Previous Section Home Page

Column 1099

man will come out from an airbase to interview them and nothing more will happen. People are beginning to lose faith. They feel that complaints are not properly addressed by those who are in a position to deal with them.

For fear that there are those who may think that the Labour party equivocates on these matters and may want to undermine the low-flying programme, I make it clear that I have assurances, and I know, that the next Labour Government will maintain a proper programme, but it will address the real needs of the nation, not the exaggerated requirements of pilots who demand to go in the air with the threat that if they are not given the opportunity to do so they will go to the civil airline companies who are always seeking pilots. Last year, the whole matter of low-flying took a turn of which many people--certainly those who write to their Member of Parliament--are unaware. One of the things that has struck me, as a member of the Public Accounts Committee and as I have taken a greater interest in low flying, is that while Ministers have been quick after a crash to go on television and refer to the loss of pilot lives, they have never been willing to address the cost to the Exchequer of the loss of a military aircraft. We are not talking about tens of thousands of pounds or even a few millions. When a Tornado goes down we are talking about anything between £16 million and £21 million, depending on how well equipped the aircraft is.

I made representations to the National Audit Office for an inquiry into the cost-effectiveness of the low-flying programme on the basis of information given to me by researchers outside the House which showed that over a period of years we have lost not a few dozen aircraft but hundreds. Much of that information had not come into the public domain. The research evidence that I provided to the National Audit Office subsequently formed the basis on which the NAO decided to carry out an inquiry. The inquiry, announced last year, is still going on. I look forward to the report from that office setting out its views on the programme.

We want to know whether economies can be made, whether the programme is too large and whether it can be done more cheaply with simulators. The public want answers to many questions and they need to know, because it is their money that is being spent. Every time an aircraft goes down it costs the Exchequer money.

In addition to the loss of pilot lives, every time a Tornado drops out of the sky it costs every man, woman and child in Britain 40p. Very high and increasing losses over the last 10 years resulting from low flying have at last become the subject of a full-scale inquiry and investigation by the National Audit Office.

The cost of the losses is staggering. In 10 years in excess of £1, 000 million worth of equipment has been lost. Perhaps the Minister will question my figures ; I would welcome an intervention. That £1, 000 million is the equivalent of £20 per man, woman and child in Britain over the last 10 years.

Within just a 25-mile radius of my home in the Lake District, over £60 million worth of equipment has been lost in the last 19 months. That is a staggering figure. Judging from the response of Ministers, it seems that they are most embarrassed.

Column 1100

Mr. Rogers : I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the matter. I am not sure whether he knows it, but at the end of December Jane's Defence Weekly carried a small article which said :

"The cost of air crashes to NATO is illustrated by recent UK Ministry of Defence orders, for 41 additional Tornados to cover Royal Air Force attrition losses. The cost of the purchase totalled £740 million, the equivalent of five new type 23 frigates."

Mr. Campbell-Savours : That intervention will indicate to those who follow our proceedings the amount of taxpayers' money that is being squandered on the present programme.

There was an interesting article in the RAF air safety journal Air Clues last September. I want to read it because in many ways it addresses the point that was made by the Minister. It said : "On too many occasions recently, aircraft have been lost due to some sort of distraction or loss of concentration near the ground. More importantly, these accidents cause tragic losses of life because it appears the crews were unaware of their predicament".

That suggests to me that pilot error near the ground has been much responsible for the losses that have been experienced by the RAF recently. I understand that that comment was made by a journalist who had interviewed a number of pilots, and that he was reflecting their views.

We hear a lot from the MOD about spreading the load of low flying by opening up new areas for training. The Minister alluded to that when he talked about how the programme was being dispersed throughout the United Kingdom to reduce concentration on areas such as mine. However, in December 1987, again in Air Clues, the head of RAF public relations, who, I presume, is within the precincts of the House tonight, wrote :

"We make great play of the fact that low flying is spread evenly throughout all the available air space in the country. But I really wonder if that is so in practice. I live in Area 12 and it does not take long for the onlooker to realise that there are well trodden paths in the skies above Northumberland."

There the RAF public relations head is telling us that he doubts what the Minister is saying at the Dispatch Box. His experience may be no different from mine. It seems that there are areas of heavy concentration. It might only derive from the fact that while the Minister was talking about a programme of dispersal, at the same time he was doubling the number of sorties. In answers to questions the former Minister, the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), admitted that the programme had doubled since 1979. From memory, I think it went up from 75,000 to 160,000 sorties a year. In my language that means that the programme doubled. I understand that that is justified because of the need to prepare a greater number of pilots to use Tornados. One can never justify a dispersal policy if, at the same time, the number of sorties is doubled, especially when the chief RAF public relations officer is making statements such as I have read out.

Let us examine the figures. Despite the fact that I have computer runs a couple of metres long detailing every reported accident since 1980, I believe that many accidents are not reported. With the help of researchers outside the House I have submitted to the National Audit Office information about unreported accidents. All major accidents to aircraft of the three services are supposed to be listed in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates" each year. The official definition of a major accident to a military aircraft is that

Column 1101

"the damage is not repairable on site. The aircraft must be removed to an established depot or civilian repair organisation"


"the aircraft is damaged beyond repair or is missing, or, in accordance with current Ministry of Defence policy, is not worth repairing."--[ Official Report, 23 May 1988 ; Vol. 134, c. 39. ] I have details of 31 accidents since 1980 that were not listed in the relevant edition of the "Statement on the Defence Estimates", despite evidence that they were not repairable on site and-or were scrapped, or were removed to repair depots or returned to the manufacturers.

What is the current policy of the Ministry of Defence on defining what level of damage is not worth repairing? I give two examples. An RAF Lightning, which crashed on 27 March 1981, took three years to rebuild ; a Tornado which crashed on 8 November 1983 was under repair at RAF Honington for four years before it was sent back to the manufacturers. How much did those repairs cost? What level of damage does the MOD regard as uneconomic to repair? An aircraft might cost £5 million, £10 million or £12 million to repair. Who knows what the costs are?

What about accidents to MOD Procurement Executive aircraft? They are not listed in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates". The MOD always says that the RAF accident rate is falling but it refuses to give an accident rate for low flying, saying that it cannot be calculated. In reply to a written question the Minister said : "Time spent at low level is not recorded precisely : it is not, therefore, possible to state the major accident rate for fast jets operating at low level."--[ Official Report, 22 December 1988 ; Vol. 144, c. 372. ]

On 26 January 1989 the Minister said that the average duration of a low- flying sortie in the United Kingdom--which the MOD has said is 42 minutes-- was calculated from statistics on the use of the low flying system. In other words, the Ministry knows how long aircraft fly in the low flying system. If it can calculate an average, it stands to reason that it must know the total number of hours spent at low level ; how else are averages calculated? Why, then, can the Ministry not publish an accident rate?

I want to go through the list of aircraft accidents that have not been reported in the annual defence estimates. On 17 April 1980 an RAF Bulldog was involved in a landing accident in Northern Ireland and it went back to the manufacturers for repair. On 18 August 1980 an RAF Hunter was damaged at Laarbruch in the Federal Republic of Germany. It was later written off. On 13 October 1980 a Navy Sea King helicopter was ditched off Falmouth. It was rebuilt at Culdrose. In October 1981 an RAF Buccaneer was damaged and was repaired at St. Athan. In November 1981 an RAF Buccaneer was damaged at Nevada in the United States of America. It was taken back to the United Kingdom and repairs took six months. On 13 November 1981 an RAF Vulcan was damaged at Goose Bay in Canada and was not repaired. On 30 November an RAF Canberra was damaged on landing at Bedford and it was not repaired. On 8 March 1982 an RAF Buccaneer made an emergency landing at Hopsten in the Federal Republic of Germany after an in flight fire. It was never flown again. In 1982 another RAF Bulldog was taken to RAF St. Athan for repair after a heavy landing in the east midlands. On 19 August 1982 a Navy Hunter was taken to Abingdon for repair after a

Column 1102

landing accident at Yeovilton. On 24 October 1982 an RAF Phantom was damaged on landing at Port Stanley, but was shipped back to the RAF St. Athan for repair.

Why were those accidents not published in the annual defence estimates? The Minister has not come to the Dispatch Box with an explanation, so I shall continue my list.

Those accidents cost the taxpayers million of pounds. All we are trying to discover is why the public are not told about what has happened. On 18 January 1983 an Army Scout crashed in Hong Kong. It was repaired by a civilian repair depot. On 20 June 1983 a Navy Sea King was rebuilt at Culdrose after ditching near Portland. On 8 November 1983 an RAF Tornado was damaged on landing at Honington. It was under repair there for nearly four years and then returned to the manufacturers. On 29 February 1984 a Navy Sea King hit wires near Bardufoss in Norway. It was taken back to the United Kingdom for a two-year rebuild. On 5 July 1984 an RAF Jet Provost was damaged on landing at Leeming, but it was not repaired. On 14 September 1984 an RAF Jaguar--an expensive plane costing, I believe, between £12 million and £15 million--hit a tower while low flying. It made an emergency landing at Bedford and was taken from there by road to Shawbury for storage. It has not flown since. Why is that not in the annual defence estimates?

On 26 September 1984 a Navy Sea King was ditched off Falmouth and rebuilt at Fleetlands. In November 1984 an RAF Puma was in an accident at Gutersloh in the Federal Republic of Germany. It was rebuilt by the manufacturers. In July 1985 an RAF Phantom was withdrawn from use after a landing accident at Leuchars. On 14 October 1985 a Navy Sea King ditched off Portugal. It was rebuilt at Fleetlands. On 6 December 1985 an RAF Jet Provost was damaged on landing at Dishforth, but was not repaired. On 2 April 1986 an RAF Harrier was damaged on landing at Wittering and it was not repaired. I presume that it was written off. Those aircraft were paid for with taxpayers' money, so surely we are entitled to know what has happened to them. In order to evaluate the value of the low-flying programme in the United Kingdom the public should be aware of the number of air losses.

On 10 May 1986 a Navy Sea Harrier was damaged on landing in Florida. It was under repair at Yeovilton for a year and was then sent to St. Athan. On 15 July 1986 an RAF Harrier was damaged at Bergenhohne in the Federal Republic of Germany and went to Laarbruch for repair. In the autumn of 1986 a Navy Sea King helicopter was damaged on HMS Illustrious and it went to Fleetlands for repair. On 30 November 1986 a Navy Sea King had a fatal low- level crash in Oman. On 14 April 1987 an RAF Tornado--we are getting into big money now, it costs £16 million to £20 million--was damaged on landing at Wildenrath. After five months it was removed by road for repair. On 8 September 1987 an RAF Phantom was withdrawn from use after a landing accident. In late 1987 another RAF Bulldog went to St. Athan by road for repair after being overstressed during aerobatics. On 11 November 1987 an RAF Harrier was involved in a landing accident at Wittering and was not repaired.

Those are but some of the aircraft that we have been able to identify as being involved in accidents. They have cost the British taxpayer a lot of money but they have not appeared in the annual defence estimates. The public are entitled to know annually, first, how much money has been spent on repairing aircraft, secondly, what aircraft have

Column 1103

been written off, and, thirdly, the total number of aircraft losses. We do not want to know of just the losses of aircraft in the United Kingdom but also those that have occurred abroad. I have received some interesting answers over the years that show that the Department always wants to narrow the information that it makes available on the number of admitted aircraft losses.

Is the programme really worth it? I intervened during the Minister's speech to refer to a particular Soviet missile system. There is now a whole new dimension to the low-flying debate that so far has not been considered. The rationale behind the low-flying programme is that it will teach pilots to fly fast and low, below enemy radar, deep into hostile territory to reach designated targets or stand-off launch sites. I understand that radical new developments in Soviet air defences seriously call into question whether they will be able to carry out that function effectively or at all. I was recently tipped off by a leading defence analyst about the most recent deployment of a radically improved and highly sophisticated Soviet surface- to-air missile--the SA-10B that the Minister was unaware of when I intervened. I accept that the Minister is new to the job. I am sure that he is tackling his responsibility with great vigour and learning very fast, so perhaps it was unfair of me to draw attention to that fact.

That missile has been codenamed by NATO "Grumble". Perhaps now the Minister has heard of it. I was told that it is a mobile truck-launched system with its own co-located radar that operates as part of its highly sophisticated guidance system. I was informed that it was capable of destroying fast aircraft flying as low as 100 ft at a range of up to 60 miles. Further, being a mobile system, it is extremely difficult to detect and counter.

Recently I asked for confirmation of that system from the Ministry of Defence--admittedly before the Minister's time--because of the obvious and serious implications for the viability of the present low-flying programme. The Minister must have understood the implications because his reply was uncharacteristically detailed. In confirming the missile's deployment, he said :

"the SA-10B is not capable of tracking aircraft flying at a height of 100 feet for up to 60 miles."

When we discuss these matters we are at the heart of the debate on the low- flying programme.

Mr. Mans : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that missile only has a limited head-on capability and has the sort of range that he has mentioned only when there is no terrain in between? That missile's radar actually has a poor response over rough terrain. In other words, a very large ground return is associated with it. On that basis, will the hon. Gentleman accept that low flying still has value despite the deployment of this system?

Mr. Campbell-Savours : The hon. Gentleman's intervention was based on what he believes to be the capabilities of the Soviet system. His views are at variance with those of others who have studied these matters very closely--as, indeed, has the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Mans : It has not a head-on capability. The hon. Gentleman should read what he has there.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's comments to the attention of those who have discussed those matters with me and we shall deal with them directly. It is not for me to measure the head-on

Column 1104

capability or necessarily to accept the comments made by the hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans). I will find out for him. However, everything that I have been told leads me to believe that that missile is quite capable of knocking out low-flying aircraft. It is significant that the hon. Member for Wyre intervened. The missile system has obviously been drawn to his attention and I am surprised that he has not wanted to draw it to the attention of the House.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan) : Is my hon. Friend surprised to note that this is one of the few occasions when we have heard the inadequacies of a Soviet missile system described by Conservative Members?

Mr. Campbell-Savours : My hon. Friend's intervention is quite interesting. I am sure that it will have registered in the minds of those who read our proceedings.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside) : Can the hon. Gentleman clarify this for us? Is this a heat-seeking missile or is it laser-aimed?

Mr. Campbell-Savours : I understand that it is a heat-seeking missile-- [Interruption.] Conservative Members may want to defend the low-flying programme and destroy the essence of my case in debate. However, the facts are obvious and those who assess these matters have made a different evaluation of the worth of this system from that of Conservative Members. I understand why Conservative Members want to defend the low-flying programme by trying to devalue this missile system.

Mr. Bill Walker : I apologise for not being in the Chamber throughout the hon. Gentleman's speech, but I was having a bite to eat. Does he understand that the objective of flying low and fast is to avoid being hit by less sophisticated missiles than the one he is talking about? If one ceases to fly low and fast, one becomes susceptible to other equipment and the chances of survival become very slim.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : I did not quite follow the hon. Gentleman's logic. I have been told that this missile will track and destroy aircraft flying at low levels to penetrate Soviet territory. Until it is proven otherwise, I accept that that is the case.

Confirming the missile's deployment, the Minister told me that the SA-10B is not capable of tracking aircraft flying at a height of 100 ft for up to 60 miles. In other words, he accepted that it was capable of tracking low- flying aircraft.

The radius of the curvature of the earth limits the range at which a target can be seen. The Minister explained that the system had a maximum, and then only a theoretical, range of between only 20 and 27 miles. That is an admission which answers many of the interventions today.

I took up this crucial point with an expert in air defence systems from "Jane's Soviet Intelligence Review" who told me that the Minister's reply was entirely misleading. He told me that it was well known to all with any knowledge of air defence systems that surface-to-air missile batteries are designed to operate in an air defence corridor or loop together with other mutually dependent radar systems and missile batteries. We cannot judge a missile battery's effectiveness by trying to assess its stand-alone fighting capability. That would be rather like trying to judge NATO's defensive capability by looking at the effectiveness of each individual soldier fighting alone against a

Column 1105

massed Warsaw pact invasion force. The missile battery's own co-located radar is used together with other independent, but often more sophisticated, radar systems to direct the missile to the projected area of the incoming low-flying aircraft. The missile then flies higher than the target's estimated altitude and uses its formidable on-board look-down capability to pinpoint the target. It then attacks using its heat-seeking devices to lock on to and destroy the target.

It is thought that Grumble would be effective even against cruise missiles and would, therefore, have much less difficulty against larger and slower manned aircraft. I was informed, entirely contrary to what has been suggested by the Minister, that the missile is considered by air defence experts--and I assume hon. Members who have intervened during my speech consider themselves to be experts--to be highly sophisticated. It is thought to be very effective against low-flying aircraft approaching at a height of 100 ft and at a range of up to 60 miles.

I cannot understand the reasons for the Minister's elusive responses. His responses were either naive or symptomatic of the Government's ludicrous policy towards matters of national security. While I appreciate that it is the Minister's duty to safeguard military intelligence, it may be sensible to remind him that Soviet intelligence is already aware of the capability of its own missiles. It also knows that the West is aware of that capability, presumably because information is available in any good bookshop.

The Government should be far more forthcoming about information with regard to the SA-10B missile system. I hope that the Minister will take some soundings on this matter. If he feels as convinced as some defence experts about this matter, he may want to consider the validity of the low-flying programme. In those circumstances he might consider that the programme should be cut quite drastically and the precious defence resources should be allocated to other areas of the defence budget.

The Government are also misleading us about accident rates. Despite the claims that the RAF accident record is second to none, international comparisons do not bear that out. The United States air force, which counts any accident as major if it involves loss of the aircraft, damage costing more than $500,000 to repair or a fatality--a definition at least as wide as that used by the RAF--had rates consistently less than 0.2 per 10,000 flying hours between 1983 and 1987. By comparison, the RAF had accident rates up to twice as high. Its rates only declined to less than 0.3 per 10,000 flying hours in 1987.

Comparisons of similar aircraft types in different air forces do not reflect well on the RAF. In the United States air force the F16 had a major accident rate of 0.44 per 10,000 flying hours in 1986. The Tornado in West German service had a major accident rate of about 0.5 per 10,000 flying hours. Those figures are taken from the aviation newsletter "Milavnews" of which I am sure the Minister is aware. In comparison, RAF Tornados had a major accident rate of 0.7 per 10,000 flying hours and that figure was revealed in a written answer to me on 22 December 1988. Why is our major accident rate so much higher?

With regard to airmisses, now that the Civil Aviation Authority and the Department of Transport have a policy of publishing airmiss reports involving commercial

Column 1106

aircraft, the public can gain some idea of the nature of the problem and how it is dealt with. Why will the MOD not publish military airmiss reports?

In a written reply to me on 16 February 1989, the Minister said that he would not publish any other airmiss reports, to preserve the confidentiality of the airmiss investigation system. Hon. Members who have listened to my modest contribution will know why these matters must remain confidential. It seems that the more information is published, the more embarrassing the whole matter becomes. That policy does not apply to airmisses involving commercial aircraft, so why does it apply to other types of aircraft? Why does it apply to military aircraft? Why cannot those figures be published? Perhaps the Minister can tell me in his winding-up speech.

The figures given in the written answer on 16 February show that the number of military air missiles involving a definite risk of collision was higher in 1987 than in any previous recorded year since 1979. It also showed that military airmisses accounted for nearly two out of every three airmisses over the United Kingdom and that nearly half of the airmisses involving military aircraft were found to have involved a risk of collision. By contrast, only about 25 per cent. of airmisses involving commercial aircraft were risk-bearing. The total number of military airmisses in 1988- -that is, 133--was 20 per cent. higher than in the previous year and higher than in any year since 1982.

The question is how many of those were at low level, such as the incident that took place on the Keswick boundary only last year, which was the subject of my previous comment. How many of the risk-bearing incidents involved civil aircraft, such as the incident that took place at Carlisle airport some year and a half ago when a near miss was reported with a civil aircraft coming in from Heathrow?

I think that Ministers are not being too open about the German experience. An hon. Member endeavoured to prove to the House that the Germans were sympathetic to the whole low-flying programme. That is not my information. The legal position, as I understand it, is determined by article 46 of the 1963 supplementary agreement to the status of forces agreement between West Germany and other NATO members. It establishes a structure for consultation between the allied air forces and the German authorities but leaves the ultimate authority for such matters with SACEUR and NATO bodies. However, it also stipulates that the exercise of the right to conduct training exercises in the air shall be governed by German regulations on the use of airspace. This enables Federal Defence Minister Scholz to claim that the West German Government have the power to authorise exercises under the Air Navigation Act. In practice, the West German Government accept that this is a matter for negotiation with NATO and the individual allies. That sets out the legal framework. Pending such negotiations, the West German Government took steps last July to reduce low-flying by the Luftwaffe. This was to be done by transferring the particularly noisy F4 Phantom to air defence duties and reducing the total quota of flight training hours allocated to the Luftwaffe. It also called for a NATO decision on transferring some air exercises to Canada or Turkey.

Shortly afterwards there occurred the disaster at Ramstein, where 69 people died as the result of a crash during an aerobatic display. In December, at Remscheid, a United States jet crashed, killing the pilot and five

Column 1107

civilians on the ground. On 13 January a British Tornado crashed and narrowly missed a village school. These successive accidents have brought the issue to a head in Germany and triggered off a public and political outcry. After the Remscheid incident, the Government suspended all low-level flying for three weeks and the NATO allies complied. However, since low-level flying resumed on 3 January this year the matter has acquired a very high political profile. On 17 January Defence Minister Scholz announced that he would seek a substantial reduction in low-level flying hours in negotiation with NATO. However, he also said that the Government would resist the total ban for which some opposition politicians have called--not I ; I have simply called for a reduction down to the level of 1979 in relation to the United Kingdom programme--but would make further efforts to get some training transferred to other countries. The Commander of the United States Air Force in Europe has already said that some United States training might be switched to Morocco, as reported by Associated Press on 5 January 1989. Doctor Scholz also announced that the NATO tactical leadership programme, which involves low-level flying, might be shifted away from Germany, possibly to Belgium, but there has been some confusion about when this decision could be taken.

Judging by reports of the public mood in West Germany, the reaction against low-level flights seems to be based partly on accumulated anger about the noise and nuisance, partly on fear of more serious accidents and partly on the perception that the Soviet threat has significantly diminished, as well as on the long-standing resentment about singularity--the feeling that West Germany is bearing a disproportionate share of the risks involved in defending the West. West German politicians have adopted a wide range of attitudes regarding the problem. While Ministers have spoken only of the need for a substantial cut in low-level flights, and have asked for such a cut, the defence spokesman for the CDU/CSU parliamentary group--not of my political persuasion, but the German Tories--Mr. Volker Ruhe, has suggested that flights could be cut by half in the next two years. So it seems that I agree with the German Conservative defence spokesman that the programme should be cut in half in the next two years. That was reported in the Financial Times of 4 January this year. Theo Waigel, the chairman of the CSU, has advocated a ban on all flights below 500 ft. That was reported in Jane's Defence Weekly on 28 January this year. The chairman of the FDP parliamentary group, Walter Doring, whose party is the junior partner in the governing coalition, has called for an indefinite suspension pending the elaboration of new defence concepts, so here we have the spokesman of a coalition partner in Government demanding an indefinite suspension of the whole low-flying programme in West Germany.

The opposition SPD has produced varied responses. Hans Apel, the former Defence Minister, has called for low-level flights to be reduced to the absolute minimum, while others want a complete ban. Several have implied that the present situation infringes German sovereignty and I have statements from many others in Germany objecting to the low-flying progamme.

I have gone on at length about low flying and I have done so for a reason. My office is now a postbox for nearly every low-flying complaint in the United Kingdom. People

Column 1108

write to me from all over the country and I want them to know that we are pressing these matters at Westminster. We are not asking for an end to the programme. In a year we must get hundreds of, if not over 1,000, complaints. Certainly we did last year. I want those people to know that we are listening, that we are pressing the Government and that there are people in other countries who are also subjected to low flying, such as the West Germans ; that they are equally concerned, but that it is this Government who refuse to be responsible and flexible and to publish all the information about low-flying losses and other aircraft losses because they are scared that the public will find out about the many hundreds of millions of pounds that are being lost and have been lost over these past years, all at the expense of the taxpayer.

8.38 pm

Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre) : I am very pleased to be called in this debate, even at this late hour. I have a few brief remarks to make. I shall certainly not be going on for quite the length of time that the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) was on his feet. This is a very appropriate day for a debate on the Royal Air Force. It is the 40th anniversary of the first flight of the Shackleton, the oldest aircraft in service with the RAF today. I do not know which Government procured that aircraft, but it was in the late 1940s or early 1950s. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Royal Air Force has had, and is still having, value for money from that procurement. I sincerely hope that we shall gain equal value for money from the Shackleton's replacement, the AWACS that we are purchasing from the United States. I want to ask a couple of questions in relation to that purchase and, in the first instance, to the offset agreements. The offset agreements allow for 130 per cent. of the cost of that aircraft to be offset against contracts in this country. I hope that in his winding-up speech, or perhaps in the future, my hon. Friend will be able to indicate whether the rate at which these offset agreements are coming through is about what it should be in relation to the timetable that was worked out with Boeing.

Another matter about which I should like to have some clarification is the amount of technology transfer that is taking place in relation to this project. I have become aware that the Americans, Boeing and those who produced the radar for the aircraft may have not been as forthcoming as they might have been in giving the Royal Air Force exact information as to its capabilities. It would be a great pity if, in purchasing an aircraft, we were to pay for something that we could not use fully.

I want to turn briefly to what is probably this year's most significant event concerning the Air Force. I refer to the European fighter aircraft and the collaborative deal with other European countries, which I fully support. It will undoubtedly maintain Euro-technology in this area well into the next century. Indeed, I think that it goes beyond defence needs. Skills of the sort that are needed to build such an aircraft have significant spin-off benefits in other areas of industry, particularly those concerned with electronics and advanced metals. Clearly, as regards airframe and engine, the decisions have been taken, but, as has been said by other hon. Members, we have still to make a decision about the radar system. I am not going to suggest what that decision should be, but I hope sincerely that some points will be taken into account. First, the

Column 1109

aircraft's export potential is important. It will be one of the few major aircraft projects we have running into the next century, so a decision on the radar must take into account future sales to other countries. It would be an awful pity if export potential were sacrificed by restrictions imposed by the manufacture of the radar chosen. The development potential of that radar should also be looked at closely. We should not buy a system that is reaching the end of its development life ; we should buy the system that we feel has the greatest development potential.

In this regard, it is worth mentioning briefly the experience of Foxhunter. One of the reasons Foxhunter radar has not been as successful as we hoped it would be is that there was a gap of over 20 years in the technology after the production of the previous airborne radar system--the one for the Lightning. It was difficult for people in this country to get to grips with technology with which, for a number of years, they had been unfamiliar.

In the context of Foxhunter, I should like to mention one or two other points. I am thinking in particular of the situation in GEC, which, I believe, has not spent enough money on maintaining the technology lead in that area of avionics. It compares pretty unfavourably with other companies, such as Plessey, Rafale and, indeed, Ferranti, that have taken the lead in this sector. I sincerely hope that those deciding which radar should be selected will take full account of the export and development potential. There is another point that we should consider very closely. Because the Foxhunter radar for the Tornado has been less than successful, despite the phase 1 update, there may well come a time, during the mid-life update of the Tornado F3, when another radar system has to be considered. The only one that can be considered is the one that we have selected for the European fighter aircraft--EFA. Therefore, the decision is doubly important. When we make the decision on the EFA radar we shall effectively be making the decision for the mid-life update of the Tornado F3.

Having spoken of the Tornado, I should like to mention also the mid-life update of the GR1, which is much closer than that of the F3. As has been mentioned by other hon. Members, the stand-off capability of that aircraft is very important indeed. Probably the only shortfall in the performance of the GR1 is in terms of range, and that is simply because of the compromise reached between the criteria set by the Royal Air Force and those set by the German air force when the aircraft was procured. It was certainly the right decision to compromise in that area in order to get the collaborative project off the ground. However, we have to recognise that, for operations from the United Kingdom, the range of the aircraft is limited, and therefore a stand-off capability will become more and more necessary as we go into the last decade of this century.

The fact is that if one spends £17 million on an aircraft, and perhaps £4 million on the training of the crew, survivability of the system is very important indeed. Because of Soviet defences of the sort mentioned by the hon. Member for Workington, it is going to be less and less easy to fly over a target and therefore more and more necessary to have a stand-off capability to increase the survivability of the weapons system.

Column 1110

Much of what I have said tonight about aircraft procurement will probably have the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House. Indeed many of the questions that have been asked in this Chamber over the last few weeks about progress towards deciding the radar contracts for EFA and the like have come from Labour Members. I therefore find it just a little surprising that those Members are very keen that we should procure a number of aircraft of this sort--indeed current Labour defence policy is one of unilateralism, and on that basis the party has made it clear that the money saved by scrapping nuclear weapons would be spent on conventional arms. The chances are that at least some of those conventional arms would be aircraft. The fact is that those hon. Members are suggesting that we procure more aircraft but at the same time seem to be denying the opportunity for the crews to train properly at low level so that they might make the best use of the systems that they want us to buy. There is a basic conflict in the Labour party's case for increasing our conventional defensive capability while being unwilling to give aircrews the opportunity to train properly. Indeed, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) said that, even with the bravest men in the world, they will be no good if they are not given the right equipment to do the job. I wish he had added that it is no good if they are not given the right training, because that is precisely what Members of his party are suggesting in their remarks about low-level training. I should like to deal briefly with the question of low-level training. It is an indication of the ignorance of many Opposition Members that they do not really understand what it is all about. The hon. Member for Rhondda in this debate last year said :

"but I cannot accept that there is any skill acquisition from flying at 500 miles an hour at 100 ft. All that happens are knee-jerk reactions."--[ Official Report, 11 February 1988 ; Vol. 127, c. 588.]

That remark has bounced around the crew rooms of the Royal Air Force for the past 12 months, much to the hilarity of many people. I suggest that in a very short time he speaks to my hon. Friend and is given the opportunity to fly in the back seat of a Tornado over his own constituency at 250 ft. Perhaps then he would like to come back to this House and tell us whether he still feels the same way.

Mr. Rogers : Will the hon. Member give way?

Mr. Mans : No, I will not. I tried three times--

Mr. Rogers : The hon. Gentleman must accept that I was referring last year, as I shall do again a little later, to the fact that pilots of planes flying at 100 ft--not 250 ft--at 500 mph are only capable of knee- jerk reactions. I am pleased that my words are noticed and that they do bounce around the mess halls of the RAF. I had a nephew, a squadron leader, who, tragically, was killed in a Shackleton, having crashed into the side of a mountain. I have a brother who served in the Dam Busters during the war who was awarded the DFC. I have a nephew who is a wing commander in the RAF and another nephew who recently retired as director of air safety for the RAF at the rank of air commodore. Therefore, I am perfectly aware of the feelings of officers in the RAF. But the whole thrust of my argument is that when flying at 500 mph at 100 ft it is impossible to acquire a skill ; there can only be a reaction.

Column 1111

Control is possible only at a higher level. That is why so many accidents are taking place. There was an accident last year--

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd) : Order. This is an intervention, not a speech. Mr. Mans.

Mr. Mans : I am afraid that I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is still a great deal of skill acquisition when flying as low as 100 ft and as fast as 500 knots. If there were not, there would be no point in flying at that speed. If it were purely a matter of knee-jerk reactions, the accident rate would be many times higher than it is. The hon. Gentleman should take expert advice, not that of the hon. Member for Workington which is highly suspect.

The subject of low flying has been looked at in great detail tonight, but I just want to mention briefly the Federal Republic of Germany. There are more complaints about low flying there because of that country's failure to adopt the British system of spreading the load over the whole country rather than confining it to a few small areas. If a great amount of low- level activity is confined to a small area, it is not surprising that there should be a considerable number of extra complaints. My hon. Friend should continue to make representations to the Defence Minister of the Federal Republic of Germany to see whether it is possible to spread out low flying there. If that is done, the sort of concern suggested by the hon. Member for Workington will be reduced in the Federal Republic of Germany, as happened in Britain when that system was adopted 10 years ago. I fully support the remarks made by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North- East (Mr. Campbell) in relation to pensions, and, in particular, in relation to the tragic death of Squadron Leader David Nelson. I hope that my hon. Friend will look at that to see whether it is possible to rationalise and revise the type of awards, gratuities and pensions that are available.

Finally, I want to say a few words about RAF personnel and, more specifically, about our ability to retain and recruit sufficient numbers into the 1990s. A number of hon. Members have spoken about the demographic changes that are acting against RAF recruitment. There is now a problem in retaining sufficient numbers of staff in key grades and occupations. In that respect, I am pleased that a study is being carried out into the recruitment of women pilots. I made that point in the RAF debate last year. There did not seem to be much movement then, and I am pleased to see some now. There is a chance that women pilots will be recruited. I hope that that study will be speeded up as much as possible so that women can be recruited as pilots as soon as possible, because that is one area where there is clearly a shortfall.

One reason for the shortfall in pilots is the increase in the commercial activity of airlines in relation to the size of airports. As recently as 10 years ago a considerable number of the total number of pilots trained in Britain were trained by the RAF and they still had the ability when they left the service to supply most of the needs of the civilian airlines. Things are changing fast as a result of the increase in air travel. To mention just one statistic, the Royal Air Force now trains just under 200 pilots a year, but British Airways alone is taking on 100 pilots a year for the next eight years at the British Aerospace training facility at Prestwick. That excludes other airlines' requirements and British Airways' recruitment from inside

Column 1112

the airline industry and from the RAF. That alone shows that the Air Force has a problem in recruiting and retaining sufficient pilots.

The other area for anxiety is the cost of pilots, or, more specifically, their remuneration. When someone finishes at Prestwick and goes into the right-hand seat of a 737, at the age of 22 or 23 they can earn as much as £28,000 a year, slightly more than many RAF pilots are earning at the age of 38, at one of the option dates for leaving the service. That focuses on one of the major problems. There is a growing discrepancy between the reward for flying for airlines and the financial benefits of staying in the Air Force. We should look at that closely. We should look at the conditions of service and at the comments and representations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) in relation to service men being able to buy their own homes, at least technically, so that they are better able to afford their own home when they leave the service. That applies not only to pilots but to many senior NCOs in the Air Force. Many of the skills that they gain during their training in the Air Force have, over the decades, been of great use to British industry. Indeed, many of Britain's electronic industries were founded on the basis of people coming out of the RAF with electronic skills and using them productively. The RAF now trains rather fewer technicians than it did 10 years ago and, as a result, they are in even shorter supply to civilian industry. That, too, poses a threat to the technical expertise of the engineers who keep the aircraft flying in the first place.

Another area that needs to be looked at closely is the experience of the pilots who stay in the Air Force. Many take their options before they reach 38 and others leave prematurely. As a result, the experience level on many of the second-line aircraft--perhaps not the Tornado, but certainly the Phantom and to a lesser extent the Buccaneer--is getting low. There is a higher percentage of "first tourists" in those aircraft than there has been previously. That is where the problem begins to manifest itself. Unless something is done about it, it is liable to become considerably worse in the next few years.

Today the RAF has to make decisions that will affect the force well into the next century. Therefore, it is absolutely vital to maintain our technological ability on this side of the Atlantic to meet the equipment needs of the Air Force into the next century. At the same time, we must provide the training for aircrew to enable them to fly these highly complicated weapons systems. The professionalism of the Air Force has never been in doubt in the past and, provided that we provide proper equipment and training, it will not be in the future. 8.59 pm

Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd) : I am glad to hear the tributes to the trained readiness of the men and women serving in the Royal Air Force. I was especially glad to hear the details of the year-long tour of our leading airfields taken by the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). The beatific smile that lit up his face every time he recalled a trip he had made in a jet or helicopter was particularly warming. It proves that some Conservative Members are still able to indulge in simple pleasures rather than cheering as elements of our top military and Civil Service personnel try to pile through every revolving armaments door in sight.

Column 1113

I was less gladdened, however, by the unwillingness of certain Conservative Members to address themselves to the fact that the very same highly trained RAF personnel face the prospect of flying aircraft which are equipped with radar and missiles that do not work. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) has already referred to the scandal of the Foxhunter project. I wish that a scrutiny of the management of the Ministry of Defence of the procurement of RAF equipment would turn up nothing similar. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Numerous other scandals threaten the proper air defences of this country.

The air-launched anti-radiation missile--known, appropriately, as ALARM-- has been identified by the Select Committee on Defence as a cause for great concern, owing to the enormous over-runs which are directly connected to the incompetence of the Ministry of Defence's procurement policy. At the last posting, the ALARM programme was £260 million over budget and several years behind schedule.

The reason for the delay and increased cost is that the original sub- contract for the rocket motor ran into trouble. It was awarded to an MOD research and development establishment, the propellants, explosives and rocket motor establishment, by another MOD section--the rocket motor executive. How separate were these two parts of the MOD? What has happened to the civil servants involved in the affair? Will the Minister assure me that none of the civil servants involved in this drastic and worrying incident will work for British Aerospace in the future? Other hon. Members asked similar questions, during the defence estimates debate, about the sale of Royal Ordnance plc. I understand that they have yet to receive adequate replies from the Minister.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) has already drawn our attention to the vital question of the proper allocation of public funds. The Foxhunter and ALARM debacles are evidence either of plain misallocation or of Government managerial incompetence. Whichever option the House favours, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the failures and delays associated with both projects are selling short our Air Force.

The Government are failing to provide the nation with a wholly reliable air defence system. There may be Conservative Members who recall with some pleasure flying by the seat of their pants--or kilts, as the case may be. However, as the most junior Member of the House, may I suggest--with respect--that that is no way to run key elements of a £20 million defence budget.

The hon. Member for Ryedale compared discipline within the airfields that he visited on his grand tour with that which he remembered from his days in the Metropolitan police force. He would have made an even more significant contribution to this debate had he suggested that a little of that discipline might have been transferrred from the police beat into the offices of the Government's RAF procurement agencies.

9.4 pm

Next Section

  Home Page