hope very much that the Minister has come along to deal with the Question that appears on the Order Paper and not the question which has actually been posed; because if one wanted to pursue the content of the opening speech, the Question really should have been: "To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the current and planned improvements and the standards of fairness and lack of bias in certain television programmes". That is not even dealing with television in general.

It was a fair peg and I cannot dispute anything that was said on the programme. We on these Benches start from the premise that of course we are fully committed to having the best possible air force that money and national security imperatives can buy. What we want to hear from the Minister tonight are not only the assurances which, quite fairly, the noble Lord asked should be given as a rebuttal to what he alleges was the bias and the slant in that programme. We also feel that from time to time—not too frequently—the nation is entitled to hear from the Minister an update on various things. Certain announcements are made and various programmes are entered into which are accepted. Then one hears about slippage and other problems. We do not want the House to be informed every time there is a slight change; but we think that from time to time we ought to be told frankly whether we are on course for producing that which the nation believes is in the programme.

I do not think you can look at the present and future state of the air defences of this country without looking at the overall defences of the country. I am not for a moment going to enter into the arguments for or against nuclear weapons or unilateral renunciation of them. However, in my view we have to look at what the Tories said in 1979 when they came into government. They said that defence was going to be the first charge on our national resources. I make the charge that in 1987 Britain's conventional forces are in a worse state now then they were before the Second World War.

The Government of course have adopted a defence posture that has tried to maintain neither strategic credibility or economic sustainability. They are hoist between those two points. We know the Government are committed to £9.3 billion for the Trident project and we assert that the conventional response this nation can make, as a consequence of that, suffers. We say that the armed forces are denied the resources and equipment that they need to maintain a credible conventional defence. In other words, bluntly, the weapons of first resort are being sacrificed to pay for the weapon of last resort.

We are entitled to be corrected and entitled to be accused of either not being in possession of the full facts or of misusing them, but that is the lot of any Opposition in any Chamber of this kind. The Government must be in possession of them and all we can do is to ask certain questions. I want the Minister to deal, among other things, with what I have been told is, if not the crisis, the position of the loss to our air force of trained pilots and trained navigators. I am told that it cost about £3 million to train a jet pilot in 1987 and almost £1 million to train a navigator. We are talking about large sums. We are told that those people are leaving to work, for instance, in Saudi Arabia or for commercial airlines.

I know that the answer to my question will probably be that they are not leaving and that the Government are satisfied with the progress of recruitment or that we have the position all wrong. However, my information is that we are losing pilots and navigators at an unacceptable level. We know about wastage and about better offers. However, if what we are doing as a nation is to use taxpayers' money to train people and then lose them, then we need an answer.

Perhaps the Minister can tell the House whether such wastage is anything to do with the overseas allowance for servicemen living in Germany which was cut to save £17 million. Will the Minister comment on the fact that up to 70 per cent. of RAF married quarters are substandard? Will he tell the House whether the effect on morale, which must lead to a reduction in pilots, has anything to do with the late receipt of new equipment upon which air force morale must undoubtedly depend?

Perhaps the Minister can also tell the House about recent press reports from defence correspondents. I am looking in particular at the Independent of 5th October. That newspaper contains an article by Mr. Mark Urban which says: But cuts amounting to several hundred million pounds are still likely to be imposed over the next three years. Defence Ministry sources"— we all know that that is a euphemism for some sort of briefing. said cuts would be spread through the department rather than falling heavily on one service". In other words, there would be a policy of equal misery. The Royal Air Force's request for two more Boeing E3 AWACS early warning planes is likely to be affected. Senior RAF officers have suggested, as a compromise, that only one be bought to supplement six already ordered". I should be grateful if the Minister, who is always well briefed in these matters, can give us an indication of the situation in that regard.

Perhaps the Minister can also tell us, as we are looking at the state of our air defences tonight, about the state of the United Kingdom air defence and ground environment, known as UKADGE, and how it is progressing. I am told that original estimates were that that environment would cost £400 million but that the cost now exceeds £1 billion. When the air defence studies of the 1970s took place, they did not consider the threat posed by Soviet cruise missiles. As a result, the UKADGE project was not designed to cope with the new generation of small, low-flying Soviet cruise missiles which are now being developed. Will the Minister say whether those problems, which could not have been foreseen, can be dealt with satisfactorily from our state of preparedness as far as the Government are concerned?

Will the Minister comment on moves which have been taking place to integrate communications and data transmission? I am thinking particularly of the airborne early warning aircraft, the interceptor aircraft, ground radars and operational centres. I know that we in this country have been developing our own co-ordination system for those very essential strategic elements in our air defence. But from what 1 have read, I understand that there may be conflicts between our preparations and those of NATO, not least because in some areas there is a lack of comparability and of interoperability.

Perhaps the Minister can also deal with the issue of identification of friend and foe. I understand that concerning IFF there are still difficulties in getting agreement. As the Minister well knows, that might lead to shooting down a friend if the method of identification is not absolutely clear.

Will the Minister say something about the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Fanshawe, in respect of the European fighter aircraft? That aircraft is absolutely crucial to the ability of this country to give adequate air cover, particularly on the central front. We are promised that it will be with us and in service by 1995, which is the date fixed for complete delivery of the system. Is everything going to plan or is there slippage in respect of that date?

Finally, I hope that the Minister will be able to deal with the problem of low-flying aircraft. The issue of low flying has been raised, often in a local context. Tragically it is often discussed when, as a result of low flying, terrible accidents occur. I subscribe to the view that we need an air force which is well practised in the stratagems of low flying. However, concern has been particularly evident in areas such as Cumbria where there have been one or two nasty accidents. Can the Minister say whether anything is being done to minimise risk to pilots and the general public?

We are far from satisfied in this House that the state of our air defences is commensurate with our needs or the amount of money spent. I shall be grateful to hear what the Minister has to say to reassure us on those points.

8.45 p.m.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, I should like to add my words of thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, for raising this matter and for giving me the opportunity to set the record straight with regard to the state of the United Kingdom's air defences, not least because media coverage in recent months has presented a very distorted and misleading picture of our capabilities in this extremely important area.

With your Lordship's permission, I should like to remind the House of a number of developments in the United Kingdom's air defences since the Second World War. In the late summer of 1940, the air defence of the United Kingdom assumed vital importance in the Battle of Britain. Your Lordships will not need reminding that the victory then gained by the Royal Air Force played a major part in saving our country from invasion, enabling the war to be carried back to the enemy.

While much in the world has changed since those days, the vital task of the defence of our air space and its crucial importance to the defence of our country has remained unaltered. Throughout the past 40 years, the Royal Air Force has striven to maintain the highest possible standard at all times. That this has been achieved is, in my view, itself a tribute to its skill and professionalism.

It is, however, true to say that there have been times since the Second World War when the priority accorded to our air defences has been lower than it is today. In the aftermath of the defence White Paper of 1957 and the then prevailing NATO trip-wire strategy, with is heavy reliance on nuclear weapons, the forces dedicated to air defence had been run down by the decision not to proceed with the development of manned interceptor aircraft. The only project to survive this decision was the Lightning, which was originally intended as a research vehicle and went on to serve with distinction for some 30 years, and is only now being retired.

For many years the Lightning, together with the surface-to-air missile force and of course radar, were the mainstay of the defence of the United Kingdom. While missiles have a key part to play in the defence of specific areas, they cannot offer comprehensive cover for the range of potential targets likely to be threatened. Subsequently, the Phantom aircraft, purchased from the United States, replaced most of the Lightnings and, in turn, some of these Phantoms will be replaced in the near future by the air defence variant of the Tornado, about which I shall have more to say in a moment. The Phantom will continue to serve into the 1990s, when it is planned that the remaining aircraft will be replaced by the European fighter aircraft.

It is not, I believe, properly understood that this Government are in the process of driving through one of the most significant upgradings of the United Kingdom's air defences ever undertaken. Press and media commentary tends to focus on the fact that this is not yet complete and on the difficulties which any programme with this degree of sophistication and complexity is bound to encounter. There is a failure to acknowledge either the magnitude of the resources allocated to the programme or, more importantly, the quantum improvement in capability which will be achieved as a result of this Government's commitment to the success of the programme. I should like to underline that message tonight.

Only yesterday (as your Lordships will have seen in this morning's papers) the press were able to inspect the latest step forward, the formation of the first Tornado air defence squadron at RAF Coningsby. As the reports correctly state, the Royal Air Force is delighted with the performance and reliability of this aircraft, which gives it significantly better performance and range than the older Phantom interceptors. Seven operational Tornado air defence squadrons will form as a result of this programme.

The defence of the United Kingdom air defence region—which comprises not only the sovereign airspace of the UK but also large areas of international airspace over the Atlantic and North Sea—is essential not only to this country but to NATO's ability to withstand any Warsaw Pact attack on Western Europe. The United Kingdom is not only our own homeland but also provides a forward base for maritime operations in the north-east Atlantic and north Norwegian Sea, a rear base for operations on and over the Continent, and a main operating base for maritime operations in the Channel and eastern Atlantic. Furthermore, the United Kingdom would play a crucial role in war as a staging post for reinforcements from North America.

In the United Kingdom, RAF Strike Command has the main responsibility for air defence both of our islands and of the surrounding sea areas. The importance of this role to common defence has been recognised in NATO by the creation of a special NATO Command, the United Kingdom air defence region, held by the commander-in-chief of RAF Strike Command; and by the investment of substantial funds from the NATO infrastructure budget both in a new automated regional air operations headquarters at the commander-in-chief's headquarters at High Wycombe and in an extensive programme to provide hardened operating shelters and facilities for the command's most important assets, its aircraft, their crews and support staff.

In peacetime, the Royal Air Force is tested regularly, not only in national and NATO exercises but also by those aircraft of the Soviet Union which fly into the UK air defence region. My noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing referred to this fact. We should perhaps pause to contemplate just why those aircraft fly so often so far from home. Incoming Soviet aircraft are regularly detected by UK or allied radars and, when they reach the UK air defence region, our quick reaction alert fighters—Phantoms or Tornadoes, supported as necessary by air-to-air refuelling aircraft—are there to meet them. On average, three or four times a week it is necessary to intercept, identify and shadow these visitors until they leave our air defence region. This is all done in a disciplined and professional way, maintaining contact with our NATO partners as necessary.

Whenever the RAF is judged formally in NATO exercises and tactical evaluations, the very high standards attained confirm its readiness and ability to "do it for real".

In war, the task of the Royal Air Force is to restrict an enemy's ability to mount a successful air attack by inflicting significant losses on an attacking force before they can release their weapons. To achieve this objective we maintain a layered air defence system. Longer-range defence is provided by fighter aircraft on combat air patrol or ground alert, supported by tankers and directed by airborne and ground-based radars. Medium-range defence is provided by other fighters on shorter-range combat air patrol or scrambled from ground alert, supplemented by Bloodhound surface-to-air missiles, while close-in defence is provided by Rapier surface-to-air missiles and Skyguard radar-controlled guns.

However, the threat facing us has steadily increased with the continued update of the Warsaw Pact's air forces, with the introduction of new fighter, bomber and support aircraft. There is a need therefore to develop our own modern conventional weaponry to enable us to stop and, if possible, repulse an attack.

We are now engaged on a major modernisation programme which is well advanced. The Royal Air Force's air defence capability will greatly increase in three key areas over the next few years.

First, airborne early warning is a key component of our air defence system, providing timely information to ensure that our fighters would be directed to where they were most needed. As the Warsaw Pact develops its capability for operations at low level, so the ability of the AEW aircraft to look down on potential targets becomes more and more important. The Government's decision last December to purchase the Boeing E3 will ensure that the Royal Air Force has a modern and effective airborne early warning system for the 1990s to replace the ageing Shackletons whose continued operation in service owes much to the devotion and dedication of their crews.

In view of recent misleading media speculation about the vulnerability of the E3, which was indeed referred to in the programme to which my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing drew attention, it is worth while commenting briefly on that. While, like any aircraft, the E3 is not invulnerable to attack, it is assessed to be highly survivable in performing its operational tasks. Before an attack can be mounted, an attacker must get close enough to deliver a weapon. The E3's radar currently outranges, by a large margin, all other airborne radar. I can, moreover, personally attest to your Lordships the powerful range of the radar which I experienced at first hand when I flew in an E3 last year. Once potential enemy aircraft are seen taking off or entering the E3's radar cover, the E3 has the option to move, at speed, to a safer area while continuing to monitor all air movements or to direct friendly fighters to deal with any potential threat. There are thus a wide range of tactical options.

Considerable work has been done on developing appropriate tactics and in refining likely E3 orbit locations to reduce the aircraft's vulnerability. Its radar range is such that it can be positioned in protected airspace and still carry out its airborne early warning tasks. This capability to carry out its primary functions from within defended airspace is one of the aircraft's main assets. It is thus possible to retain both the early warning and battle management functions of the E3 while minimising vulnerability to current and postulated future threats.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, is the noble Lord in a position to respond to my query as to the delivery of the two which are either outstanding or programmed? Can the Minister comment on the report I read in the press, which I accept could be wholly inaccurate, that there is some dispute as to the date or whether in fact they will be delivered at all?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am not sure what dispute the noble Lord is referring to because I know of none. The fact of the matter is that we have ordered six of these aircraft. We have currently an option for a further two and we shall be making up our minds very shortly how we shall proceed in accordance with that option.

The second key element of our major modernisation programme is the introduction of the Tornado ADV, a superb aircraft whose excellent range and loiter capability make it ideally suited for the longer-range air defence role. Of the air defence variant of the Tornado 165 have been ordered to date.

The build-up of the new ADV force is proceeding according to schedule in both the formation of units and of the numbers of aircraft on those units. The operational conversion unit which trains pilots on the new aircraft, formed in 1985, was declared to NATO last year as an operational unit. As I have already mentioned, 29 Squadron RAF, the first ADV squadron, has now also formed at RAF Coningsby and will be formally declared to NATO as operational—on schedule—on 1st November, just four days from now.

The Tornado ADV is armed with the highly effective Skyflash medium-range air-to-air missile and the shorter range AIM9L Sidewinder system.

Although, as we have made clear on a number of occasions to Parliament, the aircraft's sophisticated Foxhunter air-intercept radar does not yet meet all the requirements of the Royal Air Force, action is in hand to deal with this problem. Radars to an agreed interim standard have been delivered and are already providing an operational capability superior to that of the aircraft they are replacing. We are currently negotiating with the company new, firm price contractual arrangements for a programme of modifications to bring the radar up to the standard required to meet the threat of the 1990s.

The third key improvement is the comprehensive modernisation of our command and control system and ground-based radars now being implemented, which represents the most radical improvement to the United Kingdom Air Defence Ground Environment since the early 1960s. The core of these improvements, which are known as the Improved UKADGE, as the noble Lord, Lord Graham, said, comprises a network of operations and reporting centres covering the United Kingdom air defence region from the Faroes to the South of England, backed up by a chain of advanced technology transportable radars which will provide the primary source of information collection. This Improved UKADGE will be fully integrated with the NATO air defence system from which it will receive early warning data. It will also make full use of data provided by AEW aircraft and ships at sea. It will provide essential and continuous air defence information to such command and control centres as the new UK AIR Regional Air Operations Centre.

As part of this latter development at Strike Command, your Lordships may be aware that we have also recently awarded—after an international competition—a £37 million contract to a British consortium led by International Computers Limited to provide a Command and Control and Information System. This will provide the NATO Commander in Chief, UK Air Forces, with a substantially improved capability for the control of UK and other air forces.

The Improved UKADGE is being developed under fixed or firm price contracts let after very rigorous competition. Since the system will make a major contribution to NATO's overall defence capability, there has been considerable financial support from the NATO infrastructure budget. The gross cost of the core system and the transportable radars, together with associated communications and works services, is estimated to be about £500 million, of which about half will be recovered from NATO, thus representing extremely good value for the British taxpayer. The bulk of the equipment has already been built and installed and some elements are already in service use. The remaining elements will be introduced into service during the next few years. I am convinced that this improved system, when fully operational, will be one of the best of its kind in existence anywhere.

In addition to these three major programmes, our air defences will also be strengthened by the running on of two squadrons of Phantoms and improvements to the Rapier surface-to-air missile system; 72 Hawk trainer aircraft are also being equipped with Sidewinder air-to-air missiles which will provide a valuable enhancement to our air defence capability at relatively low cost.

With such a major modernisation programme at the very forefront of technology, it is hardly surprising that there have been a few technical difficulties. We have not tried to conceal them. We have all learned lessons from the Nimrod saga. But these difficulties need to be kept in perspective against the major improvement programme we are undertaking. When this is complete, we will have achieved a radical transformation of our air defence capabilities, well equipped and—thanks to the high professionalism and dedication of our personnel—well able to cope with the challenge of the next decades.

I believe that we can now look forward with confidence to the successful completion of the current modernisation programme to reshape the UK's air defences and to restore them to their prime position in our overall defence posture.

It must not be thought that our efforts stop there, for we must continue to assess the threat and look to ways of meeting it in the future.

We are therefore participating in the collaborative advanced medium and short range air-to-air missile projects to provide our air defence forces with the enhanced weaponry they will need to meet the growing Soviet threat. And finally, we are, of course, participating in the collaborative EFA project to provide the Royal Air Force with an advanced combat aircraft for the 1990s and beyond, with a close-in agile fighter capability that will supplement the longer range air defence capability of the Tornado.

The Government are making substantial investments in our air defence systems. Major improvements are well advanced in the three key areas of airborne early warning; the build-up of the Tornado ADV force; and the modernisation of our ground-based radars and command and control systems. At the same time we are of course pursuing improvements both in efficiency and in procurement policies and I thank my noble friend Lord Fanshawe for his kind remarks on this, in order to achieve the best value for money spent on air defence. Throughout this period of change, I am confident that the highest operational standards are being and will be maintained and I am sure that your Lordships will support the Government's view of the importance which we have attached, and will continue to attach to the air defences of the United Kingdom.

Several noble Lords raised a number of points. The time is now late but I am happy to undertake to write to my noble friend and to the noble Lord, Lord Graham, with answers to the points they raised.

House adjourned at six minutes past nine o'clock.