§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kirkhope.]
§ [Relevant documents: Thirteenth report from the Defence Committee on "Improved United Kingdom Air Defence Ground Environment," HC 591 of Session 1989–90, the first special report containing the Government's reply thereto, HC 288 of Session 1990–91, and the minutes of evidence taken, and memoranda laid, before the Committee on 24 April 1991, relating to "Options for Change: RAF," HC 393, copies of which have been placed in the Library.]4.27 pm
§ The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Alan Clark)
When I opened the Royal Air Force debate last year I drew attention to the major changes then under way in eastern Europe. Much has happened since. We have seen the unification of Germany and the signature of the agreement on conventional forces in Europe. Both are far-reaching developments.
In general, there has been a continued consolidation of the movement towards democracy in the old Warsaw treaty nations, and, while they still face an uncertain future, the lessening of tension across the continent has brought undoubted benefits to East and West alike.
However, hardly had the apparatus of Communism begun to fall apart in Europe than a new threat to freedom and world stability emerged in the middle east. The cynical invasion of Kuwait by Iraq last August and the atrocities committed on the Kuwaiti population demonstrate all too vividly the need to remain vigilant in defending civilised values.
The RAF has been intimately affected by these developments. In the very process of restructuring in the light of the changed security situation in Europe it found itself closely and directly deployed in the liberation of Kuwait. Now it is assisting in the international effort to provide vital humanitarian aid to the Kurds in northern Iraq.
These past 12 months have been particularly challenging for the RAF and, characteristically, it has responded with professionalism, commitment and success. In the critical early days following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, air power was immediately available to us to deploy to the Gulf in time to help deter further Iraqi aggression. We declared on 9 August our intention to send forces to the area in response to a request from King Fand. Within 48 hours, a squadron of Tornado F3 fighters was in the Gulf and operational at Dhahran air base in Saudi Arabia. Just two hours after arriving, two of these aircraft were airborne on an operational mission. Within the next 48 hours a squadron of Jaguar ground attack aircraft was in place in southern Oman. These deployments were rapidly followed by Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft, air-to-air refuelling assets and other front-line units.
Within days of the order being given, the Royal Air Force had deployed a powerful military force, with the necessary support, at a distance of over 3,000 miles from its main bases. Following the initial deployments, we decided in September to increase our military commitment. In addition to dispatching the 7th Armoured Brigade, we deployed a squadron of Tornado GR 1 aircraft to Bahrain, and more Tornado F3 fighters were sent to Saudi Arabia.
451 In November, the allied military presence was strengthened still further. The British Army contribution was strengthened to reinforced divisional strength. For the Royal Air Force, this meant deploying more Tornado GR1s, including some equipped with the air-launched anti-radiation missile for the suppression of enemy air defence radars. Chinook and Puma support helicopters were deployed to operate alongside British land forces for casualty evacuation and logistic support, and further RAF Regiment personnel to provide ground and air defence for the RAF detachments.
The RAF's response to the crisis was not confined to regular forces. Reserve forces also played a vital role. The Royal Auxiliary Air Force provided aeromedical evacuation and air movement units, and the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve provided support in the areas of intelligence and meteorological services.
From midnight on Wednesday 16 January, RAF Tornado GR1 aircraft were heavily involved in the first wave of attacks on Iraqi airfields. In the first 24 hours of operations, RAF aircraft flew a total of 101 sorties—an intensity of activity that was sustained throughout much of the early period of the conflict.
Those days saw the early attainment of air superiority, which rapidly became air supremacy, with the effective neutralisation of the Iraqi air force. This allowed attacks to be switched from low to medium level.
§ Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)
is my right hon. Friend aware that, during some the early Tornado attacks, a number of crew baled out and were taken prisoner? Some were tortured and were paraded on world television. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those were horrendous crimes and that the perpetrators should be brought to justice?
§ Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)
Can my right hon. Friend give the House any further information about the campaign medal that is to be given to our Gulf service men? Can he assure us that it will be not yet another general service medal but a special medal to mark the valour of all our sevice men?
§ Mr. Clark
Plainly, there will be such a medal. I hope that my hon. Friend will be satisfied to hear that an announcement will be made shortly.
Great care was taken in planning attacks to reduce to the absolute minimum the risk of civilian casualties. To this end, extensive use was made of laser designation and precision guided weapons. All these proved to be among the most effective weapons of the air campaign.
The relative shortness of the land battle, when hostilities finally opened, owes much to the lengthy and highly successful air campaign, which severely reduced both the enemy's will and its capacity to fight. During hostilities, Tornado aircraft were employed against key strategic targets, such as airfields and bridges, while Jaguars flew high sortie rates—without loss—against targets mainly in the battlefield area. I am sure that the whole House will wish to pay tribute to the special courage 452 displayed by our airmen in performing the uniquely difficult tasks presented by having to fly attack missions at low level.
While much has been said and written about the role of the attack aircraft, I should like to say a few words about the less glamorous and sometimes forgotten elements of the force. Modern fighters and fighter bombers have great tactical and operational flexibility, but they lack range. If they are to deploy to distant theatres such as the Gulf, and operate at long range when there, they need the support of tanker aircraft. They also need transport aircraft to move the personnel, ground equipment and weapons that are essential to support high-intensity operations.
During hostilities, the RAF tanker force offloaded some 13,000 tonnes of fuel, while air transport aircraft flew a total of 13 million miles to move some 50,000 tonnes of freight. In addition, Nimrods provided important maritime surveillance through daily patrols in the northern Gulf throughout the period of hostilities.
Our aircraft were originally configured for operation in northern Europe; they needed additional or modified equipment to improve their effectiveness in the harsh desert environment. Navigation enhancements were made to cope with the featureless desert terrain; engines required protection from the effects of sand. Identification and communication systems were provided to ensure that RAF aircraft could operate effectively alongside those of our allies. The support that we received from industry was first-class, with many firms, large and small alike, working long hours of overtime—some of it over the Christmas holiday—to produce and incorporate the many aircraft modifications and new equipments that we required.
The right equipment is essential; but ultimately it is the people who operate it who make the difference between success and failure. I have mentioned the role of the support personnel, and I should now like to pay a tribute to the aircrew, whose outstanding courage, good humour and determination to see the job through deserves the highest praise. They were an inspiration to their fellow service men and women in the RAF, and, I believe, to the nation as a whole.
Thankfully, the cost of the operation in terms of lives lost was small, but that cannot lessen the loss for the families of the five airmen who were killed on operational missions. Those families, I know, have the deepest sympathy of the whole House as they seek to come to terms with the loss of their loved ones.
§ Keith Mans (Wyre)
My right hon. Friend mentioned the right weapons. Has any assessment been made of the runway denial weapon, the JP233? Does he feel that there is a need for a stand-off weapon capability for the Tornado when it is attacking airfields?
§ Mr. Clark
I do not wish to isolate any particular weapon system used in the conflict. We are undertaking a full and detailed assessment and analysis of every aspect of the functioning of such weapon systems. My hon. Friend has drawn attention to a primary system, which we shall have to consider carefully, but I do not wish to deal with it outside the broader context; I think that it is always better to consider the performance of all the systems in relation to one another and in relation to the outcome of 453 the campaign. As I am sure my hon. Friend and the House will understand, I think that it would be premature to comment specifically about individual systems.
As the refugee crisis in Iraq developed, it became increasingly clear that aircraft were the only practicable way of moving relief supplies rapidly to the areas of real need. Late on 5 April, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced that United Kingdom aircraft would play a full part in relief operations. Three Hercules aircraft departed for Incirlik air base in Turkey early on 7 April, carrying tents, blankets, sheeting, food and sleeping bags. The first United Kingdom air drops into Iraq were carried out on the following morning.
Since then, often in quite appalling conditions, Royal Air Force Hercules have transported about 500 tons of relief supplies to otherwise inaccessible areas. Now that the refugees have started to come down from the mountains, and given the sheer volume of relief support which has been contributed by British, United States, Italian, Canadian and French aircraft, we hope that it will soon be possible to bring that part of the operation to an end. However, the task of the RAF Chinook and other Royal Navy and Army helicopters will continue.
The first RAF Chinook helicopters arrived in Turkey from the United Kingdom on 13 April. Others, en route home from the Gulf, were turned around in remarkably quick time to join them shortly afterwards. The Chinooks are now flying from forward operating bases close to the Turkey-Iraq border, taking supplies forward and evacuating sick and injured refugees.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
Will my hon. Friend clarify whether the cost of the relief operation for Kurdish refugees will be borne by the defence or the overseas aid budget?
§ Mr. Clark
The cost of the supplies is being met from the overseas aid budget by the Overseas Development Administration and the Foreign Office vote, but the Ministry of Defence will be meeting many of the operational costs, and my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Defence and the Chancellor will be discussing the exact allocation and its impact on our budget in the fulness of time when the operation is concluded.
I referred earlier to the changes in Europe and their implications for the RAF. We welcome the close interest being taken by the Select Committee on Defence in this matter. The House will be aware that attention has been drawn to the Committee's most recent contribution in the context of this debate.
The House will be familiar with the "Options for Change" proposals announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last July. The expected break-up of the Warsaw pact as a military body is now confirmed, and that has to be a major factor in our thinking about future European security.
A graphic illustration of the recent reduction in East-West tension is the fact that the chief of the air staff was allowed to fly the Soviet Flanker aircraft which visited Farnborough last year. I have read his report on that experience, and very entertaining and impressive it was. However, on arms control, progress has been somewhat patchy. The conventional forces in Europe agreement is 454 welcome and marks real progress, but we have continuing concerns about Soviet forces east of the Urals and the resubordination of army units to the Soviet navy.
Under "Options for Change", our aim is to restructure the RAF into a balanced force equipped to meet the needs of the 1990s and beyond. Hon. Members will recall the detailed changes to the RAF front line foreshadowed in the July statement by my right hon. Friend. Those included withdrawing from service the Phantom air defence aircraft, reducing the number of Tornado GR1 squadrons with nuclear and conventional roles in Europe from 11 to six and re-equipping a further two squadrons of dual-capable Tornado GR1 aircraft with Sea Eagle missiles to replace the present Buccaneer force in the anti-ship role.
§ Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)
The Minister will be aware that the Buccaneers are essentially based at RAF Lossiemouth in my constituency. I note from the minutes of evidence given to the Select Committee that consideration is being given to placing the maritime strike Tornados at Lossiemouth. When will we be likely to hear such an announcement?
§ Mr. Clark
I do not wear glasses, but my vision would have to be fairly defective to misread Harrier for Tornado. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for implying that I am not reading the text but simply delivering my speech ad lib.
The first full squadron of GR7 will become operational this year and it is expected that the full conversion programme will be complete by the mid-1990s. We are currently negotiating an order for new Harrier T10 training aircraft to meet the rigorous training requirements for the GR5 and GR7.
The RAF has now taken delivery of its first Boeing E3D Sentry airborne early warning aircraft, which will operate from RAF Waddington. The second E3D is scheduled for delivery next month, and the full order should be complete by early next year, with aircraft in service shortly after. The E3D Sentry will ensure that the RAF has a modern and effective capability for airborne early warning for the 1990s and beyond, and that it will be in a position to provide a full 40 per cent. of NATO's future AEW force.
Looking to the future, development of the new European fighter aircraft is continuing well. The radar and most other airframe equipments have been selected, and the first full-scale development engine is being tested. Construction of a prototype aircraft continues, and it is expected that that will fly next spring. Soon afterwards, we will need, in conjunction with our partners, to conduct a thorough review of progress during the development 455 programme, and to determine whether to proceed to the production phase. We expect to reach a decision at about the end of 1992.
We have also been addressing the future of the Tornado F3. The House will be aware that we have been considering the possibility of upgrading the aircraft's sensor and avionic systems. We shall continue to do so, and to place such a development in the context of our overall development of the RAF under the "Options" provisions.
Development of the second stage of the Foxhunter radar programme is scheduled to be completed later this year. Production of modification kits and their embodiment by the RAF will follow shortly thereafter. I am pleased to say that certain features of the second stage of the programme, together with other improvements, have already been introduced into those Tornado F3s deployed to the Gulf. I am now considering whether those further improvements should be added to the second stage of the radar programme and extended to the rest of the Tornado F3 fleet.
The modernisatioin of the tanker fleet continues. Work is now under way on the conversion of the 13 VC-10 aircraft to which I referred in last year's debate. I am pleased to report that the first phase of the Tristar conversion programme is complete, with six aircraft in service in a tanker role.
We have decided that the Bloodhound surface-to-air missile will be withdrawn from service this year, and that the force will be disbanded. Bloodhound is aging and increasingly ineffective in the face of modern electronic counter-measures, and it is no longer cost-effective to keep it in service. We are currently considering the requirement for medium surface-to-air missiles in the context of our overall air defence planning. We expect to seek proposals from industry shortly, and advance notice has been given to the defence industry in the MOD contracts bulletin.
§ Mr. O'Neill
I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the evidence that I understand was given to the Select Committee. What will happen to the defence of our country between his deciding to get rid of Bloodhound and deciding whether he wishes to replace it?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, Bloodhound was not defending our country; it was defending a couple of United States air force bases. The effectiveness of Bloodhound has been diminishing steadily. It was introduced in 1964. "Obsolescent" is the kindest word that can be used to describe it. It was susceptible to every kind of electronic interference, and to withdraw it from service is exactly the sort of measure that can be regarded as entirely prudent and cost-effective.
§ Mr. O'Neill
If something which has been seen as obsolete for a long time and has been deployed defending targets which the Minister considers to be not particularly important—I may have cause to differ with him on that—why have we persisted with it for so long?
§ Mr. Clark
The House is used to the rapid change of footwork demonstrated by the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill). He often starts in the blue corner and then comes out of the red one. Having just reproached me for getting rid of the system too quickly, he now wants to know why we did not get rid of it sooner. That must mean that we are getting rid of it at exactly the right moment.
§ Mr. Mans
I am interested in what my right hon. Friend has said. As I understand it, that particular medium-range missile system is designed to defend most of East Anglia and the north-east coast. I also understand that the reason why it has been in service for so long is that the system that is adopted is very difficult to jam. While I realise that it is coming to the end of its operational life, will my right hon. Friend reconsider the situation that will pertain when the system leaves service at the end of the year?
§ Mr. Clark
I am entirely satisfied that, when the system leaves service, we will not find that our anti-aircraft defence is significantly degraded.
Finally, I must reiterate the outstanding contribution made by the RAF during the international effort to liberate Kuwait. Many RAF personnel are now involved not only in the immense task of recovering equipment from Kuwait and southern Iraq but also in the more pressing humanitarian effort currently under way in Turkey and northern Iraq. It is our intention that "Options for Change" will continue to ensure that the RAF is equipped and trained to perform the vital job we expect of it, which it carried out with such distinction in the Gulf conflict.
§ Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)
I was somewhat surprised by the brevity of the Minister's peroration. However, given the content of his speech, I can understand that brevity.
It is no secret that the usual channels have been canvassing new arrangements for the discussion of defence matters in the House. The Opposition have had an open mind about the proposals for full day debates for each service. However, given the changed circumstances since 2 August, it is only right and proper that, this Session at least, we should devote a day to each of the services.
Besides those of us who take a close interest in defence matters, other hon. Members will want to reflect their own and their constituents' concern about the Gulf war, the role of the troops and the future procurement of equipment that will be required to fulfil the roles expected of them in the light of what Secretary of State James Baker, perhaps somewhat optimistically, described as the new world order. Therefore, it is all the more regrettable that this first service debate has been arranged for a day when so few hon. Members are in the Chamber. The reason for their absence is perfectly correct: they are working to support candidates in today's local government elections.
While it may be too early to expect the House to reach a definitive view on the lessons to be learnt from Operation Granby, I am sure that we all recognise the outstanding contribution of our troops, and in particular the work of the RAF in the air war. Before 15 January, some people doubted the effectiveness of air power, perhaps because of earlier experiences such as the failure in Vietnam and the overkill in Dresden and Coventry, to say nothing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Bomb damage assessment work was hampered during the Gulf war by poor weather. I hope that the studies will enable us to appreciate the full picture. We will be able to appreciate the full extent of civilian casualties and the impact of the bombing on a civilian infrastructure that was so closely linked to a military machine. We will be able to 457 assess the balance between the damage inflicted by air attacks against that caused by advancing coalition ground forces.
We must also bear in mind the absence of any significant Iraqi air response and the sheer scale of the coalition forces. We must try to establish why the Iraqis chose not to fight. It is widely recognised that the Iraqi air force was the service least sympathetic towards Saddam. However, what prompted the air force to defect on such a massive scale?
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)
The history of Arab air forces since 1945 may have a lesson for the hon. Gentleman and others who question why they did not fight. The record of Arab air forces fighting during that period is pretty abysmal.
§ Mr. O'Neill
I know that the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) takes a close interest in all matters aeronautical. The actions of the Saudi air force in the recent conflict do not support his assertion. A number of the Iraqi troops enjoyed British training and some of the benefits of the experience of the people against whom they were ultimately ranged. That may be a factor, but remarks of that character verge on ethnic judgments of a rather dubious nature and they are better left unsaid.
The Opposition recognise the crisis of morale that seemed to emerge among the Iraqi troops. That contrasted with what I and other members of the Select Committee on Defence witnessed among RAF air crew and maintenance personnel in late November before the conflict. The young men we met were confident and adamant that they were ready to do what they had spent so much time training for. There was none of the exuberant and almost irresponsible gung-ho spirit that seemed to characterise some of their gallant predecessors during the Battle of Britain. The people I met and to whom I had an opportunity to speak out there could not but convince everyone of the seriousness of their intent, their professionalism and the cool and studied way in which they were preparing for what none of us appreciated were going to be such great risks.
§ Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)
The commander of the RAF base in my constituency was in charge of the Royal Air Force in the Gulf to which we all pay tribute. Is it not much more likely that the Iraqi pilots realised that the coalition's electronic surveillance systems were so superior that they risked being shot out of the sky because they did not have commensurate equipment? They had to save their planes and they made a wise decision.
In the same connection, later on in the conflict was it not necessary for the USAF and the other American parts of the coalition forces to show some restraint, bearing in mind that they had total command of the air, during the final Iraqi retreat when those unfortunate and regrettable incidents occurred in which the British were not involved?
§ Mr. O'Neill
As I was saying earlier, a number of studies are being carried out at the moment and I hope that some of the questions that I have raised will be answered. The hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) must agree that our evidence at the moment is at best anecdotal.
In the last part of his intervention, the hon. Gentleman raised one of the most pressing aspects. We must recognise 458 that those people who were returning to Iraq were returning in some semblance of military order and were doing so against the instructions from the United Nations. They were at least sailing very close to the wind against the undertakings into which their own people had entered. To say the least, they were taking considerable risks.
I am not saying that the bombing of defenceless convoys is in any way justifiable. However, I wonder how defenceless were some sections of that convoy. The record of some of those troops suggested that they had precious little concern for humanitarian matters when other pressures were upon them. We must strike a balance. At one stage there may well have been excesses. However, subject to the kind of pressures that the American authorities faced, they acted very quickly to restrain their troops and that certainly diminished some of the casualties. However, we have yet to decide: as the Americans would say, the jury is still out on a number of those questions. It is incumbent upon us not to provide answers, but to ask questions about the conduct of the war. In a debate such as this, which deals with the significance of air power, it is correct to do so.
I shall conclude my tribute to our forces. The men I met were professionals. They knew the odds far better than politicians or planners, yet they were ready to undertake the tasks that we now understand required incredible bravery and skill. Among all of the troops deployed in the Gulf, there was a sense of common purpose and dedication, which enabled each and every one of them to know what his individual contribution would be. It was significant that the individual contributions together were far greater than the sum of their parts. The whole world marvelled at the courage of the Tornado pilots who carried out the early bombing raids on Iraqi airfields.
§ Mr. O'Neill
If the hon. Gentleman wants to make a speech, I assure him that he will have plenty of time to do so this evening.
It was significant that those young pilots alone had the JP233 bombs. They had trained at low levels so that they could go in under enemy radar, rise, drop their bombs and then fly out at low levels through what has been described as a wall of lead created by AAA fire.
Does the Minister think it desirable that that sort of low flying should be repeated? I know that he touched on that in response to an earlier intervention. It may be premature to decide now whether a stand-off version of the JP233 weapon would be desirable. We all understand the danger in which we placed those young pilots, and appreciate the success of their work. It is fortunate that they did not need to persist with it. However, we must consider whether it is necessary to subject our troops to that sort of risk when it may be possible to develop a stand-off capability that could do the job at far less risk to our troops, and perhaps without requiring the amount of low-level flying practice now undertaken.
I am not a professional; I am simply asking a question. I know that some hon. Members are capable of answering it, and others would like to be capable of answering it. I am a Labour Member who would like an answer to that question. It may not be appropriate to have that answer today, but I want to place the matter on the agenda so that the Ministry of Defence can review it. It is not a matter of 459 party political contention; it is something about which we are all concerned. If we reduce the risk to our troops and diminish the need for at least some of the low-level flying practice that so bedevils so many of our constituents, we would be doing everyone a service.
It would be dangerous to try to draw immediate conclusions, but as politicians we shall obviously try to do so. The war was fought by a coalition massed against an enemy whose depth of resources was probably greater than we had anticipated. They had certainly been built up through the impoverishment of Hussein's own people, and he achieved a military and industrial complex on a scale unrivalled for a country of that size of population and wealth.
The experience of fighting against such an enemy in the desert, with the associated air action and relatively restricted naval and amphibious activity, may not be relevant to a rapidly changing and, we hope, diminishing threat from central Europe, but there are still lessons to be learnt. I hope that "Options for Change" and the White Paper will provide some of the answers as quickly as possible.
Confronted by the aftermath of war, we now face problems such as the plight of the Kurds and that of the Shi'ites in the south of Iraq. Is there not a case for expanding the role of our services in undertaking humanitarian disaster relief—whether the cause is man-made, as in Iraq, or natural, as in Bangladesh? The speed with which the coalition forces were assembled, the scale of the resources made available, and the single-mindedness of their deployment and application to their tasks in Operation Granby has shown what can be done. I do not think that this House or history will judge lightly those who fail to respond to equally pressing, if different, challenges elsewhere.
Part of the massive effort to deploy our troops and equipment required a great deal of what can only be called cannibalising, and there was much ingenuity and quick-footedness. Equipment was obtained and refurbished. I would not go so far as to say that it was begged, borrowed or stolen, but knowing the ingenuity of quartermasters, it was not far from that. What impact did the support operations in the Gulf have on RAF Germany? Was the cupboard left bare? Have the shelves been refilled? Do we really need to restore them to previous levels, given the diminishing threat from central Europe?
The consequence of the failure of the Iraqi air force to respond in any meaningful way was to reduce air-to-air contact. A number of our fighter aircraft thankfully did not have to confront the Iraqi air force in the way that had been anticipated. As a result, the role of the Tornado F3 was limited to the valuable task of providing cover for those engaged in bombing, reconnaissance and air refuelling missions.
On the latter activity, I want to join the Minister in praising the tanker fleet—one of the unsung heroes of the war. In many respects, it was the most vulnerable of all targets, given the nature of its cargoes, yet it stayed in the air 24 hours a day, week after week, from the very outset of the war. Certainly, the members of that fleet whom I met undertook what was demanded of them with remarkable tolerance and patience. Of course, there are other unsung heroes, such as the aircrew and the back-up support, both of which were absolutely superb throughout the war.
460 The lessons we must learn will take some time to emerge. I heard what the Minister said about the European fighter aircraft programme. Will he comment on suggestions in the press about certain stealth adaptations being made to EFA? The Opposition support the programme, but there is always the danger—I am loth to mix metaphors and talk about the stealthing of the aircraft and gold plating, but "gold plating" is the only expression that comes to mind—that that very important programme will be subject to continual changes of specification to achieve heights of capability that, quite frankly, we do not require. In an ideal world, they might be desirable, but at present they are neither affordable or necessary.
As the four partners involved in the EFA programme will now require fewer aircraft than was originally anticipated, the unit costs could rise and could be subject to close scrutiny. We do not wish to find unnecessary sources of increased pricing in the form of smart ideas from people who say, "Wouldn't it be nice if we had something else?" At the moment, even acquiring the EFA programme, which is necessary for this country's next generation of fighter aircraft, will strain our budgets.
§ Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that EFA already contains considerable stealth characteristics owing to the composite materials used in it and that its radar signature is considerably smaller than virtually that of any other present day combat aircraft?
§ Mr. O'Neill
I am aware of that, and it makes me even more concerned about some people's desire to make EFA even more stealthlike. Given what we think is necessary for the aircraft to fulfil its tasks, we do not think that it should, to mix metaphors, be gold-plated with extra stealth. We could end up with something that is far more expensive and unrealistic at a time when we are already under pressure. Both this Government and the next Labour Government will want to ensure that the success of the programme is not endangered in any way.
§ Mr. Colvin
In view of the success of the Tornado in the Gulf and our long-standing good relations with Saudi Arabia over supplying the Tornado, and given that the Tornado was sold on the back of the earlier Lightning's success, perhaps we should consider changing the name of the European fighter aircraft to make its name more acceptable to third countries outside the four-nation consortium that is building it. According to the evidence that I have received from the aerospace industry, there is no doubt that there is a lot of interest in that aircraft from other countries, especially those in the Gulf.
When the Minister of State was answering questions yesterday, many about EFA were fired at him and he batted a lot of them off, saying, "There will be plenty of time to discuss all this tomorrow in the defence debate." On reading the record, I noticed the suggestion that, if Germany decided to withdraw from EFA—there has been some suggestion that that is a possibility—the unit cost of the aircraft would increase. As far as I am aware, Germany's withdrawal would do exactly the opposite, because the costs of the German aerospace industry are higher than those of the British industry. Although Germany's withdrawal might mean goodbye to a certain number of German sales for EFA, it might also reduce the costs of that aircraft.
§ Mr. O'Neill
As we say in Scotland, perhaps the hon. Gentleman should "ca' canny" on that one. We are trying to keep Germany's involvement. The Minister's diplomatic skills and enthusiasm for Europe are well known. I understand that the initial order for 850 EFAs could drop to as low as 400 before the project is put in any jeopardy. I do not like to think that the German component might disappear for any reason. The dangers to future sales of Germany's withdrawal cannot be underestimated. An aircraft that does not enjoy the continued support of the four initial partners is not likely to prove attractive to other countries, regardless of its name.
Incidentally, if I have any query about EFA's name, it is that it is somewhat misleading because its defensive role is as significant as its offensive role. Indeed, if it had a different name, it might not have attracted quite the approbrium that it has in some sections of German society.
We look forward to continued progress with the EFA programme and recognise that the British dimension on radar is well founded., We know that the political situation in Germany is somewhat questionable at the moment, but given Germany's level of unemployment and the shakiness of Germany's overall economic position, I am sure that all sides of the Bundestag would feel hard pressed to oppose any idea of reducing or cutting such a major programme. I do not think that that is likely to happen.
In these debates we normally talk about EFA and Bloodhound, and another of our hardy annuals is the EH 10l programme. Although yet another year has passed, the Minister's clear and unambiguous statement on the EH101 today was deafening in its silence. He chose not to refer to what should be a major order for a British helicopter or for a helicopter of any kind. I know that questions have sometimes been asked about the size of the EH101 and about whether we have the transport aircraft that are capable of moving it around the world to the places where we believe it should be deployed.
As a result of experiences in the Gulf, we know of the tremendous importance of helicopters, and the RAF needs to start making some decisions. If we have to consider transporting helicopters across the world at great speed, we should not discount the option that the Navy occasionally exercises, which is to take up civilian aircraft just as ships are taken from trade if our own aircraft cannot fulfil the transport function. The transportation problems of the EH101 are not, therefore, the central issue. As the Minister has responsibility for procurement, perhaps he will comment on what is happening about the EH101 and on how long the present paralysis in the MOD is likely to continue.
When the Minister mentioned Bloodhound, he chided me for questioning why he had decided to make the prudent decision on it. One of my hon. Friends has reminded me that last year the Minister chided the Opposition for asking questions about that because he said that we were being premature. Although a lot can happen in 14 or 15 months, the Minister cannot have it both ways. He has accused me of trying to have it both ways, but I am interested in what is going to happen over the next three or four years before there is any replacement, and in why a replacement was not sought earlier. The Minister is not to blame for all the mistakes of the past 12 years, but this matter was first planned 33 years ago and the officials in his office in the MOD have therefore had some warning about 462 the likelihood of Bloodhound diminishing in importance. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that point in his reply.
There was some press speculation this morning about the possibility of the Government acquiring stand-off missiles. However, the Minister did not mention that in his speech. Perhaps he will bring us up to date later on what passes for the Government's thinking on this matter. Are the Government seeking to procure SRAM-T or are they looking at its French counterpart? Are the Government considering accepting American aircraft that are equipped with such weapons in this country? Do the Government think that it is necessary to replace the WE177 with anything or are they awaiting a future decision from NATO? Is this matter to be subject to NATO's consideration or is it a subject to be decided exclusively by the British Government?
This debate is normally held a little earlier in the year, but it is always held in advance of the White Paper. At the end of his speech, the Minister said that he hoped that the White Paper would provide us with some of the answers. Yesterday, the Secretary of State said that he hoped that the White Paper would be out before the summer recess, which meant that he was not certain that that would be the case. The right hon. Gentleman further hoped that "Options for Change" would be incorporated in that document. We all hope that, but the conditional way in which Ministers are now speaking suggests uncertainty.
I hope that the Minister will appreciate that, if the House is to be treated responsibly, we cannot be presented with a set of faits accompli. There must be a proper debate on a number of these issues if only to ensure that the Opposition have no grounds for charging the Government with dithering and prevarication. On several issues affecting both the Royal Air Force and other service procurement, we are not receiving any answers. We hear from industry that when people go to see the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister to make representations about their legitimate worries about future investment programmes and planning, they are told that they will have to wait and see.
In the past six months, many thousands of defence workers' jobs have been placed in jeopardy or disappeared. Those who remain are entitled to know what is happening. The people who served us so gallantly in the Gulf are entitled to know what will happen to them, where they will be based and what plans they can make for their children's education and for the future. No matter how committed the services are and how high their morale, the loyalty of personnel to their country is usually equalled by their responsibility to their families. Many of the men and women in the services have to take such considerations into account. At present, the Government's inability to give clear and specific answers to many questions is leading to plummeting morale, which is doing the defence of the country and the standing of the services no good.
Several problems face the Ministry of Defence. We know that next year there will be a cost overrun of £1.5 billion. It has been suggested that, on a long-term basis over the decade, the cost overrun will rise to some £21 billion. It is suggested that the money in the so-called peace dividend being sought by the Treasury is about £20 billion over the next six years.
There are 330,000 service personnel, 170,000 civil servants and 0.5 million defence workers looking for decisions. The fact that this is a motion for the 463 Adjournment of the House and that this is a poorly attended debate, for the reasons that I have already given, is no excuse for the Government to come to the House with so little to say and to broadcast such indecision around the country, whenever Government spokesmen have the opportunity.
This may be the first of the three service debates, but when we debate the future of the Army and the Navy, the Government roust shape up and come out with far better answers than we were given tonight. We join with the Government in their justifiable pride and relief about the effectiveness of our troops in the war. We are with the Government and at one in supporting them. Now that the war is over and the services have proved their worth, the Government are not backing them as they should by giving answers to the legitimate questions that hon. Members on both sides of the House are asking and will continue to ask until we have either a new Government or a Minister who is prepared to play fair and straight with the troops.
§ Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire)
I begin with a note of agreement and understanding of the position of the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) and his party about these debates. [fully understand what the hon. Gentleman said. He said that this year of all years was an opportunity that should not be missied to discuss individual services, because of the peculiar circumstances of the Gulf. However, I hope that he ackowledges with me that the move that I initiated three years ago, with the approval of the Defence Select Committee, to rationalise the debates should be responded to. It is not satisfactory for Back-Bench Members, the hon. Gentleman as Opposition spokesman or, indeed, Ministers, to have Ministers answer in their new roles in the old-style debates which were set up when we had service Ministers.
Before we come to the main set-piece, two-day defence debate of the year, it must be logical to have a debate on procurement, with both procurement Ministers present speaking to their briefs, and a debate on the armed forces so that the two armed forces Ministers—or one, if one of them happens to be in the Lords—and the Secretary of State can speak about personnel, operational and other matters.
That would mean that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement would not have to answer on the Royal Air Force with expert knowledge on the procurement side but with perhaps less than perfect command of detail on any personnel or armed forces matters, which are not his job. I hope that, when we come to this series of debates next year, an agreement will have been made between the usual channels to rationalise the debates in that way.
Our Committee was fortunate to make two visits to the Gulf, one before hostilities and one after. On both visits, we saw for ourselves the cardinal and crucial role of air power in operation Granby. In November, we were briefed at Muharraq on the capability and potential destructive power of the JP223, to which reference has been made. We heard at first hand how our Tornados and Jaguars would be deployed as part of the massive allied air effort. We also saw the work of the Royal Air Force tanker fleet and that 464 of the transport forces. Indeed, on both visits we clocked up enough Hercules flying hours to last the rest of this Parliament.
At Dhahran, we spoke to the Tornado F3 air defence crews and at Al Muharraq we spoke to the ground crews and the Royal Air Force Regiment Rapier crews. We visited the hospital set up in the hospital building originally built by the RAF, and we had a chance to talk to all ranks in a memorable visit.
When we returned to Muharraq shortly after hostilities ended, we were fully briefed on the air campaign by those who had taken part in it. That was a privilege for which the Committee was grateful. The visit threw up several issues which need to be thought through. Few of us—alas, there are few of us here today—will ever forget the briefing we received from a Tornado pilot about the missions he had flown. That young man told us what he felt before, during and after the terrifying hours he had lived through. The impression of calm, cool professionalism in a man properly trained and superbly equipped with a machine in which he had full confidence will certainly stay with me for the rest of my life. It demonstrated the professionalism and adaptability of the Royal Air Force and the courage of all the crews undertaking sortie after sortie, many four or five hours long or more and against heavily defended targets.
Our Committee will take some oral evidence later this month from our air commander in the Gulf Air Vice-Marshal Wratten and some of those who served on his staff during hostilities. Undoubtedly, we shall draw some detailed lessons for the future. On this occasion, I am sure that all the members of my Committee would wish me to pay unstinting tribute to the magnificent performance of the RAF in the Gulf, which flew virtually every aircraft in its repertory from the oldest to the newest and the largest to the smallest. I pay our tribute to not only the fine air crew who lost their lives—to be added to that given so forcibly by my right hon. Friend the Minister—but to those who died in training before hostilities began. Let us note that the RAF is yet again involved in the area, with the Hercules and the Chinooks, which my right hon. Friend mentioned, some of which have come from RAF Odiham in my constituency.
It is almost a year since we heard evidence from the Ministry of Defence on the improved United Kingdom air defence ground environment. We published our report last November and the Government replied in February this year. They told us that progress had been encouraging and said:Although in the light of the history of the project we must be cautiousthose are well chosen words—we are looking forward to future stages of the recovery programme with confidence.That is good news. The House can only hope that the Government's confidence—the Committee also expressed guarded confidence about the way ahead—is justified in the event.
Perhaps it would be useful to rehearse some of the Committee's findings. The programme was designed to upgrade or replace the basic air defence radar system covering the United Kingdom—ground radars, the command and control system and the communications system—at a total cost of over £600 million at 1989 prices. Half of that would be paid for by NATO funds. NATO rules on procurement are less than perfect and regrettably, in order to qualify for funds, the normal development and 465 risk reduction phases of a complex programme were omitted. That is one lesson which I hope has been well and truly learned.
A major problem has arisen over the computerised integrated command and control system—ICCS—and in particular over the data handling system software. As a result of those defects in the overall system, the formal acceptance by the RAF of the new system, due originally in early 1987, is now unlikely until the middle of 1992. There have been other reasons for the delay, but in broad terms we concluded that those software problems had delayed delivery by more than four years, with inevitable adverse operational implications for our air defences, although the existing system remains just technically viable.
The mention of software problems in debates such as this has a certain inevitability, and such problems are certainly familiar to our Committee. The Ministry has told us that, far from lagging behind the commercial world, it has played a leading role in establishing best practices. But the fact remains that one project after another has suffered software difficulties. That has applied to Nimrod, Ptarmigan, BATES, frigate command and control and the vertical-launched Sea Wolf. The list is endless.
We look forward to seeing how the new Ministry of Defence guidelines can improve matters. That is a major challenge facing Dr. McIntosh, the new chief of defence procurement, and I know, from conversations I have had with him, that he is well aware of it. I take this opportunity, on behalf of my Committee colleagues, to welcome him to his new task and wish him well in the years to come. If he can continue the reform of the procurement system with the verve and skill that Sir Peter Levene showed, he will be a great asset to the Ministry of Defence.
The report and the Government's reply raised a number of other issues. Without going into them now, I draw the attention of the House to paragraphs 60 to 67 on the delays in delivering fairly standard mobile radars off the shelf, which I fear reflect only too clearly the aura of delay which still hangs over too much of procurement.
There is a sense of anxiety lest, in the understandable euphoria following the magnificent performance by the RAF in the Gulf, we overlook the history of the air defence procurement problems of the recent past. One thinks of Nimrod, Foxhunter, now IUKADGE, the Bloodhound replacement, and so on. On a more optimistic note, I believe that the systems, once completed, will be first-class; I am delighted that our AWACS aircraft are now being delivered, and I have been glad to read the reports of the performance of the F3 in the Gulf.
As for the options for change as they affect the RAF, the Committee asked that the transcript of the evidence that we heard last week from the RAF should be tagged as relevant to the debate, together with some written answers that we received from the Ministry on detailed matters. We shall report to the House as soon as we can, but I cannot anticipate our conclusions. Meanwhile, those two documents are in the Library, and at this stage I shall simply draw the attention of the House to a few broad issues that arise.
The first is, roughly speaking, the halving of RAF Germany and the major task that follows that of shuffling 466 around the personnel and aircraft so as to ensure that the people, who are the RAF's most valuable asset, are not so messed about that they want to leave the service.
As a result, we can expect major changes in the support area in the United Kingdom, possibly comparable with what is in the wind in terms of naval support, which is causing enough controversy. Stations must be closed, there will be increasing contractorisation and so on. Those are all issues which I hope the Ministry of Defence is addressing urgently and cogently.
It is important that we leave bases in Germany with dignity and decency. There seems to be the prospect of some unseemly squabbling about financial arrangements as we vacate bases, as our claims for the value of improvements made are met by German claims on dilapidation and pollution. That will in due course also apply to military bases, workshops and so on. After almost half a century of British protective presence in Germany, I hope that our departure, initially from Gutersloh and Wildenrath, will be properly conducted.
Arising out of that is the need to recognise that all deep-seated assumptions must be questioned. In that context, we must ask why we need to keep Harriers in north-west Germany, practically on the Dutch-German border, and why, in particular, we need them there. The same questions must be asked about the remaining Tornado squadrons. Where now are their targets in NATO's war planning, and is Bruggen the best place for them? All such questions are thrown up by the dramatic changes that have taken and are taking place.
Speaking for myself, I am concerned that we still do not have a coherent strategy for the way forward for our services; that applies particularly, in the context of today's debate, to the Royal Air Force. We have made reductions, which may be right, sensible and necessary. But to enable the Government to justify them fully in strategic terms, we must be told what the Government's strategic plans are for the defence of Europe in the future.
Do they know? I cannot believe they do. "Options for Change" was published without consulting our NATO allies. They have been consulted, we are told, ever since, but if we cannot, in the new scene in which we find ourselves in Europe, come to a collective conclusion about the task, how can we, having always been in the forefront as one of the leading nations in contributing to NATO's defence, be sure that the changes that we are now making will enable us to continue to play as constructive and leading a role?
I am not arguing that the changes that we have made in bringing home the Tornado squadrons is wrong. I cannot do that but, by the same token, I do not see how the Government can argue that it is right until they can tell us that there is a new NATO strategy and that the European Governments have together come to terms with the new risks, with how they must be matched, and with how we shall ensure stability in the new Europe. Only then can we know which nation shall carry out which task in support of what part of that endeavour.
I say that in the context of the RAF because this is an RAF debate, but the same applies right across the spectrum. My fear is that we shall, for financial reasons—we are all under pressure to reduce budgets—take piecemeal decisions across the services, which will mean that, in the end, when we have reached collective conclusions about how best to secure the stability in the new Europe, we shall say, "We are sorry. We should like 467 to have done that, but now we do not have the correct mix or balance of forces with which to make that contribution."
It is for NATO to mount the new strategy. It is for the NATO Council—not necessarily for my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary but for the Foreign Ministers and Prime Ministers and Heads of Government collectively—to decide what we shall provide by way of a European insurance policy to defend our future economic interests, which are the stability of the whole region of Europe. When we have done that, it will be for the various Governments collectively to decide how best we can contribute, and we can make a much better contribution in certain areas of defence than we can in others. I shall not go into those, because this is a more narrowly focused debate. At that time, and only then, shall we be able to say, "That is the balance of forces we need."
We shall then be able to say that not just for one task but so that we can respond to contingencies that may arise but which cannot now be anticipated. Kuwait and the Falklands are the two latest examples, but such contingencies are always happening. In the past we have always been able to cope. The RAF has been able to make its contribution not because we had plans for a contingency but because the commitment to NATO was at such a level that we knew that we could strip it and attend to whatever emergency arose.
That is the way in which we have coped. Indeed, hon. Members may recall with surprise that we could not have coped with the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland in 1969 if we had not denuded the Rhine Army, enabling us to send reinforcements to protect the Catholic minority. That was how the whole thing started there. I was part of the planning process when blocks of soldiers were removed from Germany and sent to Northern Ireland. We knew that, if hostilities broke out or there was a period of tension, they could be sent back.
The same occurred at the time of the Falklands, and it was certainly true of the Gulf. One need only consider the position of RAF Germany in the Rhine Army in the last six months to see what had to be sacrificed there so that we could make the contribution that we made. However, that will not be the case in the future. With the inevitably smaller forces that we shall possess, we shall have to plan specifically how, whether and, if so, in what measure we shall respond to out-of-area events.
Will my right hon. Friend the Minister propose, in the very near future, a coherent, strategic plan? I know that he has a major struggle, battling against the Treasury, the services, and people like me who urge him to produce a coherent plan. "Options for Change" is not yet an answer to our problem but merely some suggestions. We need an answer urgently, so that we can plan for the future defence expenditure to which we shall commit ourselves.
Most important of all, it will allow us to thank our services for their magnificent performance in the Gulf and to say, "This is your future. You may be smaller, but this is where you are going, that is what we want you to do, and this is what we shall provide for you to carry out that coherent, strategic task." That is the way to earn the gratitude of our services. The way to earn their distrust is to continue to make piecemeal cuts because of Treasury drives, without being able to inform them of that comprehensive strategic plan.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)
In the nature of events, I frequently find myself following the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), but I find increasingly that I sympathise with his opinions. The last passage of his speech, in which he said that he was speaking for himself, was extremely powerful and will strike a chord on both sides of the House.
That most urbane of American politicians, Mo Udall from Arizona, once said, after two days at a convention of the Democratic party, of which he was a distinguished member, that the problem was thateverything has been said but not everyone has said it.The way in which that quote may appear to affect this debate should not be dispelled, because the importance of the issues before us is such that many topics need to be emphasised and underlined and they should be the subject of contributions from more than one Member of the House.
I add my tribute to the men of the Royal Air Force of all ranks who served, in all capacities, in the course of the hostilities in the Gulf—[HON. MEMBERS: "And women."]—and the women too.
Like the hon. Members for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) and for East Hampshire, I had the good fortune to visit the forces toward the end of last November. It was the occasion of the visit of the Select Committee on Defence, and the hon. Member for Clackmannan and I were made temporary honorary members of the Committee for the purpose of the visit. We were welcomed by the Chairman and enabled to obtain first-hand impressions of the state of readiness of our troops in a way that could not have been conveyed by word of mouth.
In Dhahran and Muharraq, one could not help but be impressed, not by the demonstrative nature of the men of the RAF but rather by the quiet and undemonstrative—even matter-of-fact—way in which they contemplated the tasks before them. Those tasks involved high risks and demanded skills of the highest order.
I hope that the House will understand if I pay tribute to 43 squadron of the RAF, normally based at RAF Leuchars in my constituency, which served with great distinction in the Gulf hostilities.
Another group of people who made, indirectly, a substantial contribution to our effort in the Gulf are the wives of those who were serving there. My wife and I visited at RAF Leuchars a group of those wives whose husbands were serving in the Gulf. It would be wrong to describe those ladies as plaster saints, but they possessed extraordinary common sense and good humour. I left feeling inspired by their understanding of what their husbands were engaged in, and their commitment to ensuring that the tasks to which their husbands had set their hand were successfully carried through. However, even that robust commons sense could not disguise the strain that many of them clearly felt at the conversion—at least for them—of peace into wartime.
One lady told me that, when her husband left for the Gulf, she had to explain to her employer that during Christmas school holidays it would be impossible for her to continue to work because she would have to look after her school-aged children. The employer's response was that his business could not cope with that, so he would have to dismiss her. Clearly, that family suffered a substantial loss, which was irrecoverable under any of the 469 schemes available to meet the costs incurred by those sent to the Gulf. It was a financial sacrifice that may have made it even more difficult to sustain the emotional sacrifice which separation from her husband obviously imposed.
As we approach this debate, we do so against the background—as the hon. Member for East Hampshire so forcefully reminded us—of the unresolved issues raised by the publication of "Options for Change". All parties in the House are now committed to reductions in defence expenditure in different ways, at different levels and over different periods. However, when we made that commitment, we did so on the basis of a number of assumptions.
First, we assumed that the conventional forces in Europe treaty would be signed, ratified and observed in spirit and in letter. Secondly, we assumed that the reduction in tension between east and west would continue. Thirdly, we asumed that the Soviet Union would proceed in an orderly way along the path of reform. Fourthly, we assumed—perhaps a negative assumption—that it was unlikely that the United Kingdom forces would be engaged in serious operations in the foreseeable future, other than in defence of our own territorial integrity. All four of those assumptions have been proved, to a greater or lesser extent, to be optimistic. The first three may yet be achieved, but the fourth has proved unjustified.
A passage in the evidence of the Select Committee, in which the hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) asked questions of some of those giving evidence, reflects the suspicion on both sides of the House that the Government's proposals enshrined in "Options for Change" are Treasury-driven. If that is so, it must be a substantially illegitimate way in which to proceed.
The proper approach to such matters must be found in a series of questions. First, what is the nature of the threat that the United Kingdom faces, actually or prospectively? Secondly, what is the nature of our responsibilities to our allies and others? Thirdly, what is needed to meet the first of those and to discharge the second, in terms of manpower and equipment? Fourthly, and perhaps most comprehensively, what financial resources are necessary to provide the manpower and equipment to meet the threat and discharge those responsibilities?
I cannot see how the first and second of those questions can be answered until we have a clearer view of the Soviet Union's fate, until the NATO review has been completed, and until there is a long-term view of the stability of the middle east. If we cannot answer the first two questions, plainly we should not address questions three and four.
I would not fault Ministers for caution in the matter, although I fault the Government for unnecessary secrecy. The passage of arms between the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence and a witness on 24 April may well pass into the history of Whitehall. It resulted in the Chairman being able to substantiate the point that he was making by reference to what he had been told in the NAAFI, but he was told by the witness that, although the Chairman might tell the public anything he liked, the witness could not confirm or deny it. It was a most extraordinary exchange. I wonder whether it is in the national interest to have such secrecy, which only 470 encourages suspicion. In the context of the matters under discussion, it seems much more likely that such secrecy will also encourage partisanship.
It is the duty of Opposition parties, no less in defence than any other sphere, to subject the Government to scrutiny. We had an interesting illustration of that a moment or two ago, in the exchange between the Minister of State and the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) on the Bloodhound missile. The Minister of State gave a most interesting answer. He said that the withdrawal of the missile would not cause our air defence to be degraded. We must put that answer in the context of what he had previously been saying—that for some time the missile had been making no contribution to our air defence. He was effectively saying that, if we got rid of something that was making no contribution, it would not affect the total contribution.
The Minister of State did not address the issue of the gap and how it would be filled—I do not think that the hon. Member for Clackmannan pressed it as hard as he might. Will there be a replacement? If there is, is that not because there is a perceived need for one?
§ Mr. Campbell
The Minister says from a sedentary position that there is not a gap, but my reading of the evidence taken before the Defence Select Committee suggests that there was such a gap.
During the hostilities in the Gulf, the Opposition fulfilled their responsibility for scrutinising the Government's policy. But there was such a broad consensus that hon. Members were able, with some honourable exceptions, to unite around the main thrust of Government policy, supported by the United Nations resolutions. I suspect that there is at present in the House greater unanimity on defence matters than there has been for some time. As we move to a series of decisions of great significance, wold there not be a better chance of reaching the right decisions, if the Government were to take the House more fully into their confidence? The answer to that question is incontrovertibly in the affirmative.
Before turning to some of the longer-term issues, I shall mention two matters of more immediate, almost domestic, concern. They arise out of the existence of RAF Leuchars in my constituency. The issue of low flying is frequently brought before the House in tones of outrage, frustration and even alarm by hon. Members on behalf of their constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) raised such a case this week. However, in a constituency such as mine where there is an operational base, low flying of a different sort occurs that causes no less inconvenience. That is especially the case when, as recently, the operational conversion unit has been engaged to replace Phantoms with Tornados.
Ministers have shown commendable alacrity in consenting to my request to institute a noise survey to establish whether there is a different footprint of noise from the Tornados and, if so, whether additional properties may be elligible for insulation grants. The result of that survey is expected in June. I hope that if, as I suspect, that survey reveals that there are properties that now fall within the footprint, resources will be made available to provide insulation.
It is incumbent on me to draw attention to the fact that two primary schools within the immediate vicinity of RAF 471 Leuchars—at Leuchars and at Guardbridge—frequently suffer disturbance because of ordinary operations at the base. So far, the Ministry of Defence and Fife regional council have been unable to resolve that problem. I hope that some sympathetic consideration will be brought to bear on that issue.
Ministers may also recall the robust campaign mounted in my constituency and the surrounding district against the proposal to withdraw search and rescue operations from RAF Leuchars. That campaign was only partially successful, as the ultimate decision was to restrict operations to daylight hours only. However, those involved, some of whom are present now, were well satisfied with persuading the Ministry of Defence that the capability at RAF Leuchars should be maintained.
Recently, the Secretary of State was civil enough to tell me that the Ministry of Defence has received an unsolicited bid for the contractorisation of part of search and rescue operations. He said that that bid was to be examined by the Minister of State for the Armed Forces in due course. I urge the Government not be seduced by any short-term financial gain that they think they may achieve by the contractorisation of those essential services. In putting the matter thus, I express no disrespect to those who operate civilian search and rescue services. Aircraft based at Stornoway and Sumburgh fulfil their responsibilities in a capable and professional way. That is hardly surprising, as I understand that they are crewed almost entirely by former RAF pilots.
The military search and rescue requirement is best met by dedicated personnel and equipment. There may be a role for reserves, but that can only be supplementary to the principal capability. I think it has already been drawn to Ministers' attention that dependence on contract, rather than on the relationship of those who serve the Crown, in circumstances where the provision of search and rescue is required, can be subject to industrial dispute. The services are emergency services which, by their very nature, are required to be on call 24 hours a day. I hope that the Government will accept that the present arrangement, as a consequence of which the military component is kept well honed and extremely effective, is one that they will be willing to continue to support.
§ Mr. Bill Walker
I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way and for his earlier comments about the assistance that he has received. Will he remind Ministers that civilian pilots cannot be posted in times of emergency to areas of need? Surely, one of the lessons to have come out of the Gulf is that we were able to deploy personnel because they were there, trained and able to go out and perform the job immediately. That cannot be accomplished by civilian personnel.
§ Mr. Campbell
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention, because it underlines my next point—that existing arrangements are well established and have an integrated place in the overall activities of the Royal Air Force. The attempt to add civilians, no matter how qualified or willing, inevitably seems likely to cause difficulties, especially in times of hostilities.
It is true that, if military operations were discontinued, that might produce a pool of trained personnel. However, that pool would eventually be exhausted and, if private training were required to be part of the civilian undertaking for search and rescue, the ultimate cost to the 472 Ministry of Defence might be greater. Ministers should not discount the important contribution to service morale made by the fact that search and rescue is firmly based in the service itself. Nor should we underestimate the contribution to civilian morale of what is sometimes described as the friendly yellow helicopter coming quickly into view—a constant reminder of the professionalism of the Royal Air Force.
There is a great deal of affection for the Wessex, some of which are nearly 30 years old; but the Sea King has an enhanced capability, and the arguments in favour of search and rescue are only underlined by the move from the Wessex to the Sea King—a possibility to which I hope the Government will give serious consideration, since it would enhance search and rescue capability.
I share the concern of others about the fact that the rate of attrition of the Tornado GR1 in the Gulf hostilities was relatively high. I know that a number of explanations for that are being traded in defence circles. I appreciate that it would be quite wrong to invite the Minister to confirm or deny any of those on an occasion such as this. As he properly said, the Ministry is engaged in a detailed analysis of the lessons that must be learned. It appears to be being claimed that only one loss occurred while the JP233 was being delivered, and that other weapons were being delivered during four other losses. I hope that, during the Ministry's analysis, careful consideration will be given to establishing the facts and to the lessons to be learned.
I observe that the Secretary of State told the Defence Select Committee in evidence that the United States was anxious that we should provide the JP233, which represented a capacity that that country did not possess. We know that delivering the weapon requires the aircraft to fly very low and that, as a consequence, they may he exposed to anti-aircraft artillery, to which they would not be exposed if they were operating at medium or high level.
It is being claimed also that RAF tactics changed after the first week. I hope that, if they were changed, the reasons for that change will be clearly understood and that the lessons from it will be learned.
We must ask ourselves whether the achievement of the delivery of the JP233 justifies the risks of that delivery. We have already heard of the possibility of a stand-off weapon to fulfil the same task—I understand that the United States wants to achieve that. If it is possible to achieve the same effect with a stand-off weapon involving less risk to men or aircraft, that is desirable.
Hon. Members have also mentioned the European fighter aircraft. I am more and more convinced of the need for it and for the continued participation of the United Kingdom in the project through to production. The issue was raised at defence questions earlier this week, when the Minister of State, with characteristic bravura, swept aside all doubts about German participation.
We have to be careful about this Minister; he brings a certain intellectual raffishness to our proceedings, but we must not allow the style to obscure the substance. We cannot ignore the fact that there has been a reduction in the German requirement; or that a working party composed of the CDU, the CSU and the FDP—the parties that form the German coalition Government—has been set up to evaluate whether the EFA is the best option for the Luftwaffe. It will be some time before it reaches any conclusion and it is believed to be considering the Mig 29, among other options, as an alternative.
473 We know that the EFA could fulfil a number of roles for the United Kingdom. In particular, it can provide a quality of agility which the F3 version of the Tornado was not designed to provide. What if Germany were to withdraw? Would the production phase continue to be viable; what would the unit costs of each aircraft be? If fewer aircraft were constructed, it is likely that the unit costs will rise, not fall—not least because all the expenditure on research and development would have to be allocated to a smaller number of aircraft.
§ Mr. Mates
Perhaps I can help the hon. and learned Gentleman. I put this very question to British Aerospace when I was becoming more worried about German withdrawal. British Aerospace advised the Committee that a German pull-out would make the project marginally cheaper, because all the research and development costs have already been allotted between the countries and will have been paid for. The problem is that German labour costs are higher than those of any other country, so without those labour costs forcing the prices up, there will be a small reduction in costs—strange as that may seem.
§ Mr. Campbell
I well understand the difference between the labour costs in the United Kingdom and in Germany, and I accept that the hon. Gentleman has pursued this matter a little more fully than I have. But in normal circumstances, it would be surprising to find a reduction in unit costs following a reduction in the total number of aircraft produced.
I remain unconvinced by the Government's case for a tactical air-to-surface missile. It appears that the SRAM-T is by no means certain to continue; and that reservations about that have been expressed in the United States. We know that there is a French equivalent which the Government might be able to employ. I believe that there is almost certainly a case for NATO deploying the weapon, but it is hard to justify a United Kingdom need to acquire the capability, especially at a time when we are told that the budget of the MOD is likely to be under siege.
I hope that the Government will seriously consider the political consequences of the deployment of a tactical air-to-surface missile and take serious account of the proposition that, if it were deployed in Europe, it could be deployed only at a time of crisis, being stored under normal circumstances in the United States. The people of Germany will have strong views about this sensitive subject, so I hope that, if the Government remain confirmed in the belief that a tactical air-to-surface missile is necessary, they will take account of the political sensitivities that the issue raises.
There is no question but that we have achieved considerable success as part of the allied effort in the hostilities in the Gulf, in which the Royal Air Force played a full and admirable part. Success, however, should not blind us to the need for careful analysis of performance of men and equipment. In a curious way it is easier to be self-critical after having lost or done badly. The history of warfare knows many examples of the losers learning from a battle but the victors failing to. I earnestly hope that we shall not fall into that trap.
§ 6.8 pm
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
I am glad that the Minister of State began his speech with a warm tribute to the Royal Air Force and the gallant part that it played in the successful outcome of the Gulf war. For those of us who sat in this House during those days, it was a humbling experience. I thought that our role contrasted dramatically with that of the air crew and the ground crew in the front line. I am pleased that I was not called to speak in the Gulf debates.
During the hostilities, I put a question to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and expressed the hope that we would not leave the job half done. Militarily, we certainly did not, and the conflict was a classic example of how air power properly applied can be the crucial determinant in modern war. It can also be said that, if air power had been deployed earlier, Saddam Hussein could have been deterred from his aggression. The Royal Air Force did just that vis-a-vis Iraq and the protection of Kuwait in 1961. Even after Kuwait was absorbed into Iraq by naked force, the rapid deployment of allied aircraft ensured the protection of Saudi Arabia.
In the Gulf conflict, Royal Air Force personnel showed courage, stamina and above all adaptability. An example of that was seen about halfway through the conflict, when air supremacy had been obtained, in the precision bombing of bridges, communication links and other key targets. It could be achieved only by the use of intelligent munitions.
As our Tornados did not, and still do not yet have laser designators, Buccaneers, which are normally employed in a maritime attack role, were sent at short notice from Lossiemouth to designate the targets. Tornados equipped with Paveway laser-guided bombs were then able to hit those targets from medium altitude, a tactic that they were not normally trained to carry out. The policy of using the most experienced crews for the job and forming composite squadrons meant that the necessary adaptability was successfully achieved.
Tribute has rightly been paid to the transport and Nimrod forces, and I should like especially to mention the Jaguar. It is reckoned to be an aging aeroplane, but those who worked on it and served with it knew that it could carry a heavy load a long way and that it was an effective close support aircraft. This proved to be the case, both with the French air force and the Royal Air Force in the Gulf, and our composite Jaguar squadron performed exceptionally well, fortunately without loss.
I regret that my right hon. Friend the Minister did not stress more strongly the importance of maintaining a strong defence industrial base in the United Kingdom, as that is of strategic interest to our services and of vital economic interest to our people, not least during a recession. Many questions were left unanswered but I am sure that, in the winding-up speech, some answers will be provided. I was told by the previous Secretary of State for Defence that the EH101 helicopter was to be the utility helicopter for the RAF. Now we have absolutely no idea of the helicopter that will be used for medium lift. We also know that the Wessex and ultimately the Puma will need to be replaced. The Nimrods on maritime patrol cannot continue ad infinitum, and a new maritime patrol aeroplane will have to be procured. The need for a medium level SAM to replace Bloodhound has already been mentioned in the debate.
475 The Minister begged more questions than he answered when he spoke about the future of the F3 Tornado in air defence. He speculated about whether there would be a mid-life update. We also know that the aircraft has some structural fatigue problems that need to be addressed. We must hear more about how the aircraft will fit into the overall air defence of this country in the medium term.
The Minister again adopted the interrogative mode when speaking about the European fighter aircraft in the medium and longer term. The aeroplane is the essential backbone of the RAF air defence of the future, and will also be essential for close air support. It will be a highly flexible, versatile aircraft, and if the Minister has doubts about it, he should at least spell out the alternatives.
§ Mr. Wilkinson
I am glad to hear that, because it resolves much of my uncertainty. I hope that it reassures the House.
During the Gulf war, the transport force was utilised at an exceptionally demanding rate. One wonders how this has affected the overall airframe life of the C130 which was getting a bit long in the tooth anyway. What are the medium-term plans for updating the transport force of C130s and VC10s?
Some hon. Members mentioned the tactical air-to-surface missile and the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) spoke about it at some length. A stand off nuclear capability for the RAF is important as part of the maintenance of a graduated deterrent by the United Kingdom. Unlike the Government, I believe that we shall need an intelligent anti-armour weapon with some stand-off capability. This has been cancelled for the time being. It is not wise to put the GR5 and GR7 Harriers into service without such a weapon, and the Jaguar and, ultimately, the European fighter aircraft will also need it. I do not wish to weary the House with these detailed points.
§ Mr. Alan Clark
As always, I am listening with tremendous interest to my hon. Friend's catalogue. I shall give a detailed reply in my winding-up speech. I have been adding up my hon. Friend's shopping list, and f have calculated that he is advising expenditure of between £15 billion and £18 billion. My hon. Friend speaks with great sincerity and there is a good case for all that he recommends, but his speech demonstrates the immense difficulty, even if one had constant budget levels, of apportioning expenditure to the three services.
§ Mr. Wilkinson
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, because his intervention enables me to curtail my speech. He has made several of the points that I had intended to make.
Important equipment decisions will need to be taken in the fairly short term. It is all very well to have options for change, but to maintain morale the services require some early decisions. I hope that the process of decision making will be advanced, so that we may have a proper debate on the defence review, because defence review it is although the Government have always been coy about using the phrase. During the 1980s, I wrote books about the need for a review and was ridiculed for doing so.
The problem of resources confronted by the Government is a real one, and they have at least made clear the kind of service that they want. I am glad that they 476 have done so. The Minister said that he wished the Royal Air Force to be a balanced force able to react to the needs of the 1990s and beyond. If it is to be a balanced force, it will have to be equipped with weapon systems of the type that I have outlined. They are weapons which are needed across the spectrum of capability.
If we have a lack of resources, I hope that at least there is no lack of intellectual investment in defence. The problem is that, over recent years, there has been all too little. We all knew that the issue of British forces in Germany would come to a head before too long. We all recognised that the defence procurement budget was growing beyond the rate of inflation and beyond the sustainability of long-term budgets, and that something had to be done. I believe that the solution lies in radical manpower policies.
In the past, we could rely on a virtually all-professional force but, as the Minister explained so eloquently in his speech, the Royal Air Force in the Gulf war needed to mobilise the Royal Auxiliary Air Force aero-medical and air movement squadrons, and needed the help of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve intelligence and meteorological specialists. The United States Air Force, which bore the brunt of the conflict, could not have won the war without the air transport force, half of which was reservist. Without the significant contribution made to the conflict on operations by the Air National Guard, for example, the New York Air National Guard flying F-16s, and the Alabama Air National Guard flying F-4s on Wild Weasel defence suppression missions, the war might not have been won.
I believe that we can sensibly reduce the regular element if we compensate with an increase in reserves. Reserves need to be paid only when they are training. They do not need pensions or married quarters. They make a contribution to the civil community through their full-time jobs. The concomitant to that is giving a good career to the regulars and investing in training. I am a little perplexed that the Royal Air Force, however, should be moving away from apprentice training at Halton and should have done away with cadet training at Cranwell. The experience of air forces in all other countries of the developed world has led them to put more rather than less emphasis on training for the regulars.
I am confident that the Royal Air Force will have a key part to play in our defence in future. It may be much less orientated towards a static presence on the continent of Europe, but the inherent flexibility and mobility of air power will be indispensable to the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)
I endorse everything that has been said in tribute to the men and women of the Royal Air Force for their extraordinary performance in the Gulf war. Like other members of the Select Committee on Defence, I had the extraordinary good fortune to visit our forces in the Gulf on two occasions, first, at the end of November and, secondly, in mid-March. On the first occasion I found that many of the men and women to whom I talked were apprehensive about the future, hoping that Kuwait could be freed without the need for military action, but determined that, if it became necessary, they would do the job that they had joined to do, to the best of their ability and in a way which would make the people at home proud of them. That is exactly what they did.
477 When I went back to meet service men and women the second time, I found them relieved that the war was over, with so few casualties. They were quietly pleased that they had done the job they set out to do so swiftly and efficiently, although they were sad that they had lost some good friends. My experience of those two visits underlines the view that I have always had when I meet members of our armed forces—that we have every right to be proud not just of their courage and determination but of their sheer professionalism.
On the first occasion when we met commanders in the Gulf, those who were with me may recall that the people in command of the Royal Air Force, undoubtedly aware of the resources at their disposal, were bullish about the prospects. They took the view that it was at least possible that, after a period of sustained attack from the air, the Iraqi forces would be likely to crack. The Army, predictably, were much more sceptical and took the view that territory could be reclaimed only through the use of forces on the ground.
When we went back for the second visit, there was no real dispute that the extraordinary success of the land war had been due largely to the sheer erosion of the Iraqi ability to fight as a result of the sustained air attack. Jane's Defence Weekly of 6 April analysed the position and summed it up effectively when it said:The objectives of the coalition ground assault were achieved with incredibly low casualty figures. It was airpower that made this imbalance of damage possible, because airpower alone could attack every part of the Iraqi military—every one of the 500,000 troops, every factory, every ammunition dump, and every vehicle—while putting only a few hundred coalition aircraft and their crews at risk.That underlines the absolutely essential element of air supremacy in modern warfare. It is doubtful whether any army in the world could have stood up to the technologically based air bombardment which was directed against the Iraqis. That is one lesson that we learned from the Gulf war.
The second lesson, which has been touched on already in the debate, is the fact that smart munitions on the whole worked extremely well. We saw some of the videos on television. Those of us who visited the forces afterwards were shown more examples of the incredible accuracy of some of the systems. We have been talking for 20 to 25 years of emerging technologies on the battlefield; in the light of the Gulf war it is obvious that they are here to stay. We must also recognise that more and more nations are acquiring the capabilities of electronic warfare. It is an expensive process, only partially offset by the lower manpower levels involved, but there is no alternative to going down that costly path if the RAF is to maintain the capacity to fight an effective conventional war.
I also endorse what was said earlier about the importance of stand-off weapons systems. It is right to try to learn the lesson of the Gulf war in terms of the review of "Options for Change" and the mapping out of the way forward for our armed forces in a different environment. I strongly endorse the comments of the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, on the cuts. They were hardly options; they were firm and clear cuts because options were not offered to anybody. If one offers options, there are choices. These were not choices but straightforward cuts.
478 It is a matter for concern that the cuts were imposed without discussion with NATO. NATO was told about them afterwards, but there was no consultation beforehand. That is sad and strange. I recall, as I am sure other right hon. and hon. Members do, the criticism directed against some of our NATO allies when they, for what they regarded as sound financial reasons, reduced their defence expenditure and cut their defence contributions. It is strange that we should have done exactly the same as we have condemned others for doing in the past.
As we consider the size and shape of British forces for the future, there is widespread acceptance of the need for much more flexible and mobile forces, able to adapt to changing circumstances and sudden emergencies. The chief of the air staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Peter Harding, told the Royal Aeronautical Society recently that the overall direction of the RAF in the 21st century had to be towards a multi-role capability. He said:We must not invest very large sums of money in equipment and capabilities that are highly specialised, which are specific to one scenario.That is sound advice. I am glad to be reassured that the European fighter aircraft will adhere to the multi-role philosophy and that it will fulfil all the roles of the Tornado. Certainly, it will be able to undertake a substantial number of differing roles.
I share the concern of the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, about the security of the German involvement in this programme because, like him, I read with interest that the Germans are now evaluating six potential alternatives to the European fighter aircraft. We know that they have reduced their declared uptake. The United Kingdom is now committed to taking 250 aircraft out of a total of 675, and although we may argue as to whether unit costs will be increased or decreased if the Germans pull out, German withdrawal from the programme would certainly create difficulties.
That is something that the Select Committee on Defence explored with Ministry of Defence officials at our meeting last week. It asked a direct question and the official appearing before it said:If Germany did not go ahead with the production phase at all it most certainly would have implications for Britain and, we would have to consider our position at that stage.That seems to be a classic civil service formula for the fact that there would be difficulties if Germany pulled out. All that I am saying at this stage is that I hope the Government have some fallback position to guard against that eventuality.
Turning to the role of the RAF in relation to nuclear weapons, I am one of those who believe that nuclear weapons have a role in the defence of Europe for as far ahead as we can see. The obvious threat from the Soviet Union may have diminished, although we may argue among ourselves how far it has diminished. However, we have to accept that there is very great uncertainty about the future state and condition of the Soviet Union. For example, if the Soviet Union were to break up into its constituent parts, all of us would have some fears about what might happen to the nuclear weapon arsenal which it now has. We must also recognise the risks of nuclear proliferation in third nations, which are a constant matter of concern.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, at the London summit last July, heralded a new strategy of making nuclear weapons truly weapons of last resort. But 479 it also made it clear that nuclear weapons will continue to play a central role in the overall strategy of the alliance for the prevention of war. While nuclear weapons remain a vital part of NATO strategy they must be credible, effective, responsive and survivable. There must be a mix of systems and a range of options open to alliance Governments, and that means that at a certain point nuclear modernisation has to be undertaken. There is no point in clinging to nuclear systems that are outdated or ineffective.
In my view, in the foreseeable future there will be a growing gap in NATO's sub-strategic nuclear arsenal. The Pershings and the ground-launched cruise missiles are being removed as a result of the INF treaty. The Lance missiles are obsolescent and are not to be replaced, and I welcome and support that decision. Nuclear artillery is likely to be withdrawn as a result of the result of the short-range nuclear negotiations with the Soviet Union, and again I endorse that approach.
That would leave us with free-fall nuclear bombs to be delivered by manned aircraft and submarine and surface-launched cruise missiles as NATO's only sub-strategic nuclear systems in Europe. I believe that that is not a credible sub-strategic deterrent. It forces us to rely much too heavily on Trident missiles, from both the United States and the United Kingdom. Air Chief Marshal Sir Peter Harding underlined that point in his recent lecture, when he said that the United Kingdom Government needed options in the nuclear basket in addition to Trident. He saw Trident, as I think most of us do, as a last-ditch weapon to be used only against a threat of total destruction. So I regard the case for a stand-off tactical air-to-surface missile with a nuclear capability as an extremely powerful one.
Manned aircraft are increasingly vulnerable to improving air defences and the Gulf war experience does not invalidate that assessment. The Iraqi air defences crumbled simply because of the sheer weight of the non-stop onslaught on them and we should be very unwise to assume that that sort of situation would be repeated in any conflict on the continent of Europe. In any case, the initial stage of the Gulf war demonstrated the importance of stand-off weapons capable of being launched from aircraft out of reach of the defenders' anti-aircraft systems.
TASM is an extremely flexible system. It can be used against a wide variety of targets: airfields, ports, barracks, troop concentrations, industrial facilities or even ships. It provides the ability to respond swiftly almost anywhere in the world. It has the flexibility to be retargeted during the aircraft's flight. It can deliver small numbers of nuclear warheads against widely spaced targets, and of course it enables the aircraft to be used in conventional or nuclear roles.
Other hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have referred to possible United States deployments, which we understand are due some time in the mid-1990s. We all understand the political difficulties in the current situation in deploying those new nuclear systems on the continent of Europe, although logically as many nations as possible should take a share of responsibility for the nuclear defence of our continent. Those difficulties underline the importance of the United Kingdom programme to replace the WE177 free-fall nuclear bomb by a tactical air-to-surface missile.
The Secretary of State told us last year that he hoped to be able to announce the choice of a TASM system for the 480 United Kingdom by the end of 1990. We now understand that the decision has been delayed for another year. We hear that there are problems with the Boeing SRAM-T system, one of the two American possibilities being considered. There is no secret about the fact that there are difficulties, to put it no higher than that, at Aldermaston over the design of a warhead for a British TASM system. And, of course, we know that the French are extremely anxious to see Anglo-French co-operation in developing the ASLP as an Anglo-French TASM system.
There have been suggestions that financial pressures may be one cause of delaying the programme. I hope very much that when the Minister replies to the debate he will make it clear that it is not financial pressures that have delayed the TASM programme. It is a vital issue for the RAF and indeed for our national defence. I hope that, when the Minister replies, we shall get a very clear statement of the current position.
§ Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)
I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) for he, like the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), has shown that there is a rare consensus on defence and on where we should be going with the Royal Air Force.
I pay a tribute, as all speakers in the debate so far have, to the Royal Air Force for its outstanding performance in the whole Gulf theatre, to the Jaguar, Tornado, Buccaneer, Nimrod, Hercules and tanker crews, and of course to others who played an equally important part—in the VC10s, the Tristars and the communication squadrons—and who did so much throughout the whole period. It shows that the mix of aircraft required in a modern air force is substantial and that we cannot put all our eggs in two or three baskets. We need a wide variety of aircraft to cover a wide variety of operations.
Since 1945, all of us have seen the ever-growing importance of the helicopter. We saw from the huge numerical superiority of the American helicopters and our own substantial contribution what a vital part they play in modern warfare. I am sure that my right hon. Friend is giving very careful thought to what hon. Members have said tonight about replacement helicopters and types of helicopters. In many ways, they are the aircraft of the future and we must get on with it and not hold back because we cannot quite make up our minds what is the best design to go for.
I want to follow what the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East said about our search and rescue squadrons. They play a notable part in British national life—particularly, because of terrain and weather, in Scotland. They are based at Leuchars and Lossiemouth, and at Prestwick with the Royal Navy. Whenever there is a disaster of any sort, even one involving a single climber, there is the yellow helicopter setting a very fine example and showing brilliant airmanship in retrieving casualties in dreadful weather conditions. It is very important, as my hon. Friends the Members for Ruislip-Northwood and for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) said, to ensure that our Royal Air Force crews have training in this extremely hazardous work so that, when they are required on operations abroad, they have the skill and experience to carry out their tasks.
481 I would be the last person to criticise the civilian helicopter service, which looks after search and rescue. After all, as has been said, the crews are trained by the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy. However, in years to come, that may not be the case. Nobody doubts that Bristow could provide this service, but, in the national context, it should be largely a Royal Air Force responsibility. I hope that the Government believe so firmly in the Royal Air Force search and rescue squadrons that those squadrons will be allowed to continue into the distant future.
The air crews have rightly been praised, but I am glad that my right hon. Friend put in a good word for the ground crews, too. I remember from wartime days what an incredible feat of logistics and organisation it is to move a squadron from one place to another and maintain its ability to be operational within minutes. It is a great credit to the ground staff serving in the Gulf that they maintained aircraft capability so effectively for so long.
This week, there has been a great deal of publicity about the phasing out of the RAF's Shackletons. It is appropriate that we should pay a tribute to those aircraft and the crews who have flown them over such a long period. Eight Squadron, based at Lossiemouth, has set the very highest standards in every way. It is with a tear in our eye that we wave farewell. We wish the squadron well on its move to Waddington, where it will use Boeing aircraft.
I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood mentioned the Royal Auxiliary Air Force medical and movement squadrons, which were called out to serve during the Gulf war. I pay great tribute to them and to the many women who served with the aeromedical squadron.
I am glad that the Government have encouraged and organised a thanksgiving service in Glasgow cathedral this weekend. This is a very fitting time to pay tribute to those who lost their lives and to thank all those who returned safely for their wonderful service. It is sad that some clergymen have raised so much unnecessary controversy about the service.
It is clear that fighting a modern war requires a tremendous combination of offensive and defensive capability. If we are to be involved in campaigns overseas, it is essential that our forces be capable of being deployed swiftly. One comes to view "Options for Change" and the comments of the Select Committee on Defence with some doubt as to how far and how fast we are going. In some ways, it would be good if we were still at the Green Paper stage, so that we could comment on the options before decisions were taken. As it is, I fear that decisions will be made and that we shall have to fight a rearguard action to achieve the capability that we regard as best in terms of the threat, about which, at the moment, nobody is the least bit clear.
In that regard, I appreciate what my right hon. Friend the Minister has said about finance. Of course there are always opportunities to reduce expenditure in any large organisation, such as the Royal Air Force, the Army or the Royal Navy. However, we must keep a balance with operational capability and training requirements.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood very appropriately mentioned the importance of Royal Air Force training. Without exceptional training, we could not 482 have achieved such success in the Gulf. I hope that, in the winding-up speech, we shall hear that there will be no reduction this year in the number of flying training hours. Training of this type is not something that can just be put down and picked up overnight. It has to be a continual operation, especially for the pilot of a fast jet.
The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East mentioned low-flying aircraft. The Select Committee has reported on this matter, and we have read the Government's comments with interest. I have supported low-flying training by the Royal Air Force. It is absolutely essential, as was proved by the skill of our pilots in the Gulf. But many members of the public, who are probably not so acutely aware of the importance of training, are concerned about the possibility of our having more low flying on account of attitudes in Germany and elsewhere on the continent. If the Government can say that the programme will continue much as before—that it will not be stepped up—many civilians will be reassured.
We still have heavy responsibilities in Northern Ireland, the Gulf and eastern Europe, and we have a heavy commitment to NATO. That is why I am so concerned that we may be moving rather faster than events justify. Reason for international concern often blows up at short notice out of nothing—and never more so than in the cases of the Falklands and the Gulf. When we are planning our defences, we must have a long lead. Operations cannot be planned overnight. Sophisticated weaponry necessitates planning years ahead. When the options are being considered, that fact must be borne in mind. I do not remember a time in my life—which some people may think has gone on far too long—when we had too many forces. We are always under pressure. Service men often work seven days a week, although one might think that they should work a normal week of five or five and a half days. We must try to balance our forces with the needs of the times. We can never be absolutely certain that there is not some dark, dangerous dictator lurking round the corner. We have to be prepared.
I am afraid that there are bound to be some cuts in defence expenditure, and Defence Ministers are concerned about the severe local consequences. RAF stations will be closed and defence orders will be lost. There are also serious political issues like Rosyth. Were we to lose regiments, there would be serious consequences. Our regiments have enormous support, countywide and countrywide. In nearly all cases, the standard of recruitment is very high. I can only very briefly touch on this problem, but what affects the Royal Air Force is equally serious for the other arms of the services.
In respect of one other matter, I urge the Government to act with foresight. Under the Armed Forces Act 1980 we were limited, to a certain extent, in calling out our reserves for service in the Gulf. This matter should not be swept under the carpet, on the ground that there will not be another crisis for five to 10 years. Let us get down to amending the 1980 Act next Session—or certainly the Session after—to provide for a much more effective means of calling out the reserves.
The Royal Auxiliary Air Force, the RAFVR and the Royal Navy and Army equivalents are made up of active reservists. Those people have volunteered to give their time, weekend after weekend, to prepare for a crisis. In many ways, they do not need to be asked to volunteer, as they already are volunteers. What they want is to be called out to serve by the Ministry of Defence. There are perfectly 483 adequate procedures if they cannot go for compassionate reasons. I hope that, in the event of another crisis, we shall not hesitate to call out active reservists, because they will respond to a man—or woman.
That should be clarified in the form of an Act of Parliament. It should be made clear, for instance, that the squadrons of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force could be called out to do guard duty at hard-pressed stations where the fitters were working morning, noon and night to repair and service aircraft to and from the Gulf. The guard duty could be done willingly by reservists, but they have so far been precluded from doing so. If, in a crisis, we have reservists who are real enthusiasts, let us use them: they will then feel that the whole object of their reserve life is being fulfilled.
We must look carefully at the future of the reserves. They are extremely cost-effective, as has already been pointed out. The Royal Auxiliary Air Force Regiment squadrons, the Defence Force flights and the Maritime Headquarters Unit are all very effective and are part of the line of battle of the Royal Air Force. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson): if only we could return to the days of the flying squadrons. In the days of the battle of Britain and before, they were the essence of the reserve forces in the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and they have never failed when the country needed to be defended.
We must use the reserves, because so many men and women are involved. An enormous number of men and women want to serve this country, and welcome the opportunity of participating by engaging in military training. They want to own a share in the community. That will do an immense amount for their effectiveness at work, as well as the part that they play in the social life of the community. We must not let the reserves run down.
I keep hearing it said that, in the future, the reserves will be even more important in terms of "Options for Change". I should like that to be translated into action, because I believe that the promotion of the reserves of all three services is a real bull point.
We have learnt a good deal from the reports of the Select Committee inquiry and I pay tribute to the Chairman and members of that Committee for what they have achieved on our behalf. However, we should also pay tribute tonight to the RAF and to all those associated with it—and to the other services—for their outstanding performance in the Gulf. As a nation, we can take credit for something that was exceptionally well done.
§ Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)
I want to raise three issues. The first is, of course, the Gulf war; the second is nuclear weapon modernisation, and the tactical air-to-surface missile; and the third is nuclear weapon safety, and the WE177—the free-fall hydrogen bomb.
The courage of our pilots in the Gulf war was beyond doubt. They did the job that they had been told to do, with devastating and destructive effectiveness. But—and here, as far as I am concerned, the consensus in the House ends—I believe that excessive force was used in that war. The allies deployed 2,790 aircraft. According to General McPeak, the Chief of Staff of the US air force, allied planes made a total of 109,876 sorties, and dropped 88,500 tonnes of bombs—50 per cent. more than were dropped in the whole of the Vietnam war. Apparently, 6,250 tonnes 484 were delivered by laser-guided smart weapon systems. In addition to that, fuel air explosives and mini-nuclear weapons were used—allegedly only against minefields, but no doubt they caused considerable loss of life. The RAF dropped 3,000 tonnes of weapons—more than 100 JP233 airfield denial weapons, which cost over £1 million each; and some 6,000 bombs, of which more than 1,000 were laser-guided. It fired more than 100 anti-radar missiles and 700 air-to-ground rockets.
All that bombing effectively bombed Iraq back into the stone age. I say that it was excessive force, and that is implied in the words of the United States service man who described it as a "turkey shoot". In the dying days of the war—and that is certainly the right description—more than 100,000 people were slaughtered, including civilians and many conscripts who were retreating in those final days.
§ Mr. Neville Trotter (Tynemouth)
Will the hon. Gentleman still call it a turkey shoot when I tell him that a constituent of mine, Mr. Croskery, was shot by the Iraqi army just after the invasion when trying to leave the country as an innocent civilian?
§ Mr. Cohen
It was a United States officer who described it as a turkey shoot. There is no need to go into the origins of the war, although I shall gladly do so if I am asked to. I still think that sanctions would have been a better way of resolving the conflict—and they still apply now—but we went to war, and, having done so, used excessive force. I do not think that the British people have been allowed to know the full horror; what they have seen amounts to a single photograph on an inside page of The Observer. In this country, excessive force has been matched only by excessive censorship.
As for smart weapons, I think that the war was a testing ground for them. It was, in a way, a training war—and that was part of the excessive force that was deployed. Even so, the weapons were not as surgical as was claimed. The United States bombed a civilian air shelter, causing the deaths of hundreds of innocent people. The RAF bombed the town of Fallujah, which can only be described as an atrocity. Overall in military terms, smart weapons were probably a success; but, in due course, they will be the source of a new arms race unless they are checked.
As for low flying, the problem did not relate to the bravery of the pilots, which was beyond argument; the problem related to the tactics laid down by the Ministry of Defence. Let us compare the Tornado GR1s with the US aircraft that were sent to the Gulf. Of the 42 British Tornado GR1s that were sent, six were lost in combat in the first week—another, I believe, was lost for another reason. That represents one in seven of the force. The US air force deployed approximately 1,400 aircraft, but lost only 13 in the course of the entire war—fewer than one in 100. In peacetime, too, our record of aircraft loss and loss of life among pilots is much greater than that in comparable air forces, including that of the United States. That is down to the tactics used by the Ministry of Defence.
§ Sir Hector Monro
The hon. Gentleman really should not compare the number of casualties with the total number of aircraft deployed in the theatre of conflict. He should use the number of sorties flown, or the number of hours. That would be a reasonable comparison.
§ Mr. Cohen
The hon. Gentleman may not like those figures—one in seven, as against fewer than one in 100—but they represent the reality. As I have said, in peacetime our losses due to low flying are greater than those of the United States. Even the United States described our use of the GR1s as a suicide mission. That is down to the Ministry of Defence.
Those low-flying tactics put our RAF pilots into the only air space that had any air defence weapons—near the ground. One thing that the Iraqis were not short of were soldiers with machine guns and rifles. An individual soldier with an automatic rifle might not have had much chance of a hit, but many soldiers firing at the same target had a fairly high probability of hitting something, and that is what happened in the first week.
§ Mr. O'Neill
Is my hon. Friend saying that the Ministry of Defence was irresponsible in asking our pilots to take out airfields, something that they alone could do? Did the taking out of airfields in itself present a danger to the allies? If we had not taken out those airfields, they would have been able to respond, and the manner in which they responded would have created far more trouble for our troops than what happened in the first place.
Secondly, if we had not broken the heart and mind of the Iraqi air force in the first week, we might have had to deal with far greater problems. Thirdly, the Opposition supported that strategy as much as the Government, because we recognised the importance of air power, the capability not just of British, but of Saudi, Syrian, Egyptian and other air forces, in contributing to the effort. It meant that, if we could conduct a war in the air, we might prevent a potentially horrendous war from unfolding on the ground, with the loss of far more lives than the far too many lives that were actually lost.
§ Mr. O'Neill
This is my last point, by way of information. It seems that my hon. Friend requires such information because his understanding of the nature of the conflict and the strategy behind it is so out of line with what people saw as the objectives that he is distorting the character of the sacrifice that was made by our troops, whose bravery both he and I applaud. Their sacrifice was one that they were prepared for.
§ Mr. Cohen
As my hon. Friend says, I do not question the bravery and courage of our pilots. What I do question is the tactics. I am sorry to hear my hon. Friend justifying what I have described as excessive force. I do not think that he is right to say that our pilots alone could do that job. That is an insult to the United States air force, and it is not true. My hon. Friend is also going along with the myth that accompanied the build-up of the war, that the Iraqi war machine was the biggest and most dangerous around and was equivalent to that of the allies. That was done to justify this excessive force, when the reality was quite different.
Why, if what my hon. Friend says is right, did the Ministry of Defence change those tactics after the first week? They were changed because the losses were so great, because the tactics were so foolish. The truth of the matter is that the tactics were a consequence of the Ministry of Defence's obsession with low flying, which is seen as a tactic for a war in eastern Europe. That tactic was 486 completely inappropriate in this war, but the Ministry of Defence used Iraq as a training ground for a future war with the Soviet Union, resulting in unnecessary loss of life and expensive aircraft.
The next matter is probably not so controversial—tactical air-to-surface missiles, particularly the United States TASM and the short-range attack missiles (tactical)—SRAM-T—which is fitted to the Fl 5E aircraft. Will the Government say clearly whether they will allow SRAM-Ts to be based at United States bases in Britain? The Government cannot hide behind the pretence that that is a NATO decision which is yet to be made, because that is not the case. The Germans do not want SRAM-Ts on their soil and have made that clear, and the basing of F15E aircraft at Lakenheath and Bentwaters, to which the SRAM-T is designed to be fitted, was a bilateral decision of the United States and the United Kingdom, not a NATO one.
Does the Minister see the basing of SRAM-Ts in Britain as important to our defence or not? The Minister should not stay silent. He cannot stay silent. I do not think that it is important, because it is part of the nuclear weapons modernisation programme that was conceived and decided upon during the cold war and before the present phase in international politics.
Since then, there have been all sorts of changes in eastern Europe. Having lost eastern Europe as their starting point, Soviet air defences are relatively weak. The Warsaw pact has been wound up, and President Gorbachev has made real efforts towards achieving a reduction in nuclear weapons. The deployment of SRAM-T would aversely affect arms control agreements that we should be striving to achieve. It is not needed to deal with such out-of-area third-world threats as the Gulf war. The Iraqi air defences were overwhelmed with conventional weaponry. We do not need new nuclear missiles in those cases.
Those arguments do not just apply to the United States TASM based in Britain, but also suggest that the Government should not go ahead with the so-called British TASM, either buying the United States SRAM-T off the shelf or deploying the French missile built with American support, the ASLP.
Nuclear weapon storage facilities for TASMs at United States bases are still going ahead at Bentwaters, Lakenheath and Upper Heyford. They were originally proposed, again as part of the modernisation process, in 1986, but two weeks ago it was said that they would go ahead. Ironically, they are going ahead with NATO rather than with American money, despite the fact that SRAM-T is the result of a bilateral decision. Does that mean that the Minister wants TASMs and SRAM-Ts based here, despite their current irrelevance to international realities, or are the storage facilities going ahead so that SRAM-Ts come here anyway as a fait accompli in due course? We have a right to expect an answer from the Minister on that point.
Thirdly, I want to refer to the WE177, the free-fall hydrogen bomb, particularly its safety and the safety of other weapons as well. The recent Drell report in the United States has shown that many nuclear weapons, not just Trident, are not as safe as was previously thought. Some of the less safe American warheads are of the same vintage as the WE177 bomb. That is confirmed by the report on warhead safety published, I think last week, by Basic.
487 Excessive secrecy has surrounded British nuclear weapons, making it easy for Ministers to give bland assurances about weapon safety while allowing no independent checks. There is a so-called independent Nuclear Weapons Safety Committee, but that is covered by the Official Secrets Act. The Government's obsession with secrecy precludes any member of that committee who feels that a weapon is unsafe from telling anyone in Parliament or in public unless authorised to do so by Ministers. How can that be independent? Have the Government found some obscure definition of the word that is not in common use?
A recent opinion poll published in The Scotsman on Monday shows that 78 per cent. of respondents said that the British Parliament should have access to the same quality of information as the Americans about the safety or otherwise of their nuclear weapons. Fifty-eight per cent. thought that the transportation of nuclear weapons should be stopped until the safety questions had been resolved. The Government just hide behind their secrecy.
Let me tease the Government a little. I challenge the Minister to reassure the public and Parliament by telling us what safety features are included in British weapons design. Surely it cannot affect national security to say whether a nuclear weapon's pit is fire-resistant or that safer insensitive high explosives—IHEs—are used on all nuclear weapons. The Government's position on safety lacks credibility. The weapons are designed by AWRE Aldermaston, an organisation which cannot even organise safety features in its own A90 and A91 buildings. The Government expect us to believe that they have got the weapons right, so they must provide some answers about weapons safety.
In 12 years in power, the Government have not changed one iota. They want more nuclear weapons regardless of the international circumstances, and they are prepared to sacrifice hospitals and living standards to get them. A peace dividend is anathema to them, but the change will come. Britain's economic circumstances will not regard yet more bombs and missile as a priority. I hope that that change comes sooner rather than later.
§ Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to catch your eye early in this debate. As so oftens happens, just as one is beginning to take an interest in a debate, a flurry of telephone messages comes in and a local situation must be dealt with. I apologise for leaving the Chamber to tackle that matter. To be fair to other hon. Members, it behoves me to be rief'.
§ Mr. Dykes
I shall be brief, notwithstanding the exhortation of the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill).
Most of the points made by the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) were phantasmagorical in the extreme and I do not propose to follow them. It was interesting for us to observe the fact that there is a gap on the Labour Benches on defence matters, notwithstanding the fact that officially the Labour party fully supported the Government's stance on the Gulf war. We know that there are still divisions in the Labour party and that was clear from the rather angry exchanges that took place earlier. I 488 was hoping for more of them, because it would have reminded the public that such a division exists and that the Labour party is not as monolithic on defence matters as Conservative Members are—
§ Mr. Dykes
I should resist the temptation to respond to sedentary interventions. The Bruges group is collapsing by the minute and we do not need to dwell on it tonight. The fact that it is in the news here at the moment is, in one sense, good rather than bad news.
We are presumably on the verge of constructing a Europeanwide defence policy after the NATO emergency period during the cold war. In that sense, presumably there are lessons to be learned from the Gulf conflict and the detailed modalities of defence policy with the use of land forces and air weapons.
Unless I am misrepresenting the Government's official policy, I am glad that we do not want a European Community defence policy. That would be an illogical proposition. In the confused state of the debate about some of the allies not taking part in warlike activities and being rather timid, there was a suggestion that there should be a Community defence policy. However, the European Community is the world's major civilian power—if I can use such a colloquial description. The Community does not have a defence parameter.
As I understand it, the Government are suggesting, subject to elaboration of these complicated issues, that the Community could participate in the development of security policy alongside foreign policy. I see the logic of a wider security policy background as part of the foreign policy configurations of the Community. We must bear it in mind that at least one country might have difficulty with questions of neutrality and those countries might not be able to participate. An overall umbrella concept of security policy is distinct from the narrower policy in a military sense. To bring the latter concept into the European Community is most strange. It is even stranger that Jacques Delors, who until then had often been accused of being too zealous in his promotion of the commanding heights of Community policy, suddenly said, on a visit to the Institute of Strategic Studies here, that there should be a Community defence policy. The whole issue has become very confused. We must now see what will develop in future, but the Royal Air Force will have an important role.
I am glad that official spokesmen are no longer accusing the allies of running away in the face of the war in the Gulf. The phrase, "running for the cellars," caused outrage in Germany and elsewhere, and quite rightly. That was an unfair attack on our German allies. Such accusations have now subsided, and things are returning to normal.
All hon. Members, even the hon. Member for Leyton, have paid tribute to the RAF and its courage in the Gulf. In adding my words to that tribute which the House has recognised unanimously on many occasions, I take 489 pleasure in the fact that I have the honour of having in my constituency part of No. 11 Group RAF Bentley Priory, one of the headquarters in the constellation that is commanded by Air Vice-Marshal Bill Wratten, who was the commander of the RAF forces in the Gulf.
I met Bill Wratten on Saturday night at a local civil function. Harrow had the privilege and honour earlier this year of according to RAF Bentley Priory the freedom of the borough. We recorded that Harrow is extremely proud of RAF Bentley Priory and RAF Stanmore Park and of what the RAF has done for this country. RAF Bentley Priory was the control centre for the battle of Britain and is therefore a solemn shrine to the courage and valour of the RAF. Air Vice-Marshal Bill Wratten follows a long line of extremely talented senior Air Force officers. The current chief of the air staff also commanded Bentley Priory. Bill Wratten is young and extremely talented and he will be annoyed that I am making these remarks tonight, but I must make them. He was in charge of the forces in the Gulf and they did a superb and wonderful job.
I am sure that the MOD evaluations by the experts who know far more about these matters than we do will be able to draw the appropriate lessons from what happened in the Gulf war. Unlike the hon. Member for Leyton, I have no quarrel with the tactics and strategy of the Gulf war. The conflict was a superb vindication of the United States-led coalition. There were whingers and moaners early on, but that is understandable. Some people always have doubts and warfare is a horrendous matter. However, the Gulf conflict paid off triumphantly. We were mightily relieved that our casualties, including the Air Force casualties, were so few. Each of those casualties was a sad bereavement for the family and friends concerned and for the nation. But, mercifully, there were very few casualties and we thank the Almighty and our commanders for that result.
Once a conflict is over it is perfectly legitimate for people to ask questions about it and seek more information. The media were very controlled during the conflict, presumably because the United States, after its bitter lessons in Vietnam, was determined to exercise such control. That policy was successful, but it means that the information to hand after the conflict is very limited.
Almost my only doubts about the conflict stem from the incidents that occurred towards the end of the war when the Iraqi forces were retreating from Kuwait. There may be answers about that in future. So far as one can tell, senior British officers were aghast at what they saw when they arrived at the scene. In due course, the Americans or others will provide more information about it. Surely, once the tactics and the strategies have succeeded, there is no need for overkill or the sort of things that may have happened in the Gulf.
I say "may" because I do not want to be unjust. It is easy for armchair experts and observers to pass judgment without having any direct experience, and I am conscious of that. My hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) is nodding; he is obviously concerned with what I am saying. He has great experience of the Royal Air Force. I reassure him that it is all right to have these thoughts; there is no danger to our troops once the conflict 490 has ended. While the conflict continued, it was different—there had to be national solidarity. I am sure that everyone understands that.
It is legitimate to raise questions after the conflict is ended, not least on behalf of the hapless Iraqi soldiers and civilians who were the main victims of Saddam Hussein—an evil dictator who used those people as malleable pawns in his demonic plans. Unhappily, he has survived. I presume that there will be more information on that in due course. In such a controlled dictatorship, it is difficult to know exactly what is happening and what people feel about someone who has apparently eliminated so many of his opponents.
There are bound to be questions, and there is no need for anyone to be apologetic about that. It is possible that thousands of soldiers were killed unnecessarily. Our understanding is that the Americans, at the highest level in the Pentagon, had to intervene and stop the killing because it was getting out of hand.
A major lesson that we have learnt is that, were such a conflict to occur again—we hope that it will not—the United Nations would have to be more co-ordinated. It must be fully in control of what is happening, except for the military activities that come under the control of military commanders and their command headquarters in the relevant countries. The war was not about the intrinsic survival of the United States, Britain or any other allied country. There were some 400 million people ranged against a nation of 17 million. What the Iraqi dictator did to his hapless and innocent conscripted soldiers is a tragedy both in middle eastern and world history. We must maintain a balanced appraisal, because we all wish to avoid war if we can.
The EFA programme has already been mentioned, and my hon. Friend the Minister has reassured the House about its progress. It is already a successful incipient project which, as my right hon. Friend said, is close to its first prototype early next year. That will be the precursor to the production stage. It is essential that we think beyond the Tornado to the next generation of aircraft. As I said previously, it is a great pity that the French did not join the project. I presume that it is now too late for them to do so. I think that they made a mistake. There is an overriding priority for all European countries to get together on new generations of equipment to ensure that the RAF, which has done so well, is properly equipped for the future. We must ensure that the RAF's talented people and its new recruits fly with the best equipment that we can provide. We can no longer provide that equipment from our resources because we are a small country, so we must get together with other countries.
I was a humble ministerial assistant in the Ministry of Defence in the 1970s when the Tornado—the multi-role combat aircraft—was first promulgated. There has been a vindication of the success of a Europeanwide multipurpose aircraft. I vividly remember that when it first came off the drawing board all the newspapers said that it was an absurd notion—an impossible project that could never come to fruition because of all the bureaucracy in the various countries. The Tornado has vindicated those who had faith in it. It performed superbly in the Gulf theatre and elsewhere.
Once again, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I thank you for calling me early in the debate. I have pleasure, satisfaction 491 and pride in paying tribute to the Royal Air Force for what it has done for this country, not only recently but over many years.
§ Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes), who is one of the most Euro-minded Members in this House. I was interested in what he said about the defence factor within Europe, the fact that the Western European Union has now been given a new impetus, and the fact that it is important that we remember that NATO still provides the basis for the defence of the west and our European partners within it. As the European Community enlarges, if the countries that successfully apply to join it are not already members of NATO, I am sure that they will be welcome to join if they wish to do so.
Like my hon. Friend, I had difficulty in finding anything good in the speech of the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen). However, I always take great pains to find common ground. Searching almost in vain, I managed to find some comments with which I wholeheartedly agreed. He said that we needed to be very careful about to whom we sold arms. He spoke of the high technology of the weapons deployed in the Gulf, and said that we should be careful not to find ourselves in a hi-tech arms race. We have successfully avoided a nuclear arms race. It is good that the hon. Gentleman and I can find some common ground.
I am sure that we would also agree with the hon. Gentleman that war is bad. His pacifist credentials are well displayed. His statistics on the Gulf war were interesting. He mentioned the 100,000 tonnes of bombs that were dropped, and said that that was more than were dropped in Vietnam. The fact is that the allies won the Gulf war, but the Americans lost the Vietnam war. We had the pay-off of victory, with a minimum of allied casualties.
I could not help but contrast the hon. Gentleman's speech with that of the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill). The difference between them raised a question about the real thrust of the defence debate within the Labour party. Although it appears that the Labour party has turned about on its defence policy, a sizeable rump within the party still takes a different view. In the run-up to a general election, the electorate would be wise to ask just to what degree the tail still wags the dog. There is no doubt that CND is still alive and well, and the hon. Member for Leyton is a prominent member. We should not simply accept that the Labour party has changed its spots. I am sure that the electorate will give that careful thought before the next election.
I could not but help also contrasting the hon. Gentleman's speech with that of the hon. Member for Woolwich (M r. Cartwright). His speech could easily have been made from the Conservative Benches, so there is no reason why he and his two colleagues in the SDP—all that is left of the parliamentary party—should not join us. They would be welcome. I could then refer to the hon. Gentleman as my hon. Friend, which I should be pleased to do. There is certainly plenty of room on our Benches tonight.
All hon. Members have joined in paying the warmest tribute to the Royal Air Force for its dramatically successful role in the recent Gulf conflict. I have heard 492 many hon. Members, especially the members of the Select Committee on Defence, say tonight they they visited the Gulf twice during the war. That may well be the case, but, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) and four other parliamentary colleagues, I was there first, and there must be something in that. We met many of the air and ground crews who were later so successfully engaged in the war against Saddam Hussein. I use those words because it was Saddam Hussein we were fighting rather than the Iraqi people. There is no doubt that the heroism, dedication to duty and skill of our Royal Air Force personnel are second to none.
§ Mr. Dykes
Would my hon. Friend be interested to know that, as on previous occasions, Air Vice-Marshal Wratten said with great emphasis on Saturday night that the letters and messages from home were of enormous help to the air and ground crews? Those letters included messages from schoolchildren and even from politicians. I could say that letters from politicians are rare, but I would not really mean it. In their initial long wait and then in the shorter waits between sorties and missions, it was extremely moving for the crews to be inundated with messages, which they found of great comfort, from the British people.
§ Mr. Colvin
I am glad to hear that. My hon. Friend's intervention has reminded me that, when my hon. Friends and I arrived in the Gulf, we were struck by the fact that the main concern of the RAF personnel and the civilian aerospace operatives in Saudi Arabia was what their friends and families back home thought about the situation in the Gulf. There is no doubt that some of the alarmist reports in the newspapers and on television and radio caused anxiety not only to people here, but to those deployed in the Gulf, who felt that the people back home were getting the wrong impression about the dangers in which they were living and working.
I draw the Minister's attention to the need to win the propaganda war, especially in the run-up to a conflict. My hon. Friends and I who visited the Gulf noted the marked contrast between the way in which the United Kingdom's forces handled the media in terms of press and information releases and the way in which the Americans did the same thing. When we returned home, one of the first things that we did was to impress upon the Ministry of Defence the need to improve its press and information services so that the right messages would get through not only to the world's press but to our own press, who were present in the Gulf in great numbers waiting for something to happen.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of State referred earlier to the speed and efficiency of the deployment to the Gulf of our aircraft and airmen in August and September of 1990 and later. A great tribute for the way in which that was managed so successfully must be paid to the British personnel there, especially the 3,500 British Aerospace personnel who were already in the Gulf taking part in the massive Al Yamamah contract, which is the biggest ever single export order for the United Kingdom for the supply of defence hardware to the Saudi Arabians, and which also involves the construction of an air base and, among other things, a town for 25,000 people.
The hon. Member for Clackmannan praised the Saudi Arabian air crews. Having had the opportunity to meet air crews from the Royal Saudi air force, I thoroughly endorse the hon. Gentleman's comments. I well recall our debates 493 in the early 1980s, both inside and outside the House, about the future of the JP233 bomb, which is used for knocking out enemy runways. There was much debate about whether that project should proceed and, like everyone else, I am pleased that it did.
The deployment of that bomb calls for exceptional bravery on the part not only of the pilots—there have been many tributes this evening to the bravery of our pilots but also from men who sometimes do not get the praise that they deserve. I refer to the weapons systems officers, also known as WESOs, who do not fly the aircraft but who sit behind the pilots and have the job of making sure that the systems work. When I was at the Riyadh training centre of the Royal Saudi air force, I suggested that the WESO is as important today as the pilot. It is often felt that those officers are second-class citizens, but that is far from being the case, and we must pay tribute to their work in the Gulf conflict.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre would be the first to agree that, if the JP233 bomb had been available during the Falklands operation, his task as a Vulcan pilot, taking out the Falklands airport runway, would have been a great deal easier.
To win a war, one must have air superiority and air supremacy. The Gulf conflict once again proved the truth of that and demonstrated the need to be one step ahead technically. I join those who have already called for the possible development of a stand-off capability from the JP233 bomb. We saw with amazement some of the feats of the Tomahawk cruise missile. If the JP233 bomb could be given the same flexibility, through wings, an engine and a guidance system, that would be greatly welcomed by all the pilots and WESOs who delivered it so successfully during the Gulf campaign.
Another aspect of the Gulf war was high mobility, which is an important principle of war. When we were in Saudi Arabia, we saw the massive number of helicopters that were already being deployed by the United States of America, including many Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters. I hope that, when they withdraw their forces from the Gulf, the Americans will not leave that hardware behind, thereby damaging the prospects of stage II of the Al Yamamah project, which includes the supply of 88 Black Hawk helicopters to the Royal Saudi air force. Those helicopters are to be assembled by Westland. The total order is worth about £1 billion, it is important business for Britain and for Westland. I am told that 20 such helicopters are wanted urgently.
Any debate on the Royal Air Force tends to concentrate on fixed-wing aircraft and their weapons, and this evening's debate has been no exception. However, helicopters are also important to the Royal Air Force although it has only eight Chinook helicopters for support purposes, such as for transporting men and materials around the battlefield and elsewhere. Those helicopters are now being successfully deployed in northern Iraq and Turkey, bringing relief to the Kurds.
The defence White Paper states that our Chinooks are being updated to improve their reliability—that is good news—and to extend their life well into the next century. I was sorry that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State did not say anything about helicopters earlier. No doubt he is leaving his views on the subject until his reply.
494 I want to make a few remarks about, first, the supply of the utility EH101 helicopter to the Royal Air Force and, secondly search and rescue operations, about which other hon. Members have spoken and for which helicopters are used by the Royal Air Force.
Four years ago, in April 1987, the then Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger), announced that the Ministry of Defence would place an order for 25 utility EH101 helicopters, which were being developed jointly by Westland and Agusta of Italy. Westland has completed phase 1 of a project definition study. It was completed in early 1990. It was proposed to build variants of the basic utility version.
Phase 2 of the study aims to provide more details of the selected variant to enable the project to go to the full development stage. Alas, the delays already experienced mean that the first aircraft is most unlikely to enter service with the RAF until 1998. That is much later than the statement by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ayr suggested. He referred to delivery in the early 1990s. It almost seems as if "Options for Change" is being used as a further reason for delaying the programme, which I regret.
The order for 25 utility EH 101 s, to be used in the support role, gives the aircraft an important endorsement by the Royal Air Force and helps to spread the cost of developing the technically more sophisticated versions of the EH101 for the Navy and the Army and, of course, developing the aircraft for civil use, where it has considerable potential. The EH101 could not only become the standard British helicopter for all the services but, through Westland's business link with Sikorsky, could find a profitable market in the United States. The aircraft certainly fits neatly into Sikorsky's product range.
I do not wish to give the impression that the EH101 is a drawing board aircraft. Nine pre-production aircraft have flown in Britain and Italy; 1,000 flying hours and 1,000 separate missions have been completed. The aircraft has landed at sea on frigates. A utility version with a rear landing ramp is flying in Italy, and British troop trials show that 30 combat-equipped soldiers with their support weapons can load in two minutes, which is much quicker than I was ever able to load my platoon into three-ton trucks when I was in the Army.
The EH101 has a top speed of 167 knots, or 193 miles per hour, at 12,000 ft. It can fly backwards and sideways at 50 knots. The test pilots who have flown the aircraft say that it is very free of vibration. Those of us who have flown a lot in helicopters know that vibration is a major problem. When my right hon. Friend the Minister replies, I should like him to tell us when the order will be placed for those 25 utility helicopters.
My right hon. Friend the Minister's review "Options for Change" raises another interesting question. For many years, there has been a debate about who should fly the Army around the battlefield and on other journeys. At present, the Royal Air Force has the job of flying our Chinook helicopters. I would argue that that role should be performed by the Army Air Corps. There have been arguments for and against that. I remind the House that the Army Air Corps is responsible only for flying the Army's helicopters. The RAF flies the Chinooks. The Royal Corps of Transport is responsible for handling the transport of the Army by road, rail and sea. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary sails from the Royal Corps of Transport 495 headquarters at Marchwood in my constituency. I have not heard the suggestion before, but under "Options for Change", my right hon. Friend the Minister might like to consider amalgamating the Royal Corps of Transport and the Royal Army Air Corps and giving them the role of flying the Chinooks and the EH101 utility version helicopters that I hope will be ordered.
§ Mr. Bill Walker
Before my hon. Friend goes too far down that road, will he remember that one of the reasons why the Royal Air Force is able to have pilots available for all the different roles and activities that it performs is that, for example, if a fast jet pilot injures his back he can be transferred to helicopters? There would be problems in transferring light blue to khaki.
§ Mr. Colvin
I hear my hon. Friend's remarks. If a debate ensues about who should fly the support helicopters, no doubt my hon. Friend will take art active part in it. His point is a valid one.
Admittedly, we live in a changing world, but some trends are clear, even in these uncertain times. One trend that is crystal clear is the requirement for our armed forces to be more mobile. In the main, helicopters—both attack and logistic versions—will give us that mobility. Other countries have no difficulty in recognising that and acting accordingly. The French, Germans and Italians have co-ordinated their efforts, and their manufacturers have a clear idea of their military markets in terms of types and numbers of helicopters for the next 20 years. It is about time that we too made progress on that front.
Our armed forces search and rescue helicopter teams are the envy of the world. In 1989 SAR was called out 1,903 times and rescued 1,275 people in demanding and dangerous situations. Merchant seamen, fishermen and hill climbers were rescued, usually in filthy weather. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), whom I see here in the Chamber, drew attention to the great value of the service. I seem to recall that, during the Lockerbie disaster, SAR performed an important mission. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries nodding. SAR has an important role to play. However, it is maintained primarily for the military role, which is why I believe that the Royal Air Force should retain responsibility for it.
Three years ago a review carried out by the Ministry of Defence showed that there was a need for search and rescue teams to be combat effective. That review concluded that it was a job for the Royal Air Force. I hope that "Options for Change" will not be used as another excuse for prevarication on the subject. I know that the Ministry of Defence has received an unsolicited contractorisation bid from a civilian helicopter firm. I believe that it is Bristow.
§ Mr. Colvin
Indeed, it is Bristow. The company is interested in taking on the work performed by at least parts of the military SAR service. Bristow is a splendid firm, I have a high regard for the professional way in which it conducts its operations, especially serving in the North sea. I do not belittle it in any way. However, if the contract went to a civilian firm, it would almost certainly use foreign-built helicopters. If the contract remained in the capable hands of the Royal Air Force, the Ministry of Defence could proceed with replacement of the obsolete, 496 but much-loved, Wessex helicopters with 10 Sea King helicopters from Westland. Another valid commercial reason for replacement with Sea Kings is that, if a decision is not made soon, the Sea King production line may have to close. Therefore, the option of procuring that excellent SAR helicopter would no longer exist. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) drew attention to the importance of preserving our defence industrial base, and that must also apply to helicopters.
Many hon. Members will join me in expressing pleasure at the fact that the Westland-Sikorsky solution to Westland's problems has been a great success. I believe that even my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, were he in his place, would probably now agree that going American was better than going European, and Westland's results for last year prove my point.
Sir Leslie Fletcher, chairman of the Westland group, told his shareholders at the annual general meeting in February that orders were up 30 per cent., that profit before tax was up 27 per cent., that earnings per share were up 16 per cent., that gearing was less than 18 per cent., and better than last year and that civil orders' intake was about 40 per cent., with total margins up in all divisions. That has been a real success story. I should like to see the company get the orders to which I referred, to help Westland help the RAF to defend Britain and our allies and our joint interests all over the world.
§ Mr. Neville Trotter (Tynemouth)
It is always a pleasure to take part in the annual debate on the Royal Air Force, and this year we are anxious to express the nation's gratitude for the great professionalism, courage and skill shown by all ranks during Operation Granby in the Gulf.
It should be recorded in a debate such as this that the headquarters for the operation was Strike Command headquarters at High Wycombe and that Air Chief Marshal Sir Paddy Hine was the commander in chief of the overall operation. It was, of course, very much a joint operation and credit is due to all those in the command structure as well as to those in the front line. Credit is also due to those who prepared for the unforeseen—for the event that nobody could foretell in detail—so that there was in existence a command structure that was able to adapt itself to the speedily arising crisis thousands of miles away.
For me, the whole of the crisis—the campaign and the build-up to it—was particularly poignant, because I was taking part at the time in the parliamentary liaison scheme, I was thus in regular contact with the young men and women who were called on to respond to the challenge when it came, and they responded in a way of which we can be proud. That came as no surprise to me, after what I had seen of them in their normal operational life.
It was also poignant for me that one of the air crew who was shot down and captured, and who was then paraded on television in breach of the Geneva convention, was one of my constituents. He has been referred to as a weapons system officer, but I still call him a navigator. I believe that I am technically correct, and when I saw that fine young man recently, he was wearing a navigator's uniform.
§ Mr. Trotter
My hon. Friend speaks on these issues with great personal knowledge.
I pay tribute to the courage and steadfastness of the parents of young Adrian Nichol, who went through a terrible ordeal, not least because of the dreadful rumours that kept coming out of Iraq and were picked up by the media. Throughout that difficult time, they showed great bravery and determination and utter support for what the Allies were having to do in the Gulf.
The campaign, Operation Granby, was a striking demonstration of the flexibility and effectiveness of air power. An extraordinary feature of the campaign was the way in which, night after night, we were able to see on television in our homes the unfolding of the air war. Nobody can be unaware of the way in which air power contributed dramatically to the allied victory.
The speed of the initial response was truly impressive. Towards the end of the operation, I visited Lossiemouth, where I was particularly struck by the way in which, halfway through the air fighting, the Buccaneer force responded to the call. They had originally volunteered to be in on the action, but it was thought that the Tornados, with the Jaguars, would be able to manage. It was then found that the skills of the Buccaneers—skills that they have honed to a fine art in attacks on shipping, pinpointing such small targets—with their laser-designating system, gave them a part to play in the accurate bombing of targets in the Gulf.
I was impressed, although not surprised, to hear of the way in which, within 48 hours of being asked to get their rather old aircraft to the war, they were off on the nine-and-a-half-hour flight to the Gulf. Those who are not experienced in flying in the back seats of high-performance aircraft, for whom an hour and a half is an exhilarating experience, will wonder how anybody could manage a flight lasting nine or more hours. When the challenge came, they showed their strength and capability.
Reference has been made to the transport force, which operates worldwide in peace time. During Operation Granby, it proved to be the largest air transport operation in the history of the RAF. When I say that to move one squadron of fighters can require up to 90 loads in transport aircraft, the scale and magnitude of what had to be undertaken becomes apparent.
Reference has been made to the role played by the Nimrods. I understand that, during the campaign, they made 5,000 challenges to shipping in the Gulf—an impressive performance. During my visits to the service, I was pleased to meet units of the Auxiliary Air Force, some of whom, as has been said, took part as units and as individuals in the Gulf.
I greatly commend to the House the parliamentary liaison scheme. I was able to see the front line—sadly, not in the Gulf, but in this country on exercise—and to take part in sorties, when the capabilities and skill of the crews and the speed of their reaction were brought home to me. On my flights, I was made very aware of their professionalism and high standard of training. My observations left me in no doubt that there must be constant practice in low-level flying to maintain the standards that are needed.
The experiences that I enjoyed varied between the thrill of flying on the ranges at low level over the sea in a Tornado to flying in a Shackleton. I had last flown in the latter in 1958, and it did not seem to have changed much. I dare say that the sons of the crews who flew me in 1958 498 were flying me on the most recent occasion. That could hardly have been so for the wing commander of the squadron, because I recognised him as an old friend who had been flying for most of the last 30 years, having started as a very young man.
In terms of size, I flew in aircraft varying from the Hercules to the tiny Bulldogs of the Northumbria university air squadron. I was able to visit all three commands; Strike and Support Commands in the United Kingdom and RAF Germany. I enjoyed a particularly thrilling take-off in a Harrier from a German wood, when it seemed to me that the wing tips were touching the trees on either side. I had my hands on the ejection lever ready instantly to obey the command to get out, without asking questions if anything went wrong. The group captain who had earlier been escorting me was blown over by the efflux from the jets as we passed ear him, so close were we to the trees.
I was struck by the way in which we could move 1,000 or 1,500 men and 30 or more aircraft and deposit them literally in a field, along with hundreds of lorries and all the stores that go with a wing of aircraft. It was all done smoothly in difficult surroundings. It is such flexibility, training and superb professionalism that enable the service to respond to the unexpected.
I visited a training unit in which I had served as a young man many years ago. When I expressed the wish to see some of the places of which I had happy memories, the commanding officer told me that I would find it very different, as all the old buildings had been pulled down, and mostly that was true. They had been replaced by much more modern buildings than the ones that I remembered but the spirit of the service had not changed. It was as high and fine as I remembered from all those years ago. I made it my business to ask to meet men and women of all ranks. One must be careful because one otherwise might spend most of one's time with the wing commanders. I wanted to speak not only to the air crews but also to those who support them and constitute the training and administrative structure behind them. I also asked to meet the wives, because we should not underestimate the importance of family life in today's modern service.
In south Wales, I visited the RAF factory at St. Athan. I was particularly impressed by the technical skills displayed and the team effort of the civilian and service personnel, which is such a feature of the service today.
It is appropriate tonight to thank a large number of people, starting with my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne), who is the brain behind the concept of the parliamentary liaison scheme. I should also like to thank Mr. Speaker for his important role in the scheme, and Ministers, their officers and the air staff who made the scheme possible. I also thank my friendly hosts at the various stations and the enthusiastic staff at the three commands.
Above all, however, I should like to thank the men and women who make it all possible. They discussed with me their capabilities and achievements, together with the challenges before them, and their natural concerns about the future. The importance of maintaining the quality of service life is the main message that I would bring back from my experiences.
A feature that now emerges prominently is the new management strategy. It is not only in the health service that we are seeing efforts to bring about a more responsive budgeting process. Local financial management is now 499 being introduced throughout the services. In general, I found enthusiasm for it, although there was some cynicism about whether the financial savings would be left at the unit concerned, rather than taken away higher up the chain or indeed taken away from the service altogether. It is important that flexibility and savings come from this praiseworthy change in financial control, in which decisions are taken at the bottom, and that there should be local advantages from those changes. I am sure that that is the intention and we must see that it is the way in which it works out in practice.
Lessons will be learnt from the Gulf war, many of them technical. Some may take time to learn but others are more obvious. One such lesson is the importance of smart weapons, which are expensive but which work. They have improved dramatically and we shall need to continue to invest in that direction. Other hon. Members have referred to various individual weapons. I have always felt that stealth aircraft will be a feature in the future of combat aircraft.
I was impressed by the role of the F117 in the Gulf campaign. I understand that it was the only aircraft to bomb Baghdad. Although there were only 40 of them in the Gulf, a high percentage of the most difficult targets were taken out by them. It has been suggested that the Royal Air Force should invest in a small number of those aircraft. That is not a stupid suggestion.
Clearly, our main aircraft for the future will be the European fighter aircraft. I cannot help commenting on the thought that there will not be a navigator or weapons system officer in the back of such aircraft. Despite all the technology in such aircraft, there will be a heavy burden on the individual, who must both pilot it and operate the attack system. We may well need a small number of aircraft with more stealth elements than can be built into the EFA, but that is a technical matter that can be considered in the future.
The flexibility of air power was superbly demonstrated in the Gulf conflict. There will certainly continue to be threats that we cannot now imagine. They will arrive suddenly and will require a capability and speed of response from the Air Force in the future as they have in the past. We must maintain our military capability, and the standard of personnel and equipment. Whatever the outcome of the "Options for Change" review, we must ensure that we maintain the quality of life of those who serve in the air force, as well as in the Army and Navy.
Our motto must be "smaller but better". The reduction of some nine fast jet squadrons, which has been announced, is generally accepted within the service as something that is bound to happen with the change in the balance between east and west and the collapse of the Warsaw pact. We must under "Options for Change" take the opportunity to end the undermanning and overstretch that exists in some parts of the service.
We also need a critical mass. I do not say that the reduction in prospect would overload that, but we are nearing it with the level of reductions suggested. Unless we have a critical mass, we cannot generate adequate forces to respond to the sudden challenge.
May I return to the question of the quality of life? These days, wives are very important in regular service life. "Wife power" kept coming through as an important factor in the morale and life of the stations. Nowadays, wives want their family to own their own homes. They want a stable 500 life, but service life is inevitably unstable. They want careers of their own, which is not easy when their husbands are inevitably posted.
The person concerned is usually a wife, but the argument applies both ways to spouses these days. I was struck by the extent to which the service tried hard to be helpful, particularly when both husband and wife were in the Air Force. It went to great lengths to secure postings at the same base or at bases in close proximity.
Whenever possible, I met the wives and sought their views. I found that the Air Force had responded positively to the challenge. An organisation entitled HIVE—Help Information and Voluntary Exchange—has introduced successful initiatives among the families in the units. A factor of RAF life is that postings are made individually, unlike the Army, where units are usually moved as a whole and people thus move around together. The same happens with ships' companies in the Royal Navy. From a family point of view, that means that more support is often needed for Royal Air Force families than for those of the Army or Navy.
Morale cannot be quantified, but it is clearly vital. It has never been higher than at present in the air force. We must ensure that it stays that way. In the Gulf, the quality of the service was splendidly demonstrated, and we must retain that quality in the future. It is not just important; it is essential. It does not matter how good technical equipment is if morale is not high. Unless people are well trained and motivated, we shall not achieve the required standards. There is no doubt that some departments are overstretched. Many units or parts of units work way below established strength. Too often, the establishment does not allow adequately for leave or sickness or for guard duty, which is an increasing feature of today's service, or for frequent absence on detachment, whether to the Falkland islands, Belize or now, presumably, to the Gulf.
Under the "Options for Change" review, we should look carefully into the question of manning and must return to a realistic establishment and see that it is filled. One officer described it to me as the need for a service dividend as well as a peace dividend.
As for guard duties, I welcome the recent news that a civilian guard force was to be created. I believe that it should have an expanded role. I did not meet one person who, when serving on guard duty, complained about having to do it. Everyone recognised the need for it but, from time to time, they complained that the duty came round too often; some said that they had not joined the Royal Air Force to spend considerable periods on guard.
We should seek to expand the civilianisation of guard duties. I cannot help wondering whether there should not also be a greater role for auxiliaries, who are at present forbidden to carry weapons in peacetime under the law. I think that the law needs to be revised. The auxiliaries are keen and the Defence Forces and perhaps, in some cases, part of the Territorial Army could well be happy to undertake the role. We must address that issue in the period ahead.
Undoubtedly, there are some difficult judgments to be made and some nice balances to be struck. At times, we have to spend to save. We all know that it is not easy to find the money to put down now to make future savings and promote efficiency in the future. However, if we find the money for new equipment and aircraft, we can save on spares. Old aircraft are expensive in terms of spares and 501 the manpower needed to keep them flying—the Phantom is an example. The removal of the Phantom from the front line will be cost-effective; large savings will come from it.
There is an argument for having fewer and larger bases, and we could save funds by concentrating activity. However, money has to be put down in the first place to fund that concentration process. You, Madam Deputy Speaker, will hardly be surprised to hear that I believe that there are good arguments for concentrating more on bases in the northern half of the country. It is easier to recruit civilians there than in the south, especially the south-east. It is easier for service personnel to afford houses in the north, where the cost of living tends to be lower and there is a higher satisfaction rate among the service community.
Above all, we must spend on the quality of life, which is not just essential for a happy and efficient service, but also cost-effective. If we do not do that, people will not stay long enough in the service, which is disruptive, removes skills and makes it costly to train replacements. Great opportunities are represented by the decisions that have to be taken under "Options for Change". I am sure that my right hon. Friend and his colleagues will plan wisely as they make major decisions in the immediate future for the benefit of the service.
It has been a great privilege and pleasure to take part in the parliamentary liaison scheme. I believe that the House, as whole and certainly the individuals concerned benefit from that initiative and so does the service. I thoroughly commend it as an enjoyable and very worthwhile experience to any colleagues who are considering applying to take part.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)
I welcome this opportunity to speak in the Air Force debate. The House knows of my interest in such matters. I am astonished that, this late in the debate, no one has mentioned that this year is the 50th anniversary of the Air Training Corps, which is totally funded by the Air Force vote and budget. Many of the service personnel serving in the Gulf were ex-ATC cadets—that was certainly true of the RAF contingent. I welcome this opportunity to put that on record.
May I say to the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) that hon. Members have witnessed and, I dare say, welcomed the Labour party's robust defence policy in support of the Gulf operations. The hon. Member for Clackmannan has, on a number of occasions—this evening was no exception—had to take some of his colleagues to task for not conforming to Labour party policy. We recognise and applaud that.
However, there are some weaknesses, not only in the position of the hon. Member for Clackmannan, but in the Labour party's defence policy. As I understand it, the hon. Member chastised Ministers because they would not order the necessary equipment for the Royal Air Force, but he fails to persuade his Labour colleagues to agree a Labour defence policy that would require increased defence expenditure, which is what his remarks call for. Are we to believe that the voice of the Labour party is that of the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen)? I hope not—I hope that it is the voice of the hon. Member for Clackmannan and, if so, that he can persuade his colleagues to call for more defence expenditure.
502 Recent "hot" war experience in the Gulf and a recognition of the Soviet Union's military capability, linked to possible political change, have provided a United Kingdom and NATO scenario that is substantially different from that which existed when "Options for Change" was introduced. The reunification of Germany and the less than enthusiastic support of our European Community partners for military action in the Gulf have also produced a dramatic reappraisal of who we can depend on in difficult political and military circumstances.
In the Gulf, air supremacy and control of the sea lanes, coupled with the use of new technology and smart weapons, made the war different from any previous war involving western forces and western technology. Air supremacy and superiority was important, and command of the skies was achieved by the United Nations air force at an early stage in the war.
However—it was on this subject that the hon. Member for Clackmannan and I had our earlier exchange—the question that everyone must ask is: why did not the Iraqi air force fight? The Iraqi air force had the equipment, numbers and, obviously, the ability. One could also ask why, with its surface-to-air missiles, the air force switched on its radar only to detect incoming aircraft and, having done so, promptly switched it off when the missile had been popped off. That meant that the missiles were flying blind and did not hit many targets. The answer is that the Iraqis did not have the stomach for war. It is not unrealistic to say that, because the military had just ended a relatively recent war of great attrition resembling the first world war. Therefore, it would have been surprising in any circumstances if the military had been ready to fight another battle as intensive as the one that it faced.
§ Mr. Wilkinson
Does not my hon. Friend think it possible that the Iraqi leadership comprehended that the allied war aim was strictly limited to the liberation of Kuwait, and that the allies would not go so far as to remove Saddam Hussein or the revolutionary command council from power? Therefore, it was important to retain a cadre of first-rate aeroplanes to rebuild the air force as an important component of military power for the peace after the war.
§ Mr. Walker
I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. I was just about to move on to that point and suggest that the situation was probably a repeat of Nasser, with Saddam Hussein seeing himself coming out of the war as the unchallenged leader of the Arab world.
I am now liable, in view of what was said earlier, to be chastised by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, but I shall make some comments about the war which are important. Obviously, the airfields, radar, anti-aircraft defences, communications and command and control installations were the prime targets. They were heavily attacked and made largely inoperative by precision bombing and cruise missile strikes. In-flight refuelling and airborne early warning radar, used in conjunction with radar jamming, allowed the coalition aircraft to operate and strike targets throughout Iraq and Kuwait. We saw stealth technology for the first time, working through the F117.
The use of smart weapons at safe operational altitudes during day and night sorties to seek out and destroy well protected, hardened concrete targets and bridges provided a clear sign of the military advantage in the availability 503 and use of such weapons. I hope that we shall never forget that. It was those effective weapons that made it all possible.
Air superiority aircraft deployed by the United States Air Force clearly demonstrated the necessity of the availability of such aircraft in battlefield conditions. Ministers have recognised that, as shown by their support for EFA. I also suggest that we must continue to upgrade the Tornado F3. It is not a substitute for the agile EFA in battlefield conditions, but it has a complementary role for the future.
The high risks involved in accurately delivering the RAF's runway multi-purpose munitions must advance the case for stand-off weapons, which should be fitted at an early stage to the GR1 strike aircraft, which could also be adapted to take certain elements of stealth technology.
I believe, controversially perhaps, that the low-flying tactics worked. Someone had to say that. I very much doubt whether we could have operated at medium level from day one in the Gulf war—the risks to our pilots and crews would have been enormous—if the runways had not been taken out in the first few hours. Taking out the runways and radar made a massive contribution and made possible the change in tactics. Our flexibility made us successful. If we had not been able to fly low and fast in the early hours of the war, its result might have been different. A lot of nonsense is talked—we heard some this evening from the hon. Member for Leyton—about low-level tactics.
The Iraqi tactic of switching on radar only for surface-to-air missiles to locate their targets and then to switch it off again probably accounted for the low number of coalition aircraft lost. Anyone who has studied the Iraqis' equipment, and its quantity, would have expected greater losses among our aircraft. The tactic probably accounts also for some of the damage to civilian targets from falling missiles.
I wish to discuss the vulnerability of mechanised infantry and tanks when operated without air cover. That vulnerability was highlighted in the war and it must put a large question mark against the future use of great numbers of heavy tanks. Instead, helicopters and fixed-wing and anti-armour aircraft must be recognised by the MOD as a better use of scarce military funds. It was the lengthy air campaign that made the short land battle possible. The low number of casualties sustained by coalition ground forces and the few real land engagements between the two sides can be attributed to the effective and detailed planning by coalition commanders, coupled with the clever execution and flexibility of our plans—not to mention the massive air superiority of the coalition forces.
The effective anti-missile defences and the success of the Patriot system against Scud missiles constitute one of the practical lessons to emerge from the Gulf war which must call for a reappraisal of attitudes to what is known as star wars technology.
Another lesson must he the danger posed by missile systems that can deliver nuclear, chemical or biological warheads across neutral territory. The Scud missile attacks against Israel could have carried such warheads. Today, more and more nations are acquiring ballistic and cruise technology, and some of them may be tempted to use those weapons against countries that do not possess anti-missile systems. Such cases will involve help from other countries.
The use of Scud missiles against urban, civilian targets clearly showed that unconventional warheads fitted to 504 such missiles could become terror weapons in the hands of evil dictators. The proliferation of ballistic missiles, the weapon of choice in the third world, must make that scenario a real possibility. Civilian space programmes have become the development area for missile technology, and Argentina, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Japan, China, Pakistan, South Africa and South Korea are all working on space rockets. Consequently, control of ballistic missiles will become increasingly difficult, if not impossible——
§ Mr. O'Neill
I do not wish to enter into a long argument with the hon. Gentleman, but he should know that Brazil and Argentina recently signed an agreement that will prevent them from proceeding with the use of ballistic missile technology for offensive purposes. His list is slightly out of date, therefore.
§ Mr. Walker
That is the very point that I want to make. It will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make such agreements work and stick. As more countries acquire the technology, the few that have signed may find themselves the victims of threats of attacks.That will lead to instability.
I am not one of this world's optimists. My experience in the short time that I have lived is that many people fail to honour the agreements that they have signed. Modern aircraft navigation aids and the relative simplicity of cruise-type missile technology will make the production of terror weapons with only a crude target-finding capability fairly simple. As a result, the missile technology control regime may now be obsolete. Smart weapons of the kind used in the Gulf will be in great demand, and oil-rich friendly states will expect to be able to buy the latest products from western manufacturers. In today's circumstances, such activity can be effectively controlled only by deploying western military personnel and hardware—and charging for them. Such countries were prepared to pay in the Gulf war, and they may also be prepared to pay for long-term stability if we provide it.
Anti-missile weapons systems have been seen to work and must now be a top priority for future defence spending. We should also remember that anti-aircraft guns can still destroy modern expensive jet aircraft; and stealth technology was seen in the Gulf to be effective.
What I say next may also be controversial: only Britain and the United States can be depended upon when the chips are down, and only the French in Europe can be expected to provide military support once the British and the Americans are committed. "Options for Change" should be replaced by "Options for Defence Enhancement". The Treasury should be made to accept the lessons of the Gulf and to recognise the real threat that the Soviet military and political machine represents. It must therefore sanction increased spending, since it is always less expensive to deter than to fight wars.
Orders must be placed urgently for an EFA-type aircraft, for helicopters for anti-tank and rapid deployment roles, and for Sea Kings to replace the search-and-rescue Wessex. We should also consider anti-missile defence systems and, if necessary, collaborate to obtain them. Stand-off smart weapons for the Tornado GR1 and stealth technology should be top of our requirement lists. All regular units in the RAF should in future require a reserve commitment until retirement age—anyone who joins up, for however short a time, should 505 be committed to his duties in future. That happens in the United States. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) clearly showed in his constructive speech how we can properly make use of reserves. The turnout of auxiliaries and reserves clearly showed how effective they can be. I congratulate Wing Commander Alex Dickson and his team of reserve officers who volunteered on day one of the conflict and all did their bit.
We must make use of all the equipment purchased for the RAF and the cadets. The Vigilant motor glider would make an excellent communications aircraft because it flies a damn sight faster than communications aircraft that we have used in the past, and it has a better range. We must examine ways to encourage more people to become involved in the reserves.
It is becoming increasingly evident that the United Kingdom, the United States and France can expect future calls for the defence force deployment outside what is looked upon as the natural NATO area. The United States and individual states saw in the Gulf war and in the humanitarian intervention on behalf of the Kurds that we are ready and willing, so we can expect more demands to be made on us.
It is also clear that President Gorbachev and his political allies intend to couple a consumer economy to an authoritarian political system and a command economy in the military industrial sectors. To those leaders, that seems an ideal recipe. Even if the Russia of the future is smaller than the present Russia, it will still be about 90 per cent. of the present Soviet Union, and we could see a return to age-old Russian demands for warm-water ports and expansion and the classic use of external threats to divert attention from problems at home.
I have an interest in training. I hope that my right hon. Friend will tell us tonight about experience with the Tucano training aircraft, which has now been in use long enough for a proper evaluation. Perhaps he will also tell us about female pilots and air crew who have been trained. When the Government make decisions about the future of the RAF, they should remember that it is easy to replace buildings but that one cannot easily and quickly replace airfields. One can dispose of many of the assets around an airfield, but airfields themselves should not be disposed of lightly.
Before closing any military establishment, the Government should bear in mind the fact that this is a United Kingdom Parliament and that the United Kingdom and Great Britain mean something. It should also be borne in mind that the RAF is the British Royal Air Force. Careful thought should be given before deciding to close a base in a given area, such as Wales. RAF Brawdy is more than just a base for the Royal Air Force—it reminds local people that they are part of the United Kingdom. I could also mention Rosyth, but I shall not do so because we are not debating the Navy.
It has been suggested that helicopter operations should be transferred to the Army. I spoke about jet pilots being expensive to train. A pilot with a damaged back, as I have, cannot use an ejector seat because ejection could paralyse him. Such pilots with vast experience can be diverted to other duties and, of course, helicopters come into that.
506 There is another and perhaps more important reason for not transferring helicopters to the Army. The RAF has developed a technical expertise in helicopters which is the envy of the world. To hand such a task to the Army would be like asking it to reinvent the wheel. Anyone who thinks that the Army has the capability to operate helicopters should compare the facilities of the two services.
I welcome local financial management as the right way forward. The RAF has also welcomed it. The modern Royal Air Force has been a professional organisation for a long time. We must not believe the fairy tales alluded to earlier by the hon. Member for Clackmannan, who spoke about battle of Britain pilots. I hosted a lunch in the House of Commons last year for some surviving pilots of that battle, and they are not the sort of people projected in fairy tales. They are like modern RAF pilots and air crew, who are recruited from all walks of socio-economic life in the United Kingdom. They are selected on ability and retained because of their professionalism, because professionalism, ability, skill and courage are the hallmarks of the Royal Air Force. That courage has been demonstrated every time that the RAF has carried out what has been required of it.
The RAF should not be thought of as a Biggles outfit. It is a highly professional organisation staffed by ordinary people and not the sort of characters that one reads about in comic strips. They are the elite of the young people of our country and we are proud of what they have done in recent times.
§ Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)
It is appropriate for this debate on the Royal Air Force to take place so soon after the service that it performed so well in the Gulf. In that conflict, more than 100 RAF aircraft, supported by many thousands of air and ground crew, carried out thousands of sorties that clearly showed the devastating effectiveness and flexibility of modern air power. Air power on its own came close to settling the conflict, proving right the advocates of air power, right back to the 1920s, who said that air power could do that.
Of equal importance is the fact that air superiority was achieved with far fewer casualties than were estimated before the conflict started, when the media said that thousands of people would be killed. Casualties on the Iraqi side were much higher than on our side, but the accuracy of the weapons ensured that there were fewer than would have occurred in any previous conflict.
The Gulf conflict gave many air and ground crews invaluable operational experience that will be of great benefit to them in their careers. It is difficult to get good operational training, and none could be better than that gained from taking part in a proper operation such as that in the Gulf. Such training occurs infrequently and it is therefore vital that lessons are learned from it. Such lessons are useful when making decisions about money, types of aircraft, and equipment as mundane as boots. As we saw after the Falklands conflict, decisions can be reassessed and advances can be made in all areas.
The Gulf war gave us a unique opportunity to test many new weapons systems. Pictures on television and reports in the media showed that laser guidance, whether directed from the ground or from the air, was highly successful in ensuring accurate targeting. The technique of runway denial was less certain and has always been a problem in the Royal Air Force. Despite the popular idea 507 that runways are vulnerable, they are difficult targets for any aircraft weapon. I fully appreciate what my right hon. Friend the Minister said about not yet being able to evaluate specific weapons systems. Such evaluation will have to continue for some time. Nevertheless, it is important that the RAF now looks closely at its tactics for runway denial and seriously considers tactics and weapons systems that do not require strike or attack aircraft to fly directly, at low levels, over heavily defended targets.
I do not want to take away anything said by my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) about the effectiveness of the early attacks. I entirely agree with him. Without the Tornado and its highly specialist weapons system, we would have suffered considerably greater casualties, and we would have come up against the Iraqi air force very soon in the war, possibly with different results. We achieved tactical surprise. We prevented the Iraqi air force from getting airborne in any numbers to oppose us. As a result, many problems were avoided. Somehow, that lesson seems to have been forgotten.
The popular conception is that the Iraqi air force was never a threat. It was a threat. Many hundreds of modern aircraft, piloted by pilots who would no doubt have been brave had they been properly commanded, would have posed a significant threat to the allied war effort in the Gulf. Those early attacks by the stealth aircraft, the Tornados and other allied aircraft, but most specifically the runway denial capabilities of the Tornado, largely got over that problem. When the history of the conflict is written, that will probably be seen as the critical phase. Once that was over, it was relatively easy to predict the conclusion of the conflict, although the time could not have been determined until much later, when the extent of the destruction caused by our weapons systems was evaluated.
In that context, I want to talk about reconnaissance, which has not been mentioned so far. It seems to be the Cinderella of air forces. Different techniques are used. The Americans believe that reconnaissance can take place at the same time as the attack is going in, and that the air crew carrying out the attack can also decide whether they have destroyed the building or airfield that they are attacking. The RAF takes a different view. It believes that, while attack-type reconnaissance is useful, there is a need for special reconnaissance aircraft to go in afterwards to assess professionally the effectiveness of the attack.
The GR1A, the reconnaissance version of the GR1, was rushed into service and sent to the Gulf. It was effective not only in assessing what had taken place but in seeking, through its infra-red and other sensors, the Scud sites which caused so many problems early in the war. Again, I do not think that that aspect of the operation has been fully acknowledged. It shows the importance of the specialist role of reconnaissance, which should remain in the main stream of the tactics of air forces today and in the future. That should be developed further and we should perhaps have more Tornados with that capacity.
Less easy to evaluate was the success of the system on the Tornado F3, not because, as articles in The Daily Telegraph suggest, it was ineffective and did not achieve anything, but simply because the Iraqi air force never got airborne in sufficient numbers and never flew near enough to the Saudi border to pose any threat.
I was interested in the number of modifications that were quickly made to the Foxhunter radar on the F3 for operations in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. I was also interested 508 in the reply that I got on Tuesday during Defence questions about the effectiveness of that radar. The reply made it clear that the radar now exceeded its original specification, but that that did not relate to all the radar. However, there is still concern about the effectiveness of that radar, bearing in mind its huge cost to the taxpayer and the difficulties of its procurement through different contracts.
While I am obviously pleased that the radar is better than it was, it would be useful, in the general assessment of weapons and their effectiveness to be carried out by my right hon. Friend, for him to speak, rather than to weapons systems operators, to some of the pilots and navigators who fly the F3 Tornado in this country. He could hear at first hand their assessment of the stage 1 and stage 2 improvements to the system, in order to find out whether their assessments vary greatly from those of the officials in the Ministry. I am not suggesting for a moment that they might be different, but it is important occasionally for politicians and Ministers to speak to people in the front line to find out the effectiveness of procurement policy and of expenditure.
As to the future, it is clear from the Gulf experience that the Royal Air Force needs to procure a modern, highlymanoeuvrable combat aircraft with a low radar signature. In that respect, I refer to the European fighter aircraft. The point I made earlier in an intervention stands. We tend to talk about stealth in terms of certain aircraft having it and others not having it. In reality, the position is different. Most modern aircraft have lower radar signatures than their predecessors. Most modern aircraft have some stealth capabilities.
The radar signature of EFA is considerably smaller than that of the Tornado, largely because of the composite materials used and because of certain characteristics of the aircraft itself. Regardless of the view of our German partners, the programme should go ahead on its own or with our partners. It is vital to the north-west, which I represent, because it would provide a high-tech heart for industry there. Without EFA, thousands of jobs would be at risk. Not only that, but we would not have the long-term research and development capability to develop other systems.
I wish that we could have from others, particularly some members of the Labour party, the same firm commitment that we have received from the Minister this evening and previously. In my area, I have tried two or three times to get a firm commitment to EFA from the Labour-controlled Lancashire county council, but I have not so far succeeded, nor have I got a commitment from some Labour Members in the region. It is vital to employment in the north-west, and particularly in Lancashire, that we all fight together to ensure that the project goes ahead.
The project is important to the Royal Air Force, because it would provide huge export potential. It is relatively cheap compared to some aircraft that are being put in the same category. It is also an advanced aircraft, with advanced engines and aerodynamics. It is a highly cost-effective solution to many of the needs of the Royal Air Force, and indeed of other air forces as well.
I shall now say a few words about the future organisation of the Royal Air Force. I am frankly worried about the blurring of the balance between the need to keep the defence budget this year and next year within bounds and the need specified for our long-term defence in 509 "Options for Change". Earlier tonight, the exchange on the Bloodhound missile demonstrated the problem clearly. The decision on that was taken largely to save money in the short term. It seemed to provide a good solution: an elderly missile coming to the end of its useful life, so we are told, could easily be got rid of and we could save some money in the short term. However, little thought was given to this decision and what it would do to the overall air defence of the United Kingdom.
Paramount in people's minds after "Options for Change", and after we have reassessed our contribution to NATO on the continent, should be the air defence of the United Kingdom. I cannot think of any other task that the Royal Air Force will have to fulfil in the future that could be put above that need. Therefore, in a way, it is the one clear and positive RAF role, surrounded by a number of other roles, that are probably open to some doubt. That role will probably become more important, because a number of the aircraft at the moment based in Germany will return to the United Kingdom, and they will need to be defended as well.
Perhaps I am labouring this point, but it has always been my understanding of the air defence environment in the United Kingdom that it can be split into three. There is the point defence of airfields, largely looked after by the RAF Regiment, with missiles such as Rapier and various types of anti-aircraft guns. Then there are the medium-range needs of air defence, out to 60 or 70 miles, or, in the case of the Bloodhound, even up to 150 or 200 miles in certain cases. The air defence of the United Kingdom or, more specifically, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, in that range has been carried out by the Bloodhound missile. Indeed, I can remember well, in the 1970s, Bloodhound missiles being withdrawn from Germany and Cyprus to fill what was then considered to be a gap in our air defence.
Interestingly, we then had two fighters, the Lightning and the Phantom, that could be considered capable of filling that need. They were relatively short-range aircraft, certainly in the case of the Lightning, and in the case of the Phantom highly manoeuvrable. Following the decision to scrap the Bloodhound at the end of this year, we have a highly effective short-range air defence system, a highly effective long-range air defence system in the form of the Tornado F3, but, as far as I can see, nothing in between.
Air Commodore Day gave evidence to the Select Committee on Defence as recently as last month. He was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) about this problem. My hon. Friend said:That is well understood but what I have difficulty in understanding is you as a professional Air Force officer, accepting a four-year gap with nothing. Are you happy about that?Air Commodore Day replied:No, we are not happy but I think one has to say that is the situation we have ended up in and where we believe it is not cost-effective to run on Bloodhound.Well, it may or may not be cost-effective to run on Bloodhound but it is cost-effective to run on something; it must be more cost-effective to do that than to leave this gap. Whereas the Lightning and the Phantom had the capability to operate in this air defence gap relatively effectively, although not effectively enough to fill that role in the eyes of former RAF chiefs when they withdrew the Bloodhound from Germany to the United Kingdom, the 510 Tornado F3 is not the aircraft to fill that gap, because it has been specifically designed to do something else. It is a long-range interceptor and it is not as highly manoeuvrable as the Phantom and the Lightning, in certain instances. Most important of all, if it, or its radar, has a shortfall at all, it is in short-range combat, for which it was not designed.
I hope that when my hon. Friend is winding up, he will promise to give serious consideration to looking closely at the possibility of shrinking that gap, which now looks as if it is inevitable, and procuring a missile which I believe is essential for one of the primary tasks of the Air Force, whatever else is decided as a result of "Options for Change".
Apart from air defence, a number of other roles will also be important to the Royal Air Force. We have heard quite a lot tonight about the strike attack Tornado, the GR1. I have mentioned briefly the GR1A, the recce aircraft, but the GR1 has a great length of life ahead of it. Its one shortfall has been its short range. One of the lessons of the Gulf is that equipping it with, ironically, the long-range tanks originally specified for the F3, has made it a much more effective aircraft. That, coupled with the flight refuelling capability, which is being enhanced, should mean that that aircraft has many years of useful life ahead of it. As with stealth, which I mentioned briefly earlier, there is the possibility of adding on things to reduce its radar signature further and give it an operational life well into the next century.
There is one thing lacking, however, and that too has been mentioned tonight: a stand-off weapon capability, and not just a short-range stand-off capability, so that the aircraft is able not only to take out runways into the foreseeable future but to fulfil its primary role of strike more effectively. I am talking about an air-launched missile, either nuclear or conventional, with a range of at least 200 or 300 km. With that capacity, that aircraft will remain effective well on into the next century. Equipped with some of the smart weaponry that we have seen working so effectively in the Gulf, it will provide an excellent weapons platform with an excellent performance. We must not forget our commitment to, and the importance of, the concept and development of the Harrier, which can take off over a short distance or vertically. In the years ahead, the Harrier will provide a more effective means of delivering air power than will aircraft that take off and land conventionally.
I want to refer to another interesting lesson that has been learnt from the Gulf war. The Iraqis, indeed, like NATO in western Europe, built considerable numbers of concrete shelters. Countries put their aircraft inside those shelters, thinking that they were safe. To realise how untrue that was, one had only to look at some of the magazine and television pictures of holes in the sides of extremely strong concrete shelters, inside which bombs had caused devastation. In other words, such shelters, far from providing protection, acted as traps. It is highly significant that the Iraqis decided that the one means of getting round this problem was to tow aircraft off airfields and park them beside hospitals, houses and anything else that might deter attacks on them.
Long ago, of course, the Harrier embodied the concept of dispersal. I envisage the development of that aircraft in a supersonic mode, with smart weaponry and, possibly, stealth characteristics. Of course, it is very difficult to combine short take-off and landing and vertical take-off 511 and landing capability with stealth capability. If it can be done, however, it will provide the sort of aircraft that will see us well into the next century.
Here, too, we have demonstrated the need for a highly efficient research and development base on this side of the Atlantic. In our decisions about what to do in this sphere, we shall have to be quite ruthless. We shall not be able, as we were 10 or 15 years ago, to spread our research and development effort widely. It would be too expensive to do so. We shall have to be highly selective in deciding which sectors it is critical to keep in this country, or on this side of the Atlantic, and then go for those sectors. I suspect that many of them will be in avionics and electronics. With the shrinkage that must take place in the size of the Air Force, we shall have to spend on research and development capability—I stress the word "capability"—a high proportion of whatever money is made available for defence so that we may be able to react quickly to a change in circumstances, a change in perception, or a change in the sort of weapons that a potential aggressor may be able to develop in a short period.
It is important to think about the overall system for weapons. Let me refer to a problem that we have had in the past. An air-launched weapon system is made up of three or four parts—the airframe, the engines, the avionics, and the weapon. These tend not to be developed together. Perhaps the developers get the airframe right first, and it flies around with a lump of concrete in the nose. Indeed, that has happened occasionally in recent times. Then the engine is developed to its full potential, and, rather belatedly, the avionics make an appearance. Finally, the weapon system has to be strapped on, and the various parts have to operate together. In future, we shall have to ensure that the whole system works properly.
Next to my notes I have written "Foxhunter". I do not want to say anything about that, other than that it is a classic example of a highly successful airframe doing the job that it was designed to do, but also of an aircraft whose radar, so critical to the F3's role, fell behind, and did not meet the specifications—indeed, in some instances, it was slightly inferior to the radar on the Phantom. That sort of thing results in the downgrading of an entire weapon system. Until a whole system comes together, taxpayers' money is wasted.
Unless we are careful, we shall be in danger of falling into this trap in the development of air-to-air weaponry. I do not wish tonight to deal in any detail with the transatlantic agreements for the development of long-range and short-range air-to-air weapons. However, we may have been here before. We go along with a bargain and agree to buy the other nation's product. I am thinking in terms of helicopters in relation to the French, as well as our willingness to go along with the American side of the transatlantic bargain. When it comes to the Americans' agreeing to our having design leadership on this side of the Atlantic, things get a bit wobbly. Perhaps, they say, it is not such a good idea; perhaps they will simply develop the Sidewinder missile further—which, I understand, they are thinking of doing.
I shall say only that I have a shrewd suspicion that, if we were to come back in two or three years' time, the United States would be offering us that modernised Sidewinder—or, indeed, a brand new short-range missile that it then decided to develop, following our initial loss of capability to produce any sort of air-to-air missile. It is important that we maintain our capability to develop 512 air-to-air missiles further, if that is necessary. That is one of the critical sectors into which I feel we must put research and development funds in future.
We must not, however, forget the other roles played so well by the RAF in the recent and, indeed, the distant past. Earlier tonight, reference was made to the Hercules, which I believe has now been in service for about 24 years. It must come to the end of its useful life quite soon. I fully accept what my right hon. Friend the Minister said. It is very easy for Back Benchers to list all the aircraft that need to be replaced, but it is not so easy to find the money to replace them. I am not suggesting that we should go out and procure a replacement for the Hercules; I am merely saying that this is an interesting aspect of aviation.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the Americans clearly understand the shift that pushes research development money spent on military matters towards helping their commercial aircraft programmes. Every aircraft that Boeing has produced over the past 40 years—until the development of its latest model, the 777—has been funded largely by the Department of Defence. It is interesting to note that when, for the first time, Boeing had to decide to develop a new aircraft itself, it took an awfully long time to do so, and then decided that the only way in which it could afford it was to bring in partners from outside—the Japanese, for instance.
In the development of new transport for the RAF, I see a direct spin-off for this country and, indeed, for the European aircraft industry. That should not be lost on us. We are in heavy competition with the Americans, and, I suggest, we shall be in equally heavy competition with others in the future—in the business of what are now lucrative returns, but will remain so in the long term only if we are prepared to put down a substantial amount initially.
There is a synergy between the development of new transport aircraft for the RAF and the development of new airliners for our airlines in this country and abroad. Although there is slightly less synergy, there are also similarities between the need to develop a replacement for the Nimrod and the parallel circumstances in commercial aviation.
The decision on Nimrod is rather different. I think that I am right in saying that the avionics are rather ahead of the airframe. The avionics that will go into the EH101—as my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) said at length, and with great knowledge—is ahead of the game; it is the most effective anti-submarine avionics in the world. It could, indeed, be suggested that the role of the maritime force in the RAF could—in part at least—be met by a helicopter-borne force. That might be one solution. None the less, we shall have to look at either re-engineering or heavily modifying the Nimrod force. It should be borne in mind that the design goes right back to the Comet, so there is a big question mark over whether it can be allowed to continue much longer or whether we shall have to go for a brand-new aircraft.
Here again, we are talking about possibly a twin-engined aircraft with perhaps not the same capability as the Nimrod, bearing in mind what I have said about the use of helicopters and the fact that the Nimrod was produced, or at least developed, at a time when Britain still had a role in many parts of the world where it is no longer as important for us to have a presence. It may be that we can get away with a smaller airframe, and it may be that 513 that would form part of the same sort of development programme that would go into the development of a STOL transport plane. There is a similarity there, and if that is looked at closely enough, it will be seen that there will be a lot of synergy with the development of civilian aircraft.
Earlier tonight, a couple of my hon. Friends mentioned training. That is an interesting subject, for a number of reasons. First, I think that the jury is still out on the effectiveness of the Tucano. It was probably, on balance, right to go for a turbo-prop trainer, but I am not fully convinced of the arguments that it was quite as cheap as was said at the time.
There is a trade-off between an aircraft such as the Tucano and the one it replaced. It goes more slowly than the one it replaced and does not fly as high, and as a result, the amount of training that can be done on it in preparation for the next stage of training on the Hawk is a little limited on the edge of the flight envelope. It is important for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his Department accurately to assess the benefits of Tucano training, going on to the Hawk afterwards, to see where the crossover point is and to ensure that we are not effectively comparing apples with oranges, saying that the Tucano is much cheaper to operate than the Jet Provost because it can be turned round quickly, does not use so much fuel and is a much simpler aircraft, and then finding out in a year or two that it is necessary to increase the length of the Hawk course. As soon as that is done, any saving that was made is rapidly diminished. I am not saying that the decision to go for turbo-prop training is wrong, simply that it is not quite as efficient as has been made out.
I spoke briefly earlier about the EH101. That helicopter programme is important. It has been on the stocks for some time. A decision has still not been made to procure it either for the Royal Navy or the Air Force. In terms of its role for the Air Force, I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that it is the only viable solution. There is a lot of discussion about whether it would be better to buy a few Chinooks and perhaps the Black Hawk. However, I understand that the Black Hawk suffers from the rather ecentric disadvantage of not being able to accommodate a guardsman with his helmet on. I do not know whether that is a relevant point to take into account on the procurement of a helicopter to transport troops across the country or across Europe, but I suspect that somewhere in the Ministry of Defence, something along those lines will be written suggesting that that is an important reason for not buying the Black Hawk.
The EH101, particularly with its RTM322 engine, is a highly effective helicopter. It has been expensive to develop, but it seems to fulfil many of the needs of the Navy and the Air Force. It may not fulfil them all, but it would be a mistake to procure one aircraft for the Navy or the Air Force and then to decide that it does not quite fit the bill and that something else should be procured. If experience is anything to go by, having taken a decision, the Air Force—and to a lesser extent the Navy—has quite a reputation for changing its mind a year or so later and for looking rather enviously over its shoulder at what the other service possesses and deciding that the alternative would be better. In that regard, the Navy had the 514 Buccaneer first; rather belatedly, the Air Force accepted that it was an extremely good aircraft and procured it. Conversely, the Navy realised that it could continue to use the Harrier when the larger carriers were cancelled under the Labour Government.
I now want to consider the future organisation of the RAF. We have an opportunity with "Options for Change" and the changes in our relationship with the eastern bloc nations to consider closely the way in which the RAF is organised. The Binbrook scheme for the organisation of RAF stations dates back to the early 1950s. Binbrook station has sadly shut, but if nothing else, that shows the length of time that the scheme has been running. The scheme has three prongs based on an operational wing, an administrative wing and an engineering wing. Is such a scheme right for the 1990s?
Are we not spending a little too much money on the support services and in particular on the administrative wing? In this age of modern technology, could we not get by with slightly fewer wing commanders on station, for example looking after station headquarters? What about the number of ranks in the RAF? There are about 11 ranks in the service. Is that too many for a shrinking force? Surely that is too many for a level of management and command necessary for a force that will soon be reduced to 60,000 or 70,000 personnel.
Should we not consider closely whether we can get away with fewer personnel, particularly in the higher ranks, who spend a high proportion of their careers across the road in the Ministry of Defence? Should we not consider more closely the ratio of people on operational stations, engineers servicing aircraft and the number of people in administration back here in the MOD? With our commitment to NATO reducing in terms of numbers, I am absolutely convinced that we can probably make do with a slimmed-down command headquarters and a greater proportion of the RAF based where the action is—next to the aircraft.
If I have any worry, it is that, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire explained, there will be a conflict between the Treasury's desire to make cuts in the RAF everywhere and anywhere and the desire of the RAF hierarchy to resist those cuts. If we are not careful, we will end up with the worst of both worlds—an unbalanced force that is heavily bureaucratic and unable to intervene effectively to support our legitimate interests wherever they may be. That must not be allowed to happen. Knowing my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement as I do, I strongly suspect that he will not allow it to happen.
§ Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)
Despite the attractions of the local government elections, we have had an interesting and substantial debate tonight, and that is to the credit of all those who have participated. It is also a timely debate. Last year, the Royal Air Force debate took place during the 50th anniversary of the battle of Britain. Although I did not participate in that debate, few of those who did would have thought that, within 12 months, the RAF would again be in action and our young service men and women called upon to risk their lives in war, once again against a brutal dictator.
I add my tribute to those that have already been paid to the skill and courage of the pilots, the ground crews and 515 the associated support services. We must include in that tribute the headquarters, the civil service and the families. In particular, we pay tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in the fight for justice and against tyranny. I know from the tributes that have already been paid that I speak for the whole House in sending our condolences to the families. The country owes them a great debt. We are proud of them and we are grateful for the opportunity to acknowledge our debt to them.
I did not visit the Gulf. As I listened to the speeches tonight, I increasingly came to the conclusion that I was the only Member in the House who did not do so. At one stage, I began to wonder how the aircraft managed to take off in what must have been an extremely crowded area. Never in the history of human conflict have apparently so many visited such a small place in so short a time.
Although I did not visit the Gulf, I subsequently visited RAF Germany, and spoke to some of the air crew who had been involved in the war. I was impressed by the determination and sacrifice of all those involved, including those who had remained at home and, as the Minister said, done without free time and time with their families for many weekends, over many months, so that they could provide the support necessary for the effort in the Gulf.
Not having visited the Gulf is only my first disadvantage. Another is that many of those who have spoken tonight have far greater personal experience than I of the matters that we are discussing. That is partly because many of them are older than I am, and partly because of their service in the Royal Air Force in particular, and in the armed forces in general. A number of speeches were based on that personal experience, especially that of the hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans), to whom I listened with great interest. His speech was of some length, but necessarily so as there was some substance in it. He made a thoughtful speech.
The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) gave us a valuable insight into the Gulf, and an especially valuable insight into the potential of our reserve forces. I have read our previous debates, and the hon. gentleman's speech tonight was very much in keeping with his previous speeches. At the risk of ending his career, I recall that last year my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) suggested that the hon. Gentleman would do well to assist the Ministry of Defence as an adviser.
The hon. Members for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), for Tynemouth (M r. Trotter) and for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) made important points, although I am not sure that the suggestion of the hon. Member for Tynemouth that guard duty should be hived off to the reserve forces, whether the Territorial Army or the Royal Air Force Reserve, would be effective in assisting recruitment. Nor am I sure that the confidence in the reserve forces shown by hon. Members on both sides of the House is necessarily reflected, according to rumour, in some of the options being considered by the Ministry of Defence, especially for the Territorial Army. That has been sufficiently alarming to cause a number of hon. Members to demand Adjournment debates on the matter so that they can outline their fears.
The hon. Member for Tynemouth praised the armed forces parlimentary scheme. I endorse that, as someone 516 who spent a month, not with the RAF, but with the Army. I found that experience valuable, as I hope did the armed forces.
Not surprisingly, one of the main issues in the debate has been the lessons that can be learned from the Gulf war, as has correctly been mentioned by several hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright), for Ruislip-Northwood and for Wyre and by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell). It is precisely because of the sacrifices made by our service men and women that an even greater burden than usual is placed on those of us who must ultimately ask for that sacrifice when we seek to examine with great clarity and care the operational aspects of Operation Granby.
I do not underestimate or diminish the might of Iraq's forces which, surprisingly, my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) seemed to do. It is unfortunate that he is no longer in his place. I do not underestimate the potential power that then lay within the armed forces of Iraq. The House will not be surprised if I express my amazement that such an underestimate was made tonight, because the people who are now telling us in retrospect that we were too hard on the poor Iraqis are the very people who spent the previous six months warning us that the body bags would be coming home and that blood would flow through Iraq in rivers because we were taking on one of the strongest armies in the world. Consistency is helpful in approaching such matters.
No one should seek to diminish the power of the Iraqi armed forces and thereby the determination, courage and accomplishments of our forces. The allied air campaign during the Gulf war was one of the most successful in history. I take issue again with my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton: notwithstanding his comments, I believe that that air campaign was probably also the most precise in history. To be perfectly truthful, I wish that some of the siren voices that were raised during that difficult time about the horrendous possibilities of endangering and damaging the shrines in Iraq were now wailing as loudly about the fact that, without any recourse to conscience or religious sentiment, the Iraqi dictator has laid bare not only nations within Iraq but its shrines and places of worship.
The allied air losses were astonishingly light. The RAF lost six aircraft in combat—all Tornados—out of a total of 4,000 combat sorties. As has been said, once it was pinned to the ground, the Iraqi air force ceased to pose a serious threat, and the Iraqi planes that eventually took off flew to Iran. We must remind ourselves that that was precisely because of the RAF's activity in the initial period, and no doubt was also due to the quick learning processes of the Iraqi air force. It learned that, when facing the RAF and the United States and allied forces when they were in that mood, discretion was often the best part of valour.
We are indebted to the hon. Members for Wyre and for Ruislip-Northwood for mentioning the calculated political decision that was taken by the revolutionary command structure and by Saddam Hussein himself to play a long game and to preserve intact some elements of his forces.
Those facts are a testament not to the lack of vitality or potential power of the Iraqi air force or army, but to the superior quality of our pilots and the technology that they employed. Nevertheless, valuable lessons can be learned by assessing the air campaign, especially about the use of low flying. I admire the courage with which this matter was 517 referred to by several hon. Members, including the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East and the hon. Member for Wyre, because I believe that we have a duty to reappraise our tactics as carefully as possible. That duty is all the more arduous and important because lives were lost.
The issue of low flying is a tactical and legitimate question and we should not demean it by suggesting that it is treasonable or indicative of splits within the parties or the House to question whether it is tactical. We must reappraise low flying not because that tactic was necessarily wrong or foolish, far less because it was known to be so in advance, and certainly not because it was ineffective—we can all accept those three premises—but because we have a duty and an obligation to inspect and to examine tactics whenever and however lives are lost.
Five of the Tornados that were lost in action were lost during the first week of the air campaign. It is not yet apparent whether low flying was a major contributory factor in those comparatively high losses. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East referred to other factors which may have been involved. But it is surely no coincidence that when the RAF tactics were varied and Buccaneers were deployed to provide laser targeting from a higher altitude, the attrition rates dropped. It is also significant that, having sustained the loss of two combat aircraft in the first hours of the war, the United States navy abandoned low flying within 24 hours.
I do not argue that low flying should be discarded as a tactic. It can offer a pilot an important element of surprise. The delivery of the JP233 runway denial weapon undoubtedly played a significant part in achieving the air superiority which was necessary and ultimately saved hundreds, perhaps thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of lives. But a legitimate question can be asked about the extent to which we can continue to rely on low flying, especially in the context of a protracted war. We all agree that, even if the same intent and capability remained in the Soviet Union, a blitzkrieg attack from that direction would not be possible. We would face a protracted war, with the continual need to go back to runway denial. That is the context in which we should examine the need for low flying.
We knew in advance, and the Gulf war illustrated in practice, that there was a variety of other ways in which enemy air defences could be penetrated, such as use of stealth technology, electronic jamming of radar, anti-radar missiles and stand-off missiles that can be delivered from outside enemy air space. We should encourage the professionalism of the RAF to ensure that the most comprehensive appraisal can take place.
Can the Minister tell us this evening whether the options to which I referred are being studied by the MOD? I say that in advance lest I list some questions and at the end the Minister simply says that I am asking him to give a positive response to them all. I am not doing that. However, I should like to know whether at least some of them are being thought about and that somewhere along the line there is at least the prospect of a decision being taken on the occasional question that we raise.
Can the Minister tell us whether future RAF specifications will include stealth features—a matter raised by several hon. Members tonight? Has any consideration 518 been given to developing a runway denial weapon with a stand-off capability? That specific point was made by the hon. Member for Wyre. When asked about the matter earlier, the Minister said that the question was premature. That is a word to which I shall return later. I hope that we shall have at least some initial response, because the matter is important.
I am sure that all hon. Members present agree that, within financial constraints, the RAF should be allowed to keep pace with technological change. Many developments seem to point the way to the future in the light of the practical experience of the Gulf war. It is also important that the RAF has available to it a broad range of options in addition to low flying. It should not run the risk of being a one-club golfer. For those reasons, we urge a reappraisal of the degree to which we rely on low flying.
As several hon. Members have said, although the Gulf and other out-of-area operations are important, by definition they are supplementary to the prime function of the Government and the defence structure—the defence of the United Kingdom. I wish to raise three matters that give rise to considerable anxiety and which several hon. Members have mentioned this evening. The first is the Tornado F3 and its replacement. It has become apparent that the main threat which the F3 was originally designed to combat—the heavy bomber—is in the process of being supplanted. In those circumstances, a more agile and manoeuvrable aircraft is required.
Perhaps just as worrying are the rumours that the F3 has already developed airframe fatigue problems. That matter was raised by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood. Perhaps the Minister will confirm or deny those rumours. Whether they are true or not, the new circumstances point even more directly and urgently to the need to bring the European fighter aircraft into service as soon as possible. Many hon. Members mentioned the doubts about German participation. I am sure that we were all extremely pleased to hear the Minister give a strong commitment to the House on Tuesday that we would proceed with EFA even if the other partners withdrew. At least, I hope that my interpretation is correct. The assumption has been drawn by several hon. Members and I raise it to allow the possibility of its being denied, in case it was what was referred to earlier as the intellectual raffishness of the Minister.
We are told that the European fighter aircraft is set to enter service by 1998 or 1999, three or four years later than our original requirement. May we be assured that the latest deadline will be met, and perhaps the Minister will provide, on a scale of degree of confidence, the level of confidence that we may have in the latest deadline.
The much-discussed and vexed question of Bloodhound has been a recurring feature of today's speeches, and the issue was put well in context by the hon. Member for Wyre; I hope that my references to him will not mean that I am ending his career quickly, too. In some ways, Bloodhound seems symbolic of the way in which the Government are perceived to have approached a number of problems.
In last year's debate, when asked about a replacement for Bloodhound, the Minister—never someone to rush things—said:It would be premature to go into this matter in any detail."—[Official Report, 28 February 1990; Vol. 168, c. 291.]519 Now, little more than a year later, we are told that the Bloodhound surface-to-air missile is shortly to be withdrawn from service, but will not be replaced by a new system for about four years.
I find last year's comment amazing in the context of the recent decision. It appears that the Government consider such decisions premature when they are only three years late, but somehow to be timely when they are four years overdue. The Minister said tonight, in the face of all the evidence, that there was no gap. Admittedly, he said it from a sedentary position, but that should not reduce his commitment to his expression of feeling on the subject.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House do not agree that there is no gap. Nor does Admiral Doe think there is no gap. Indeed, I suggest that there are two gaps. First, there is a gap in time and, secondly, there is the gap between Bloodhound's capability and our requirement for an adequate surface-to-air missile. The gap has grown so wide that it would apparently be better to have nothing until we can procure a replacement. That is just as disturbing as the delay, for apparently it is better to have no defence than to disturb the idle tranquillity of the procurement Ministry.
My amazement about this was exceeded only by the Minister's comment tonight that, as he put it, Bloodhound is only guarding a few Americans. That was one of the more spectacular statements among a long list of spectacular statements by the Minister. I also find it the most spectacular procurement error, judged even by the spectacular standards of the Minister. Why was it not possible to anticipate Bloodhound's obsolescence in time to replace it, if not immediately, timeously? The only answer that we have been given is that it is doing a job that is not worth doing. We hope that that was not meant to be because it is guarding a few Americans. If it is doing a job that has been worth doing, why was not the decision taken some time ago, in view of its obsolescence, the length of time it has been around and the apparent foresight that is claimed in other matters? I hope that the Minister will not find the question overly premature.
A number of hon. Members referred to IUKADGE, the improved United Kingdom air defence ground environment. It has been the subject of a comprehensive and detailed report by the Select Committee on Defence. We know that when it finally enters service, the improved UKADGE is intended to provide the RAF, for the first time, with a complete picture of the United Kingdom air defence region in real time. As hon. Members have said, it will also bring us into line with NATO's command and control system.
Having been procured in the late 1970s, the improved UKADGE was intended to enter service four years ago. The four-year delay seems to be a favourite just now. It is still not ready, arid it seems unlikely to be ready in the near future.
Taken separately, those three issues—the air defence fighter, the absence of a replacement for Bloodhound and the shortcomings on the improved UKADGE—would probably not be of great significance. But taken together, they add up to serious and potentially disastrous shortcomings in British air defences. However, the Government seem remarkably casual.
In view of the time, I shall make only one general comment about "Options for Change". A great worry, shared by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen, is that, despite detailed deficiencies in the policy, it has been 520 approached in a piecemeal, finance-constrained fashion, rather than with analysis, followed by the consideration of defence needs and the deployment necessary, within the context of finance, as outlined very well tonight by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East.
I worry about that, because the point was made last year by the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), when he said that we had a chance to take a fresh approach to the matter. He made the plea that we should not, in examining our needs, simply say:Let us take away a squadron or two, or a brigade, or a division and reduce the British, German or Dutch contribution.The hon. Member for East Hampshire, who is knowledgeable on such matters, was giving sound advice. Tragically, he seems to have predicted with remarkable quiescence and accuracy the piecemeal approach adopted by the Government.
The future defence of Europe arises out of "Options for Change." The Government's position on that, particularly the Minister's, is just as confusing as on "Options for Change". In one of the classic ironies of such debates, he spoke last year in unequivocal and laudatory terms of ourrobust and healthy institutions—the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation … the Western European Union and the European Community"—[Official Report, 28 February 1990; Vol. 168, c. 284–302.]Despite my relative unfamiliarity with the Minister, I understand that he has not always been the greatest supporter of the EC. Since he praised the robust institutions of NATO and the WEU last year, he has, in a personal capacity—admittedly semi-detached from the Government—declared NATO redundant and is, I understand, apparently not too happy with the WEU. It appears that the robust and healthy building blocks of future European security of last year have withered unhealthily on the vine since. It would be useful to know where he thinks the future of the European defence force and structure lies.
There are many other issues that I cannot speak about in detail, including the WE177, the NATO identification system, on which the Minister said very little, and female pilots in a combat role, about which the Minister expounded at great length last year but did not mention tonight. How successful has been what the Minister last year called the imaginative package for better-qualified youngsters? How are we getting on with the 10-year programme to update and modernise the accommodation of families and single people? All those issues affect the quality of life, which was mentioned earlier but, amazingly, by only one hon. Member. On the military side, I could also mention the light attack helicopter, the EH101 and a number of other factors.
We do not ask for a decision on all those matters tonight, but we would like——
§ Dr. Reid
Yes, just one would suffice, as the hon. Member for Wyre says. We should like a sign that, at some stage, a decision might be taken on one of them. I have spent all evening trying to avoid the cliché"dithering", but that cliché can be killed stone dead tonight by picking the 40 decisions that have apparently been waiting to be made for years. I hope that it is not premature in every case to make a decision.
The Government and the Minister owe those answers not only to the Opposition and the House but, above all, 521 to the service men and women and their families, without whom all the technology, sophisticated machinery and aircraft are as nothing. They, more than the Opposition and the House, have been failed by the absence of detail and it is they whom we can least afford to fail.
§ Mr. Alan Clark
Tonight's debate has been distinguished by a number of well-informed contributions. Many hon. Members who have participated have contributed from deep personal knowledge of the topic. For that reason, it has been a valuable debate. I express my appreciation to my hon. Friends for staying behind for my winding-up speech, because I know that they have many preoccupations outside the Chamber today.
A common thread throughout the debate has been the tributes and expressions of gratitude and appreciation to all members of the Royal Air Force for their recent performance in the Gulf war and for the duties that they continue to undertake, including the latest challenge that they are meeting in the mountains of northern Iraq. I am certain that those tributes will be a great encouragement to them. One of my hon. Friends mentioned the letters that members of the forces were receiving from civilians whom they did not even know. The letters were sent out to the region during the conflict, and we have been told how valuable they found them. It is always encouraging and good for the services to receive expressions of support from the population at large, as has been amplified in the House by those of us who represent them here.
I shall do my best to answer most of the points made by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I appreciate the implied compliment that the two sharpest members of the Opposition Front Bench have opened and wound up this debate, in contrast to their benign but somewhat inchoate colleagues, the hon. Members for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) and for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes), who have not turned out tonight. That gives an added edge to our debate this evening.
The hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) raised the important question of the stealth factor in the design of future aircraft. We are at an early stage of considering that factor. Stealth can mean two things: stealth against radar or stealth against infra-red detection. To combine the two is not easy. As the hon. Gentlemen knows, the advanced short take-off and vertical landing aircraft is a distant project that we are considering. That is an aircraft that will come after EFA. It is at an early project design stage, but certainly the stealth factor must be considered in that. In all serious combat aircraft from now on, there must be a stealth element, but the extent to which it combines radar and infra-red is far in the distance.
The hon. Gentleman asked about low-level attacks. Many hon. Members have expressed misgivings about those. In his robust speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) said that, in the Gulf war context, low-level attacks were critical. In the early days of the Gulf conflict, when we had the only air force capable of positive runway denial on Iraqi airfields and we did not know that the Iraqi air force would pack up and leave the theatre, it was necessary to make such low-level attacks. A number of very brave men risked their lives repeatedly to do so. Naturally, once the operational situation had 522 changed and the Iraqi air force had left the scene, it was possible to operate at different altitudes. However, there is a general feeling that a stand-off weapon of some kind will be produced in the next generation. It is perfectly proper that the House should be discussing this subject.
The Tornado F3 fatigue problems were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) and others. At one time, it was thought that those problems would be serious and would involve an expensive rectification programme. I am glad to say that it now seems not to be the case. Although routine fatigue rectifications will have to be undertaken, they are not of a catastrophic dimension but are part of the routine maintenance of the aircraft.
As for EFA, the hon. Member for Motherwell, North put into my mouth words supposedly uttered in Tuesday's defence questions which the Official Report will not substantiate. I should be very glad if we made this aircraft even if all our collaborative partners dropped out, but at this stage that is pure hypothesis—it has not been costed, and we do not know who will stay in and who will drop out. It is no more than an assertion of principle, to say that the aircraft is needed by the RAF; and we very much hope that it will enter operational service on the predicted date. I was interested to hear my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) assure the House that it will be cheaper to make EFA if Germany drops out. I wish that I thought that were true. Indeed, it may be true. We may find out whether it is, but the basis on which my hon. Friend made his calculations was not immediately apparent to me.
Some hon. Members made a great deal of the so-called gap that will ensue because we have decided to take Bloodhound out of service. Our judgment was that it had reached the end of its effective operational life, having been put into operation in 1964. It is not up to the modern range of electronic counter-measures that can be arrayed against it. Taking out of service a system that is ineffective does not create a gap—that is so obvious that it hardly needs to be said——
§ Mr. O'Neill
Perhaps the Minister can explain why, on 28 February 1990, he told the House that a decision on the future of Bloodhound was premature, yet within 14 months it has become obsolescent to such a degree that a decision can be taken to abandon it without replacement.
§ Mr. Clark
The answer is self-evident: 14 months is a long time—in politics, it is an eternity.
The hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) asked us to jump the gun in our conclusions on various weapons systems, but we have to consider them in terms of their overall performance as assessed in the campaign. In the fulness of time that assessment will be made available to the House, and I doubt not that an interesting debate will follow.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the successor to the WE177. We are considering both United States and French options. A right decision is more important than an early one. I was particularly interested in the contribution by the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright), who advocated more strongly than I have yet 523 heard anyone do the importance of this system, of finding a satisfactory solution for it and of the role that it is likely to play in future decades when it may be necessary to resist nuclear blackmail if the threat of a strategic ballistic strike would be inappropriate but it is nevertheless necessary to deter a nuclear conflict at a different level. The hon. Gentleman's exposition of that was exemplary——
§ Mr. Clark
I do not want to get into that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) asked about a campaign medal, and I am glad to be able to confirm that Her Majesty has been pleased to give permission for a medal especially for service during the conflict.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire urged an early strategic plan for the future of our forces. The Committee that he chairs has been active in investigating all aspects of the contingencies that may touch on such a plan. He should appreciate that we must take account of many factors that remain uncertain: developments in relations with the Soviet Union, progress in arms control, consultations with allies and lessons from the Gulf. All those matters will have to be included in a new strategic overview. Many uncertainties inhibit a clear and coherent strategic approach.
I agreed with practically all the excellent speech by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), who spoke about the contractorisation of search and rescue. We have had an approach on that topic but do not propose to take any action until the "Options" study has been completed. I appreciate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) that this could involve the use of helicopters not made in the United Kingdom, and we shall pay attention to that additional factor.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) spoke about fatigue on the Tornado F3. I hope that he will accept the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Clackmannan. My hon. Friend made a valid point about the need for maritime patrol aircraft to be replaced or greatly overhauled and enhanced in the next decade. I agree, but the position is not made easier by the fact that the Lockheed P7, at which we looked closely as a possible replacement for the Nimrod, will no longer be made.
It was said that perhaps we could use a twin-engined aircraft with a slightly lower performance. We have time to consider that, because the Nimrods are performing effectively. They are equipped with advanced avionics, and there is no immediate urgency to replace them. I was asked about plans for a replacement of the C130. The C130 is a strong and durable aircraft and continues to give good service. I do not think that a single C130 operated by
524 western air force, such as the United States, Great Britain or Germany, has ever been lost as a result of a mechanical defect. As I say, it is one of the best and most durable aircraft ever made.
In an interesting speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) reminded the House of the need for a wide range of aircraft, and said that it was impossible for the RAF to carry out its many tasks with just two or three types. He also spoke about the increasing dominance of the helicopter. As they become more and more dominant in certain areas there is a need for a wide range of different types, such as transport and attack helicopters.
I should like to correct my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes), who is not in the Chamber. He deplored comments about the performance of our allies during the war and said that an official had spoken about them running for the cellars. I do not think that an official said that; I seem to remember that it was an hon. Member. It may have been a member of the Government, and I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East called for his resignation. As he is not in the Chamber, he cannot confirm that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside said that we had only eight Chinook helicopters for battlefield support. That is not so. There are more than 30, and 12 of them are presently in Turkey. He also spoke about the EH101. Work to assess the first phase of project definition is not complete and we cannot analyse the results of that work until all the lessons of the Gulf war are to hand. It has to be considered in the whole context of helicopter procurement and what helicopter we select to do which task. Certainly I take the point that he put to the House and that he based his advocacy on remarks made by my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North paid an excellent tribute to the Air Training Corps in its 50th anniversary year. It is a completely worthwhile organisation supported by committed and loyal members of the community. I am grateful for the eloquent way in which he drew attention to it.
My hon. Friend also asked about the Tucano. So far 52 have been delivered to the RAF. I am pleased to tell him that it has greatly impressed both instructors and pupils.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.