§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Durant.]4.14 pm
§ The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Norman Lamont)
I am delighted to have the opportunity to open this debate on the Royal Air Force, a service which occupies a key place in British defence policy. Its role in United Kingdom air defence is central not only to this country, but to NATO's ability to withstand any Warsaw pact attack on western Europe. The crucial place of United Kingdom air forces is illustrated by the fact that the Commander-in-Chief of RAF Strike Command occupies an important senior post in the NATO command structure.
In the central region, too, Royal Air Force Germany plays a vital role in support of our ground forces in the land battle —strike-attack, close air support and reconnaissance. The RAF is also vital for out-of-area commitments. The defence of the Falklands and the airbridge to the islands is only the best known of a range of activities which require men and machines of great diversity and first-rate quality.
Perhaps I could briefly remind the House of the great improvements in Soviet capability which are currently taking place. The Fulcrum agile, all-weather fighter-interceptor is coming into service. It is similar to the F-18, a very advanced and formidable aircraft. The Flanker air superiority fighter, which is similar to the F-15, is also nearing deployment. They are supported, and their effectiveness increased, by the new Soviet airborne early warning aircraft. A cruise missile carrying variant of the Bear bomber is now in production.
This list is by no means exhaustive but it illustrates the considerable improvements in quality which the Soviet forces are steadily achieving. These improvements are to forces which substantially outnumber those of the NATO Alliance. The Warsaw pact deploys some 2,700 fixed wing tactical aircraft on the central front to NATO's 1,300. The Warsaw pact production rate of aircraft is at a ratio of 1.4:1 against that of NATO. Against that background it has been this Government's policy to carry through a major re-equipment programme for the RAF, making it one of the most sophisticated air forces in NATO.
The RAF share of the defence equipment budget is some 36 per cent, in the current year. That is a share of a defence equipment budget which has grown from 39 to 46 per cent. of the entire defence budget since 1979. That defence budget is about one fifth larger in real terms than when we entered office. These figures are the measure of the extra resources that we have been able to devote to the re-equipment of the RAF. It is a capital-intensive service and takes a large part of the equipment budget, and for that reason the majority of my speech will be about equipment.
By any standards, a major milestone in the continued progress of this re-equipment programme occurred last year when the national armament directors of the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Spain signed the Turin agreement to proceed collaboratively with the new European fighter aircraft. Following on from the success of Tornado, EFA was in fact the logical next step in terms of European collaboration. The United Kingdom will need a new agile combat aircraft to replace its Phantom and Jaguar aircraft from the mid-1990s. Other European 959 countries have a similar need in the same timescale. It is one thing to perceive a need and an opportunity, another to turn that into a collaborative programme. By his initiative and energy my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) gave impetus to this project and, despite great difficulty in reaching a consensus on requirements, secured its launch: a tremendous political achievement.
Work on the project is proceeding well. The industries of the four countries started on the project definition stage last September shortly after the national armament directors reached agreement on the technical and organisational basis of the project definition study. One of the major technical characteristics relates to aircraft weight, about which there has recently been considerable press comment. I confirm that it has always been, and remains, our firm intention that aircraft design shall respect the characteristics which were agreed last summer in Turin. I welcome this opportunity to make that position clear.
It would be wrong to imply that the task that has been set for EFA is easy. The definition and design of such an aircraft, incorporating state-of-the-art technology, is inevitably a challenging process. There is clearly much to be done during the coming months before the industrial reports are submitted to the four Governments for appraisal later this year. But we are fortunate to have the firm technical foundation of the Tornado partnership to work on. Moreover, we have the political and industrial resolve to follow up the success of that programme with an even more ambitious and exciting one.
§ Mr. Robert Atkins (South Ribble)
Does my hon. Friend recognise that there is a difference between the European staff target and the European staff requirement? One was 9.75 tonnes and the other was 12.5 tonnes. The difference must be resolved quickly.
§ Mr. Lamont
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and my remarks were directed exactly at that point. I want to make it clear that we wish to stick rigorously to the Turin agreement. We got the project together with enormous political effort, and it cannot become unstitched by the industries in different countries adding to the aircraft, gold-plating it, and making it more elaborate. We must keep to the agreement.
§ Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)
It is worrying that it is not only manufacturers but air forces that change aircraft requirements. The Minister must face those factors in future. Will he give a categorical assertion that he will not allow air forces or manufacturers to change the specifications?
§ Mr. Lamont
I have already done that. The hon. Gentleman is correct. We wish to stick to the Turin agreement, but that is not an easy technical task. That is our objective. We want to keep the project together, and we do not want people constantly altering the requirements.
The Government regret that France was unable to join the programme, since a five-nation project would have been an even greater achievement for European aerospace. Both France and the United States have subsequently 960 broached the possibility of collaboration at the component level between EFA and their own projects. Obviously, we are looking carefully at that possibility.
Another major equipment highlight of the past year was the sale of Tornado and Hawk aircraft to Saudi Arabia in a deal worth more than £5 billion—our biggest ever single overseas sale.
§ Mr. Lamont
I shall give way in a minute.
There has been some speculation that this is the biggest ever overseas defence sale by any country. By any standard it was a great achievement, sustaining some 9,000 jobs in the United Kingdom industry. Last week a memorandum of understanding and contracts for the aircraft and initial spares and support were signed, and the first aircraft will be delivered at the end of March, only six months after the inception of the project. The first cash payment from the Saudi Government has been received.
That is major defence sales news in its own right. I mention it in the context of my remarks about Royal Air Force equipment for three reasons. First, to acknowledge that there will be a need to support the sale in its early stages through diverting from the production line equipment, including 18 Tornado GR 1s,which would otherwise have been delivered to the Royal Air Force. Our aim will be to minimise the impact on the Royal Air Forces front line. I am pleased to confirm that, through agreement reached with British Aerospace, all equipment so diverted will be replaced at no cost to the defence budget. Secondly, such sales can only be good for the Royal Air Force, in that longer production runs and a wider range of markets will spread overhead costs and help to contain unit prices. In assisting the Saudi deal we are helping not only British industry but also ourselves. Thirdly, this important sale, in the face of fierce competition, to a demanding customer surely testifies to the quality of this superb aircraft whose deployment of which to Royal Air Force service the Government are bringing to fruition.
Defence exports are sometimes criticised, but the Tornado sale illustrates the substantial benefits that come from a responsible policy of vigorously promoting defence exports. It is surely right that we assist our allies in their legitimate right to pursue their self defence. Then there are the economic benefits to the United Kingdom in terms of foreign exchange earned and jobs created. As my hon. Friends know, some 120,000 jobs are secured by defence exports.
§ Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the sale of Harrier jump jets, following their remarkable performance in the Falklands campaign, has been disappointing? What more can the Government do to help with that?
§ Mr. Lamont
It is true that following the Falklands the export of Harriers has been surprisingly disappointing. There are some prospects for it. The collaborative programme with the United States' marine corps is a huge project. It is tremendously to the credit of British Aerospace that such a project should be secured in collaboration with the United Kingdom. There deserve to be other export orders, and we hope that they will materialise. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government will do everything possible to assist such sales. 961 All those considerations and the interventions today make an unassailable case for the energetic policy of assisting defence exports which the Government have pursued. We have enjoyed some notable defence sales successes recently, and we intend to continue that policy vigorously.
I should now like to deal with the RAF's Tornado programme. It forms the basis of the re-equipment programme. We now have in service nine squadrons, the last of which formed in May 1985, of the strike-attack variant, the GR 1. With their terrain-following radar, those aircraft can penetrate enemy air defence at low level and high speed, and can deliver weapons accurately. They can operate at long ranges, which can be further extended by air-to-air refuelling.
Negotiations are also in progress for the purchase of nine additional Tornado GR 1 aircraft for the RAF. The aircraft are required to help offset expected attrition losses. Orders have been placed for long-lead items but the timing of the main production effort is being reassessed in the light of Tornado export orders.
The aircraft has an extensive fit of armaments, including the JP 233 cratering and area denial weapon. The weapon combines an ability to hit and crater runways with devastating effect, with an ability to scatter great numbers of mines, thus rendering enormously difficult and dangerous the work of the repair crews. We did not have the advantage of that weapon in the Falklands.
All in all, the Tornado GR 1 is an extremely capable aircraft. That capability was most effectively underlined when Tornados of no. 27 squadron, supported by Victor tankers of no. 57 squadron, took part in the 1985 strategic air command bombing competition. It is a most prestigious military competition, and I am delighted to say that for the second year in succession our crews achieved outstanding results. Against the best crews and aircraft in the United States Air Force, this clearly demonstrates the exceptional operational capability of the Tornado and the excellence of its crews.
We are of course not neglecting the opportunities that exist for further improving the capabilities of the aircraft. Together with our collaborative partners, we are studying options for a mid-life improvement package to enable the Tornado to continue to meet the evolving threat through the 1990s and beyond. The F-2, or air defence variant, represents the most significant airborne element of our major programme to improve the air defence of the United Kingdom. Fourteen of these aircraft have been delivered to RAF Coningsby. The first operational squadron will form next year. The aircraft has a formidable range which can be extended by air-to-air refuelling. As some of my hon. Friends know, there have been problems in the development of the radar, which have entailed adjustments to the build up of the ADV force to its planned total of seven squadrons. I am happy to say that these problems are now largely overcome.
Another major step in the equipment programme was taken when the two Harrier GR5 prototypes flew for the first time during 1985. This is another major collaborative aircraft programme on which we are engaged. The GR5 will greatly increase the offensive support capability of the RAF when it enters squadron service in 1988. Because the GR5 has the same name and operational role as its predecessor, the GR3, it is not always appreciated that it is a very different aircraft with considerably greater range and payload. We are at an advanced stage of negotiations 962 with the United States to extend the collaborative programme in order to give the GR5 and its American counterpart, the AV8B, a full capability to operate at night and in poor visibility.
A vital part of our air defence and an important role for the RAF's out-of-area commitments is our air-to-air refuelling fleet. Our major plans to modernise this force will be completed this year. The tanker force performed well during and immediately after the Falklands campaign but the existing elderly Victor aircraft are to be replaced by a mixed force of VC1Os and TriStars. One Victor squadron will disband at the end of June, while the other continues in service. The conversion of a squadron of nine VC10 aircraft to the tanker role is almost complete. We have also bought nine TriStar aircraft which will have the flexibility to perform a variety of roles, including the carriage of passengers and freight as well as refuelling.
§ Mr. Lamont
Off hand, I am unable to give that figure to the hon. Gentleman, but will make sure he is supplied with the information.
The new VCIO and TriStar tankers will greatly increase the amount of fuel our tankers can dispense to front-line aircraft. TriStar, in particular, can offload, airframe for airframe, about two and a half times as much fuel as the older tankers it is replacing. In war this would allow more operational aircraft to extend their radius of action and in that sense they would act as a force multiplier, greatly increasing the effectiveness of our own front-line forces. That is a good example of the Government's determination to make better and more effective use of defence resources.
Mention has been made in previous debates of operation Swift Sword, the out-of-area training exercise in Oman to be held in late November. That will demonstrate, among other things, the value of this investment in terms of our strategic mobility and capability for rapid military deployment. Swift Sword will involve the use of the TriStar fleet, the VC1Os arid Hercules aircraft of the air transport force, and will also include six Tornado aircraft. About 5,000 personnel from all three services will participate in this exercise which will last for three weeks.
A major part of last year's debate on the RAF was also about the selection of a new basic trainer for the RAF which is required to replace the Jet Provost. My right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State announced the selection of the Shorts Tucano for which an order for 130 aircraft has been placed. In general, the programme is going well, although the build-up has been less quick than we had hoped. Shorts has advised us that there will be a few months delay in the delivery of the first aircraft, but it is hoped to recover some of the slippage later. Because the price of the contract is fixed, the delay will not result in any cost increase to the Ministry of Defence. A prototype Tucano fitted with the Garrett engine flew for the first time in February.
§ Mr. Carter-Jones
Will there be any additional operating costs for the RAF as a result of using the Jet Provost for an extended life? Will there be no greater fuel consumption?
§ Mr. Lamont
An increase in cost is not expected.
I should now like to deal with the Nimrod airborne early warning project. The House will recall that in March 1977 963 the then Government announced their decision to proceed with the Nimrod system to replace the Shackleton in the airborne early warning role. Contracts were placed with what is now British Aerospace plc for the necessary work on the Nimrod airframe, and with GEC Avionics Limited for the development and production of its mission system avionics. At that time it was envisaged that the aircraft would enter service with the Royal Air Force in April 1984. Since 1977, work has been proceeding on the project which will be an important component of the United Kingdom's air defence capability and our contribution to the NATO mixed AEW force.
British Aerospace's work on the airframe is proceeding satisfactorily. However, as the House is well aware, serious difficulties have arisen in the development of the avionics system and that has led to significant time and cost overruns. Given these difficulties, the Government have concluded that it would be right to consider all of the available options, both from this country and from overseas, for meeting the RAF's needs before taking a final decision on the way forward. We must ensure value for money on this project as elsewhere in the defence programme. GEC has fully accepted the Government's view that this evaluation is now necessary.
The Government also believe that the project management and contractual arrangements for the Nimrod AEW programme, which were established in 1977, have clearly not provided a satisfactory basis for the timely completion of the project and that it can go forward only on a revised basis. We discussed with the company arrangements for sharing the risk and providing adequate incentive for completion. I am pleased to inform the House that these negotiations have been satisfactorily concluded. We have reached agreement both on arrangements to cover the interim period while all of the options, including, of course, Nimrod AEW, are fully evaluated, and on a possible basis for the longer term should we proceed to completion with the Nimrod project.
During the next six months, GEC Avionics will press ahead with the Nimrod development programme but on a revised contractual basis under which that company and the Government will bear 50 per cent. of the costs properly incurred within a maximum financial limit for the programme of £50 million. Before the end of this period GEC Avionics will provide us with a firm price proposal against a technical specification aimed at fulfilling the needs of the Royal Air Force. The company will also demonstrate to the Ministry the progress it has made on the development of the project. During this period we shall explore with other contractors at home and abroad alternatives to the Nimrod AEW approach and their technical, cost, industrial, and other implications. We shall also consult the NATO authorities.
Following this six-month period, the Government will reach a decision on the way forward. Should we then decide to accept a GEC Avionics proposal and to continue with the Nimrod AEW project, the contract will be extended within an agreed firm price and period for completion and with funding to continue on the basis of equal shares. Once the work had been completed satisfactorily to time, the funding borne by the company would of course be paid in full. In the event that completion were to be delayed beyond the agreed period, the company has agreed that it would bear the cost of the 964 programme until it was satisfactorily completed. Those arrangements would then provide for the company to be paid in full for work completed satisfactorily to time and for the company to bear the consequences should this not happen. They would, I believe, be fair to the company and fair to the taxpayer.
The Government are anxious to give the company the chance to demonstrate that it can complete the project satisfactorily. The company has now shown its commitment to, and confidence in, its ability to do this. It has also recognised—I pay tribute to it for this—the need to show that its solution is competitive with the alternatives that are on offer. The Government have sought in the negotiations to give it every opportunity to recover a most unsatisfactory position which reflects, in part, wider shortcomings in the management of defence procurement. That too must be vigorously tackled.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
Will my hon. Friend make two important clarifications to his carefully worded statement? First, what are the interim operational provisions for airborne early warning, which is such a critical part of an overall national air defence system? Will he lease E3A Sentry aircraft from the United States air force or enter into some operational collaboration with our allies? Secondly, will he assure the House that the operational requirement of the Royal Air Force will be the paramount criterion and that the equipment selected at the end of the day will be that which best meets the operational requirement?
§ Mr. Lamont
This is a serious matter for the air defence of the United Kingdom and I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that the defence needs of the United Kingdom must be paramount in our minds. My hon. Friend will be aware that we revised the staff requirement downward to a minimum operating capability. That is what we have discussed in the recent past with the company. We shall be making available to the company —GEC—and to all the other people who may wish to tender for the remainder of the programme the cardinal points of the original staff requirement, because obviously it is not enough to draw a line at the minimum operating capability. We must look at the future developments. We must look at the staff requirement in the longer term as well.
§ Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)
First, may I say on behalf of my many constituents who work at British Aerospace, Woodford, how much my hon. Friend's comment will be appreciated on the way in which British Aerospace, Woodford, has performed throughout the contract? Secondly, may I draw his attention to the fact that GEC has been negotiating for some time with Lockheed on a joint project for the installation of its aviation system in a Hercules aircraft? Will the nation reap any rewards if that is a success?
§ Mr. Lamont
If that sale goes ahead it will obviously be of benefit to the nation and to the country. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said. We are conscious of the huge amount of taxpayers' money that has been invested in the project. We are well aware of the industrial issues at stake and that the prestige of the company is very much under examination as well. We wish to give British industry every possible opportunity to satisfy the requirement, but it is also important, given the 965 shortcomings of the programme and our important defence requirement, that we see what is on offer elsewhere in the world.
§ Dr. Keith Hampson (Leeds, North-West)
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that it is important that he should strike the positive note that he has just done. I am sure that everyone will be grateful that he has. Surely there is a key element in the next six months, which is that one of the problems throughout the project has been that the management authorisation has rested in the Ministry of Defence. Can my hon. Friend assure us that that sort of weekly authorisation, which has been at fault to a large degree, will not go on over the next six months and that the company will be properly in control of the project?
§ Mr. Lamont
My hon. Friend is right and it is implicit in what I have said that there will be a new contract as from next week, and GEC Avionics will be the prime contractor. That has been one of the main things wrong with the project in the past.
§ Mr. Lamont
I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman but I hope that the House will understand if I do not treat this as though it were a private notice question.
§ Mr. Duffy
This is important and we are grateful to the Minister for not merely updating us on this sorry saga but for giving us this important statement, because that is what it amounts to. However, is it not fair to say that a changing staff requirement, in the light of Britian's defence needs, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, quite properly because the development represents a quantum leap, as well as the wider ambit of defence procurement, to which the hon. Gentleman also referred, and GEC Avionics, are all responsible for this unhappy state of affairs?
§ Mr. Lamont
It is certainly not my wish to ascribe blame to any party, nor indeed to seek to escape blame. I am sure that this is not a project of which anyone can be proud. However, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), when one talks about changing staff requirements, what has happened recently is that far from the staff requirement being changed or tightened up, we moved from ASR400—the staff requirement — down to a minimum operating capability which was somewhat less demanding. but which we thought would be a useful addition to the United Kingdom's defences.
§ Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)
We are told by TASS that to complete the existing work would cost £250 million and on top of that will be the air staff requirement of a further £150 million. Are those figures accurate? Will my hon. Friend clarify the figure of £50 million that he has given us?
§ Mr. Lamont
The figure of £50 million was the sum that applies for the next six months. The cost of reaching the staff target will be discovered when we have the propositions from the company and others. That is precisely the problem. We are not sure what it will cost and we are not sure precisely what can be achieved. That is what we wish to find out and that is what we wish to give British industry the opportunity to demonstrate.
Having been in the frying pan of Nimrod, may I now turn to the subject of Westland? On that I would simply say that I am sure that all concerned for the wellbeing of 966 Westland will be pleased that final decisions have been made by the shareholders. The Government have already made it clear that if the Sikorsky-Fiat package was selected, we would continue to support the company in existing and future European collaborative projects. That choice has now been made and I am happy to restate the Government's commitment, and to say that we shall resist any attempt to discriminate against Westland.
On support helicopters, as I have made clear to the House on previous occasions, the defence staff needs to look again at the concept of air mobile operations and at the size and mix of support helicopters required to fulfil that concept. That thinking must cover the threat and technology. I well appreciate the impatience that several of my hon. Friends have, and I can assure them that I shall do everything possible to ensure that that rethink is completed as quickly as possible.
For the present the position must remain that one cannot say whether the NH 90 programme, in which we and Westland are participating at the feasibility study stage., or the Black Hawk, or any other light support helicopter, might meet our needs. The position remains the same in the medium support category, where the EH 101, which we already plan to procure for the Royal Navy, and the Chinook, might be contenders.
I should like to say a word about the recent shuttle disaster as, of course, the shuttle is extremely important for our own satellite programme. I know that I speak for the whole House when I say that everyone was extremely distressed by the accident, and we extend our deepest sympathy to the families of the shuttle crew. We cannot assess fully the consequences of the accident on the United Kingdom Skynet IV programme until the investigations of the United States authorities have been completed. Clearly, we must await firm information before deciding the way forward.
We remain confident in the shuttle programme, which has been a great technological success, and there is at present no change in plans either for the first two Skynet IV satellites to be launched via the shuttle or for the two British payload specialists to fly with the shuttle, one on each of the first two Skynet missions.
Inevitably, a large portion of my remarks has been about equipment. But equipment, however excellent, is of no avail without dedicated personnel which make up a service such as the RAF. Morale is a key element in the effectiveness of the RAF, and the maintenance of morale is of fundamental importance in the management of personnel.
The major re-equipment programmes and the restoration of pay comparability have done much, but it is recognised as equally important that living and working conditions should be maintained at a level that will continue to attract recruits and retain skilled manpower. This is demonstrated by our plans to enhance the level of modernisation and development of service domestic accommodation.
In the case of recruitment, overall, officer and airman aircrew recruitment in 1984–85 was good, although there were shortfalls in certain areas. For the current year, ground airman recruitment is going extremely well, but recruitment of officers and airman aircrew has been rather lower than hoped for. It is currently forecast at 87 per cent. of the target. 967 The RAF, in common with the other two services, is also facing increasing competition from outside employers, particularly in areas such as engineering where there is a national shortage of specialised skills. But we are continually seeking to improve our recruitment and selection procedures to ensure that the RAF has the right number and calibre of candidates to undertake its operational commitments.
§ Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)
I understand that with a highly technological service such as the RAF there is now great difficulty in getting people who are properly trained to come in and do the job. This applies both to those who are in uniform and to civilians who support the service. Does not my hon. Friend think that the service itself must do something about training its own people in order to fill these gaps?
§ Mr. Lamont
I agree with the gist of my hon. Friend's remarks, but, as I have said, while there are problems in certain areas they are at present limited in scale and extent. We shall keep an eye on this because it is very worrying, but it is not a serious problem at present.
Retention is the key to the cost-effective use of manpower resources. Officer retention is being carefully monitored, especially in the aircrew categories. While the rate of premature voluntary retirement shows an increase, the figures are substantially less than in 1978 when there was a major exodus. The numbers applying in any one year remain comparatively small in relation to overall numbers. They are currently about only 3 per cent. of trained officer strength.
As regards airmen, retention and further service rates continue to be healthy, and we are confident of our ability to retain good, well-qualified air tradesmen both in the near future and the longer term.
The activity which, of course, brings together men and equipment and makes them into an efficient fighting service with high morale, adaptability and flexible thinking is training. We place great emphasis upon maximising the variation in training as well as the routine of practice.
I have described a service that is well-equipped, well-motivated and well-trained. Before I finish, I wish to mention briefly the role of the RAF in disaster relief. The RAF has deservedly earned the gratitude of the Governments and citizens of Mexico and Colombia, following the earthquake and volcano disasters in those countries. But perhaps the best known and major contribution to disaster relief was the continued presence in Ethiopia, carrying out "Operation Bushel". Until its withdrawal in December because of the improving transport situation, the RAF, ably supported by its Army colleagues from the Royal Corps of Transport, made a very successful and substantial contribution towards famine relief. With two Hercules aircraft based at Addis Ababa, the detachment delivered more than 32,000 tonnes of relief supplies in some 950 airdrops and 1,200 airland sorties. That is a considerable achievement, and during its stay in Ethiopia the detachment flew seven days a week for nearly 14 months. That is a remarkable achievement and a testament not only to the detachment's skills and its equipment, but also to the ground support provided in Ethiopia, Cyprus and the United Kingdom.
968 These and less publicised but no less arduous endeavours—such as those of the long-haul runs maintaining the supply link to the Falklands or the air defence crews always on standby alert to react to unauthorised penetrations of United Kingdom airspace—are all evidence of a service whose dedication, professionalism and skill, matched by fine equipment, may be counted one of this country's greatest assets.
§ Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)
I begin by welcoming the Minister of State to his first major RAF debate. We hope that he has a longer tenure in office than is normal for Secretaries of State. This is the fourth Secretary of State for Defence that we have had —they all seem to spend about eight months in the job.
It is also welcome to have someone from the Department of Defence answering on defence matters. After its two defeats at the hand of the "Department of Trade and Deindustrialisation" on Westland and Vickers, we had come to the conclusion that the MOD was so cowed and beaten that it would never appear at the Dispatch Box again. We therefore welcome the presence of Defence Ministers.
I join the Minister in the compliments paid to the RAF for the service that it has performed during the past 14 to 16 months in Ethiopia. The Hercules crew, supported by the Army, showed tremendous effort and dedication of which we as a nation can be rightly proud. It made a significant contribution to solving some of the appalling problems that Ethiopia faced in that terrible famine. I also join the Minister in congratulating the aircrews who helped in the Mexico earthquake and Colombia volcano disasters.
We sometimes forget the work done by the helicopter crews at the time of the Indian air crash disaster. They worked hard then, and also during the recent oil rig disaster, and we should pay tribute to them.
We should also congratulate the RAF marine branch on its 68 years of service. During the Westland fiasco, it went almost unnoticed that part of the RAF had been privatised and that the marine branch is now in the hands of private industry. That was a sad day for a branch that had a distinguished and important history. It was privatised on 1 February and it would be nice to know who has taken over responsibility, how much the RAF is paying for it and whether it is beginning to work. The MOD slipped out the news at the beginning of January, and not many people seemed to notice. I listened carefully to what the Minister said about morale in the services and the retention of skilled personnel. Much as he tried to gloss over the problem, there has been a severe loss of skilled personnel during the past few years as a result of the Government's penny-wise, pound-foolish attitude.
Service chiefs refer to this exodus as the black hole. Between 1980 and 1981, 210 Royal Air Force officers left prematurely. Last year, 335 Royal Air Force officers left early and one Ministry of Defence official said:Indications for this year are badandWe expect continuous growth in the number of people leaving early.The Sunday Times, in a pre-Wapping edition, says that this is adirect result of budget constraints that mean fewer people work longer hours for less time spent away from base.
The most disturbing figures for service men taking premature voluntary release are for Royal Air Force pilots 969 and navigators. It costs £2.87 million to train a fast jet pilot and £1 million to train a navigator, yet last year 147 pilots left the Royal Air Force before completion of their engagements and 89 have expressed a desire to leave prematurely. Sixty-nine navigators left last year and another 46 have asked to leave before completion of their engagements. That is 236 pilots and 115 navigators leaving prematurely in a year when only 161 pilots have graduated from flying training schools and only 53 have graduated as air navigators. That is a net loss of 75 pilots and 62 navigators in the year.
It cost nearly £1 billion to train those 115 navigators and 236 pilots, and it will cost another £1 billion to replace them provided that we can get the recruits. The Minister has already said that it is very difficult to replace them at this level. They are literally worth their weight in gold. Many of them are leaving to take up better paid jobs with civil airlines. We must therefore consider carefully how we pay our aircrews. We must also question whether civilian airlines, if they are taking aircrew who are retiring prematurely, should make some contribution to training the officers. British Airways did away with its pilot training school some time ago.
Other pilots are taking service in foreign air forces—some with the Saudis where they will in all probability fly Tornados before many of their Royal Air Force colleagues get their chance. The Government must do something to improve the conditions of service men, especially those serving in Germany, if they are to stem this flow.
We have not been given the figures for the trade groups and the non-pilot professions leaving the Royal Air Force but they seem to be in skills which are in great demand in civilian life. When the Minister talks about a severe engineering training shortage, he ought to talk to the Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry and the Secretary of State for Education and Science about the cuts that they have made in those areas.
Nevertheless, the Royal Air Force will face a severe manpower shortage when the massive re-equipment programme, with much more sophisticated equipment, such as Tornado and the EFA, takes place.
I wonder whether the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State can tell us what has happened to the Royal Auxiliary Air Force helicopter squadron project to support the Territorial Army. Is it true that it has been shelved? Is it true, as one Royal Air Force source suggested, that the project wasnever … anything more than a political gestureto pressure from Tory Back Benchers?
The Minister of State expressed the feelings of, I am sure, the whole House when he spoke of the sympathy that we felt for the Americans over their loss with the shuttle service. The Opposition share that sympathy. We also share his concern about the effectiveness of the shuttle for the Skynet programme. It is obviously right to await the outcome of the United States inquiry into the loss of the shuttle. The Skynet programme is fundamental to our defences and it ought to concern us. Have we considered whether it would be possible, should it prove necessary, to put Skynet into orbit using Ariane or some other system? Perhaps the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State can tell us that when he winds up—it helps to make his speech for him.
We welcome the Department of Trade and Industry's decision to take to the proving of concept stage the HOTOL project, which obviously has important defence 970 implications in terms of putting satellites into orbit and getting people from London to Sydney in 45 minutes or troops out when in difficulty. That might be many years in the future, but the ideas in HOTOL are exciting in general and in defence terms. We want it to be encouraged. It is a quantum leap and we would hope that it would encourage British industry to participate in the relevant technology.
It is important that the RAF will receive more of the more powerful and definitive version of the Tornado air defence fighter. Earlier Tornados were criticised for lack of engine power, so the new and better aircraft are obviously to the advantage of the RAF. The decision will obviously make Tornado much more attractive to other countries, thus adding to its excellent export success. It will help to ensure the future of jobs of workers at Warton, who are vital to our air defence base.
We must consider the Saudi order carefully. It has delayed bringing our own aircraft into service, but selling them off the shelf has overcome an embarrassing gap for the Government in the work load at Warton and maintained work until the EFA comes on line. It also helped the Secretary of State, especially the previous Secretary of State, to postpone decisions that he would otherwise have had to make about cuts in his defence programme.
When will all of the proposed Tornados enter service? Do we know? Do we have a precise date? When will they all have adequate working Foxhunter radar?
§ Mr. McNamara
With respect, if the hon. Gentleman wants to interrupt, I shall give way. If he does not, he should not tell me what the Minister said when he did not say it. The Minister has not given a precise date for Foxhunter. He said that he felt that the majority of the snags with it had been overcome, but he has not given any date when even the Tornados already in service and those going through the conversion squadrons will be equipped with it. The House has a right to know.
It is vital for the morale of pilots and ground crew that equipment is the best available. Ground crew do not enjoy maintaining and servicing obsolete aircraft such as we have in our air defence now. What is good for the morale of our service men must be good for the defence of the country. That is the essence of what is happening with the Tornado programme. It is one thing to provide the aircraft, but they must have the correct avionics—and they do not at the moment.
I join the Minister in congratulating the Tornado crew in the Curtis Le May bombing competition. It did extremely well.
The former Secretary of State worked hard on the EFA project. Now we are in the position that it can go ahead. The House and everyone concerned with that project will be happy to hear the firm words used by the Minister of State and that there will be no mucking about with the design and project originally decided upon at Turin. It is obvious from the Turin agreement and the final decision on sophisticated aircraft that there will be some changes. However, it is important that we maintain the original concept and take our European allies with us on the project. We have been warned that if the RAF was to 971 increase the weight of the aircraft—undertakings have been given that that is unlikely to happen—it would create tremendous problems with our German colleagues.
The Minister discussed collaboration on the project. The French may still collaborate on a subcontractual basis, because of their relationship with the companies and countries concerned, but they will not take a major lead in the programme. The suggestion made by the Americans that they might be prepared to come in on the effort is a matter of concern to companies in the avionics industry. As I understand the position, American involvement would be in the sphere of avionics. With the present state of the art and the timespan given for the project, American avionics would have the edge unless European Governments make firm and precise commitments that they will be prepared to extend the timespan, so that European avionics can be used in the aircraft. That is vital, because to use avionics from across the Atlantic in a project of that size would be a severe blow to the European avionics industry in general and especially the British avionics industry.
Are we satisfied that the project has been sufficiently defined, so that there will be no material alteration to what was agreed at Turin? Has it yet been decided who will be the firm project leader in the enterprise? One thing that we learned from the Minister about the Nimrod fiasco was that a firm lead was lacking from within the industry or the Ministry of Defence. I do not seek to ascribe blame at this point, but we have learned that there must be a clear definition, object and lead. When will we know who will be the project leader and what will be the date?
§ Mr. Wilkinson
The hon. Gentleman is being naive. The Panavia team that built the Tornado did not do so on the basis of leadership, but on the basis of joint collaboration. Would it not be sensible to build on the admirable experience gained by the management of that project at an official and industrial level to make the EFA even better?
§ Mr. McNamara
I want to make the EFA even better. In the Tornado project we played a major part and we were project leaders, especially in terms of the airframe. It was a joint project, but somebody must take a lead, as the Prime Minister says when she says that she believes in Cabinet government.
A little matter that the Minister failed to mention when he congratulated British Aerospace on its contract for the Tornado and the Hawk was the third important element, the PC9, which is a joint venture between British Aerospace and Pilatus in Switzerland. Ministers in their wisdom decided that they did not want that aircraft as a basic trainer for the Royal Air Force.
Shorts and the Tucano were not acceptable to the Saudi royal air force. The Australians have cancelled their project for basic training and have not adopted the Tucano but have gone for the Pilatus PC9. In that case the majority of the avionics and work which would have gone to British Aerospace will not do so, because the Royal Air Force did not take that plane.
Ministers tended to minimise the slippage in the programme. However, there is major slippage, which is not explained by the strike at Shorts. Up to 27 Tucanos were to have been delivered to the Royal Air Force at the end of 1987. Under the original agreement, the first batch 972 of 12 was to have been supplied halfway through 1987. It now looks as though those figures will not be reached. It has been suggested that not only are the first two prototypes being built in Brazil but that possibly the next 10 will also be built in Brazil and not in Belfast. Will the Minister confirm or deny that? It has also been suggested that the programme will be lucky if it is not two years behind time, because of the problems that Shorts face. It is especially ironic that that should be the case when the PC9 will have already gone into service with the Saudi air force, and going from Switzerland for service in Australia.
Many of the delays first arose when the controversy with the contract was going on. One problem has arisen from the shoehorn effect of putting a larger engine into the Tucano framework to meet Royal Air Force specifications. Those problems remain. At SAC at Bristol more than 50 designer draughtsmen and about 18 at Borehamwood are still working on technical problems associated with Shorts. It is not unusual to contract out some designs to smaller companies. However, here we have 50 people employed on a job that cannot be done in the factory in Belfast. That is a major problem that must be faced.
Although the Minister boasts that it is a question of a fixed price contract and that Shorts will be tied to that figure and will receive nothing more from the Ministry of Defence, if Shorts is privatised, the Department of Commerce and Industry in Northern Ireland or the Department of Trade and Industry will have to find more money to cover Shorts' losses on the contract.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)
The hon. Gentleman will know that I share his view on the aeroplane that should have been chosen for the Royal Air Force. Is he aware that Shorts have flown the Tucano with the Garrett engine on its maiden flight of 14 February, that it has done six hours and has already done extremely well?
§ Mr. McNamara
I am aware that the aeroplane eventually flew this month, but it is only one plane that has not yet been accepted. It still has considerable problems, especially at the junction between the engine and the air frame.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. John Lee)
The Government fully accept that the hon. Gentleman took a different view about the decision on the trainer, but now that the decision has been taken, what good does it do to the British aerospace industry and to Shorts especially to persist in denigrating the achievements of Shorts, the aircraft and our co-operative arrangements with Brazil?
§ Mr. McNamara
The Government made a bad decision with which they must live. The problems of that aeroplane will not go away, and it does no good to hide the fact that the Tucano has major problems. I hope that those problems can be overcome, for the sake of the RAF, but they will not be overcome by trying to minimise or hide them. I hope that the Government will realise that, like all Governments—even Labour ones—they have made a services mistake.
The Nimrod early warning system was a major mistake of many Governments. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement should learn that a little humility is sometimes of great advantage in politics. I congratulate the Secretary of State for Defence on taking the advice that the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) and 973 I gave to his predecessor more than a year ago—that urgent consideration should be given to providing a stopgap to fill the enormous hole in our defence capability in the north Atlantic and in our airspace, and that we should spend some time considering the alternatives.
It is easy, as some hon. Members have done, to talk about the large amount of money that has been spent on Nimrod, to throw up our hands in horror and to say that we should decide suddenly to cancel it. But the Minister of State went some way, fairly, to suggest some of the problems that would arise if so drastic a decision was taken immediately. It might help some hon. Members and the country as a whole if we talked about the problems.
If we cancelled the Nimrod system immediately, up to £1 billion would go down the drain, and we should add substantially to our defence budget at a time when it is under considerable strain. Such a cancellation would be a body blow to British avionics, and would seriously damage the reputation of GEC. It would have a deleterious effect on GEC's ability to produce future generations of such avionics. It would leave Britain terribly vulnerable to pressures from American suppliers for our requirements. It would directly affect the employment of 2,000 people. It would be a further attack upon the British manufacturing base, which has suffered enough during the past six years, and it would lead to a great loss of confidence in Britain's technological abilities.
Therefore, before anyone suggests that we could throw Nimrod overboard easily, he should not only think in defence terms, which are important, but he must consider what it would mean to our overall industrial performance and to our reputation as a nation at the frontiers of high technology. We shall consider carefully what the Minister of State said about the proposals. No doubt from the unattributable briefing on Nimrod that is taking place at the Ministry of Defence, further and better particulars will be supplied which, for reasons of time, the Minister could not give us today.
It would appear that the Secretary of State's decision has bought six months' breathing space for £50 million, which, in the context, is a reasonable price to pay. It gives much-needed time for some alternatives to be considered. However, we should remember some aspects of the contract. First, it has been badly managed. I do not wish to discuss in great detail the lessons to be learned, but we have heard about a lack of control by the Ministry of Defence and by the firm. There were budget restraints in 1980 and 1981. Even when it was thought that the project had been defined, problems occurred with the transmitter system and the computers. Although it was designed originally to perform 200 tasks, the system was built up quickly to perform 600 tasks.
We must learn all the lessons from the problems affecting that programme, because it shows us the problems of trying to supervise contracts that are at the frontiers of high technology and that are expensive. If we do not have a precise definition of our targets and we allow ourselves to alter them or to cut the flow of capital into the project, we may again experience the grievous difficulties that are occurring now.
When the Secretary of State evaluates the alternatives, he must give the House precise details of the differing costs. Some people are talking about buying six AWACs at £150 million each, which would cost £900 million. That depends on whether we can open the production line and get precisely what we want. We must remember that the 974 British definition is mainly sea-based whereas American AWACs are generally used for land surveillance. There are many alternative projects. During defence questions, the Minister of State flippantly threw aside the question whether it would be possible to put the GEC system into a different airframe, and refused to discuss the extent to which the airframe was a major difficulty in the system. The House must have sufficient information about those matters.
I do not wish to extend the agony over Westland., but simply to ask one question. If the six secret bidders are shown to have been nominees or friends of Sikorsky, will Sikorsky be forced under Stock Exchange rules to make a takeover bid for Westland? That matter was discussed by the Select Committee on Defence this morning. If that is the case, we shall no longer have a British helicopter industry.
Yesterday, the Secretary of State made an important speech on contracts and mentioned three matters that are important when we consider the restraints that must be placed on the defence budget. They were cost and competition, delivery and due date and proper performance. He said that they were the three criteria used in assessing contracts. He should consider a few other matters, the first of which is the effect upon United Kingdom companies if too much high technology work went to foreign competitors. By how much should the Government sponsor high technology work to maintain a British lead? Sometimes those criteria will be more important than the three simple criteria that he suggested.
The RAF is almost our most expensive force—the most expensive is the Navy because of Trident. What will emerge from the debate will be the anxiety of hon. Members about the quality and work of the RAF and the jobs of their constituents.
One of the things that the Secretary of State must face after he has properly laid down his criteria for new contracts—to which no one could take objection but to which I have added a rider—is the degree to which Trident will continue to squeeze the conventional defence programme.
The Opposition believe that the RAF's problems, its need for proper conventional defences and its need for support on the ground and in the air to maintain the defence of our country and to play a proper conventional role in NATO will never be achieved whilst the Secretary of State and his Ministers have Trident around their necks.
We should have welcomed President Reagan's statement about the zero option because it would have given the Government the opportunity to get away from Trident and we could have then had the proper air force that the country needs.
§ Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)
I am delighted to have the opportunity to intervene in this wildly exciting debate. I have listened to service debates for many years and I have always thought that the quietness of the RAF debate contrasted with some of the other service matters that we discuss. That may be good because we can deal with a number of important matters in detail. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) seems able to make the greatest triumph of our services, industry and nation into a matter of the deepest possible gloom. He would do better if he hired himself out as a preacher at funeral services. It is 975 depressing to hear some of the things that he has said this afternoon when we all know that we have an Air Force that is the finest in our history. It is better equipped and more powerful and has better officers and men that it has had for many a year. The Opposition should be prepared, occasionally, to give a little credit for that.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State said some extremely welcome things about Westland. As the House is aware, there is a large factory belonging to that company in my constituency. I should like to address myself to the general problem of helicopters in the aftermath of what is known colloquially as the "Westland affair".
One of the causes of that affair was the failure of the services to appreciate the position of the helicopter in the battlefield scene as it exists today. The natural inclination of the service man, dealing as he does with superior officers who have their own opinions, endless committees and advice from all quarters, is, in general, merely to say, "Let us improve the last mark. Let us make mark 7 into mark 8, and if mark 8 can outshoot the equivalent mark 8 of the other side, that is all the equipment that we need." However, now and again there is a quantum leap in the existing technology.
It is not insignificant that when the steam turbine was introduced it was necessary for the inventor to turn up at the Spithead review, and to defy the existing patrol ships to prove that his ship was faster and more agile, in front of the assembled Navy and the world. Only at that moment did the Admiralty appreciate that there had been a quantum leap in steamship propulsion. Similarly, with the machine gun, the tank and the demise of the horse, it has been difficult to persuade the services that there must be a change.
There has been a change. In 1961 Mr. McNamara directed that the United States forces should make an appreciation of the helicopter. If it had not been for the helicopter, the defeat that the Americans suffered in Vietnam would have been swifter and more severe.
I ask that, with the new central staff, well placed and equipped to assess the problems, the helicopter in all its forms and in all services should be reassessed from scratch. There should be not merely an Army study on movement on the battlefield, but a complete appreciation of the helicopter's position as a weapon of war.
Let us evaluate what the helicopter can do. It permeates all areas and all tasks on the battlefield. It is a reconnaissance force able to operate at speed over a wide area. It can rapidly deploy troops with their weapons and vehicles to the right place and in time. It can apply firepower, using its own direct fire weapons or indirectly by moving artillery and other weapons. Helicopters can carry out urgent and accurate resupply directly to the user and often in critical circumstances. Helicopters can acquire information visually or electronically. They can improve communication and enable commanders to exert personal control over wide, fast-moving operations under conditions of radio silence.
§ Mr. Carter-Jones
I am trying to help the hon. Gentleman. I thought that the reassessment had been made and that it was known as AST404.
§ Mr. Wiggin
Although I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman and appreciate that he is seeking to be helpful, AST404 is but a small part of the assessment. I shall mention it later.
Helicopters add a new dimension to air defence, first by extending radar coverage and by providing anti-air fire power. They can play a major part in the all-important electronic warfare. Finally, and by no means least, they can evacuate casualties, not merely saving lives but giving combat units greater flexibility of action and improving morale. The helicopter is a vehicle with the potential, if used with imagination and in sufficient strength, to bring about the greatest change in air-land warfare since the motor replaced the horse.
Those points have been appreciated by the Royal Navy. We can be proud of the way in which the Navy has taken the helicopter and used it as an extension of its ships. The Navy has equipped its ships properly for rough weather use of helicopters. It has equipped its helicopters with the necessary electronics and weapons. The captain of a modern ship will say that the loss of his helicopter is a serious diminution of his fighting ability.
The Navy seems to have grasped the point. The Army must assess the problem. I draw my hon. Friend's attention to an authoritative article by Mr. John Witherow in The Sunday Times of 19 January in which he claims that a dozen modern wars, from Korea to Afghanistan, have taught the Americans and Russians the value of the helicopter in modern warfare. He stated:When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, for example, Israeli helicopters destroyed 48 tanks for each helicopter lost. Each Syrian helicopter, in return, was knocking out 15 Israeli tanks.Mr. Simpkin, the well-known military strategist,maintains that the Russians rate a combat force of 84 helicopters (requiring a total of 2,000 men) as the equivalent of a tank division of 10,000 men and 500 vehicles.
Ministers, ever watchful of the cost-effectiveness of the weapons that they procure, should bear in mind those extremely important figures. A ratio of 48 tanks to one helicopter is an extremely good attrition rate. If one bears in mind that that is only one use of the helicopter—in its anti-tank role—one sees that the Army possesses a most effective weapon.
The Americans and the Russians have grasped that point. With the exception of the Spaniards, our nation is the most poorly equipped with helicopters in Europe. One of the problems that we have is the control of helicopters. I hope that the central staff will take a firm view on that matter. There is a ridiculous division of responsibility whereby the Air Force flies only helicopters above a certain weight and the Army operates those below a certain weight. That is not cost-effective and leads to a lack of flexibility in command and control. It makes the helicopter the Cinderella of both services. That is not just my view; it is shared by all those who operate helicopters in both services and by all those who need the benefit of helicopters, particularly battalion and company commanders when they are in action. It seems that we are the only Army in NATO that operates on this basis. It leads to distrust and to a diminution in the use of helicopters, which I strongly deplore.
The AST404 was referred to by the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones). I should remind the House that the AST404 was held up originally in late 1984. It was then said that, as a result of the experience of one exercise, 977 the Army had decided to re-evaluate the AST404. Three helicopters are suitable for the AST404: the WG30, the Super Puma and the Black Hawk.
I do not understand why Ministers have allowed the Army to consider a proposition that will put no fewer than 35 men into one helicopter. We must bear in mind the disastrous effect of the loss of one Sea King helicopter during the Falklands war when 22 brave men were on board. As any battlefield commander will know, it is a matter of small packets and many of them. There is an ever-increasing need for the AST404, which is a medium sized helicopter. Whether it is the Black Hawk or the WG30, we in Somerset shall be very happy to make it for the Ministry.
The performance criteria of the NH90 are less than those for the existing Black Hawk. It would be extremely imaginative if a European-built Black Hawk could be made, thus saving research and development expense in Europe and achieving at the same time the almost impossible task—at least until now—of providing a standardised transport helicopter across the whole of the NATO front in Europe. That would make extraordinarily good sense.
In 1962 Mr. McNamara wrote:The Army needed to re-examine its aviation requirements with a bold, NEW-LOOK at land warfare mobility.I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement that 25 years later it might be no bad thing if the British Army did the same.
I should explain that in the Weston-super-Mare factory of Westland the prime responsibility is for spare parts and product support. The House may know that the Ministry of Defence runs an organisation called the Naval Air Repair Organisation, with the Royal Navy air yard at Fleetlands and the Royal Navy air workshops at Perth. They employ about 1,400 people and compete directly in a dockyard type of operation with the factory at Weston-super-Mare. I do not deplore that. If, however, the philosophy and principles that the Minister has rightly applied to the dockyards were to be extended to the support of the 750 helicopters that the Ministry of Defence possesses, it might be better if rather more repair work came out of the Ministry of Defence and went into private industry—that is, into Westland, which makes the spare parts and therefore has an advantage over other companies. Although Westland would not be too keen to hear me say this, perhaps the existence of another repair contractor would add the necessary competition and edge that the Minister's Department rightly seeks. The principle could be extended. The numbers involved are not huge. There is an opportunity here for a substantial increase in efficiency.
May I remind the Minister that it costs about £2 million to train a Royal Air Force helicopter pilot but that it costs only £200,000 to train an Army helicopter pilot. The number of helicopters per 10,000 men is 17 in the United States Army and 2½ in the British Army. I hope that I have said enough to induce my hon. Friend the Minister of State to grasp this point and examine the issue, however he wishes to do it, as a matter of extreme urgency.
Many other right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak in the debate, but I wish to say a word or two about the Meteorological Office. It is the responsibility of the Royal Air Force and it is a matter of intense public interest to every member of the population. They may not know that the Meteorological Office is now costing them nearly £1 978 million a week—£47.5 million a year. In addition, it takes receipts from repayment services of £20 million, of which £15.5 million comes from civil aviation. That adds about £100 to the cost of a flight from London to Glasgow in meteorological services alone and it costs about £40,000 a year for every registered aircraft in Britain. This is by no means efficient. It is amazingly inefficient.
I do not criticise the technical services of the Meteorological Office. It is accepted world wide that the ability of the Meteorological Office to collect, collate and usually to interpret data is at least as good as that of anybody else. However, within that bureaucratic organisation there has grown up such a hive of Civil Service red tape that my hon. Friend the Minister would be well advised to read with care the report of Sir Kenneth Sharp and Mr. John Hansford that he kindly agreed to put in the Library a day or two ago at my request. It is quite a long report and I have not had an opportunity to study it in detail. However, I draw the attention of the House to one or two of their many recommendations.
First, Sir Kenneth Sharp and Mr. John Hansford say:We recommend that the Meteorological Office should adopt a commercial approach to all its dealings and that its charges should be based where practical on market conditions, and where not practical by free negotiation between the parties concerned.That is different from the existing, ancient practice of Government Departments, which simply work out what they think the cost is, add on a percentage and pretend that they are being commercial by making that charge. The Meteorological Office charges itself out of the wrong markets and manages to put off profitable private enterprise operations in which it has a public duty to get involved.
Sir Kenneth Sharp and Mr. John Hansford also say:We recommend the establishment of a Management Board, consisting of a Chairman, a Chief Executive, 3 Executive Directors and 2 non-Executive Directors".My hon. Friend the Minister has had this report since last August. There is nothing difficult about this. The Government tackled all the difficulties when they dealt with the Ordnance Survey. As a matter of considerable urgency I ask my hon. Friend at least to establish a management board and to get the Meteorological office's accounting system on to a proper basis. Many of the complaints of private enterprise and of those who are involved in working with the Meteorological Office would then go away. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister does not wish to preside over a part of his Department where the accounting function is subject to considerable criticism.
The suggestion that the Royal Air Force and the Meteorological Office should have an arm's-length relationship seems to appeal to both the Meteorological Office and the RAF. The Meteorological Office could provide the required service at minimum cost and the Royal Air Force could require the most cost-effective way of satisfying its minimal operational requirements. Similar arrangements should be entered into between the Meteorological Office and the Civil Aviation Authority to stop the endless bickering that goes on between the airlines because of the huge costs they have incurred for what seems to them to be meteorological information that is provided on the most expensive basis. Nowhere else in the world does it appear to cost the same amount.
The question of how the Civil Aviation Authority is administered is not one for my hon. Friend the Minister 979 of State for Defence Procurement. However, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer), said:Records are kept by Eurocontrol and the CAA respectively in respect of the bills which they issue."—[Official Report, 9 December 1985; Vol. 88, c. 430.]When I asked how much British airlines were charged, I was told that the estimate was about 50 per cent. but that it would be too costly to obtain the details. If my hon. Friend the Minister of State is teasing some of his colleagues within the Government about Meteorological Office matters, which he will have to do to get this to work properly, he should have a go at that.
There have been many other complaints. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) may have a letter in the post about some of the difficulties that are experienced by private weather services in getting information not only out of Bracknell but out of the European centre for medium range weather forecasts. It is cheaper for a British firm to get information from America and to bring it back, at a cost in dollars, than it is to pay a fee in sterling to our own Meteorological Office for exactly the same information which is transmitted on an international telecommunications network. That is idiotic.
I think that I stuck strictly to two points but I would conclude by repeating my opening remarks. I believe that the Royal Air Force is in a healthy state in numbers, the quality of its officers and men and its fighting ability. I hope that the Government will have sorted out the major problem of helicopters by this time next year, because, having raised the same subject this time, I shall hope not to have to make such a pressing speech next year and I shall be able to join in the praise which I hope will come from both sides of the House.
§ Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)
I join in the tributes that have been paid to the Royal Air Force and to those serving in it. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) spoke about the work that was done by the Royal Air Force in the Indian jumbo jet disaster. I also want to mention, because it has some relevance to my own constituency, the work that the Royal Air Force has been doing in connection with the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries in Scotland in surveillance and fishery protection. That is to be put into private hands in the coming weeks and we shall be looking with interest to see whether it is carried out as efficiently as it has been by the Royal Air Force for some considerable time.
Another matter is the important work that the Royal Air Force does in air and sea rescue. That was brought home only last weekend with the unfortunate sinking of a French fishing vessel between Scotland and Iceland. The Royal Air Force played an important role in that rescue. In that connection, may I remind the Minister, although I am sure that he is aware, of the representations that have been made in the north of Scotland, particularly the north-west of Scotland, about the possibility of a helicopter air-sea rescue facility on the west coast of Scotland or in Stornoway to respond more readily to incidents that arise in those waters.
The Minister and other hon. Members have spoken about the re-equipping of the RAF which has taken place 980 in recent years. I join those who have welcomed the success of the Tornado project, in particular the export achievements that have followed from it. There are probably many lessons we can learn from the collaboration that took place at industrial, ministerial and Government level on the Tornado project which could be put to good use with the European fighter aircraft. I think that there will inevitably be problems because, although collaboration brings savings in costs, it also brings increases in costs as a result of the administration which goes with it. For as long as countries, quite naturally, try to secure some national advantage, even though they are collaborating, it will be impossible to iron out all the costs. I believe that there will be lessons to be learned from the Tornado project which perhaps will minimise these costs in the European fighter aircraft project.
We listened carefully to the Minister's announcement about the future of Nimrod advanced early warning system. I think that we shall wish to consider the small print and fine detail of what he has said. However, I welcome the fact that the possibility of that British high technology being put into operation in the future is still open. It is easy with hindsight to be critical and there has been a cosy arrangement between the two Front Benches saying that all Governments bear some responsibility. I am in the fortunate position of not having been a member of a party in government, although no doubt someone will quickly point out that my colleagues in the Social Democratic party had some part to play in the decision taken in the late 1970s.
§ Mr. Wallace
I am sorry. I was not going to make any party political point. I think that we can all learn lessons from what has happened. From reading reports it would appear that on a number of occasions specifications or requirements have been made for which there has not been adequate funding or permission to go ahead to meet the targets that have been set.
In saying that we must learn lessons from what has taken place. If it ever comes to the stage, as I am sure it will during the next six months, when we are considering possible alternatives, it is important that we take notice of some of the lessons we have learned from, for example, the Trident project, if we are considering alternatives from across the Atlantic.
When considering AWACS it is important to bear in mind possible increasing costs. Those additional costs seem to creep up and up in the case of Trident. I think that there has been some levelling out over the past two years, but the cost is now much higher than it was originally. It is also important to consider the time factor if we are considering the possibility of buying AWACS as a possible replacement. For example, is it correct that AWACS is not in production and that it would require re-tooling? What time would it take for that and what time would it take to train our RAF pilots in the Boeing aircraft, of which, I understand, they do not have much experience? I think that those points should be borne in mind when comparisons are being made.
The matter of helicopters was raised by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin). I note and welcome the fact that the Minister has said that the Government will encourage any project involving 981 European collaboration in the light of the Sikorsky deal with Westland. I am sure that that further reassurance will be welcomed by my hon. Friends the Members for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross). The EH101 is still in the future. The great problem with the Government not going ahead with AST404 is that there is still a gap to be bridged until the EH101 is in production.
I heartily endorse the remarks made by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare. The matters he mentioned were raised during the debate on the Army. There is a divided responsibility for the use of helicopters between the RAF and the Army and, perhaps as a result of that, neither service gives them the importance which they ought to have. If one is working in a service with strategic aircraft and fighter aircraft, perhaps helicopters do not have a sufficiently macho image for anyone to give any weight to the important role they could play. I do not think that sufficient attention has been given to the tactical advantages which light helicopters can provide in battlefield positions. The United States and the Soviet Union both have strong fleets of helicopters for land battle.
§ Mr. Wallace
I have acknowledged the fact that it has been said already. It was said by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare and it was said during the debate on the Army by my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil and by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart). My point was that, in spite of that, we did not have any response from the Minister who replied to the debate on the Army to the effect that those comments had been taken on board or that any consideration was being given in the Ministry of Defence to a unified command for helicopters and that one service would take responsibility for them. In the absence of that reassurance, or any acknowledgement that there was a problem, I do not think that there is any harm in repeating that fact in the hope that we might elicit some response from the Minister in this debate.
I want to deal with a constituency matter which I believe has more general application. I am sorry that the Minister has gone because I think that, with his Shetland origins, I could perhaps have appealed to him more directly. However, I am sure that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary will pass my comments on to him. I want to deal with the policing of RAF Saxa Vord in Unst. Recently, five Ministry of Defence police were replaced by RAF personnel. On an island with a relatively small population, five families losing their main source of employment has a serious effect on the island and on the community. I understand that after representations were made, although they were mobile personnel and could legitimately have been asked to go elsewhere, the fact that they had long-standing roots within the community meant that the Ministry of Defence was prepared to consider redundancy for them. Perhaps the Minister could say whether they have been paid. The economic importance of the work that they did for the community was considerable.
If I were trying to make the case solely on the grounds of employment in my constituency, the Minister might say that there are wider strategic operational considerations, but the case for retaining the Ministry of Defence police in such places as RAF Saxa Vord is a good operational one. That case was generally supported by the committee that sat under Sir Ewen Broadbent to look into the future role of the Ministry of Defence police.
982 The Government's arguments for replacing the Ministry of Defence police by service personnel were that it was not thought desirable to have mixed civilian and service personnel, and there was no direct line of command. However, all these arguments were rejected by Sir Ewen Broadbent, who saw considerable advantages in having mixed personnel. He also believed that it was a waste of resources having trained personnel in what are essentially policing jobs; and that it was undesirable that there should be such a public interface between service men and the public, particularly as the absence of police powers could be disadvantageous for the service men.
That decision was taken essentially because of costs, like so many other service decisions. As the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North said — penny-wise, pound-foolish. It was represented as much cheaper in the short term to use service personnel, particularly because of the overtime consideration. However, I suggest that in the longer term, the costs of the turnover that inevitably takes place with postings to remote places such as Saxa Vord, of removing furniture and returning people home for holidays, all mount up and, at the end of the day the costs are greater than the purported savings.
In all the service debates that we have had there has been continual talk about costs. Both sides of the House have welcomed the European fighter aircraft but in the last Defence Estimates we were not shown where the costings would come. Again, we believe that Trident is the cuckoo in the nest, the one squeezing out other defence expenditure, and something will have to give if the Government are to meet all their various targets and commitments.
To date, the Government have avoided trying to have an overall review of their commitments and instead have continued to penny-pinch, pruning a little here, paring back there. This has resulted in a number of service men leaving the services. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North gave the figures, which show not only the loss of money invested in training the men but that morale in the services should not be so low that so many people are leaving.
The House has heard much of the RAF's new equipment, but that will only be put to good use if there are sufficient service personnel eager and keen to use it. It is a matter of long-term concern to the House if continued penny-pinching and so-called salami slicing undermines the morale of our service men in the RAF.
§ 6.3 pm
§ Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) spoke about the European fighter aircraft. What saddens me about the name is that it is not a European fighter aircraft. One of the largest aircraft producers in western Europe is outside the project. That does not limit the effectiveness of the project, but it makes one believe that Europe has still some distance to go before it has created a European concept in making and acquiring defence equipment. I hope that there may still be an opportunity to persuade the French to think again. I am a little concerned that Spain, which is one of the partners, is considering its membership of NATO. I do not know whether that is important, or whether the project is dependent upon Spain remaining in NATO. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will probe that point. 983 I welcome what my hon. Friend the Minister said about Nimrod and the clarification that he gave us of the existing position. It is high time that the aircraft was brought into service. It continues to amaze me that we have managed to get along so well with the aging Shackletons without a serious gap in our defence ability. That cannot go on indefinitely, and the sooner that the Nimrod problem is resolved, the better for us all. Naturally, I hope that GEC will be able to sort out the problems with the radar in such a way that the Ministry of Defence will be able to acquire the aircraft and that it will go into squadron service soon.
On a purely facetious note, I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will give some thought to renaming the Shorts Tucano. I think that tucano is the Portuguese for toucan, and an Anglicised Shorts Tucano — Shorts Toucan—would sound a bit better. However, as the aircraft is to be used for pilot training I am sure that we can devise an Anglicised word—
§ Mr. McNair-Wilson
—such as the Shorts Sky Student or something similar. I do not think that we should go south of the border.
Although the debate is primarily about the Royal Air Force, I shall concentrate my remarks on the safety and compensation aspect of the service and what is available to service men. Reference has already been made to the morale of the 86,000 men and women who serve in the RAF and I am sure that it remains, as it always has, at a high level. However, I make no apology for wondering how many of those service men have, in the past few months, if not the past few years, given some thought to their position under the Crown Proceedings Act 1947.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) for the campaign that he has so ably led, and I am sure that he will understand why I feel that I, too, want to make my contribution to the debate. This is a matter of great importance to all service men, and we have to think, and think again, to get the right resolution of what I consider to be something of a scandal.
As we all know, the Act effectively denies service personnel the right in peace time to sue for negligence when they have been injured, or for their next of kin to sue when they have been killed. All the service men can do is claim what is almost a nominal amount through the armed forces compensation board. No matter how dreadful the injury or how long-lasting the after effects, service men are prevented from using the due processes of our courts, although those processes are open to every other citizen.
I am aware that the Ministry of Defence claims that discipline would be endangered if the claims were allowed. In the past five years, there have been 13 representations. If there have been so few, I find it difficult to believe that discipline would be endangered if those 13 persons had been allowed to pursue their claims. I question whether the arguments put forward during the debate on the 1947 Act still hold good. The then Attorney-General told the House about section 10 thatit is necessary in the course of Service training, in order to secure the efficiency of the Forces, to exercise them in the use of live ammunition, in flying in close formation and, in the Navy, in battle conditions, with, perhaps, destroyers dashing about with lights out, and so on. These operations are highly dangerous and, if done by private citizens, would, no doubt, be extremely 984 blameworthy, but it is impossible to apply the ordinary law of tort in regard to them, or make the Crown liable for any injury which, unhappily, results."—[Official Report, 4 July 1947; Vol. 439, c. 1681.]
The former Attorney-General had a point. However, it is not impossible to devise legislation that will exclude training in which battle conditions were simulated but which would allow service men, in the normal course of their duties, to sue for negligence.
It is difficult to argue that a service man who has suffered a broken back or brain damage in the ordinary course of his duties should be denied rights which apply to every other citizen in the country and which apply to policemen and firemen who, in the course of their duties, face special risks.
I have raised that point as I remember the coach crash which took place last February on the autobahn in West Germany. In that accident 21 people were killed, 13 of whom were Royal Air Force bandsmen and one of whom was a Royal Air force policeman. A further 18 people were injured. Presumably, under section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act 1947, the next of kin of the dead bandsmen will be debarred from suing for negligence and the injured, by the same token, can do no more. All they can receive, as I said, is whatever the armed forces compensation board cares to give them, but they cannot sue as any passenger in a civilian coach crash could for the negligence which caused their injuries or, as in the case of next of kin, caused the deaths of their loved ones.
When that accident happened, the House paid tribute to the RAF bandsmen and a statement was made by a Minister. The press was full of the story and yet now that the story has left the newspapers we forget the human misery that was left behind. Although I know that my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State is looking into the matter, I say it is most urgent that we find an alternative solution to simply saying that the section, as it exists now, preserves military discipline. That case has not been made and it is because I believe that that I have made these points this evening.
I want now to refer to the issue of accidents within the service. First of all, I would like to mention the air accidents which took place in the last year for which figures are available in the Defence Estimates. The Estimates show that in 1984 five aircrew were killed and 14 were seriously injured and that 20 aircraft were lost or seriously damaged. From a parliamentary answer, I understand that the number of regular service personnel killed so far in 1985—these figures are not confined to Royal Air Force personnel—totalled 24. The figures underline the need for compensation for the next of kin and they lead me back to an old hobby horse of mine which I hope the House will forgive me if I ride again—the question of writing off the costs of loss and damage in the service.
In 1981 I made a speech about aircraft accidents in the Royal Air Force. I suggested at the time that a method might be considered for insuring aircraft in peacetime. The idea may at first sound rather far fetched but, as some other overseas air forces do that, I could not see why the Royal Air Force should not at least consider the matter. In June 1981, I was told that 24 aircraft had been lost. As I have said, 20 aircraft were lost in 1984. That figure does not vary very much from year to year, sometimes it is one or two more, and sometimes one or two less. When I put the 985 argument forward, I was told that it was a matter for the Treasury and the then Minister of State at the Treasury informed me:It is a long established Government policy not to pay a commercial insurance premium unless there is a statutory or contractual obligation or a particular advantage, such as specialist services, over and above the possible receipt of compensation for loss.The 20 aircraft lost in 1984, which were worth well over £100 million, were simply written off and the taxpayer asked to pay for their replacement.
§ Mr. Robert Atkins
My hon. Friend's remarks have even more pertinence. When the RAF allows aircraft to be used at Farnborough and other air shows, it expects the companies to insure the aircraft at their expense at a very high insurance premium. If the RAF is prepared to ask that of commercial companies, why should it not be prepared to use the option itself?
§ Mr. McNair-Wilson
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for adding to and considerably strengthening my argument, and I hope that the Minister heard what he said.
If I have not persuaded the Government to consider insurance for the Air Force, perhaps I may ask the Minister to consider insurance for the Air Force's fixed assets. A Royal Air Force base is not unlike a factory. It has many similar services—offices filled with furniture, typewriters and expensive equipment. There are carpets, windows, curtains, large stocks of fuel and engineering equipment for repairing aircraft and so on. There are stores filled with uniforms, boots, underclothing, hats, socks and great coats. I could go on, but I shall say only that all the services that one could find in a large factory can be found in a Royal Air Force establishment. In other words, there is a multiplicity of damageable items.
I suggest to the Minister that even if aircraft insurance seems a little far fetched—and having heard the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble I do not think that it is—perhaps it is time that the Government gave some thought to privatising the risk which is otherwise carried on the Consolidated Fund and is paid for by the taxpayer.
I recently asked the Secretary of State what losses have been experienced by the Ministry of Defence through fire damage in buildings and stores in the past five years. I was told:Fire damage to Ministry of Defence buildings and stores has resulted in losses of £166 million over the past five years. By far the largest proportion of these losses, estimated by the board of inquiry at £152 million, is attributable to the fire at the central ordnance depot, Donnington on 24 June 1983."—[Official Report, 11 February 1986; Vol. 91, c. 778.]
I wonder whether that answer is absolutely accurate. I hesitate to say it, but I wonder whether the author of that answer which my hon. Friend gave to me had considered the loss of RAF Brampton, two thirds of which was destroyed by fire. I find it difficult to believe that the £14 million left from the sum of £166 million covers the loss of RAF Brampton and all other losses.
I thought I ought to find out how many RAF establishments there were and how much their stores and assets were worth. I tabled a question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, which was answered by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement on 19 February. He said:The number of establishments in which the Royal Air Force has the major interest is at present 128, comprising 57 RAF airfields in the United Kingdom and 10 overseas and 57 other 986 RAF stations in the United Kingdom and four overseas. These figures exclude RAF units operating from non-RAF locations and stations in which the RAF does not have the major interest. No estimate is readily available on the value of RAF buildings, facilities and stores and the assembly of this information would involve a disproportionate amount of effort in both the Ministry of Defence and the Property Services Agency."—[Official Report, 19 February 1986; Vol. 92, c. 184.]
I do not know how those words strike you, Mr. Speaker, but they suggest to me that nobody in the Ministry of Defence knows the current value of RAF buildings, facilities and stores. If anyone knew, it would presumably have been put into the parliamentary answer. When it is said that finding out the value would require a disproportionate amount of effort I become rather worried. We know that the Ministry of Defence is one of the big spenders—perhaps among the top six. Yet it cannot say how much stock it is carrying, so presumably it does not know the value of its facilities or even of its stores. That is not satisfactory.
I have concentrated on fire damage, but I could spread the argument to other areas. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister, when he winds up the debate, will tell us the other replacement costs faced by the RAF each year.
§ Mr. Wiggin
On fire prevention, my hon. Friend the Minister might also be encouraged to investigate the non-flying station fire brigades. The Navy abolished these some years ago and its total fire losses have been somewhat reduced. There was a fire brigade at the ordnance depot at which a very serious fire occurred, but it was unable to put out the fire. A substantial economy of several hundred men might be achieved if the non-flying station fire brigades were abolished.
§ Mr. McNair-Wilson
Yet another point has arisen of which I was unaware. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will take it on board. It is time that the Ministry of Defence could tell the House that a pilot study has been carried out on at least one aspect of MOD stores and facilities in terms of bringing the risk of fire and other damage to the insurance market. It would be useful to know whether the Ministry has considered the possibility that this opens up and the kind of premiums that might be paid.
§ Mr. Lee
Even setting aside the Treasury rules and the huge administrative and financial cost of preparing the type of insurance exercise to which my hon. Friend refers, the commercial market would be bound to look mathematically and actuarially at the occurrence of accidents and fires over a period and take that into account in assessing premiums. It would then add, understandably in the commercial world, its own profit. With the greatest respect, therefore, I fail to see the advantage in my hon. Friend's suggestion.
§ Mr. McNair-Wilson
My hon. Friend has put forward the argument that I expected from him—the argument advanced by the Treasury—but the same argument applies to factory premises. Why should a factory owner bother to take out insurance cover? The RAF may hold certain assets on which the premiums would be so high that it would be better to leave things as they are with the Government carrying the insurance risk within the Consolidated Fund, but let us not misunderstand what that means. It means that if a huge loss of £166 million is made the taxpayer has to find the money.
At a time when we are thinking of privatising so many services, I suggest that there are aspects of the assets held 987 by the RAF and other armed services which might reasonably be regarded as ordinary commercial risks and which could at least be put out to tender in the insurance market. If the premiums are so much greater than the amounts currently written off in the Consolidated Fund, clearly my argument fails, but if we do not even have the information we cannot say whether there is strength in the argument. When I ask what assets are held by the RAF in terms of fixed facilities and stores and I am told that the Ministry of Defence does not know and that it would not be worth while to find out, I am left wondering whether the service is being run as well as it should be.
I know from conversations with people in the Ministry of Defence that when equipment breaks down or is seriously damaged no attempt is made to repair it. A replacement is simply acquired because there is no accountability of the kind that obtains in private industry. All the armed forces are a form of industry and there should be accountability. In case anyone thinks that I have any involvement, I should make it clear that I have no connection whatever with the insurance industry. Unless the Government can make a watertight case against my argument, we should at least expect a pilot scheme to be conducted on some aspect of RAF stores to see what figures are produced.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. Twelve hon. Members who have been here since the beginning of the debate still wish to take part. If all confine their speeches to about 12 minutes they can all be called before the winding-up speeches begin.
§ Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)
I shall be grateful if you, Mr. Speaker, will catch my eye when my 12 minutes are up.
§ Mr. Carter-Jones
It is a double pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson). He has introduced a novel note and I hope that he will be successful. It is also gratifying to see a kidney patient taking part in activities in the House and making a strong case.
If you, Mr. Speaker, had intervened in the debate you would doubtless have mentioned my next point, as would the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) or my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy). This is an RAF debate, but the Ministers do not realise that it is the 50th anniversary of the Spitfire. That was a real aircraft, not a paper one.
I hope that certain Members will take note of my next point as it concerns them. I quote from the Official Report:In my closing speech in the defence debate … I gave then, and I repeat now, an assurance to my hon. Friend … that there would be no unnecessary delay in announcing a decision on AST403 …In accordance with our objective of seeking collaboration where the conditions are advantageous, we have for some time been investigating the possibility of a joint project with France and Germany to develop a new tactical — or European—combat aircraft to meet AST403."—[Official Report, 23 June 1980; Vol. 987, c. 44–45.]
That was a long time ago. The hon. Member to whom the assurance was given was the then hon. Member for 988 Preston, North-now the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins). That quotation shows that there are sometimes unnecessary delays in vital decisions. In my 12 minutes, I intend to mention some of those delays.
In this context, I must pay tribute to the previous Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine). With the assistance of both Conservative and Opposition Members, he got a lot of kicks in the backside but he also got a great deal of support and I am glad that at the end of the day he succeeded in getting an aircraft available for the 1990s. It was a very close-run thing.
I wish to refer back to the Tucano trainer, for two reasons. The decision to buy was most peculiar. We had a very honest statement from the Minister of State for Defence Procurement at the start of the debate. I hope that the Minister in winding up will be equally honest and will tell us exactly how that decision was made and why it turned on a peculiar telephone call.
That is no way to run an air force. It is no way to take orders or come to decisions. The Minister said that there would be no extra charge because it was a fixed price contract. Will Short Brothers Ltd. pay the additional costs of running the Jet Provost in old age without the added modifications? Can the Minister when he replies give a firm assurance that there will be no additional costs of any form to the RAF as a result of the delay?
There is an absurd situation regarding the Nimrod return to work. The Minister is an accountant, as he showed when he replied to his hon. Friend the Member for Newbury. Accountants are frequently foolish fellows. To insist upon open tendering for the Nimrod return to work for Woodford is appalling. Nobody can possibly compete. Woodford is the obvious place to send these aircraft to enable the RAF to get them back into service, as all the plans and equipment are there. It is false for the Minister to pretend that it is possible to have competitive tendering for this work when there is nobody else to tender.
The Minister is merely going through the motions. He should really relieve the anxieties of the staff at Woodford by obtaining a fair fixed-price contract and give Woodford the full go ahead. To refurbish a Nimrod is a complicated, complex piece of work. The Minister should go and see it for himself, when he would realise that it is no job for some company to do for the first time. If he studies the situation he may come to a decision which is good for British industry.
We were given an honest statement by the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, but there was one telling phrase that I was not happy with. The Minister talked of going for a minimum standard—a minimum qualification. I am an ex-Mosquito navigator. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, Hear."' That is lovely.
§ Mr. Carter-Jones
I got there because the equipment was good. My abilities as a navigator were not great but the equipment was superb. The Minister must understand this. One cannot provide the RAF with lower standards in avionics.
When I was in the RAF I used the mark 4 air interceptor followed by the mark 8 AI and the mark 10 AI. It was without any doubt the best radar air interceptor in the world. The Minister must not stand at the Dispatch Box 989 and say that second rate will do. Second best is not good enough and if one pays peanuts one attracts monkeys. One has to pay the proper price to get the Nimrod AEW going. There is no alternative—and for Heaven's sake keep it British. The Ministry has gone so far down the line that I think the Minister on reflection will decide this is what he has to do.
The story of the Westland W30 was a saga. This time last year it filled our RAF debate. The Minister was warned by his right hon. and hon. Friends and by Opposition Members about the cash flow problems. We went to see the Minister for Defence Procurement and collaborated with the hon. Members for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) and for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) to try to preserve Westland. At the end of the day Westland was misled by AST 404. It foolishly thought that the Ministry of Defence meant what it said. Westland thought that the AST 404 was sacrosanct. It is a good thing the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) and I do not have to play or referee rugby matches by changing the rules. But certainly the Ministry of Defence changed the rules—it put Westland on the spot. It caused severe difficulties for the company, and the Ministry must accept responsibility. The Minister said that it was the Army that had moved the targets, but one must agree that it was the Ministry which allowed it to move the targets. The Ministry must assert its authority.
I must be careful if I praise the current members of the RAF, because if I do, they will start swinging from lamp posts and all sorts of things. However, I believe the RAF has played a role which is well worth praising. Its work on famine relief was superb. That work helped morale and that is important. It has helped to establish a closer affinity between the military and civilian sectors. The air sea rescues by helicopters also warm the heart. The work of the Nimrods and Shackletons for rescues further out at sea are also vital. May I wave one small flag? Any humane activity by the RAF helps to boost its morale. There is a tendency in the forces to throw around too much bumf and I do not want to see that, but I would like to see the helicopter side of the RAF doing much more work with regard to getting pregnant women, when there are problems of perinatal care and mortality, to the appropriate special care baby units urgently.
That would also benefit the RAF for training purposes. The RAF should not need to ring up Air Command for permission to help in these matters. It should be a matter of routine. Let the RAF and the military sections demonstrate their abilities.
I would like hon. Members to consider a quote from a speech made by the new Secretary of State for Defence last year. He said:As I explained earlier, international collaboration, especially with our European allies, plays an increasingly large part in the way we see defence procurement developing.Let that be the reality, and not just a sentence in a speech to a learned organisation.
As a peroration—it is my peroration—delays in firm positive ordering and changes in stated requirements seriously undermine the British aerospace and technology industry. It does not help morale in the RAF. It will be difficult, but I hope the Minister will be allowed to keep the promises he has made today.
§ Mr. Robert Atkins (South Ribble)
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) because he speaks with authority on these issues. However, I was always under the impression that the Mosquito was a paper aeroplane, albeit flown very well. In view of your remarks, Mr. Speaker, I will try not to delay the House for too long.
I welcome, in their absence, the new Secretary of State for Defence and the Minister of State for Defence Procurement. There are important issues to be faced, and I hope that they will deal with them with the same skill and professionalism as that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), and his colleague the then Minister of State, the hon. Member for Chertsey and Walton (Mr. Pattie). There are three questions I wish to put to my hon. Friend the Minister, which he may answer tonight or at another time. The first concerns the hoary problem of the identification friend or foe system, now the NATO identification system. This has been a scandal over the years. However there have been some improvements in recent months relating to the decision as to which band will be used. I wonder whether the Minister can give me some information on where we stand on that.
My second point relates to what passes for air staff requirement 888 or UKADGE. Where do we stand on that? I understand that the work being done is going to schedule. Will the Minister say whether there are any problems? My third point relates to air staff requirement 1012 which involves the up-date of the Buccaneer, especially the up-date of the S2s. I understand that the programme for £150 million has fallen to about £50 million. Is the programme to be tailored to the Sea Eagles, because we may have lost the up-date of mission avionics which is crucial to this popular aeroplane?
As I am one of the hon. Members who represent the area where Tornado is made, it gives me enormous pleasure to welcome this massive order. I get fed up with the carping criticism of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) about a project and contract which mean so much to my constituents and the workers, and to many companies in the British aerospace industry. Moreover, it grates to hear Liberal Members, who are specialists in sitting on the fence and keeping both ears to the ground, talking as they did about issues they chose to ignore before those issues came to fruition. Nevertheless, the contract is massive and I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley for the enormous volume of work that he put in.
My hon. Friend the Minister referred to the attrition order on Tornado, and talked in glowing terms about nine aeroplanes. I find that astonishing because my friends in British Aerospace and the RAF expect an attrition order of 60 or 70 aeroplanes, and say that nine aeroplanes made no sense in relation to what the Germans are ordering, even allowing for their ECR connotation. We should pay more attention to that. Can the Minister tell me what progress is being made on the potential Turkish order? The Prime Minister of Turkey was in the United Kingdom on Monday, and progress must be made. I would appreciate any comments from my hon. Friend on that.
Many colleagues on both sides of the House have spoken about Nimrod. I offer my congratulations to the Secretary of State on the deal he has cobbled together. So far, so good. We have spent about £1,000 million on the 991 project, and it is already three years late. GEC maintains that the project meets 90 per cent. of the specifications, whereas the RAF maintains that it is nearer 25 per cent. of the set requirement. A figure of about £400 million has been bandied around regarding the up-date cost, and we have heard about the estimated time of delivery, which is June 1989, providing the project meets with the RAF's specifications.
The reasons for that date are plain to many hon. Members. The RAF changed the specifications. For example the operator function increased from 200 to 600, and caused many problems. In addition the defence moratorium of 1981 had a regrettable side effect on the Nimrod programme. The RAF are reputed to want AWACs. That line is closed, it will cost money and, moreover, Nimrod will provide the technological lead in radar that is necessary. The aeroplanes already exist. They have been reconstructed by British Aerospace, and the RAF would be working on aeroplanes in service in terms of spares and support. We can ill-afford to lose that. The write-off of development costs is not easily acceptable. I believe deeply in design teams, and the design team involved in the project is one of only three in the western world. If the project is lost, we shall lose that design team, which is a sad possibility. As it was a cost-plus contract, the authorities controlling the programme must bear a great deal of responsibility. Above all, we must consider the problem of the Shackletons, which are practically falling from the sky. They are unquestionably wonderful aeroplanes, and the work done by those who fly in them and maintain them is remarkable. However, we need an aeroplane in the short term, and we may have to lease it.
I can do no better than to quote from the editorial of Flight on 1 February 1986. Referring to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State it states:Achieving what is best for the country must be his aim, not what is deemed best in the short-term view for the Service, the Government or even for the contractor. The Secretary of State does not face an easy decision, but if he looks at the question in the right perspective, he may well decide that having progressed this far along the line towards what is acknowledged to be a difficult target, this is no time to lose heart and pull out of the project.That sums up the position fairly well.
While on the subject of procurement, I noticed my right hon. Friend's remarks in a report in the Financial Times today regarding the cutting of advanced payments on contracts. During the moratorium, small companies involved in subcontracting work were considerably worried. British Aerospace, for example, pulled all its subcontract work back in-house, thereby affecting smaller companies. The Defence Manufacturers Association, which does a great deal of work for small companies, made it clear that the issue greatly worried it. I hope that what my right hon. Friend is reputed to have said about advance payments cuts will not affect small companies, and that he will pay particular attention to them. That is all the more important with the United States air force considering expenditure on emerging technologies, especially the advanced tactical fighter, because all those procurement factors will loom large and be vital on this and the other side of the Atlantic.
I cannot mention the European fighter aircraft without paying an enormous tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley and my hon. Friend the Member for 992 Chertsey and Walton, and I hope that that will be echoed by many people. I hope that my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State and the new Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement will establish the same close links with their European counterparts as did their predecessors. Can the Minister ensure that my right hon. Friend knows that the roll-out of the first aircraft of the experimental aircraft programme will take place on 17 April 1986, and that my constituents and I want him to be present?
§ Mr. Atkins
I shall see my right hon. Friend there with great pleasure.
Will the Minister prevail on our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to be present at Farnborough this year when the EAP flies in competition with the French aeroplane? It will not be competition as such because the EAP will be the better of the two. I should like her to witness that it is the better aeroplane. I hope that she will change her mind and attend.
There are some problems with the EFA which must be resolved. The European staff target formed in August 1985 was for an aeroplane with a weight of 9.75 tonnes, a wing area of 50 sq m and an engine thrust of 90 KNs. The European staff requirement is for a weight of 12.5 tonnes, a wing area of 55 sq m and an engine thrust of 111 KNs. That is basic mass empty. That problem must be resolved because it is almost out of control. The Germans are saying that the radar is too big. That is only one of the problems that springs to mind.
The spoiling tactics of the French relate entirely to their light combat aircraft called the Rafale, and underlie the threat to genuine commonality which is so important to Europe. That must not interfere with the project.
On 28 February there is to be a meeting with the United States on the advanced tactical aircraft and a possible involvement with the EFA in relation to inter-operability and other matters of manufacturing importance. I hope that consideration will be given to the importance of ensuring that the programme is not delayed.
It is vital to hold a meeting of Secretaries of State and Defence Ministers involved in the EFA project as soon as possible to get a grip of the potential problems that face the EFA in terms of weight, wing area and other matters. That is so important that it must be done urgently, and I hope that my hon. Friend will encourage our right hon. Friend to do that. The project is vital, and is the success story of the next decade and beyond. We have already achieved a success story with Panavia and Tornado, and it can be built on with this aeroplane. It, like many other aeroplanes, such as Spitfire and Mosquito, which excited us when we were young, should have a name to capture the imagination. If this project does as well as the Mosquito and the Spitfire, it will be of immense importance to the RAF, to the industry and to the British people.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
In the past I have always had a great deal of courtesy from the Ministers at the Ministry of Defence and, invariably, courtesy from Ministry of Defence civil servants. I am not grousing too 993 much, but on the last services day I made a careful and well-prepared contribution to the naval debate on the subject of the logbook of the Conqueror. During and immediately after the debate. I asked just one thing: that I should get a letter pointing to any factual inaccuracies in what I had said. I repeated the request in a letter to the Secretary of State. In the absence of response, do I take it that my speech on that occasion was fully accurate?
I want to speak rather bluntly to hon. Members of all parties. There has been a devaluation of service debates. That may be because of the arrival of the Select Committee on Defence, but some of us are old-fashioned enough to think that questions asked in service debates still deserve answers. It is not only politicians who are at fault for that devaluation, because I remember the time when the late Charles Douglas-Home, who was the defence correspondent of The Times, used to sit in the Gallery during Army, Navy and Royal Air Force debates. Now that Gallery is largely unpeopled, so it is not just the politicians; it is journalists too. But it may be a chicken and egg situation.
It is also strange that one Minister is left to do what is seemingly regarded as a bit of a ministerial chore. One understands that his ministerial colleagues may be busy, but some of us remember the time, Mr. Speaker, when you and I were first in this House when three or four Defence Ministers were interested enough to want to hear what their parliamentary colleagues were saying. The service debates are important because they are reported outside and read in the services. The impression given is that Parliament is uninterested in the nuts and bolts of defence, and hon. Members turn up in numbers only when something like the Westland affair is being debated. That is unsatisfactory for political authority.
The issue about the GEC Nimrod was covered fully by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). The Minister said he was consulting NATO about Nimrod. Will we get objective advice from our NATO partners, because there is a heavy commercial pressure for AWACs and some of us would like to sup with a long spoon with the Americans about this. Whatever the teething troubles of Nimrod, we must remember that thousands of jobs, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) has repeatedly said, are at stake. We should stick British. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) raised the matter of section 10. As the Ministry of Defence will know, I raised a case about that and sooner or later my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North will have a question upon it. I hope there will be some resolution of the problem.
My interest in Westland preceded the so-called Westland affair. On 18 November 1985 I went to Westland and was taken round by Mr. Bill Gueterbock and a number of his trade union colleagues. That was long before there was any mention of a defence argument. I am genuinely interested in the future of Westland, and all of us ought to be interested in the future of the British helicopter industry. Perhaps I may be forgiven for saying that I am a little surprised that, after all that has happened in the last three months, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) is not attending this debate, because presumably he has views about helicopters. However, I will let that pass. The brief that the Ministry of Defence has from Westland refers to major changes in defence commitments and says: 994The ever-increasing cost of defence equipment and manpower set against a decreasing budget could force the Government to make some major decisions on how to meet our defence commitments. If resources prove insufficient, which looks to be the case, then some drastic changes will have to be faced; e.g. a reduction in the size of BAOR and/or in our surface fleet. If land forces are to be reduced in numbers but not in combat effectiveness, is there not an excellent case for a significant increase in helicopters to provide the essential air mobility by which inferior forces can outmanoeuvre larger armies?I invite the Government to comment on that Westland view.
I should like to speak about the effect of the SDI research on strategies for the RAF. Why is the memorandum of agreement being kept secret? Is it because the British have got such a good deal that to publish the memorandum would embarrass the United States Government by creating conditions for criticism from United States firms? The Minister smiles. That may be quite near the mark. Or is it the reverse, that Britain has got such a bad agreement that it would embarrass the British Government if it were made known precisely what they had agreed to?
What steps are being taken to extend the concessions or restrictions granted in the SDI memorandum of understanding to all other areas of military co-operation? If the Pentagon is prepared to grant favourable concessions for work on the SDI, why is it not prepared to grant similar concessions to British firms not engaged in star wars research? What steps have the Government taken to ensure that all British firms receive similar favourable treatment?
What price are the Americans paying for political support for the ill-conceived and, as some of us put it, amoral counter-productive militarisation of space? In a debate like this Parliament is surely entitled to know.
Is the SDI programme the pot of gold that Ministers have made out? I am informed by Mr. John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists that, so far, 2,000 contracts have been placed in the United States over the last three years to a total value of $5 billion. Of these only five contracts have had a value in excess of $100 million, and the largest contractor is General Motors, the organisation to which the Prime Minister would like to sell British Leyland. The remaining contracts have an average value of around $1 million spread over a number of years. What is the advantage in what many people see as something of a sell-out for British science?
On 24 February, I asked:Under what national authority United Kingdom companies involved in strategic defence initiative research will be regulated in respect of control of such research.The Minister replied:Depending on the nature of the contractual arrangements applicable to each piece of work placed in the United Kingdom either US or UK law may apply.I have put down a further question. It reads:if, pursuant to the answer of 24 February, concerning strategic defence initiative research, he will elucidate the nature of the contractual arrangements which may render the contracts subject to United Kingdom or United States law; and if he will give examples of contractual terms in each case.I would like a full answer to that question because we had better know where we stand legally. I then asked:whether approval has been given to the visit of the team led by Paul Hopler from the Pentagon to survey British technology of potential value to the strategic defence initiative programme with a view to its classification.The Minister of State replied:No request for such a visit has been made.995 I then asked:what he is doing to safeguard intellectual property rights for British universities and firms involved in the strategic defence initiative programme.The reply was:The memorandum of understanding and supporting documentation related to British participation in the SDI research programme provide satisfactory safeguards on intellectual property rights for universities, research institutions and firms who may participate in the programme."—[Official Report, 24 February 1986; Vol. 92, c. 466-67.]What safeguards?
If the Pentagon team, led by Paul Hopler, visiting the United Kingdom in March to compile a catalogue of military critical technologies achieves its goals, the critical technologies of expert systems, artificial intelligence, logic programming and parallel processing, deemed essential to the success of SDI, will be subject to retrospective classification and treatment under COCOM rules restricting dissemination to individuals or groups who might be in contact with eastern Europe. At present 16-bit microcomputers such as the IBM-pc are subject to COCOM regulations, and overseas researchers are becoming restricted in access to supercomputers. That is a matter that very much affects the Heriot Watt physics department, which has the contract.
What are the Government doing to monitor contractor and subcontractor negotiations and contractor and subcontractor agreements that are taking place outside the framework of the memorandum of understanding or inside the framework?
I asked about penalty clauses being contained in the memorandum of understanding on the SDI and I refer briefly to an article by Dr. Glyn Ford MEP in The Guardian last Saturday. He said:First, the memorandum makes a commitment on behalf of the UK Government to provide up to a third of the costs of research agreed on the basis of government to government contracts… Secondly, it contains penalty clauses for nonperformance that would match these figures in cancellation payments should the programme be abandoned. Thirdly, should technologies be deployed, in consequence of tearing up the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and building up the arms race, they would be deployed first in Europe.When I asked about that I received the classic parliamentary answer revealing as little as possible, short and truthful in a literal sense, but then the truth has to be chiselled out of the Government.
Are there penalty clauses outwith the memorandum of understanding? For example, are they embedded elsewhere in General Abrahamson's general administrative agreement for implementation of the memorandum? Or do what most of the world would think of as penalty clauses masquerade under some disguised name? Specifically, was Glyn Ford's article in The Guardian a load of rubbish? I know Glyn Ford well as a serious marine scientist, a member of the distinguished science policy unit at the university of Manchester and a man who in the past has never, to my knowledge, written ill-informed rubbish. So I am asking whether there is any truth in what Ford was saying, because, if so, we had better know it.
I asked:what further implementing instructions were agreed on Monday 17 February by Professor Richard Norman and Lieutenant-General James Abrahamson regarding the strategic defence initiative.The Minister of State for Defence Procurement replied: 996The document referred to covers administrative arrangements in support of the memorandum of understanding of 6 December 1985 for United Kingdom participation in the United States strategic defence initiative research.Is the agreement open-ended or is it subject to further agreements?
I asked the Secretary of State:what is the basis of United Kingdom participation in the United States space shuttle; and what are the defence implications, including the defence research and development implications?The Minister referred to that in his opening speech, but it is not sufficient to say simply:We are a customer for the United States space shuttle as a launch vehicle for our military communications satellites Skynet 4A and 4B. The space shuttle itself is a US programme without United Kingdom Government involvement." — [Official Report, 24 February 1986; Vol. 92, c. 466–8.]Yes, but we are concerned, and, as the Minister said, there is a tag on to this.
The Teal Ruby experimental sensor satellite that is planned for launch by the space shuttle this year will conduct some experiments related to the SDI. Canadian and Australian scientists are participating in Teal Ruby, which involves tracking aircraft as well as missiles. Are scientists from the United Kingdom involved in Teal Ruby, and does their participation extend to missile tracking tests related to the SDI?
I asked the Secretary of State what information the Ministry of Defence hasabout the implications for the scope, nature and costs of strategic defence initiative-related research in United Kingdom institutions of proposals arising from the American strategic defence initiative programme for the development of optical sensors, tracking devices and advanced electronic systems".The Minister's answer was again inadequate. He said simply:As for all technologies open to the United Kingdom for participation through the SDI research programmes there are opportunities for considerable advances. Those potentially involved will take into account such benefits and the resource implications of undertaking such work.The question obviously follows: to what extent would the involvement of such United Kingdom technologies in SDI preclude their use in the European ESPRIT and EUREKA programmes for civil purposes?
Furthermore, who else is being brought into the SDI programme? There was a report that the Israelis were involved. I checked that up with the efficient member of the scientific staff from the Library, Dr. Poole, and received the answer that:Israel was one of the recipients of the Weinberger letter. It went to 13 NATO and four non-NATO countries".
§ Mr. Dalyell
Of course it has to do with the RAF.
The star wars offer has been made to Israel. The article under the by-line of Ian Black in The Guardian is substantially correct. That raises all sorts of implications.
What is the Government's understanding of the obligations and limitations on bilateral and international co-operation on ballistic missile defence research on SDI research arising from the ABM treaty?
I realise that article 15 is less of a problem than the additional agreed statement, but are there any obligations on the part of the Government to assist in payment or part-payment of any cost or part costs of any activities arising out of SDI contracts? What information have we had about British companies that have already negotiated contracts related to SDI research? Ministers should be able to 997 provide a list at least of Government laboratories which are being considered for SDI contracts or to have entered into discussions. That raises real questions for the universities.
Near my constituency the Heriot Watt university is going ahead undertaking SDI-related research, while the university of Edinburgh has said that it will not. That is the official statement of Dr. John Burnett, the vice-chancellor and principal.
In December I asked that members of the department of artificial intelligence should meet Ministers and I gather that that has been done. Since it is precluded by its university from taking this any further a deep issue of university policy arises.
I asked the Secretary of State for Defence:when he expects the strategic defence initiative office to write to university vice-chancellors outlining areas of research of interest to strategic defence initiative planners; what form the letters will take; what discussions have already taken place with universities about an outline list of research projects; what will be the deadline for universities to submit proposals; and when he expects contracts to be awarded.The answer was:Universities will be kept fully informed along with other interested parties of opportunities for participation in the SDI research programme by correspondence and by the activities of the Department of Education and Science representative working within the SDI participation office in the Ministry of Defence.That has created — I have a question to the Prime Minister on it — a good deal of questions inside the DES. It may not be the business of DES civil servants to work inside the DES in order to facilitate what many people in the university world see as the militarisation of space. The answer continued:The award of contracts will be determined by such factors as the nature and strength of any interest that is shown by individual Universities and their capabilities in the relevant fields.—[Official Report, 19 February 1986; Vol. 92, c. 185.]
Each university will have to decide for itself precisely what kind of policy there is inside that academic body. It is a real hot potato for Edinburgh, Heriot Watt and many other universities.
Finally, I want to ask four questions about Fylingdales. When is work now scheduled to begin to upgrade the Fylingdales early warning station to phased array status due to begin? Will Britain or the United States be responsible for vetting researchers or firms either involved or bidding for SDI contracts, or at Fylingdales and other sensitive spots? Who will be responsible for the vetting?
Thirdly, what changes are to be made in the ratio of British to United States staff at Fylingdales in order to upgrade?
Will Britain still retain the ability to cut off information from Fylingdales to the United States, and will data from Fylingdales be made available to NATO as a whole, or will it remain confined to the United States and Britain as at present?
I apologise to colleagues for going on at some length and for gabbling to get my remarks on the record. But some of us—the Opposition Front Bench no less than others—are exceedingly concerned about the militarisation of space. It has been put that we are embarking on something as momentous as what happened in the 1940s in relation to the Manhattan project. Some of us are absolutely determined to monitor the detail and the nuts and bolts of what the SDI actually means. I am realistic, and do not expect the Minister to answer my questions 998 when he replies tonight, but I shall continue to nag and be bloody-minded until we at least in writing get ministerial answers to these very real questions.
§ Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)
I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House on the Nimrod airborne early warning project. I have followed that project ever since I was elected to the House in 1983, because the airframes have been manufactured at Woodford — a plant at which many of my constituents are employed.
The whole House will welcome the six months trial period which my hon. Friend the Minister of State announced earlier, but thereafter the Secretary of State will have to decide whether to abandon nine years of work and commitments, estimated at approximately £1 billion at current prices, or whether to soldier on with the project, with the fear of throwing good money after bad. No hon. Member will envy that decision. In these days of rapid technological advance it is odd to find that the choice facing the Secretary of State still appears to lie between the Boeing AWACS system and the Nimrod airborne early warning system — the same choice that face Lord Mulley, the then Defence Secretary, nine long years ago.
In six months' time, we shall not be starting from the same position as the one from which the Labour Government started in 1977. At that time, Nimrod was little more than a twinkle in the Department's collective eye, and at that time the AWACS system was already working and on offer to NATO. Had we played our cards right in 1977, we would now have full AEW coverage for Britain for a mere £500 million at current prices.
With the benefit of hindsight, the original decision appears to many hon. Members to have been wrong. The RAF wanted AWACS then, and it seems as if it still wants it. Perhaps the Government should have backed the RAF's decision in 1977. I do not propose to go through the reasons why Nimrod was chosen — that is no longer relevant—but it is highly important for the Secretary of State to consider before making his final decision why it is not now operational. That is of vital importance.
I am glad that the Minister of State pointed out earlier that British Aerospace has fulfilled its part of the bargain in relation to the airframes, and that to all intents and purposes all 11 are complete. The work force at Woodford is to be congratulated on a difficult job well done. But what of GEC? Its system is still some way short of the operating standards that the RAF rightly requires, and is many years behind the schedule set in 1977.
Why should that be so? First, it must be recognised that the system that it is developing is the most complex electronics system ever developed in the United Kingdom. The system requirement specification was not finally agreed until October 1980, yet the original idea in 1977 was to complete the system within four years. Clearly, that was always pie in the sky. After all, it had taken 15 years to develop AWACS. How then, in 1977, could it have been considered that a completely new and different system would be completed in just four years?
Secondly, as the Minister of State pointed out, the contract was negotiated on a cost-plus basis. This involved the MOD vetting all items of expenditure, which inevitably led to long delays and left GEC short of lest rigs, spares and other test equipment. The Minister of State is to be congratulated on recognising past mistakes and for 999 stating that if the project proceeds after six months—I hope that it will—it will be on a fixed cost basis with GEC as prime contractor.
There have been other errors for which the MOD must take its share of the blame. First, the type of radar chosen has the advantage of detecting slow moving and crossing targets, but this has the disadvantage of not differentiating between moving land vehicles and, say, helicopters. This deficiency was pointed out to the MOD in 1977, but the MOD decided not to spend the extra £10 million on a design proposal aimed at removing the problem. This problem must now be faced.
Thirdly, the computer capacity is not large enough to monitor and disseminate information as fast as the RAF rightly demands, given today's conditions. Now the nettle will have to be grasped and a higher speed computer installed. This should not come as any great surprise to the MOD, as the operator functions required have increased from 200 to 600 during the period of development, and it has long been known that a higher speed computer was desirable and essential.
Where do we go from here? We should welcome the fact that the MOD is to seek tenders from other manufacturers. That is praiseworthy, but many of us feel that it will almost certainly be false economy to cancel the Nimrod project now. There are four very good reasons. First, the airframes are virtually complete. Secondly, it is estimated by GEC that only £200 million to £300 million is required to complete Nimrod. It is difficult to estimate the cost of buying AWACS, but it is significant that Saudi Arabia paid $1,700 million for five in 1981. Thirdly, GEC estimates that the continuation of the project would provide 8,000 man years of employment for its skilled work force and suppliers.
§ Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)
My hon. Friend will be aware that about 3,000 of my constituents are employed at GEC Avionics at Rochester. While not much work is taking place on the AEW system at Rochester, he will be aware that GEC's fortunes are very much bound up with that project and that my constituents would suffer substantially — even though they are not directly involved—if that project were cancelled.
§ Mr. Favell
My hon. Friend makes a very good point.
I said that I would not venture into the reasons why it was decided to proceed with Nimrod in 1977. There were many bad reasons, but one of the good ones was that it would keep the technology within the United Kingdom. That still applies. It would be a tragedy to lose that technology now, having spent so much and taken so long on a project that is so near to completion.
Finally, and perhaps most important of all, there is now a keen and growing interest in the AEW system throughout the world, and in spite of bad publicity on Nimrod in the last year, there is great interest in the GEC Avionics AEW mission system. Some hon. Members were at the Paris air show last year when interest by Lockheed was demonstrated, but interest has also been shown by Aer Italia of Italy, which has decided to select the GEC system as the one most likely to sell in combination with its aircraft.
Lockheed is already co-operating with GEC on a Hercules. AEW and a joint team is now visiting Australia in response to an invitation from the Australian 1000 Government. The export opportunities for a British early warning system appear good. The United Kingdom's share of the market could, according to GEC, amount to as much as £1 billion and provide 25,000 man years of employment in the United Kingdom. Perhaps, given our time over again, we would have taken a different course. It is now 1986. Nine years ago the Ministry of Defence and GEC walked down the aisle together—it would be madness to put them asunder now.
§ Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)
According to the Defence Estimates, spending for 1985–86 is projected at just over £18 billion. The RAF gets the biggest percentage increase, the Royal Navy's money is held almost constant, but nuclear spending is up sharply as outlays for the new Trident nuclear submarine begin to bite.
All of this will begin to change next year. The Defence Select Committee reported last year that, although defence expenditure in 1986–87 and 1987–88 will grow in cash terms by 2.8 per cent. and 1.8 per cent. respectively,the outlook in real terms is gloomy".Should we not begin to consider intra-European co-operation and transatlantic co-operation? The Minister did not mention the intra-European procurement group, nor the possibilities now opened up on the other side of the Atlantic by the Nunn and Quayle amendments and the Weinberger memorandum.
Clearly, some things in the forces' forward plans will have to go. Which? The previous Defence Secretary ducked the issue. It is plain from his defence statement—the one before us is, after all, his—that he has studiously avoided firm schedules and timetables, thus concealing a deliberate slow-down in the introduction of new equipment into squadron service, as we shall note later. However, in the near future the new Defence Secretary will have to bite the bullet and make choices. Big new programmes in addition to Trident—a new fighter for the RAF, new tanks and artillery for the Army, new helicopters for both the Navy and the ground forces—are all clamouring for slices of a cake that will start to shrink a year from now. Thus, management of the defence budget into the 1990s will present major problems, as I am sure every hon. Member present today will be acutely aware.
The previous Defence Secretary hoped to meet part of the cost by improving the efficiency of his vast organisation, but trimming the tail will not make a very big dent in the planned spending. Trident begins this year to soak up big chunks of cash, and some time within the life of the Government it will become extremely difficult to cancel it. So if it does not go soon, the blows must fall somewhere on conventional forces. Perhaps, with Tornado F2, we see evidence that such blows are already falling in the form of slippage. According to the 1984 defence statement at paragraph 410:Later this year the Tornado F2 will join the RAF and crew training for the operational conversion unit at RAF Coningsby will begin.What have we heard from the Minister today? That 14 aircraft have been delivered to Coningsby and that he hopes that the first squadron will form next year. How is that for slippage? It is only one illustration. 1001 The increasing cost of new defence equipment is leading to more modernisation of existing aircraft or mid-life updates, using the latest missiles, missile guidance systems, radar, aviation electronics and electronic converter measures. Why was the mention of such mid-life updates confined to Tornado? Why was there no mention, as the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) asked, of Buccaneer, which will be deployed in the maritime role into the next century? What of the two squadrons of air defence Phantoms which will be retained even after Tornado comes into service? They are two prime examples of mid-life updates.
Why are there no progress reports on advanced short-range and medium-range air-to-air missiles. There is a problem with potential overlapping. All of the information shows that the Americans are making faster progress with regard to AMRAAM. Does anyone suppose that the Americans will stop at AMRAAM when they can cope with ASRAAM as well? Why is there no mention of radiation suppression devices, given their growing importance, especially ALARM?
§ Mr. Norman Lamont
Because I spoke for 42 minutes and therefore deleted many points that are interesting.
§ Mr. Duffy
The Minister deceives none of his colleagues when he comes out with that nonsense. They recall what he said and that great chunks of his speech could have taken second place to these items. The Minister is smiling in agreement. He mentioned United Kingdom air defence ground environment and he appreciates its importance. He might have mentioned the joint tactical information distribution service, which is equally important. We want progress reports on these extremely important developments. We want to know more about airfield defence. How many Rapier squadrons are now operational? We want to hear something about airfield survivability, not only in terms of sustainability, but also security, given last autumn's Exercise Brave Defender. We want a progress report, and this was the occasion for it.
We have been told that we now have nine squadrons of the Tornado GR1. We had eight a year ago. Only one more squadron in a year? Is that another example of slippage? The Minister will recall, just as the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) will, the anxiety that I have expressed in the past two debates on the RAF about NATO's need to counter Warsaw pact air superiority in the central region. The Minister acknowledged the importance of that when he talked of the increasingly hostile air environment over the central region. The aim must therefore be to free NATO's TACAIR to provide sufficient leverage to offset the Warsaw pact's advantages in numbers.
In the event of an attack, there would be two urgent priorities—to counter air attack and to destroy about 100 key points in Soviet supply lines such as bridges. Soviet aircraft would be best destroyed on the ground. There is a growing consensus in the Alliance that such a mission should be performed with conventional means to raise the nuclear threshold. That is due in part to military considerations and in part to political ones. Militarily, there is a strong need to modernise and strengthen our conventional systems to implement flexible response as a credible deterrent strategy. Bearing in mind the current Soviet strategic and theatre nuclear superiority, we are obliged to consider such a development.
1002 From an industrial point of view, new technologies in guidance, target acquisition and miniaturisation are now expanding the number of missions that conventional weapons can accomplish. For the third successive year, I ask, as does the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood, that the Government move beyond studies into air-launched systems or stand-off weapons for Tornado into the definition and then development of a design. In view of the increasingly hostile air environment of which the Minister spoke, Tornado will clearly experience growing difficulty getting over the target and must therefore have the capability to engage it from some distance. Ballistic missiles could be used on targets, for example. Airstrips could be destroyed by the use of terminally-guided systems releasing more than 100 earth-penetrating bombs which explode underneath the ground. The defence statement of 1983, paragraph 4, claimed that the studies were in hand to assess the conventional armed long-range stand-off missile or complementary systems to manned aircraft. There has been no mention of those studies since then, although I understand that a memorandum of understanding exists with the United States on two new programmes—the long-range stand-off missile and the short range anti-radiation missile. I ask the Minister once again to comment on progress. That is what the House wishes to hear.
In the light of the statement on the Nimrod AEW that the Minister slotted into his speech —I made the official statement to this House as Minister in 1977 on our policy on the Nimrod AEW and I believe that I have no grounds to blush—I wish to offer a different perspective from that which we have heard so far in the debate from both sides of the House. The RAF was encouraged to order Nimrod in preference to the Boeing E3A in 1977 when NATO hesitated to agree to buy the American system, which at that time did not offer the maritime capability that Britain believed to be necessary. At that time the Germans were just as resistant to the Boeing E3A and they went down a slightly different road through a joint venture with Dornier and Boeing.
The objectives were to meet an increasingly sophisticated threat, to co-ordinate tactical air forces and new weapons systems and to achieve inter-operability as well as to link up with tomorrow's systems. We were aware of those needs eight or nine years ago, but, as we have heard this afternoon, those developments have taken a quantum leap. They are vital requirements, because Soviet activity in low-level operations has already been observed to be on the increase. Inevitably there have been problems. How far were they compounded by the failure of the RAF fully to assess what was needed, the attitude of the Treasury, which wanted a system on the cheap—a type 42 Frigate muddle all over again — and the shortcomings of industry? How far has the Nimrod experience, like the Westland experience, called into question Britain's ability to go it alone on a project of that size and sophistication?
With the Royal Air Force constantly changing its requirements, the computer originally developed for Nimrod can no longer cope with the work load. I understand that there is also a heat problem because of the sophisticated radar, which in turn has seriously affected Nimrod's mission time. There is now so much equipment on board that they are running out of space. Yet there are extremely well placed authorities that have every confidence that Nimrod AEW will work in time. 1003 However, it must be out of the question to cancel the Nimrod programme. The ability of the nation to defend itself is directly related to the ability of industry and the scientific community to maintain a strong technology base needed to develop the systems and services used by the armed forces. Can we really believe that we would be able to carry on doing that if we cancelled the Nimrod AEW programme? It would also be an outrageous waste of money and a retrograde step to buy AWACS. The Nimrod radar, for example, is superior. Ministers must demonstrate more tenacity in their attitudes towards Nimrod.
If technological problems continue, collaboration should be sought with other NATO countries, especially in Western Europe and notably with Dornier in the Federal Republic of Germany. Let us recall the attitude of the Germans to the Boeing E3A. If we must go down that road, let us not hesitate to do so.
§ Dr. Keith Hampson (Leeds, West)
The first point raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) and that of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) strike me as important. They repeated the slogans about Trident and the damage that Trident will do to the conventional budget, but at the same time they praised Tornado. Throughout its lifespan, the Tornado programme has taken a much higher proportion of the equipment budget than Trident will. If we can survive Tornado without distortion, I fail to see the strength of the argument about Trident.
I agree with the central point of the hon. Member for Attercliffe about not cancelling Nimrod. AWACS would cost much more on top of what we have already spent, and there are several other reasons. There are important lessons to be learned. Nimrod has shown that above all else we must move away from the cost-plus system as rapidly as possible. It is shot through with anomalies and deep problems.
My hon. Friend the Minister clarified the question of where we shall go during the next six months. However, project management by companies is important. The problems of the Nimrod programme arose from having to go back on a weekly basis to get authorisation from the Ministry of Defence. That is not the way in which to achieve effective management control. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell) pointed out that the moratorium on expenditure in 1981 caused severe delays by stopping development and expenditure on the test rig, which set back progress to a considerable extent.
Another lesson has been closely to examine the operation of the procurement executive. My right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) began the essential progress towards a more central organisation in the Ministry of Defence, which will make it more possible to achieve appropriate strategies, including the role of helicopters and early warning systems. The next step is to go further and examine the procurement executive. Mr. Levene has done a tremendous job and has had a good shot at getting a good Nimrod contract, but there is a procurement jungle which needs sorting out.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport stressed that specifications are constantly changing. No clear specification was made at the beginning of the Nimrod 1004 programme. We were well into the programme before we had one, and even then it kept changing. As the Minister said, the Government had moved back the requirement —there is now a minimal operational requirement but requirements have been progressively added throughout the programme to beyond the AWACS requirements. We were expecting to achieve completion in half the time of AWACS and at a quarter of the cost.
§ Mr. Couchman
In December 1985, the chief of defence procurement sent a letter to my right hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Prior) entitled "Summary of Compliance of Key Characteristics of Performance Required for Minimum Operational Capability". Some of the characteristics in the document had only been defined by the Ministry of Defence within the previous six months.
§ Dr. Hampson
That was minimum characteristics at the end of the programme, but many others were added. We were trying to achieve something quite exceptional. This is the most complicated electronics programme with which British industry has had to cope. It has had to cope with trying to meet the requirements of a maritime presence, with aircraft carriers being phased out, the northern NATO flank and battlefield requirements. To do all that with a small fuselage is a complicated and difficult task.
It is about time that we gave at least some recognition to the tremendous achievements in the programme. I do not defend the way in which the programme has been handled or the management control, but it is a phenomenal technical achievement. I believe that the programme will succeed.
Yesterday, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck) and I examined the project. GEC readily admits that there are faults. One problem is with the shadow on the radar, since it is so precise that it picks up moving cars and trucks. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport said, it was known in 1977 that this was a potential problem, yet the Ministry of Defence said that it did not matter. It was not prepared to pay £10 million to cope with that, and said that that sector of the radar scanner could be blanked out. Last year, the Ministry decided that it needed such a capability. We must examine the way in which the Ministry handles such major projects.
I hope that similar problems will not occur with the staff requirement 1238, which is the air-launched anti-armour rocket. It is another expensive programme, and the companies are saying that they must know where they stand. I hope that the Nimrod fiasco does not mean that the Ministry is becoming scared of launching into such projects. In the 1970s, when we took the decision on Nimrod, it was right to believe that Britain had the capability to carry out such high electronic and technology programmes. What will be the state of British industry if we believe that it is incapable of doing that now? Whatever the mistakes, we must try to sell the Nimrod system.
Last year Lockheed evaluated the programme and said that it was potentially a world winner. Lockheed is prepared to use it in the Hercules C130 and believes that it can be sold successfully throughout the world, with possible profits of between £1 billion and £3 billion, from which there will be some royalties to the Government to compensate them for their large investment. It is important to think positively about the programme. It has received 1005 much bad publicity, which damages morale in the company and in the skilled teams working on the project. It must also affect potential customers and Lockheed. We must try to continue Lockheed's involvement in the programme so that it provides more export possibilities.
§ Sir Antony Buck (Colchester, North)
My hon. Friend has made some important points, and I hope that in reply the Minister will give us an assurance that the Government will consider the way in which staff targets are arrived at. There have been some changes in climate in this area and in others, which are rather worrying. The House will be grateful that my hon. Friend demonstrated the export potential of the programme. I hope that we shall continue it and bring it to a successful conclusion.
§ Dr. Hampson
I am grateful for that intervention, which reinforces my point. My hon. Friend the Minister of State should realise the strength of feeling on the matter. Britain must demonstrate that it can carry out such projects and that they can be successfully concluded. The company is confident that it can achieve success. It says that it is 85 per cent. of the way towards resolving the few problems that exist. We have always been too ready to accept the bad publicity on the project as though the entire Nimrod programme was faulty. But there are 200 separate elements in this highly sophisticated project, only a handful of which have not met the specified requirements. Of course, there is still quite a way to go on those elements, but there have been great achievements as well.
The RAF video shown to Ministers gives a completely false impression of how far the system fails to meet the specifications, because it ignores a large chunk of the capabilities and focuses only on the elements where problems remain. We must view the project positively.
The contract which Mr. Levene managed to achieve is good and satisfactory to all parties. It means that the company must have great confidence in what it is doing, because it will be spending £25 million of its money during the next six months. That is a sign of real commitment. If it does not deliver on time or up to performance, it will have to continue spending its own money. I pay credit to my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley on taking the initiative last June and July in pressing for this type of contract with penalties on the company. Otherwise the cost-plus system would have continued almost indefinitely, to no one's advantage.
At the end of the six months, there must be no protracted analysis of the alternatives. The procurement executive has done that many times, most recently with helicopters. We have still not sorted out the Army's requirements. The Ministry has postponed reviews and revised specifications. It would be wretched, to say the least, if after six months evaluation of the alternatives was continued. There is only one alternative—AWACS. The Hawkeye is as ineffective now for our requirements as it was in the 1970s, when we decided not to have it. The P3C—the Lockheed Orion—is just a speck in the imagination. No money has been committed to it, and there are no contracts in sight for it. We should have to wait years for any such alternative.
I see no need for excessive delay or an appraisal of the alternatives, which only helps competitors. It is a choice between AWACS and continuing with what we have. Most of my colleagues will endorse my view that we should give GEC the chance to prove that Britain can produce something that will sell well round the world.
§ Mr. Neville Trotter (Tynemouth)
This is an opportunity for us to pay tribute to the men and women of the Royal Air Force. We shall talk a great deal tonight about equipment, but we must never forget about the men and women who man and maintain that equipment, in the snows of the Falklands or wherever it may be, and who maintain the standards of this fine service of which every hon. Member is proud. We hear mostly of the exploits of the aircrews, but we should never forget the people behind them in the air bases in Britain, Germany and elsewhere. They show much skill and professionalism. Only occasionally does the service catch the public eye, with an especially daring and successful rescue by a helicopter from a storm-tossed ship, or with the great aid that the RAF provided in Ethiopia, with its low-level Hercules dropping relief supplies to those in distress.
Those of us who visit the United States see another side to the Air Force. At the enormous range at Nellis, in the desert outside Las Vegas, where the American air force holds its large Red Flag exercises and displays all its great technology, skill and resources, the Royal Air Force performs exceptionally well. During the past year, our most notable success in the States was for the Tornados to win some of the top prizes in the American air force annual bombing competition. The V bombers used to enter those competitions and also won some of the top prizes. Now the new Tornado squadrons have shown their capabilities on the Americans' home ground by winning some of the highest prizes competed for by the cream of the American air force. It was a very commendable performance.
I pay special tribute to the crews who took part so skillfully in the refuelling of the Hercules aircraft bound for the Falkland Islands day after day, long after the war had finished. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck) had personal experience of their efforts and skill on his flight, as did other of my colleagues. It was a great feat of aviation to continue that air bridge in appalling conditions, thousands of miles out in the south Atlantic and with no easy alternative airport to direct to if things went wrong. Friends of mine said that one could not expect it to be done for a long period without something going wrong and it was a fine feat of airmanship to do it day after day without any serious problems or accidents. It speaks a great deal for the skill of the aircrews involved.
On flight refuelling, I am pleased that we are increasing our capacity with the new VC 10s and TriStars coming into service. It means the end of the Victor tankers, the last of the old V bombers, which have been with us for many years. However, it is interesting to reflect that the Olympus engine still leads the world in Concorde. even though the V bombers may have gone.
Flight refuelling is an essential part of our air power. It is a great force multiplier. It increases many times the capability of our fighters and attack aircraft, since they need not return to base to refuel. They can stay much longer on station and operate at much greater distances from their bases.
Whether we talk of the RAF strike aircraft or of its fighters, we are nowadays talking of the Tornado. Most of the strike variants are in service and the fighters are starting to enter into service. It is undoubtedly a great aircraft. Its greatest ability is, perhaps, its all-weather capability because we have a great deal of bad weather in 1007 Europe and long winter nights. In the Tornado we have an aircraft that can fight whether the weather is fine or foul and by day or night.
When I visited Nellis I was particularly impressed by the skill of our Buccaneer crews. In the middle of the American western desert, it was a day of torrential rain—not at all what one expected. I had just been seeing the latest in head-up displays and automation in the most modern of the American fighters. The Buccaneer crews came out of the hangars, and off they went, in that appalling weather when most of the aircraft belonging to their hosts were not flying.
When they returned, I asked whether I could see their head-up display and their automation. The group captain took me over. There was no automation. For a head-up display, there were two old-fashioned dials. One showed the height and the other the speed. They had been screwed on to the top of what I would call the dashboard. Those aircraft are elderly but they can operate in bad weather because of their skilled crews. The Tornado can do this much more easily day after day. It will be the RAF's backbone into the next generation.
There is no doubt that the biggest equipment problem facing us is the lack of an airborne early warning aircraft. It is not surprising that many hon. Members have commented on that fact. The old Shackleton mark 2 is a piston-engined aircraft which is considerably older than many of the people flying in it. It is not even the latest model of Shackleton. It was in service when I was in the Air Force many years ago. I seem to remember that in those days, 30 years ago, it was referred to as 60,000 rivets pulsating in unison. I do not know whether they are in unison these days.
The Shackleton was never a comfortable aircraft in which to serve. I pay great tribute to the crews who continue to do so day after day. Without saying too much about it, its radar is based on 1940s technology. Let us just say that it is of limited capability in this modern age.
The lack of a modern airborne early warning aircraft is a giant hole in our defences and it must be plugged. It is not merely a force multiplier enabling the fighter force to be controlled more effectively. One must bear very much in mind that ground radar stations are extremely vulnerable to attack. They would not last any time at all in a war. The people underneath in the hardened concrete defended control rooms would be all right, but the radar heads would go quickly. We shall be left without an effective radar system unless we have airborne early warning aircraft. They are absolutely vital to this country's defences.
I do not believe that there is any hon. Member who wishes the Nimrod other than well. We all want to see it succeed. The paramount point is that we cannot force the Royal Air Force to accept an aircraft that does not have the vital radar capability we need. That is not being unnecessarily pessimistic about the future of Nimrod. I earnestly hope that it can be made to do the job successfully. We are plainly correct to continue to attempt to achieve that.
If I remember the figures correctly, the Nimrod programme costs about half that of the current torpedo programme. We tend to see the figures as gigantic which, of course, they are, but if we remember that buying a new 1008 stock of torpedoes for the Royal Navy will cost twice as much as we have so far spent on the Nimrod, it puts the matter more into perspective.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth
I am told that it cost £800 million to launch the Ford Sierra. That might put the point in perspective.
§ Mr. Trotter
That is another good figure with which to compare the programme.
We must persevere and ensure that the radar warning gap is successfully plugged. I am not too worried whether the Nimrod is capable of operating as a controller of battles in the middle of Europe because I do not think that that is what it will be used for. It will be needed for the air defence of this country and the waters around it.
We must ensure that our expensive new aircraft are matched by effective modern weapons. It is said that one aircraft with a modern "smart bomb" has the same effect as a squadron of 12 aircraft dropping 60 or more conventional unguided bombs. There is a huge advantage in having to send only one plane since only it and one crew are at risk in the hostile environment which has been referred to. These weapons are a multiplier of the inevitably limited forces that we shall have available and are quite essential.
There are some splendid modern weapons already in service, now coming into service and under development. Our industry has been highly successful in designing and producing these weapons. The JP 233 for cratering runways is well in service. The air-launched anti-radar missile is coming along well. Now, as my hon. Friend the Minister said, air staff requirement 1238 is for a new anti-armour weapon with terminally guided submunitions. Those weapons are all essential. They must be available in adequate numbers if we are to give the greatest advantage to the Tornado crews. Those crews must not be put into the unnecessary position of having to go into a heavily defended area to drop old unguided and inaccurate bombs if the job can be done at much less risk to them and their aeroplanes with smart weapons. That makes sense from the cost point of view apart from any other arguments.
The arguments about helicopters have been well put by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I find it hard to believe that we can wait until the late 1990s for the European tactical transport helicopter to replace our existing ageing machines. We must make a decision well before then. The dividing line between the Army and the Air Force needs studying. There are good arguments for the Air Force operating the helicopters that it does, but the matter does need studying. As an accountant—one of those cold, calculating types—I must say that the figures that my hon. Friend the Minister gave us on the comparative costs of helicopter training require some inquiry. The fact that the Army spends only £200,000 per pilot while the Air Force spends £2 million is something that should be looked at. I should like to know what the Navy spends on its training. That should be an interesting figure because its pilots are mostly helicopter pilots these days and they operate in difficult conditions at sea.
We perhaps hear most about aircrew, but without the support in the bases they would be unable to operate. Half the Royal Air Force is in Support Command. It is responsible for flying training, technical training, maintenance, the deep repairs of the aircraft and the supply 1009 of all the stores that keep the Air Force operating. Each year, 2 million stores are issued. That is a mighty and well-run organisation. The destruction of its headquarters by fire at Brampton must have been an appalling problem for those running the command. Tribute is due to all those who worked so hard to overcome the problems, the scale of which is hard to imagine, with all the records destroyed.
I caution my hon. Friend about the overstretch of manpower. There are signs that this is becoming a problem. We have seen a welcome increase in the front line aircraft strength of the Royal Air Force as a result of the Government's determination and the substantial increase in defence spending. These increases in aircraft strength have not been matched by corresponding increases in manpower. We shall have to watch the problem of this overstretch carefully. At times it has been aggravated by cuts in the number of civilians employed. It is all very well to reduce civilian strength if the job can be dispensed with, but it is not so good if someone in uniform has to do that job as well as his normal job.
In conclusion, I shall refer to the remarks of John Slessor, a famous head of the Royal Air Force 40 years ago. His remarks were in the context that the Royal Air Force, alone of the three services, operated in every environment: maritime, land battle and the defence of these islands. John Slessor said:Unless we command the air over these islands we are done for, even more certainly than we should have been last time; unless we have air superiority in the battle zone it does not matter how many TA or other sort of divisions we have, they will not avail; unless we can protect our convoys we shall starve … strength in the air … is absolutely vital to our existence as a nation.That is as true now as it was when he said it 40 years ago.
§ 8 pm
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate on the Royal Air Force. Later this year I shall have worn the blue uniform of the Royal Air Force for 40 years. As I am the only serving reserve officer in either House, I have a particular interest in the Royal Air Force, from both personal and direct experience.
On the day when the Spitfire is 50 years old I recollect that I served in the days of the piston-engined aeroplane. I was never fortunate enough to serve in a Spitfire squadron. However, that was rectified at a later stage in my career. The Spitfire symbolises for everybody what the Royal Air Force means to the country. It means more than just a beautiful aeroplane that did its job very effectively. In 1940 it meant the difference between survival and non-survival. Afterwards it gave us the air superiority that we required in so many battlefield theatres. No other flying machine of its type anywhere else in the world equalled it. It is fitting, therefore, that we should be holding this debate today.
I wish to make special mention of an old colleague and friend of mine. He is the commanding officer of the Royal Air Force Battle of Britain Flight. When I see Scott Anderson and his team at air shows my heart takes a leap. I am reminded again of the great victories of the Royal Air Force throughout the years. Long may the Royal Air Force continue to operate the Battle of Britain Flight and long may we continue to see them at all air displays.
I do not intend to refer to subjects that have been dealt with by other speakers, but I am pleased that the Tornado is coming into service. I am a little worried that it is not 1010 coming into service as fast as I should wish, but I am pleased that the F2 version of the fighter is coming into service. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will be able to tell me what stage the Hawk local air defence programme has reached. We need an effective air defence programme.
I am also pleased to note, that the Royal Auxiliary Air Force has been given an increased role to play in air defence matters. I shall refer to other aspects relating to auxiliaries and reserves, but the experience that we have gained thus far with auxiliary units in air defence is good. People of high calibre are being recruited. I have always believed that the Royal Air Force could attract such people; now the evidence is there for everybody to see.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to overcome the objections to increasing the volunteer reserve and the auxiliary component of the Royal Air Force. The use of volunteers and reserves represents good value for money. They wild perform this role for what, in relative terms, are peanuts. They do it because they want to do it. That is what matters. Very expensive aeroplanes are being flown today and it is important that those who fly them should be properly motivated. It is not enough to have the skill and the ability to fly these aircraft. Experience shows that, unless people are properly motivated, their skills will not be used to the best advantage. Motivation is the most important aspect of flying. Unless one likes flying, one ought not to do it, particularly in the modern environment.
A great deal has been said about the Nimrod. I agree that the Nimrod AEW aircraft ought to go into service with the Royal Air Force. I was surprised to hear certain hon. Members say earlier that the Royal Air Force does not want it. That is not what the RAF has told me. It says that it wants an aircraft that will do the job properly.
It will come as no surprise to the Minister to hear that, after having spent a large part of my life in the air training environment, I want the trainer that is to come into service with the RAF to do the job that the RAF wants it to do. I should like to know whether the problems relating to the marrying of the engine to the airframe have been overcome.
I should like the Minister to comment in particular on the following matters. Have the difficulties relating to the variable rates of wind-up been resolved? Have the problems over the retraction of the nose wheel when the new engine is mounted been resolved, and also the problems relating to reverse thrust and the possibility of it being engaged in flight? Furthermore, has the very high rate of sink in the final stages of landing been properly dealt with? Can my hon. Friend the Minister tell me at what time, and when, Boscombe Down will get its hands on the modified trainer so that its capabilities can be ascertained? My hon. Friend the Minister will be pleased to know that Boscombe Down is anxious to get its hands on it.
Unfortunately, one has to draw attention to the cost implications of this aircraft. I want to be absolutely certain that the Royal Air Force budget will not have to meet any additional costs that are incurred by purchasing this aeroplane. Reference has been made to the cost of the Jet Provost overrun. Whoever pays, it must not be the Royal Air Force. An aircraft was bought off the shelf at a certain price. There was an alternative that could also have been bought at a certain price. Until the Royal Air Force can get its hands on the Tucano and properly evaluate it—it 1011 is not called the Tucano at the moment but the PC4½ because it is only half as good as the PC9, which I do not like—it will not be possible to make it into a good trainer. It will eventually be a good trainer, but my concern is that the Royal Air Force budget should not be required to bear the cost. It means that other projects would suffer.
National Air Traffic Services has been causing me some concern. This body is run by the Royal Air Force and the Civil Aviation Authority. I hope that the Minister realises that a person with my background does not take kindly to having to say things that are less than complimentary about the Royal Air Force. I care deeply about it. My wife insists that that is the only real love that I have ever had. Regular serving officers who work within National Air Traffic Services should be reminded that Parliament is part of our democratic process. They may not like parliamentarians asking awkward questions and getting involved in difficult issues, but that is the price we pay for living in a democracy. It is a price that I am very happy to pay and I hope that they are happy to pay it, too. Their perceived attitudes towards consultation in the NAT-MAC forum are less than happy. It could be argued that this is because I speak on most occasions only on behalf of one body, the British Gliding Association. However, I have many other interests in both light aviation and private aviation. I am a director of a company that is involved in activities of that kind. NAT-MAC is not perceived to be pursuing the role that Parliament wants it to play. That is not good. It can introduce regulations without referring to Parliament. That is bad. Unless the consultations are meaningful, Parliament will have to introduce legislation that will allow it to have a greater say.
§ Mr. Keith Best (Ynys Môn)
My hon. Friend may not know that I have received representations that express the grave concern of glider pilots. They will find that their area of operations is severely curtailed, particularly in Oxfordshire, because of restrictions that are widely thought to be unnecessary.
§ Mr. Walker
I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. Upper Heyford, which is the airfield involved, is presently used and occupied by the United States air force. I have always found the United States air force helpful, constructive and willing to sit down and talk about matters, so anything I have to say must not be seen as any form of criticism of the United States air force—in fact quite the reverse. I have been to the United States embassy and I have had constructive discussions about the problems of Upper Heyford and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Best) will be pleased to hear that.
The real difficulty with regard to Upper Heyford is not that we have simply had an area of 200 square miles or more made effectively sterile. It has become an area where one has to ask permission to go in and do things and in the centre of England that is not very clever. If an airfield of that size was required for recovery patterns—for those who do not understand that, it means the aircraft getting back to the aerodrome and the Royal Air Force does not have recovery patterns that cover anything like that area—and if it was perceived that because the F111 has certain visual problems when flying—I accept that they are not the easiest aeroplanes to see out of—it was not terribly clever to put them in the centre of England in the 1012 first place. These are not large islands. Airfields were available 15 years ago, although some of them have since been given up by the Royal Air Force, but they were available and perhaps the F111 should have been put in an area which would have caused fewer problems.
The difficulty is that the evidence of the problem is not based on hard fact. If it were, I as an aviator would accept it. I believe that no aviator, regardless of where he comes from or whom he represents, wants to fly in conditions that are deemed to be less than safe. Anecdotal evidence is being used—anyone who has operated out of an operational airfield will know that the anecdotal evidence on any operational airfield is that things are never quite what the chaps want—but that is not a good enough reason to bring in legislation to change things.
I must place on record my thanks to my noble Friend the Minister of State for Defence Support, who has been very helpful on that matter. We are continuing to have a constructive dialogue, so I am hopeful that we will find a sensible compromise answer.
I would like to say a few words about helicopters. I think that the one thing that clearly came out of the Westland saga was that throughout all of it Sikorsky behaved very properly. There is no question that it became involved in the many unfortunate publicity activities. I hope that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will take it on board that, whatever happens now, we have to recognise that Westland is our only helicopter supplier. It is nonsense for anyone to suggest that it would not be considered for supplying any helicopter that would be operated and flown by our defence forces in whatever category. Of course Westland must be considered. If we are serious about the needs of the Army in battlefield conditions, Westland, in conjunction with the long, useful and constructive experience of Sikorsky, will, I am confident, be able to produce the helicopter to meet that task. I believe that one is already in existence.
I now turn to the Chipmunk. I hope that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will recognise that it is not a young aeroplane. It made its first flight in about 1948. It is a fine aeroplane but there is now a need to re-engine it and carry out various changes in the cockpit equipment. That being so, I strongly recommend that we look at some of the new British products which are available for that sort of role. That would be helpful to the British companies and, in addition, it would give the Royal Air Force a new generation of aeroplanes. If I mention Slingsby's Firefly I hope that no one will think that I am biased. It is a nice aeroplane. The Trago Mills is also a good aeroplane. I strongly recommend that both those aircraft are properly evaluated as a replacement for the Chipmunk. My colleagues in the reserve who fly Chipmunks will be pleased to fly whatever they get, but they would happily fly new aeroplanes rather than old ones refurbished.
I want to make some suggestions about the reserve forces and their structure. I want to say to the Ministry of Defence that the time has now come when there is an awakening in the recognition of the fundamental role that proper auxiliary and reserve units can carry out in the time of war. Some auxiliaries and reserves can go into operational squadrons at short notice, provided they are used in that role. I welcome the changes that are taking place so that there will now be opportunities for people to become involved. More importantly, we need a unified command structure of the kind we enjoyed when Home Command existed so that all those who are involved in the 1013 reserve and auxiliary activities have a structure through which their needs and requirements can be met. That would do a number of things. It would mean that one had an oversight of all that auxiliaries and reserves were doing and the problems of payment and expenses could be dealt with effectively. More importantly, it would give regular serving RAF officers career opportunities directly linked to auxiliary and reserves.
In some areas within the service there is still a feeling that a job connected with the auxiliaries or reserves is somehow not a good prospect for a career. For those in the service today who are concerned about that, may I say that one of my great friends is a serving air marshal? He largely owes his career to the great job he did many years ago in the early 1960s when he was a squadron leader working inside an auxiliary and reserve set-up. It was that, which was his first squadron leader appointment, which led to him now occupying one of the top posts in the Royal Air Force.
Therefore, working with the auxiliaries and reserves does not mean that one will not be considered for high rank in the Air Force. In fact, the reverse is true. It is also worth remembering that the auxiliaries and reserves are people like myself. One may just bump into the odd Member of Parliament—at the moment only one, but I hope there will be many more. One would certainly bump into the opinion formers and others who are influential throughout the country.
I am pleased to note that the service is initiating trials to test the augmentation of front line squadrons with RAFVR aircrew. My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn and my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), the air commodore of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force Regiment Squadron, will be pleased to note that it is also considering the deployment of RAFVR qualified flying instructors on university air squadrons and the deployment of a new Royal Auxiliary Air Force support force. I believe that they are all positive and good moves and good news.
There is an enormous source of untapped wealth, and I wish the Royal Air Force could make better use of it. If we do that, the money will be spent more wisely. It will benefit regular service employees who will have greater opportunities. That is the message that I wish to leave with my hon. Friends on the Front Bench. Let us have more of the auxiliaries and the reserves, because they are good for the regular service.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
I shall try to be brief; most subjects have been covered in the debate. However, there is one subject which has almost become a taboo which no one dares to mention but which I think merits serious consideration. That subject is the reintroduction of conscription. My hon. Friend the Member fix Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) rightly expounded with great authority the merits of the reserve forces. I find it noteworthy that in our defence posture our reserves in the United Kingdom are so meagre. We spend £18,000 million on our defence, but the Army has only £360 million for its reserve, the Navy only £14 million and the Air Force only £30 million. This means that the sustainability of our armed forces in time of war would be greatly diminished.
I shall not weary the House too much now, but I have always argued that it would be much better for the defence 1014 of our country if our naval and air reserves were greatly strengthened. We have seen from the experience of the United States Air Force reserve and Air National Guard how effective these reservists can be. They fly supersonic aeroplanes, for example F15 and the F16. The Israelis also operate with their reserve air crews the very latest aircraft to the highest operational capability.
If we are not fully to develop that same potential, and we have not hitherto, we should at this time of high unemployment look at the benefit to the country as a whole of the reintroduction of conscription. It is interesting and singular that we, almost alone of the major western European countries, do not have national service. The other countries that do not are Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Iceland, Ireland, Andorra and San Marino. I do not think that, in view of the size of the Soviet threat and the continuing political commitment to the defence of the central front which we maintain, our posture can., on present financial projections, be very long sustained.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has courageously decided that he will re-examine the financial consequences of the current strategy and the consequences of the equipment programmes that he has inherited from his predecessor. He has also informed the House that there is to be no major defence review. The broad strategic objectives are to be sustained. That is, we are to maintain the independent nuclear deterrent, we are to have the Brussels treaty commitment of a standing force on the continent of Europe of no less than 55,000 men plus a tactical Air Force, a commitment to the defence of the eastern Atlantic and Channel Command areas with our fleet, the defence of the United Kingdom air defence region with our Air Force and a continuing capability to project power out of area. I presume that there will be for some time to come internal security operations too in Northern Ireland. All this is to be done on a defence budget that, from now on, will decline somewhat in real terms.
My hon. Friend the Minister quite rightly took credit for the fact that this Administration have reduced the proportion of the defence budget which is allocated to manpower and increased the proportion that is allocated to equipment. Some 46 per cent. of the budget is allocated to equipment as against 35 per cent. to pay, allowances and pensions. However, if we are to recruit men and women of the highest calibre in the highly competitive market place in which we have to seek the recruits that we need, it will be difficult unless we offer high salaries. Already, the services are beginning to feel the pinch, and in certain skill categories there are shortages. This problem will get worse.
We also rightly recognise the role that the armed forces can play in educating, in the broadest sense, our young people—giving them skills, training and experience of work away from home in an ordered and structured environment, having to defer to authority and learning social behaviour and patterns of social responsibility which will be of great value to them in later life. To their credit, some employers recognise this, but not enough as yet.
In the United States, employers are keen to employ members of the Air National Guard and United States air force reserve, because such people are twice the citizens. They are making a commitment to their country through their military services and to the economy through their 1015 ordinary civilian work. This broadening of experience could well merit serious examination here by our military planners.
Our strategy, which is so much beholden to the Brussels treaty commitment on the central front, is manpower intensive. The pillargrams in the Defence Estimates show that the longest single item for manpower is ground forces in central Europe. If this continues to be the central pillar of our defence strategy, and for political reasons it appears to be so, other commitments will have to go. I should have thought that such a strategy was more applicable to a nation with conscription and large forces than to one with relatively small, all-professional, all-regular forces such as ours.
Our pattern of manpower is applicable more to a country that relies primarily on sea power and air power and the projection of highly mobile, trained professionals out of area in a hurry than to a manpower-intensive strategy on the central front. If it is the decision of Her Majesty's Government that the central front should have priority, we may have to reconsider our manpower policies accordingly.
The armed services youth training scheme has been initiated. The take-up has not been good, but it is a step in the right direction. We also acknowledge the valued role played by the cadet forces in training our young people and broadening their experience. No one wants a return to the days of "The Virgin Soldiers" and the national service of pre-1960 that some of us knew.
The armed forces would be reluctant to revert to national service. They would say that a high proportion of their manpower would be absorbed by training units and the front-line formations would be denuded of the highly experienced and well trained personnel which they need to make them effective. However, as a consequence we would have more contact between the civil community and the military, the civil community would acquire for its young people a corpus of discipline and collective loyalty that might help to cure some of the violence in our big cities and the phenomena such as football hooliganism and so on. I do not know—I surmise, conjecture, and make no firm prognostications—but I feel that the idea merits examination.
Last but not least, it would be more in keeping with the sense of responsibility for national defence that all our other European NATO fellow members feel. They all believe that national service is a sacrifice, a duty to country which it is reasonable to ask their young people to make. I know that Canada and the United States are different—and they have all volunteer forces, as we do—but in Europe, both east and west of the iron curtain, national service predominates.
We used to rely on our independent nuclear deterrent as this country's main and primary contribution to the western defence effort. As a consequence we felt that it was not necessary to spend so much on manpower and on maintaining large reserves and big formations. That position could be changing.
I urge Her Majesty's Government, in the light of the high level of unemployment, the lawlessness in our cities and the sense of frustration among young people, to ask the planners in the Ministry of Defence to reconsider conscription and to ask whether the armed forces could fulfil such a social role. This role would be of great benefit 1016 to the country's defence, and the Royal Air Force, with its wide range of technical skills, could have a primary social role to play as its technical skills are easily translated into lucrative employment in the civil sector.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)
My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) has made a most informed and thoughtful intervention in the debate as he always does in aviation matters. I very much agree with his remarks about conscription. Conscription is a subject which many people consider to be taboo and which must not be discussed. I believe my hon. Friend has touched upon a most important point and I hope that he will find greater support for his argument not only in the House but among other defence forces.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) in praising those people in the Royal Air Force who do not usually get credit, those who work in the background. Today I visited the London air traffic control centre with several colleagues and met some of the men and women who, day and night, man the air traffic control service with their civilian counterparts. They ensure that our skies are kept safe. It was pleasant to meet so many young ladies who serve as air traffic controllers. Those of us who occasionally fly will know how pleasant it is to hear their voices at the other end of the line because their voices tend to be much clearer than those of their male counterparts.
When we last debated the Royal Air Force a year ago, there were three main issues—the new basic trainer, the European fighter aircraft and Nimrod AEW. Two of those issues have been resolved and one remains outstanding. I would like to recap the arguments on those issues.
As I said earlier to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), I entirely supported the choice of aircraft that he espoused as the new basic trainer for the RAF. That aircraft was the best available and just what the RAF wanted. However, the decision was taken —rightly or wrongly—that the Tucano should be adopted and I hope that the House will give every support to Short Brothers in its attempt to make that aircraft the best that the RAF can hope to obtain. I spoke to Short Brothers on the telephone this afternoon and was told that not only was the maiden flight successful but the plane has undertaken over six hours of flight and so far everything has gone according to plan, and no vices have appeared. I hope that the House will welcome that.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) and the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) in their remarks about the implications for the Royal Air Force budget of any costs involved in the slippage in the Tucano programme. I hope that the Minister will be very severe with his supplier and ensure that any slippage is kept to a minimum. Every month that the Jet Provosts continue to fly they are draining resources away from valued areas of the Air Force.
I welcome the PC9. Even if it was not successful in Royal Air Force terms, it was successful as part of the Saudi deal, which was masterminded from the United Kingdom. I was absolutely delighted with that programme and that the enormously beneficial contract has been signed despite some unhelpful remarks in the press a few months ago. That programme is vital to aerospace industries in the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy. 1017 That contract strengthens our ties with an old middle east ally and also means that we continue the connection between British Aerospace and Saudi Arabia which proved so successful with the earlier Lightning programme.
I would also like to pay a tribute to the Royal Air Force for the role that it is performing in training Saudi pilots. The Royal Air Force has adopted that role with enthusiasm, despite the inevitable impact that that will have on its own training requirements. I would particularly like to mention my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's role in securing the contract. My right hon. Friend brought the contract to fruition in the final stages. That contract is undoubtedly one of the biggest job creation programmes that has so far been undertaken and almost 50,000 jobs will be safeguarded through the winning of it.
The contract has also ensured that the production line at Warton, which had a lull between the ending of the Tornado programme and the beginning of the EFA programme, will continue at full steam. It is no accident that in the debate a year ago and in subsequent debates on the European fighter aircraft it was hon. Members NA, ho are present today who impressed on the Government the importance of proceeding with the EFA negotiations to bring them to a speedy conclusion. I congratulate all those who took part in that, but I feel that the matter could have been resolved sooner had we not spent so much time trying to get the French on board. Nevertheless, credit where credit is due—the programme has gone ahead and I was encouraged by the Minister of State's remarks about the programme.
I hope that the Minister of State will not use the Saudi order as an excuse for pushing back the EFA timing and will keep the EFA timing up to scratch to ensure an in-service date of 1995.
The EFA programme shows the benefit of collaboration. If collaboration can reduce costs and assist in the process of NATO harmonisation, that is desirable, but collaboration is not an end which must be pursued in itself. If the French are to come on board at some point in the programme, that must happen on terms that are wholly acceptable to the existing partners and not simply for the purposes of collaboration. It must be for the purposes of producing the right aircraft. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Hampson) said a year ago, collaborative programmes tend to slip but I hope this one will not.
When my hon. Friend replies to the debate, will he reassure us that we shall derive some benefit from the considerable expense placed in the Panavia and Namma programmes as the administrative arm of the Tornado operation? An enormous learning curve has been undertaken on that which would be of enormous benefit to the EFA programme if we can use the successful partnership arrived at in Panavia to reduce the costs of the EFA collaboration.
I will not weary the House with remarks about Westland. I hope that we can now move to discuss the European helicopter industry and that we will not again be placed in a position where the future of the European helicopter industry until the end of the century is decided at one meeting. That is not the right way to proceed. Now that the battle over Westland is out of the way, I hope that we can proceed rationally and remind ourselves that Westland is a British and not an American company and that it remains committed to the one collaborative programme in Europe which is going ahead—the 1018 EH101. I hope that we can build on that and ensure that Westland continues to participate in further collaboration in Europe should that come to fruition.
On AST404, I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) who made some very telling points. There is a clear need to sort out who runs these helicopter fleets. There is also a clear need for a tactical battlefield helicopter of the W30 or Black Hawk variety. I hope that neither will be ruled out as a result of the unhappy history of the past few months.
The Government's record in relation to the RAF is excellent, as is their commitment to the defence of our realm. Winding up last year's debate, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State reported that in the current year £3,500 million was being spent on RAF equipment. On all headings—defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP, total defence expenditure and per capita defence expenditure—we are second or third after the United States. That is the importance that the Government attach to the defence of our country.
It is important to point out the extent to which the United States provides part of our defence shield. Without the United States presence in Europe, in part so hotly disputed by the Greenham women and others, the British taxpayer would have to pay much more and there would be much less money for hospitals, schools and social services.
The Government's record on United Kingdom purchases is also excellent. In the past five years, 80 per cent. of requirements have been procured in the United Kingdom, 15 per cent. collaboratively and only 5 per cent. overseas. As a result of competitive tender, we have obtained the most cost effective value for money. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North, who speaks for the official Opposition today, should contrast that and Opposition statements on other matters in recent months with the Labour Government's decision when the TSR2 tactical strike reconnaissance available to the United Kingdom armed forces was cancelled in favour of a "buy American" policy. In fact, the F111 was cancelled and replaced by the Phantom, which has done sterling work. Nevertheless, that aspect must be borne in mind.
In conclusion, the reduced cost of the new basic trainer and lower oil prices mean that there is some latitude in the RAF budget. The importance of reserves to our defence capability has been mentioned. I look forward to the day when we have a parliamentary air wing in which I can participate with my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) and other Members so that we can play our full part in doing our bit for the defence of the realm. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will think seriously about the further developments that can be undertaken for the reserves.
§ Mr. Keith Best (Ynys Mon)
The pangs of hunger have driven many hon. Members from the Chamber. but those of us who remain have listened with great care to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth). I join him in his tribute to the Government's achievements for the RAF since they took office. I also echo what he said about AST404, to which I shall refer in a moment. I also endorse my hon. Friend's response to the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) who so often captures the mood of the House in these matters. 1019 I have always taken the view that one should never have military conscription for social reasons, but my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood was right to suggest that more and more hon. Members—on both sides, I suspect—are considering more deeply whether there might not be a role for conscription, if only devoted entirely to the provision of forces on the central front in Europe where they would stand alongside conscripts from other NATO nations and against conscripts from the Warsaw pact countries. That may be yet forced upon us as a result of manpower shortages. I referred to the shortage in the Royal Navy in the recent debate on that service. Reference has been made today to shortages in the RAF and we know that there are shortages in the Army to the extent, unfortunately, that we cannot man all of our own tanks.
My hon. Friend the Minister will remember that in last year's debate we crossed swords in a friendly way about the RAF basic trainer. He will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to fight old battles. I shall not mention the Firecracker, nor even the Spitfire. A number of us were aware of the 50th anniversary of the Spitfire, but it was good of the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) to mention it and to give the House the benefit of his valuable experience in these matters. I hope, however, that we shall not be reduced to redeploying the Spitfire.
I have the privilege to represent RAF Valley in my constituency where all the fast jet pilots go after completing their basic trainer course. At RAF Valley they go on to the Hawk jets. Only a month ago, I was privileged to be asked to present wings to two outgoing courses. I was particularly impressed by the quality of the young fliers there. All but two were graduates, many with degrees in aeronautical engineering or associated subjects. More in retrospect than in anticipation, I was also pleased that on the previous day I had been given the opportunity to go up in a Hawk aircraft. I am not sure that I should say this in the House, but I was allowed to take the controls for a while. It was a marvellous experience and demonstrated to me how responsive the aircraft is. My hon. Friend the Minister of State looks rather concerned. I should add that the aircraft was also flown by a qualified RAF pilot who has just spent three years with the Red Arrows and knew the aircraft extremely well. The Hawk is a super aircraft and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will say something about the arming of that aircraft and progress on airfield defence.
When one reaches forces of gravity up to 5G the pressures are very great, as I discovered. The way in which those young men perform their role with all that they have to learn in tactics and manoeuvrability and control of the aircraft with such additional pressure upon them is a remarkable tribute to the calibre of the young men now coming into the RAF.
I return briefly to a theme already raised in the debate—the use of helicopters. I make no apology for raising the matter again, although I do not believe in corroboration of the type that persuaded the white queen in "Alice in Wonderland." Nevertheless, the matter has been raised by a number of hon. Members and was discussed in depth by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin).
For about eight years I served in airborne forces under constant threat of being made redundant by the advent of 1020 the helicopter as a battlefield weapon for transporting troops rapidly from one place to another. One can now say with some justification that the demise of the importance of airborne forces largely coincided with the increased battlefield use of helicopters. My present job is to go on board NATO ships as a naval gunfire liaison officer, so most of my helicopter flying is now done with the Royal Navy. I shall say something later about the difference in attitude between the services in this respect.
It is important that we now conduct a serious investigation into the way in which helicopters are to be used by our forces and whether we have the right command structure for them. I noted with great interest what my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement said in the conclusion of the Army debate on 30 January. It was put to the Minister that one needed to overcome the problem of the split command between the RAF and the Army in the use of helicopters. He said:If we are talking about central Germany, we are talking about an air-land battle where there are problems between the services anyway in terms of command and control."—[Official Report, 30 January 1986; Vol. 90, c. 1183.]My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but surely that cannot be used as a reason for continuing to have problems between the services concerning command and control. This problem can be remedied by following the practice of every NATO country with the exception of three. Those NATO countries have decided to have all battlefield helicopters, whether for the transport of troops, anti-tank or attack under Army control. The exceptions to this practice are Canada and Norway which have all their helicopters under the command of the air force and this country which has a unique structure within NATO with the RAF responsible for helicopters which transport troops and the Army responsible for reconnaisance, anti-tank or attack helicopters. This present policy needs to be reconsidered.
I know from experience of serving in divisional headquarters of the British Army of the Rhine that there are sometimes difficulties in co-ordinating services simply because of different coloured berets within a unified divisional headquarters.
I do not wish anyone to think that my remarks about the attitude of the RAF to flying helicopters are in any way derogatory. However, often an unfavourable comparison is drawn between the RAF's attitude to flying helicopters especially in foul weather or in risky combat conditions with the attitude of the Royal Navy. Indeed the Royal Navy has stickers plastered everywhere which state: "Fly Navy". The Navy will tell hoary tales of how it is prepared to fly in all weathers when the RAF is grounded for one reason or another. That is healthy inter-service rivalry, but I question whether we should have such inter-service rivalry on the battlefield. Surely we would have enough on our hands fighting the enemy without having rivalry within our own forces.
Anyone who has seen the way in which Royal Navy helicopter pilots can take a whole commando brigade ashore in the space of two hours with supporting weapons including artillery—I had the privilege of seeing this when I served with commando forces on HMS Bulwark—cannot fail to be impressed with the attitude of the Navy pilots and the way in which they fly those helicopters. That attitude is desperately needed in western Europe. I am not suggesting that we should import Royal Navy helicopter pilots to fight our battles there, but it is 1021 the type of attitude that one wants to see in the helicopter pilots who will be responsible for attack and transport on the battlefield.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned RAF crews flying in appalling weather conditions. I hope he remembers the signal achievements of the air crews at RAF Boulmer who go out on rescue missions not only over the sea but over mountainous land areas, often in the most atrocious weather conditions. They need a high level of skill to do so.
§ Mr. Best
The hon. Gentleman need not persuade me. There is 22 Search and Rescue squadron stationed at RAF Valley. It is responsible for saving a large number of lives every year. In addition, its helicopters go out whatever the weather to save lives and rescue people from the mountains of Snowdonia. I speak of them with the highest respect, as I do the mountain rescue teams who often accompany them.
It is always difficult to raise matters without in some way being accused of trying to be derogatory of one service. I am not seeking to do that. I speak in the most laudatory terms of the way those RAF pilots operate.
In the Army debate my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart) raised the question of the division of command of helicopters on the battlefield. I shall not reiterate the points he made but effectively he was saying that there should be a unified command. But he went further and said that he would be preparedto support some transfer of funds from our tank improvement programme and our armoured personnel carrier replacement programme to make room for some extra helicopter procurement.I remind my hon. Friend the Minister of State what he said in that debate as it is important to emphasise it. He said:Recent exercise experience … and the greater emphasis on mobility as a result of the revised concept of operations for NORTHAG had led to a fundamental review of the requirements for helicopters which supports the land battle. Such a review needed to take account also of the wider requirements for support helicopters in out-of-area and amphibious roles. A new helicopter fleet is an expensive investment. We must plan on the basis of the best judgments that we can make. It has been made clear to the House before that the staff requirement has been put in abeyance and is being reconsidered."—[Official Report, 30 January 1986; Vol. 90, c. 1155–83.]
I welcome that statement by my hon. Friend the Minister because I believe it is a realistic approach to the role of helicopters on the battlefield. I endorse every word. I hope that the staff requirement which has been put in abeyance is being reconsidered in a thoughtful way. Very often in these debates quite understandably hon. Members raise constituency points and discuss the flavour of the month, whether that be Westland or EH101. Sometimes we lose track of the long-term view of what the requirements will be, bearing in mind the way that technology has changed the face of warfare and the battlefield in general.
I believe we are now in the process of a revolution in the use of helicopters as fundamental as the advent of the tank or any other major advance in modern technology which has transformed the battlefield. If I am right, we should give the maximum possible consideration to the way in which we can best equip ourselves with those helicopters that are necessary both in the anti-tank role and especially in the mobility role—the transport of troops quickly from place to place. We have seen helicopters in 1022 the attack role in Vietnam and in Afghanistan. We have seen helicopters in the anti-tank role in the near east in Lebanon and in the Arab-Israeli conflicts. In the Falklands we witnessed the need of their transport role.
We know that the current concept of mobility in the northern helicopter area group now requires that we should be able to move our troops as rapidly as possible. The case has been made out time and time again. To deal with the massed tank attacks such as we are likely to face in western Europe and to transport our troops rapidly from place to place there is an abiding role for the helicopter on the battlefield. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Ministry will take on board these matters and that we shall have a thorough review so that we ensure that our priorities for the 1990s and the turn of the century are correct.
§ Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Best) who has a great knowledge of helicopters and other Air Force matters. He will not draw me into an argument on the relative skills of the RAF and Fleet Air Arm except to say that the Fleet Air Arm appears to have the better public relations officer.
The annual debate on the RAF is usually an opportunity for the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) and me to indulge in some war-time nostalgia, and he has not let me down today with his stories of his days flying Mosquitoes. It is appropriate that this week is the 50th anniversary of the first flight of the Spitfire, and it is right that we should recall the great deeds that it achieved during the war.
My hon. Friend the Minister spoke, rightly, and at length about the efficiency and morale of the RAF which is of prime importance to us. Indeed, it is every bit as important as discussions about aircraft and technical equipment. If morale is not right, we shall get nowhere. It is good to know that the unrivalled airmanship of the RAF is as good as ever, and that it can achieve wonderful results, as shown on the Falklands air bridge, in the bombing competition in the United States, which was a remarkable achievement and deserved greater publicity than it got, in the famine relief operations in Africa, and in the exceptional work done in air, sea and mountain rescue by our helicopter squadrons.
All hon. Members who have been involved in flying realise that it requires a great deal of practice to achieve that standard of efficiency. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will assure me that there are now no restrictions on flying hours in an effort to save fuel. Our front line pilots were getting insufficient hours per month to maintain the standards that they wished.
Talk of the Spitfire leads me to the main theme of my speech which is the Royal Auxiliary Air Force reserves. The RAux.AF played an important part in winning the Battle of Britain. The skills of the pilots and ground crew then showed that a highly trained and professional cadre of reservists was effective in wartime. Certainly the RAux.AF proved its mettle during the war, and, subsequently, in peacetime. It was sad that the squadrons were disbanded in the 1950s, except for the maritime headquarters units. I am glad that the RAux.AF has returned for aerodrome defence and aircraft handling under the present Government. 1023 A year ago the possibility of an RAux.AF flying squadron in the form of a helicopter squadron was mentioned, and I hope that it may come to fruition in the foreseeable future. I also hope that the foreseeable future is getting nearer. I find it hard to bear that the Territorial Army and Fleet Air Arm reserves have helicopters while the RAF, which is mainly responsible for flying, has none. It is time that that was corrected, and we created a helicopter squadron as soon as possible.
I am glad that there is now a chance for volunteer reservists to have an opportunity to fly with squadrons. That seems to be a step in the right direction. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) said, other countries, especially the United States, train reservists to a higher standard than we do, and the civil air guard and naval reservists carry out valuable work. I do not see why we do not provide greater opportunities for our reservists.
I am glad that the RAux.AF regiment squadron, in which I am particularly involved, is working so well, and providing first-class aerodrome defence. The recruitment is good, which shows that there is scope for additional squadrons. They are extremely good value for money in terms of the duties that they are required to fulfil. They want leadership, and they are getting it. I am glad that an increasing number of auxiliary COs are commanding those squadrons. They want good food and pay, and I believe that they receive it.
I have with me a copy of the interesting House of Lords debate on 5 February. In that debate, the noble Lord Thurso spoke about the Territorial Army and, equivalently, the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. He raised the issue of deductions for benefit from Territorial Army or auxiliary airmen's earnings if members of those forces were unemployed. I do not want to go into that tonight, but it is important because at the end of the day the Government did not produce an answer, except to say that there would be more consultations.
It is wrong that if an auxiliary or Territorial Army soldier is out on service for his country he should have his benefit docked because he is receiving income from the services. We have to look at this urgently again because we have been talking about it now for a couple of years. It is the sort of pinprick decision that could be resolved quickly by the stroke of a pen by the two Secretaries of State at the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health and Social Security. I hope that my hon. Friend will reassure me that these consultations are serious and that they will soon be concluded. The matter is a little sore that has been allowed to fester for far too long.
We want to see good equipment, because it is most important to keep up the enthusiasm of all reservists. Part of that comes from having good equipment with which to train. That means good, modern radio sets and Land Rovers, which are essential to the role those branches of the services play. Reservists also need rifles and plenty of ammunition to fire off on the ranges, because that is exciting and good training. Has my hon. Friend given any further consideration to whether the auxiliary squadrons will soon be able to use the Rapier? The auxiliaries have concluded successful trials with the regular Rapier squadrons and it seemed to be satisfactory. I remind my hon. Friend that it is essential for the squadrons to have an opportunity to go to camps that have good facilities and 1024 provide good training. Those camps should offer a good change of scenery, because a visit to such camps often takes the place of a soldier's one and only holiday during the year.
§ Mr. Wilkinson
On a parliamentary visit to Belize I was thrilled and delighted to see some auxiliary personnel working with their regular Royal Air Force Regiment counterparts. They were training in a highly interesting and educative environment. Perhaps the Ministry of Defence could try to make sure that auxiliaries train abroad whenever possible.
§ Sir Hector Monro
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When I was in Belize a regular squadron from Lossiemouth was there and there was no training opportunity for any of the auxiliaries. However, the point by my hon. Friend is well made. Every few years—and I cannot expect better than that—a squadron should have the chance to go abroad, whether it is to Germany, or to Gibraltar, or to Cyprus, so that its members can get some overseas experience. In return for what I am asking of my hon. Friend, he is receiving from the Royal Air Force the service of first-class squadrons that are part of the line of battle.
I should like to put a tiny thought in the mind of my hon. Friend. I am interested in the new airfield damage repair units, but I have a word of warning. It is that, by bringing them into same area as auxiliary squadrons, we are using the same catchment area for roughly the same quality of men and women. That may make the achievement of establishment of the two units rather more difficult. We receive a great deal of help from the Territorial Army Volunteer Reserve Association for all the auxiliary squadrons. One of the Cinderellas of the Royal Air Force is the Air Training Corps and we ought to give it all the publicity, facilities, equipment and exciting opportunities at camp that we can.
The boys join the Air Training Corps because they want to fly and that opportunity must be given to them at least once a year, whether it be through glider courses or on ordinary visits to Royal Air Force stations. After all, those lads are enthusiastic enough to join the Air Training Corps because of their love of flying and from them come some of the fine young men that we heard about earlier who go to university and Cranwell.
I have been interested in the developments on the Nimrod today and the Government have probably taken the right step. After all, we have a fine aircraft in the Nimrod. It is a pity that the early warning aircraft should be scrapped when the radar and not the airframe was causing trouble. Surely in the technical age in which we pride ourselves on living in the United Kingdom we could get the radar right to put into an aircraft of first-class capabilities that have been operating so effectively all round our coast for a long time.
We have talked about the aging Shackletons and that is only too true, but they are maintained in first-class order and their crews have a great love for them, although they look forward to the day when they will transfer to the Nimrod. We should put every conceivable effort into putting the Nimrod right and not think of cancelling it because of the failure of the radar.
The Tucano has been mentioned. I shall be disappointed if it does not turn out to be the aircraft that we were promised a year or so ago. I was undoubtedly in 1025 favour of the PC9 and I was disappointed when it lost the competition. But, having accepted the Tucano, we must see it through at the right price, providing the right performance for the Royal Air Force. The sooner it goes through its paces the better.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) was right to mention the problems that face gliding in Britain. I have had a great deal of assistance from my noble Friend Lord Trefgarne in another place and I hope that my hon. Friend will bear in mind that there is an important place for gliding in Britain. It should not be unfairly restricted because operational aircraft are in the same area. There must always be room for a compromise and I hope that that will be achieved at Upper Heyford, an area that is popular for gliding in Britain.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement will accept that many detailed questions have been forthcoming from the debate. It has been highlighted by the large numbers of hon. Members who have a genuine interest in the Royal Air Force. We are here to talk about it, not to criticise it, but to show our interest in it, to wish it well and to ensure that it retains its exceptionally high standard which all of us would agree is probably the highest in the world.
§ Mr. McNamara
This has been a wide-ranging and interesting debate, as is usual on such occasions. If the dramatis personae are the same, we can usually expect the same themes to emerge. The themes this year were similar to those of last year—Nimrod. the EFA and Tornado, with a sub plot made up of the Tucano, Westland and SDI. [Interruption.] Some of my hon. Friends seem to think that the speeches today were the same as last year and the year before. I speak not for myself but for my party. However, some of the points were still as relevant and important as those that were made last time.
Let me begin by referring to the gliding controversy at Upper Heyford. Lord Trefgarne sent me a letter about the matter today, and I shall not weary the House with the details. But in what he said there seemed to be an area for compromise and understanding, so that those who are interested in the sport could take the discussion a stage further. That is to be welcomed. There may indeed be a need for some sort of restrictions. It may be that the US air force is in the wrong place. Therefore, this must be dealt with at some time or another. However, from what has been said today, and from what Lord Trefgarne has said, it now seems that the first rash drawing of an enormous area on a map has now been somewhat restricted, and there appears to be room for compromise.
The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) made a moving speech when he gave us an account of the campaign over section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act. He made a very powerful case indeed. We must cast our minds back to the passage of that Act, and realise what a revolutionary reform it was at the time. For the first time the Crown became liable for torts and other matters in respect of which it had previously been able to excuse itself on the ground of royal prerogative.
NHS hospitals were also placed in the same position, as were Government Departments that were exempt from planning restrictions. These were all necessary compromises that were made at the time, simply because we were entering new territory and developing a fundamental 1026 reform. We have now reached the stage where the whole matter must be carefully re-examined. The Opposition tried to raise the matter in relation to Army, Royal Air Force and Navy discipline when we debated the Armed Forces Bill, and we hoped to raise it in the Select Committee. Unfortunately, the advice of the Clerk was that, although it involved discipline, it did not come under the specific Acts that we were seeking to amend and, therefore, it could not be raised.
The hon. Member for Newbury paid a fine tribute to my right hon Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley). However, the time that the Department has spent discussing this matter should be coming to an end, and it should be coming before the House with proposals, given that the subject is causing grave concern. The examples that have been cited today, and those that we have received in correspondence, also point to the fact that there is grave cause for concern.
The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) spoke of Westland, and the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Best) filled in the bits that his hon. Friend omitted. The most interesting part of the speech of the hon. Member for Ynys Môn was the fact that, he had been at the controls of the Hawk trainer. The Opposition did not know whether to welcome that or to shudder at it, because while we might welcome a by-election in that constituency, we would not be certain about whether that should be at the expense of a Hawk trainer—[Interruption.] I have just assassinated the hon. Member for Ynys Môn in his absence and I trust that he will forgive me.
As for Tucano, I take the point that, now the RAF has got it, we must make the best of it. But we must realise that there are formidable problems to be overcome. We believe that it was the wrong decision, and that is generally accepted on nearly all sides of the House, except the Treasury Bench. The decision has been made, but we want to see proper examination of the faults, if only to show the RAF that we have an interest in the safety of our pilots when they are being trained. I should have thought that that was pretty fundamental.
My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) raised several important matters concerning the strategic defence initiative. It is relevant and important to our industry and technologies. These are matters on which the Government are extremely vulnerable when refusing to answer legitimate questions. If we were on the other side of the Atlantic, such questions would be freely asked and answered before select committees of either House. It is quite surprising that, in about a year, when the Congressional hearings are published, we shall probably be able to get the answers to all of these questions. That has happened in the past regarding commitments about nuclear weaponry.
The Government have a great deal to gain by being frank with the House about what they agree with foreign countries and about the content of agreements and contracts. If the greatest capitalist country in the world—the United States—is not afraid of releasing its commercial secrets and saying how much it is paying and the circumstances in which it pays for its defence materials and weapons systems, I see no reason why we should be so secretive.
Nimrod has excited the House today. It was generally accepted that the Secretary of State has been prepared to grasp the nettle and come to conclusions. I hope that we 1027 have had an educative effect on elements of the press and other hon. Members who have not been present today about the importance to our industrial base and to the future of our defence and civil industries of this range of technology. What the Minister said about the agreement reached by the Secretary of State and the company contains the seeds of progress for a decision that will benefit the House, the firm, the country and the RAF. I wonder who are the people in the RAF who are going around saying that they do not, and never did, want Nimrod.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) gave us some of the history in which he played such a notable part and drew attention to the extent to which the technology has changed. It has been advanced and developed by the Nimrod system. Much of what we now take for granted was on the drawing board when my hon. Friend first made the decision and counselled our going ahead with the project. Much of the project had not been finalised by the air staff in its search for the required performance.
There has been general agreement about how we shall proceed with the European fighter aircraft. Because we now have various Tornado contracts, the time for fixing, arranging and ensuring that the EFA is flying should not be allowed to slip. That is of fundamental importance to the firm and to the project. Slippage means money, and it is an extremely expensive project, even when spread among the four principal countries and others with an input.
Because there is competition in the avionics industry here, it is sometimes felt that the industry does not get the support afforded to our foreign competitors. The United States has the present state-of-the-art and it is feared that, if it were to come in on the EFA's avionics, it would be a grave blow to our industry. The Secretary of State must take that into consideration when he advances his criteria for examining defence contracts.
On the matter of Tornado, the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) seemed to think that I was carping in my criticism. I am delighted that the Saudis have purchased four Tornados and the PC9. I am glad that we are selling the Tornado to Oman. I hope that we can find other ways of selling it. But that matter is of no concern to me. I like to see our technology being appreciated throughout the world, but the point that we are making is that the decision of the Saudis could not have come at a better time to get the Government off the hook with their tremendous problems in financing their budget. Selling Tornado off the shelf to the Saudis meant that the money did not have to come from the Treasury to the company. Eventually, it will, but that has been postponed to a certain extent. The purchase came in a way that saved the Government's embarrassment about the problems they were facing then and are still facing. It met the lull at Warton by achieving a continuous supply of work there until EFA comes on stream. If that had not been the case, the Government and British Aerospace should have been establishing a new line for Tornado and taking more people on, but they did not do so because they realised that the hole had been plugged.
§ Mr. Robert Atkins
The hon. Gentleman is being less than fair about the enormous amount of work done by the 1028 Government, the company and Panavia to ensure that the contract, which was budgeted for by Panavia, came to fruition. It was expected and was part of the line that is now continuing. It is less than fair to say that embarrassment was saved by the contract when it was anticipated.
§ Mr. McNamara
The degree of anticipation was tempered by who would be granted the communications contract—Ptarmigan or the French. We were helped along by the United States Government as compensation for not getting the battlefield communications contract. The hon. Gentleman must be careful. I do not deny the effort of the company and the Government to get the contract. One would assume that any Government would operate in the same way.
I wish to discuss the comments of the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), but not his general thesis that we should reintroduce conscription, which we do not accept. However, we should have strong reserves and we should encourage those who want to join the reserves to do so. I have sympathy with the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) about the problems associated with members of the reserves who find themselves on social security and supplementary benefit.
In his speech the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood drew attention to the consequences of the Government's policy and to what the Secretary of State said in answers to questions. The Secretary of State said that he was considering our commitments in terms not of cancellation, but of the financial consequences of current strategy. He said that a defence review would not be carried out, although consideration of financial consequences appears to me to be a defence review anyway. He outlined our commitments: Trident, NATO, the Brussels treaty, the east Atlantic and the Channel, air defence of the United Kingdom and central front, out-of-area commitments and the counter-terrorist activities in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood believes that because of those commitments we need conscription. I am unsure as to how one can maintain those commitments with the present scale of the Secretary of State's dilemma. They are all strong commitments. They are all fundamental to the Government's strategy.
Although we should examine carefully our out-of-area commitments, there is no question but that the Opposition would support our commitment to NATO, air defence and our need to defeat terrorism in Northern Ireland. But the Government cannot have our support on Trident. The Government cannot cover those seven major commitments on their present budget, and it will decrease in coming years. It is impossible for them to maintain the most sophisticated and expensive weapons systems.
No amount of small savings—of the Secretary of State introducing his new criteria for contracts, or introducing some of the business methods of the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine)—will alter the Government's dilemma. They cannot maintain the services that they need—they cannot maintain the RAF that they need—while they maintain the commitment to Trident. One need only consider the expense of some RAF equipment, including the Tornado and the EFA, to know that the budget will not sustain all those demands.
We must get rid of Trident and the independent nuclear deterrent, not for any doctrinaire reason, but because we believe in the safety of Britain and in maintaining a proper 1029 conventional defence. If we do not, the weapon of last resort will become the weapon of first resort because we cannot afford to buy the weapons of first resort.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. John Lee)
As is inevitable, the debate has focused on individual issues and aspects of the Royal Air Force programme. However, it is important not to lose sight of the total contribution which the Royal Air Force makes to the defence of the nation. I agree with what the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said about the lack of interest displayed by so many hon. Members in our separate service debates. I do not wish to be excessively partisan about the point, but, with some honourable exceptions, the attendance of Opposition Members in such separate service debates is not substantial. Nor is it from the alliance, although the speech of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) was much appreciated and put across in quieter form than the more Ramboesque performance that we normally get from the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown).
§ Mr. Lee
One cannot say that from the Dispatch Box, can one, Mr. Speaker?
It would also be appreciated if defence correspondents took more interest in our separate service debates.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State described the major equipment programmes that are coming to fruition. It would be useful for me to describe how the capabilities which the equipment represents are deployed. In the United Kingdom, our air defence forces of Phantom and Lightning aircraft will be progressively replaced by the air defence marks of Tornado—the F2 and F3—during the next few years. When the process is complete, we shall have seven operational F2 and F3 squadrons and two Phantom squadrons. In parallel with that substantial improvement in our fighter force, we have in progress a major programme of improvements to the chain of radars and command facilities known as the United Kingdom air defence ground equipment. I am happy to draw this to the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins), but I must emphasise that the programme is a rolling one and will continue for the rest of the decade and beyond. It is on target.
May I also deal with the point raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) and Ynys Mô(Mr. Best) about Hawk. I am happy to confirm that the conversion of Hawk to an air defence role is complete. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) that there are no restrictions on flying hours.
Our strike, ground attack and reconnaissance forces in the United Kingdom include three operational squadrons of the Tornado GR1 strike attack aircraft, and squadrons of Jaguars, Harriers and, in the maritime role, Buccaneer. The training units of all those aircraft are based in the United Kingdom. Most have wartime roles.
Our extensive Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft are based at Kinloss, Lossiemouth and St. Mawgan and the operational forces in the United Kingdom also include our tanker and transport forces —TriStar, VC10s, Victors and Hercules—as well as the Chinook, Sea King, Puma and Wessex helicopters in the support and rescue roles.
1030 Our strike attack force in RAF Germany now includes six Tornado GR1 squadrons. In Germany, the Tornado has replaced the Buccaneer and, more recently, the Jaguar. The Jaguar, however, will remain in the reconnaissance role in RAF Germany until it is replaced in due course by the Tornado reconnaissance aircraft.
In the ground attack role, there are two squadrons of Harriers with their unique capability for off-base deployments. That capability will be substantially enhanced when the new Harrier GR5 aircraft enters service later in the decade. I shall refer to that later. Our forces in Germany also include Phantom fighters and Chinook and Puma support helicopters.
In other parts of the world, RAF deployments include detachments of Phantoms in the Falklands, Harriers and helicopters in Belize, and other units in Ascension Island, Cyprus, Gibraltar and Hong Kong.
All told, that is an impressive list of deployments. Even so, it omits important elements of the RAF's capability, for example, the RAF Regiment and commmunications units. I hope that I have said enough, however, to convince the House that, despite the problems it faces, which we have discussed this evening, the RAF remains an effective fighting force with a remarkable range of capabilities and a professionalism to which my hon. Friend the Minister paid tribute in his opening speech.
§ Mr. Dalyell
I asked four specific questions about Fylingdales. Will the Minister say whether the control is to be by America or the United Kingdom? Who will be responsible for the vetting at Fylingdales from now on?
§ Mr. Lee
The hon. Gentleman asked some detailed questions. I was coming to his contribution a little later. I was coming to the subject of Fylingdales and the detailed points that he mentioned about the strategic defence initiative. I undertake carefully to consider what he said and return to him with a detailed reply. I acknowledge receipt of his letter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the points he made in the Navy debate.
I should like to pay tribute to the interesting speech made by hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) about conscription. It has been commented upon by a number of hon. Members. We all heard what he said about conscription, but I must make it clear that the Government have no plans to introduce conscription.
The hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and for Eccles, (Mr. Carter-Jones) arid my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) referred to the EFA project. It represents a major milestone in European defence industrial collaboration bringing tangible economic and military benefits. It should serve as an example for the collaborative procurement of equipment required for the armed forces of NATO member countries and continue the pattern of much greater standardisation and interoperability within the Alliance set by the Tornado programme.
There is a strong political will in Europe that EFA should succeed. We shall continue to play our full part in the process of striving for a cost-effective collaborative programme based on fair and equitable terms for all partners.
For the development phase it has been agreed that the United Kingdom will receive 33 per cent. of the work. For production, work shares will be based on the number of 1031 aircraft committed by each nation. To answer the point mentioned by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North, the project management will be Munich based.
British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce are in the lead for the United Kingdom but the equipment companies would be involved to a great extent in a programme of such a scale and complexity as EFA.
§ Mr. Robert Atkins
Does my hon. Friend recognise that it is the view of the British aerospace industry that there is a need for an urgent meeting between the Defence Ministers of the participating countries to try to resolve some of the relatively small but none the less important difficulties in the development of the project?
§ Mr. Wilkinson
Could not the European fighter aircraft be another project for Panavia to manage—of course in this case plus Spain—so that we could develop a family of military aircraft in the way that the airbus consortium is successfully developing a family of civil aircraft?
§ Mr. Lee
That is one option. As for the French withdrawal from EFA, the United Kingdom and her partners tried very hard indeed to match their differing requirements in one aircraft design. It was a great pity when France decided that its requirement for a smaller, lighter aircraft made it impossible for it to join in the preparation for the project definition phase. The United Kingdom is, however, paying close attention to President Mitterrand's suggestion that reciprocal collaboration between EFA and the French national project—Rafale—be sought. The French Government and the EFA partners are currently discussing the possibilities.
The experimental aircraft programme will demonstrate the integration of technologies needed for any new, sophisticated combat aircraft; the lessons learned from it will have application to many aspects of modern combat aircraft such as EFA. Work is proceeding on schedule, as originally planned, towards the first flight at the end of May 1986.
I confirm once again that it is the intention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to go to Warton to see the roll-out of the experimental aircraft programme and to view the other fine facilities there. If we were unaware of them, we should be continuously reminded of them by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble. Many hon. Members are looking forward to the first flight of the EAP, which we hope will take place at Farnborough in September 1986.
Almost every hon. Member has referred to the Nimrod AEW, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell). I noted that my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) came into the Chamber to listen to that part of the debate because of his substantial constituency interest in the Nimrod programme. However, Nimrod was mentioned by virtually every speaker.
As for the details of the arrangements that have been made with GEC Avionics, there is nothing that I can 1032 usefully add to the full account that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement gave the House when he opened the debate.
As for the other options that we shall be examining, whether from home or from other suppliers, we shall be making available a cardinal points specification request for tender documents to any United States or European company, or consortium of companies, that is interested in bidding. We shall also be consulting the NATO military authorities. I should explain to the hon. Member for Linlithgow that the reason for doing this is that the Nimrod AEW is our contribution, however theoretical at present, to the NATO AEW force. Our interest, in overseas terms, will obviously centre on the Boeing AWACS, the Grumann Hawkeye and the Lockheed Orion.
Some hon. Members are unhappy about the fact that the Government are contemplating American alternatives to the Nimrod AEW programme. They must not prejudge the decision that the Government will be taking later in the year. We shall have fully in mind the kind of considerations to which hon. Members have drawn attention. However, they must remember that we are talking about providing for vital national and NATO defence interests. We do not yet know whether the proposals to be put to us by GEC Avionics within the next six months will meet the needs of the Royal Air Force to an acceptable cost and time scale. It would be wrong if in the meantime we were not examining other means of securing, from either British or foreign suppliers, those vital interests.
Other hon. Members raised various issues connected with the history of the Nimrod project. I have said before in the House that this is a history of which neither we nor the industry can be proud. Today, however, I want to look forward rather than backwards. GEC Avionics has shown its commitment to, and its confidence in, its ability to complete the project satisfactorily. The Government are very anxious that GEC and its employees should have every chance to demonstrate that in the coming months.
Tornado was mentioned by a substantial number of hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Minister of State said that all nine Tornado GR1 squadrons in the strike attack role have now been formed. Deployment will be completed later this year. A further two squadrons equipped for the reconnaissance role will be formed over the next few years. In the air defence role, a total of seven squadrons will eventually be formed. Instructor training at the operational conversion unit at Coningsby has commenced. Eight Tornado GR1 squadrons will be based in Germany and three in the United Kingdom. All seven squadrons of the air defence variant will be based in the United Kingdom.
The Tornado GR1 is capable of the highest levels of performance in the counter-air, interdiction, offensive air support and reconnaissance roles. The aircraft can exceed 800 knots at sea level and twice the speed of sound at high level. Depending on mission, the GR1 can operate at ranges of up to 750 miles, although this can be extended by air-to-air refuelling. The GR1 is capable of operating at night and in all weathers with its ability to penetrate enemy air defence at low levels and at high speed combined with its highly accurate bombing potential, making it a major improvement in the RAF's offensive capability. Its extensive fit of armaments includes 27 mm cannons, Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, bombs and the JP233 cratering and area denial weapon. They will all be 1033 introduced. The Skyshadow electronic counter-measures pod enhances self-protection and it is also planned to fit air-launched, anti-radiation missiles—ALARM—for defence suppression in 1987.
Since the Tornado GR1 first entered service in RAF operational conversion units, seven aircraft have been lost, with, sadly, the loss of four lives. But I would ask the House to look at this record in its proper perspective. Accident rates for new aircraft during the early stages of their operational life tend to be higher than those which have been in service for some time. There is nothing unusual in the accident rate for the Tornado, which is similar to aircraft such as the Buccaneer and Jaguar at the same stage in their introduction into operational service.
We are procuring 165 Tornado ADV, including three prototypes. to equip seven front-line squadrons. The aircraft will initially carry four Skyflash medium-range air-to-air missiles and two Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missiles. It is now being modified to carry four Sidewinders. We plan to replace those missiles with advanced weapons in due course, and we are studying the feasibility of increasing the weapon load at the same time.
I can assure the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North that all aircraft in operational squadrons will be fitted with Foxhunter when they are operational. [Interruption.] The clapping behind reminds me that my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble asked about the attrition buy of Tornados. As he rightly said, we are negotiating for the purchase of nine additional GR1 aircraft. The House will be aware that we lose a certain number of aircraft on peacetime operations. Nine additional aircraft will help to offset those losses and maintain the strength of the Tornado GR1 force. The requirement for further aircraft will be considered as necessary and in the light of the resources available.
I now want to deal with our helicopter requirements. The Minister of State and I took particularly into account the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) on the wider ranging use of helicopters. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) also talked about that, as did the hon. Member for Eccles, the hon. Member for Linlithgow, and my hon. Friends the Members for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) and for Ynys Môn. We were extremely interested in the feelings of the House about the wider role and increasing importance of helicopters.
In all the discussions surrounding the future of Westland, it is all too easy to lose sight of the military helicopter programmes with which we are concerned. I propose therefore to describe those programmes briefly, and the nature of the service requirements to which they relate.
In European collaboration, there are three major military helicopter programmes in which the United Kingdom is involved. The Anglo-Italian EH101 programme is now well into its full development stage, and the helicopter will enter service with the Royal Navy in the early 1990s. We expect to place the first production orders in about three years' time. Secondly, we have been negotiating on the light attack helicopter for some time with Italy and the Netherlands for the development of the existing Al29 helicopter. A feasibility study is planned to begin this year.
In parallel, the French and Germans have had their own collaborative programme for an attack helicopter, the PAH2. We remain willing to discuss the possibility of 1034 establishing a single combined European attack helicopter programme if the other nations are willing. The third collaborative programme is the NH90—a tactical transport and anti-submarine helicopter—for the mid to late 1990s. The United Kingdom is participating with France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands in feasibility studies which we expect will be complete this year. None of the participating nations is yet committed to development or policy for future airmobile operations before firmly established requirements can be produced for future support helicopters.
I now turn to the military requirements to which those helicopters relate. There are firmly established Navy and Army requirements for EH101 and the light attack helicopter respectively. The position on the requirement for future support helicopters is, however, rather more complicated. The original staff target for a replacement for the Wessex and Puma, AST404, was placed in abeyance last year when the Army decided, in the light of experience in a number of trials and exercises, including Exercise Lionheart, that it needed to review its requirements for helicopter support. That review has been in progress for some time, and it has become apparent that the defence staff needs to reconsider its whole approach on light support helicopters and on the larger medium support helicopter, for which the procurement options would include EH101 or an additional purchase of Chinook helicopters.
This is a major task, and it is unlikely that we shall be in a position to announce decisions on the way forward until the early part of next year. In the meantime, it is not possible to say what form any future requirement might take, or whether it will prove to be of sufficient priority to find a place in our forward programme. It is already clear, however, that one of the major issues for consideration is the size of helicopter required. The defence staff will be considering possible requirements for the smaller light support helicopter, for which the NH90 and helicopters such as B1ack Hawk would be possible contenders.
These actual and potential new helicopter programmes and the support of existing types in service provide a clear sign that my Department will be a major customer of the United Kingdom helicopter industry for as far into the future as we can foresee. Support of our current helicopter, for example, is worth about £60 million per year. That business will of course continue. In addition, orders for Sea King and Lynx to the value of £40 million were placed last year. The Ministry of Defence and Westland have worked closely and successfully together for many years now, and I am sure that the close working relationship will continue.
§ Mr. Carter-Jones
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify a point? If somebody produces an air staff target, is it not assumed that it is the considered opinion of the air staff that that is what it wants and requires? If a company then produces a model to fit that requirement, is it not reasonable for it to expect that it will get the orders?
§ Mr. Best
Can my hon. Friend confirm that the only review necessary is a review of how much more is needed, because that is the only feasible way in which it can move? Secondly, is he telling the House that these matters have not been fully canvassed and there have not been reviews, discussions and submissions made as to the requirements? Are we really starting de novo?
§ Mr. Lee
I can understand the unhappiness of the House, but we are talking about an evolving threat and the wider role that my hon. Friend and many hon. Members were asking from us. That is the dilemma that the staffs are examining.
It is also worth mentioning that, throughout Westland's period of difficulties, the Government have continued to do everything possible to promote the sale of Westland products overseas. I was discussing a possible sale in Malaysia last week, and I was involved in discussions in Zimbabwe last year.
From the point of view of the services, as indeed of the country as a whole, our concern must now be to wish Westland well in its reconstruction. Westland remains the only British helicopter development and manufacturing company, and the principal supplier of helicopters to our Armed Forces. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made absolutely clear, we shall be doing all that we can to ensure that Westland's position and capabilities continue to be recognised fully in the international market place.
§ Mr. McNamara
The hon. Member will recall that I spoke earlier about Westland and the six undisclosed shareholders. Can he now answer the question put in the Select Committee on Defence this morning? If the six undisclosed shareholders are revealed to be friends of Sikorsky, and were acting in collaboration with it, does Sikorsky then have to make a takeover bid?
§ Mr. Wallace
A number of hon. Members in this debate, and indeed in the debate on the Army, raised the question of helicopters and the divided service operation of helicopters. Can the Minister say whether his Department has considered that and whether it intends to review the position with a view to one service operating helicopters?
§ Mr. Lee
The whole area of the future requirements for helicopters is being examined at present; the hon. Gentleman's point is being taken into account.
The question of the trainer was raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Tayside, North and for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) and by the hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull, North and for Eccles. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn for telling the House that he would not refer to Firecracker this evening. I hope that he will not take us through his points in favour of fluoride.
The decisive factor in our choice of the Tucano over the BAe PC9 was cost. Both aircraft were judged capable of meeting the RAF's requirements very satisfactorily, and both held out prospects of creating similar numbers of jobs in the United Kingdom. The offer from Shorts was cheaper 1036 by a clear margin than the BAe tender, and the Pratt and Whitney PT6A-62 engine was judged to be more expensive to operate than the Garrett engine which is to power the Tucano.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood said, the Tucano has completed six hours of test flying, involving a full evaluation of the basic flying and handling characteristics. The test pilots are delighted with the aircraft's performance. I hope to visit Brazil at the end of April and to visit Embraer to see the progress that is being made.
The delay in the programme is primarily due to Shorts experiencing difficulties in recruiting experienced staff and the company has only recently resolved an industrial dispute. We are satisfied that the delay does not imply any technical problems in the programme. The slippage will not lead to any additional costs to the Ministry of Defence. The delay is in fact to be for a few months duration. It will certainly not be anything like two years which, with the greatest respect, was a gross exaggeration by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North.
It was a pleasure to hear the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson). I will inevitably deal with a number of his points later. However, in terms of the name, I must say that I am sorry to disappoint him—he does not deserve this after the speech that he made—but we intend that the trainer should be called the Tucano trainer.
In answer to a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North, I have been to see the Trago Mills trainer in action and it is very impressive. The Buccaneer has been eagerly awaited by certain hon. Members. In the maritime strike attack role, the Buccaneer's capability for low-level attack on enemy ships is being improved by the introduction into service later this year of the Sea Eagle anti-surface ship missile. The Buccaneer can also be armed with laser-guided bombs.
Buccaneers will be maintained in the maritime strike attack role well into the next decade. It is planned to run-on two squadrons of Buccaneer aircraft in the maritime strike attack role into the 1990s. The avionics update is currently taking place on no fewer than 42 Buccaneers.
All five of RAF Germany's Jaguar squadrons will be replaced by the more capable and advanced Tornado GR1. The aircraft withdrawn from Germany will be absorbed into the force that we intend to run-on in the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North raised the question of identification friend or foe. I am happy to say that the protracted discussions in NATO on the new system have now resulted in agreement on a common standard following the recent agreement in NATO on the standard of future IFF equipment. We are taking steps to implement the next stage of our programme. We expect to be in a position to reach decisions on the way forward shortly.
The RAF Regiment was mentioned by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) and my hon. Friends the Members for Tayside, North and for Dumfries. The likelihood of an attack on our airfields in wartime is high and a wide variety of measures have been taken to ensure survivability and the continuance of air operations. These include the hardening of aircraft and personnel shelters and the base installations. Furthermore, 1037 a Royal Engineers squadron is provided for each RAF Germany airfield for rapid runway repair and the maintenance of essential services.
RAF Germany's four airfields are defended from air attack by Rapier surface-to-air missiles supported by Blindfire radar, and ground defence is provided by the 300 officers and 2,500 men of the RAF Regiment.
The regiment's main roles are ground defence and low-level air defence of RAF installations. Most bases have a small regiment staff to train their RAF personnel in the basic skills of ground defence. The more demanding defence tasks are carried out by six regular light armoured squadrons and six auxiliary field squadrons. The low-level air defence tasks are carried out by six regular Rapier-equipped squadrons and by one auxiliary squadron equipped with the Skyguard system captured during the Falklands campaign. There are plans to increase the auxiliary force to 21 squadrons over the next decade.
The regiment also provides three Rapier squadrons in the United Kingdom for the United States air force. This programme is funded by the United States. Current regiment detachments include a Rapier squadron in the Falklands, half a Rapier squadron in Belize and a light armoured squadron in Northern Ireland.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.