HL Deb 10 December 2002 vol 642 cc108-10

3.5 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether their decision to equip only nine out of 25 of the Royal Air Force's new transport aircraft with defensive aids suites will compromise the safety of the Armed Forces.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)

My Lords, we decided in 2001 to equip nine of the 25 A400M aircraft with defensive aids suites, based on the different operational roles and the various threat environments in which the aircraft will operate. All A400Ms not currently planned to have defensive aids suites can easily be fitted with such systems if required, either before or after delivery. Between now and 2010, we will of course continuously review our operational roles and threat assessments.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Does the recent missile attack on an Israeli plane not show just how vulnerable the A400M will be to terrorist attacks? Can the Minister give the House a firm assurance that RAF pilots' lives will not be put at risk by flying unprotected aircraft in hostile areas?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I can give the noble Lord and the House that assurance. The attack in Kenya highlights what is an evolving threat to aircraft in general. We keep that threat under constant review, as the noble Lord would expect us to do. Such incidents are taken into consideration when assessing the need for future DAS capabilities. The decision taken in 2001 was based on planning assumptions valid at the time. We are now looking into that as a matter of priority. As the A400M has an in-service date of 2010, there will be sufficient time to adapt its capability to the evolving threat.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, how long will it take to transfer defensive aids suites from one aircraft to another? More importantly, how much will that cost? The operation could be quite expensive.

Lord Bach

My Lords, there is no intention to move defensive aids suites from one aeroplane to another. One must realise that defensive aids suites are a package that can contain various units—they do not all contain the same ones. The average cost of a defensive aids suite is roughly £15 million per plane.

Lord Jones

My Lords, when will the first aircraft fly? Does my noble friend believe that the Germans will buy it?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I believe that the Germans will buy it. We believe that they will buy 60 rather than 73, which is why it has taken time to conclude the matter. We hope that the first flight will take place in December 2010. One of the great advantages of the A400M is that it will bring many jobs to the United Kingdom.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, the Minister said that there was "time to adapt" the other aircraft. Does that expression apply to all 16 remaining aircraft?

Lord Bach

My Lords, our order is for 25 aircraft. We will adapt them with defensive aids suites if we feel that it is necessary for the safety of their crew—that is our primary responsibility—or if the role of the A400M changes so that it is used in a much more tactical role than at present.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, was the point of the supplementary question by my noble friend Lord Astor not to illustrate the fact that the Al'Qaeda attack on the Israeli plane in Mombasa failed because it was fitted with heat deflectors? Does that not suggest that not only should all Royal Air Force aircraft have that equipment, but there is probably a case for fitting many civilian airliners with heat deflectors against such missiles, given the present threat from Al'Qaeda and similar terrorist groups?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the noble Lord is certainly right in that there is clearly an increased threat worldwide as a consequence of Al'Qaeda's activities. It will be a matter for other government departments and the Government as a whole to decide what should happen to commercial aircraft generally. It would be a huge expense, but perhaps one that has to be thought about with great care. Meanwhile, in the MoD, we are thinking carefully about the consequences of this terrible act.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, at what design stage is the A400M at the moment?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I cannot answer that question exactly. I can say that Airbus, which will be responsible for the manufacture of the A400M, is a distinguished company with a proud record of aircraft design and manufacture. We want to get the contract signed and under way and start manufacturing the aircraft, which is vital for the increased airlift that we very much need in this country.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the question asked by my noble friend Lord Marlesford went wide of the Ministry of Defence, but not of the Question on the Order Paper. Will the Minister, who answers for the whole of the Government, ensure that the issue is drawn to the attention of his colleagues and that if anything necessary comes out of that, it will be placed in the Library?

Lord Bach

Yes, my Lords, I shall certainly ensure that.