HL Deb 14 July 1997 vol 581 cc822-4

3 p.m.

The Earl of Kinnoull

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made on the European fighter aircraft programme.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert)

My Lords, the Eurofighter development programme is making excellent progress. All seven development aircraft are now flying, five with the EJ200 engines as planned. In total they have made over 400 flights. The ECR90 radar has recently flown in the Eurofighter, and all the key development maturity criteria have been met. Consequently, we are now ready to proceed to the crucial production and support phases of the programme. I hope that, as a result of the positive outcome from the German cabinet discussion last Friday, final German approval can be secured in the Bundestag in the autumn.

The Earl of Kinnoull

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. Does he agree that the project is of vital importance and value to the future capability of the Royal Air Force to defend the realm? Moreover, does he also agree that it is a great achievement on the part of our European partners, who over many years have maintained the political will to show how effective a large European collaborative programme such as this can be and have produced a world-beating military aircraft far cheaper, as I understand it, than its American counterpart, the F22 project?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I confirm that this aircraft will be much cheaper than the F22. It is a tribute to the skill of those who have produced it and to those who have negotiated and sustained over many years such a complicated project. The aircraft has been flying since 1994. It will fill an essential role in the capabilities of the Royal Air Force.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge that while the industrial benefits of Eurofighter will be enormous, the overriding justification for proceeding with the programme is to satisfy the air power needs of our Armed Forces in the next century, particularly in air defence and air superiority?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I would never attempt to justify a procurement decision for the Armed Forces on the grounds that it produced employment. The fact of the matter is that in this particular case it does. The Eurofighter has already produced 6,000 jobs and is expected to produce of the order of 14,000 at the time of pre-production. The noble and gallant Lord is right. The justification for this expenditure is that it is necessary to meet operational requirements for the defence of the realm.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, speaking as one who worked for five years in Fighter Command during the late war—spent mostly on the ground—can my noble friend inform the House in what form of aerial combat it is envisaged the Eurofighter will be engaged?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am delighted to hear of my noble friend's gallant war record. I point out to him that the majority of pilots, however able they are, spend most of their time on the ground. This fighter will have the traditional dogfight capability. I do not believe that I am allowed to disclose how many Gs it will pull, but it is also hoped that it will be armed with a beyond visual range air-to-air missile to enable it to engage in very long distance aerial combat.

Lord Ironside

My Lords, can the noble Lord inform the House of the likely in-service date of the Eurofighter? Further, can he inform the House when he expects the Tornado production lines to cease?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, the Government hope for the in-service date of 2001. We are not completely out of the woods because the German authorities have yet to complete their parliamentary arrangements to see that it is approved. Approval of the aircraft will be put to the Bundestag either early in the autumn as a single item or may be wrapped up in a budget proposal later in the year. Until we have overcome that hurdle, we cannot be finally confident that the project will succeed. However, we are far more optimistic than we have been up until now. As to when the Tornado production line will be closed, I am afraid that the noble Lord takes me a little wider than the original Question. I shall find out the answer and let him have it.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, bearing in mind the importance of this project in terms of national defence, is my noble friend aware that in its very early stages the project was about to be cancelled and the only factor that prevented it was the very vociferous campaign by the trade unions involved to ensure that it continued? Will my noble friend join with me in paying tribute to their foresight in their campaign to satisfy this essential defence equipment need?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am always happy to pay tribute to my friends in the trades union movement, who show great foresight in many matters.

Earl Howe

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the Government intend to order no fewer than 232 Eurofighter aircraft, as was the policy of the previous government? Can the Minister also say what the prospects are of export orders for this excellent aircraft and what countries have expressed an interest in it?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, it is the Government's intention to order 232 of these aircraft, as was the proposal of the previous government. So far as concerns export orders, quite firm inquiries have been received from major Middle Eastern countries that have shown an interest in it. I am afraid that I cannot disclose their names at this stage.